Children's Books: An unsafe bet for the bookworm

Novels for teenage readers travel into space, down old mines, into the future. Yet the stories themselves can be the riskiest place of all.
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The Independent Culture
Numbers of authors are writing really well for teenagers at the moment, but Lesley Howarth still remains an exception. She is never less than brilliant. Despite its unarresting title and nerdy-looking jacket, Mister Spaceman (Walker, pounds 9.99) is fresh, highly individual and utterly engaging. It takes the side of an amiable pupil who just can't get his mind into gear at school. This is not a popular cause these days, but Howarth portrays her hero Thomas Moon sympathetically, while never demonising the forces of adult disapproval he is up against.

Thomas is obsessed with becoming an astronaut, decorating his bedroom to look like a Space Station and using the service lift of a nearby hotel to practise survival techniques within an enclosed space. Thanks to a like-minded teacher, he is eventually eased back into mainstream education. Told in a series of e-mails alternating with ordinary narrative, this is a touching and above all a very funny story. It also makes a serious point while keeping well away from the fashionable gloom found in so much of the rest of the teenage market.

This can't be said about Melvyn Burgess's unsettling and at times almost repulsive novel Bloodtide (Andersen, pounds 14.99). Set in a ruined London governed by competing warlords, it describes the kidnap, torture and incarceration of the daughter of one evil ruler by the son of another. Wishing to become master of a wasted universe peopled by hideous genetic mutations living alongside ordinary, suffering humans, he then sets out on a familiar dictator's path bearing strong resemblances to the political careers of Hitler and Stalin.

Cannibalism, rape and destruction follow, and while the narrative itself is gripping there is also a growing sense of moral exhaustion. Based loosely - and cleverly - on the first part of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, this story follows on in a long tradition of violence. The warning it carries about humanity, plus the possible fate of our over-populated and polluted planet, deserves to be heard. But hope and the chance of any redemption are in short supply. This would be a strange choice of present for any normally cheerful young person this Christmas.

David Almond's first novel Skellig won almost every prize going. His next story, Kit's Wilderness (Hodder, pounds 4.99), is also extremely good. Kit Watson arrives at Stoneygate, an old mining area with long memories of a dreadful industrial accident. The past continues to influence the present, with the descendants of the old miners continuing bitter feuds about what actually happened so many years ago.

Kit finds himself stranded between these factions. His dying grandfather provides him with the key for his successful survival. Written with an acute sense of place plus a touch of the supernatural, this is a sombre but always readable story. After just two books, Almond has become a leading children's writer.

Louis Sacher's Holes (Bloomsbury, pounds 10.99) has already taken America by storm, and it's easy to see why. Sent to a macabre, almost surreal, boys' juvenile detention centre in the middle of a Texas desert, young Stanley, who happens to be innocent, has to contend with a fiendish woman warden supported by two thuggish underlings. Life would not be worth living were the other young inmates equally brutalised, but in this case they are not - a welcome ray of light in an otherwise bleak moral landscape.

The warden, who paints her nails with rattlesnake venom, requires each young offender to dig a five-foot hole every day, regardless of thirst and a baking sun. She is searching for the buried treasure which Stanley eventually finds. But nothing else is as predictable in this weird, mesmerising story, part realistic tale, part fable, told in deadpan prose of a quiet authority. Once started, this story demands to be finished.

Donna Jo Napoli's Stones in Water (Oxford, pounds 5.99) describes the journey, based on a true story, of an Italian adolescent named Roberto who escapes from a Nazi work camp in Eastern Europe. There are terrible hardships and witnessed cruelties en route, but Roberto's single-minded determination to return to his home in Venice, and his extraordinary adventures, make for a moving, passionate and totally involving story. This is another must-read novel, well able to stand comparison with that classic wartime escape story, Anne Holm's I Am David.

Margaret Shaw's Walking the Maze (Oxford, pounds 5.99) is an unusual, bookish novel, actually warning against the way that a love of stories can sometimes distort life. Annice becomes caught up in an imaginary world prompted by two paintings seen at an art gallery. Gradually, unreality takes over, but so compellingly that readers too start believing in the fantasies Annice weaves as a way of escaping from herself and others. An unlikely but romantic ending sees everything straight. This is a fine novel, intelligent, scholarly and altogether something different.

Mary Hooper's (Megan)2 (Bloomsbury, pounds 4.99) continues the timely story of a 15-year-old girl who decides to keep the baby she has unwittingly conceived. She then discovers she has done much better than expected in her GCSE exams, fuelling a now unobtainable desire to go on studying. She also meets a boy she likes, but does not dare inform him of her situation.

This is a wise book, telling it how it is. All teenagers could read it with profit, as they could Pete Hautman's cheeky Feeling Lucky (Bloomsbury, pounds 4.99). The profit here has nothing to do with self-discovery. It relates to all the money American teenager Denn finds he can make from playing poker with suckers who have not developed his particular skills.

Denn begins to lose his soul as he gradually opts out of everything except the game. Like all the best gambling films or stories, this novel is peculiarly engrossing from the moment when Denn is first dealt in, to his final apotheosis as a professional gambler with no life outside the table.