Candidates of courage in the tests of youth

From the fate of refugees today to a future of endless exams, it's a tough life in teenage fiction. So enjoy the odd happy ending
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The Independent Culture

The best novel about Britain's asylum seekers will probably be written one day by someone currently involved, looking back and trying to make sense of a very bewildering business. For the moment, Gaye Hiçyilmaz's Girl in Red (Dolphin, £4.99) makes a good shot at describing the impact of a young Romanian gypsy on a run-down estate in Dover. For resident teenager Frankie, gazing down from a top-floor window, she is the most beautiful girl he has seen. His mother so much fails to share his enthusiasm that she leads a campaign to get rid of asylum-seekers altogether.

The best novel about Britain's asylum seekers will probably be written one day by someone currently involved, looking back and trying to make sense of a very bewildering business. For the moment, Gaye Hiçyilmaz's Girl in Red (Dolphin, £4.99) makes a good shot at describing the impact of a young Romanian gypsy on a run-down estate in Dover. For resident teenager Frankie, gazing down from a top-floor window, she is the most beautiful girl he has seen. His mother so much fails to share his enthusiasm that she leads a campaign to get rid of asylum-seekers altogether.

This could have been a formula novel, rushed out for opportunistic sales; in fact, it is a fine piece of writing. Frankie loves and is also horrified by his mother. The block where they live is unappealing but not demonised in the way that still sometimes happens in fictional descriptions of tough areas. Beautifully written, this story demands to be read. Its ending is disturbing but not hopeless; a fit comment on what is happening at the moment.

Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth (Puffin, £4.99) also describes the plight of refugees, this time two children smuggled out of Nigeria after mother is shot and father becomes a wanted man. Abandoned in London by the shady go-between who pretends to be their parent during the flight, Sade and Femi wander around without money or understanding.

When they are eventually picked up by the authorities they are humanely treated, with no social-worker caricatures in sight. Worried about the fate of their father, the children retreat into silence and lies, quoting proverbs from their own country for strength and understanding. Going to school they confront bullies, but things improve when their father comes. This is an excellent story, and also the first and possibly last children's book ever to feature Channel 4's Jon Snow as a main character (he also provides a foreword).

Alison Prince's Dear Del (Hodder, £3.99) reminds readers that children can also be refugees in their own country. Del is a teenager from a Glasgow slum where she lives with her drunken, depressed father. An unwilling recipient of a week's respite in the Hebrides, she brings with her a sulky silence plus pens and a spray-can for graffiti. Thirteen-year-old Fran, deputed to look after her, has no idea how cope since, as a recent import from England herself, she has no local contacts. The week starts badly and gets worse before - miraculously but convincingly - everything turns better, in this story by an author at the top of her form.

Jean Ure is another experienced writer, and Just Sixteen (Orchard, £4.99) is one of her most challenging novels. Narrated by stroppy, loud-mouthed teenager Sam, this turns out to be a true love story. The girl Sam favours is Priya, who comes from a strict Indian family with high academic ambitions. Priya falls pregnant after a slip in an otherwise responsible sexual relationship. They decide on an abortion, but have no funds to pay the private clinic. Sam's mother finds out, and urges they keep the baby. An accidental fall resolves the dilemma, leaving readers to make up their own minds. This is a timely and intelligent novel.

The grass is no greener in teenage novels when they cross the reality barrier. William Nicholson's The Wind Singer (Mammoth, £12.99) is set in a futuristic walled city-state ruled by a Chief Examiner so fearsome he even manages to make our own appalling Chris Woodhead seem relatively acceptable. Every citizen of whatever age has to take an annual exam, the outcome of which determines their future prospects. Kestrel and Bowman, a pair of rebellious twins, decide otherwise and are chased away by armed guards temporarily relieved from invigilating duty. After this cracking start the story goes into a lower gear and the writing sometimes falters.

Catherine Fisher's The Lammas Field (Hodder, £4.99) is another good story which could have used more editing. Her characters "grin" at each other so regularly it is a wonder their jaws don't break. Otherwise there is much to recommend in this clever updating of the legend of the Corn King, sacrificed each year to make the crops grow.

The king in this case is teenage flautist Mick, ready to give up everything for the gift of playing as never before. All this takes place on the grounds of a stately home let each year for a hippie-style folk festival. The fairies hovering behind the scenes are as dangerous as they always were, tempting Mick with promises that echo the enticements offered by drug-dealers today. Truth or Dare (Macmillan, £9.99), by Celia Rees, hints at fantasy but ingeniously works back to strict but by no means everyday reality. An autistic adolescent comes to believe he has been kidnapped by space invaders. Shortly after he and another, younger child disappear. Years later his teenage nephew takes up the search. Cutting between the past and present, this suspenseful, intriguing story is equally at ease with computer games and SF comics. The happy ending is something of a rarity in teenage fiction. Rees is a cunning author; respect to her!

Lesley Howarth is a writer without a false sentence to her name. Her unpredictable imagination is much in evidence in Paulina (Walker, £9.99). On a house-swap, which takes them out to the US, Rebecca and her family come across a malignant teenage ghost and some scary contemporary teenagers. It all sounds rather American Gothic, but belief is effortlessly maintained by an author fast turning into a national treasure.

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