Children's Books: Visionary angels on a bloody earth o
Nicholas Tucker welcomes a new challenge to gloomy teenage fare
Saturday 24 October 1998
The children have their own language and mythology, outlined in a series of separate parables interleaved with the main events and linked to the lives of the protagonists. Other tribes they encounter have no spoken words at all. Their story is both tough and tender; bloody battles are resolved through compassion and forgiveness.
At a time when visions of the future in children's literature are uniformly bleak, looking to the past for hope about the human condition could at least provide the young with some sense of balance. Although Dickinson has already won many prizes, this book is one of his finest achievements yet.
Catherine Fisher's futuristic fantasy The Relic Master (Bodley Head, pounds 10.99) also succeeds brilliantly. Avoiding video-game set pieces, she creates a believable world which also serves as an allegory for the dangers of political oppression accompanied by environmental devastation. This sounds a somewhat over-toxic mix, but the journey to the forbidden city of Tasceron taken by the adolescent boy and girl, backed up by a sour older figure, has the immemorial appeal of a quest story written by an author firing on all cylinders. The first of a promised sequence, this book is a worthy successor to the same writer's excellent Snow-Walker trilogy.
Rhiannon Lassiter wrote Hex (Macmillan, pounds 9.99) when she was 17. It too deals with fantasy, this time describing 23rd-century London as an unpleasant place, jutting five miles in the sky and ruled by an evil oligarchy. Its only challenge comes from those few citizens born with special powers to gain access to all computer systems - an apt symbol for children today, often bewilderingly far ahead of their parents in information technology.
The author occasionally shows some immaturity. Male characters have "rugged good looks" and girls "shake out their luxuriant chestnut curls". But she tells a convincing, pacey story, and when she has learned to prune redundant adjectives and adverbs could become an author of distinction.
David Almond writes for adults as well as for children, but Skellig (Hodder, pounds 4.99) deserves to become his best-known story yet. This story quickly established itself as something not to miss. The potentially sentimental idea of an angel who becomes visible on earth is made acceptable through tough-minded description (he is also filthy, ill, and eats discarded take- aways).
William Blake's visionary poetry is quoted throughout as another key to what's going on, but this is not a difficult story. Discovering an angel is made to seem an event that could happen to any child; the adventures that follow are tense and involving.
Robert Cormier once used to take on moods and anti-heroes commonly avoided in children's literature, but there is no shortage of nihilistic stories for adolescents these days. In Heroes (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) he writes like a parody of his former self. An ex-soldier returns home to take revenge on the charismatic youth leader who badly let him down. With its spare dialogue and passages of gloomy retrospection, the text reads like a realisation of one of those graphic novels full of shadows, distorted perspective and death-wish cliches.
Paul Zindel is another writer whose books have fallen on hard times. The sensitive understanding that went into The Pigman is nowhere evident in Reef of Death (Bodley Head, pounds 9.99), which races through improbable events as if not daring ever to slow down. The bad doings off the Australian coast caused by a "ghastly ship of horrors" are never credible and too often involve detailed descriptions of torture.
Joan Lingard's Dark Shadows (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 10.99) also contains violence set in the context of Northern Ireland. The story, involving secret friendships across the religious and political divides, is somewhat wooden, as often happens when fiction is enlisted for social propaganda. Lingard has an honoured place among those who have begged for greater tolerance in the six counties. How nice it would be if well-meaning stories like this were no longer required in a better future for everyone.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Bruce Jenner's 'Interview of the year': Suicidal thoughts, rejection by family members and new wardrobe
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 How to turn off/stop 'seen by' on Facebook: Disable it to make your chats seem less passive aggressive
- 4 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 5 Buckingham Palace guard who attacked passers-by in 'most most violent piece of CCTV footage' police officer had seen walks free
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Everyday People project: Photographer Pablo Conejo placed an ad on Gumtree - and kickstarted a series of interesting encounters
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election