Children's Books: When growing up is hard to do

Nicholas Tucker appreciates a little light relief amid the passions, perils and problems of new fiction for teenagers
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The Independent Culture
Happiness at its most spontaneous and unreflective is difficult to catch in prose, but depression lends itself better to the language of introspection that is also part of the normal adolescent experience. Teenage stories almost inevitably touch on sadness at some stage, but Morris Gleitzman's Bumface (Puffin, pounds 3.99) manages to be funny and poignant at the same time.

Its opening scene deserves to become an instant classic. "`Angus Solomon,' sighed Ms Lowry. `Is that a penis you've drawn in your exercise book?' `No, Miss, it's a sub- marine'. Ms Lowry sighed grimly. `I thought as much. Now stop wasting time and draw a penis like I asked you to.'"

As Angus later grumbles, "Sex, sex, sex. It's all we do in class these days. Why can't we do something interesting like geography?" But sex is his problem too, in the shape of a narcissistic showbiz mother prone to having love children whom Angus then has to look after. His frenzied attempts to combine child-care with schoolwork have their hilarious moments, especially when he also persists in trying to introduce his mother to a fail-safe method of contraception. There is a serious side as well. The story of a child with too many responsibilities to be able to behave like a normal kid might have particular resonance for some young readers attempting to cope with today's fractured family life.

Gemma, the anti-heroine in Marjorie Blackman's Tell Me No Lies (Macmillan, pounds 10.99) has a different problem with mothers. Deprived of her own when young, she retreats into a scrapbook of mums cut out from newspaper stories. By chance this enables her to recognise the new boy at school and recall his own secret, terrible family history. When Gemma uses this knowledge for blackmail, things turn nasty. This story goes at a fast pace and has a nightmare logic that is gripping and disturbing.

Aidan Chambers's Postcards from No Man's Land (Bodley Head, pounds 10.99) is a long novel which interweaves a teenager visiting Amsterdam today with an account of his grandfather's fatal experience in the doomed Arnhem landings of 1944. Wartime descriptions, based on and sometimes using contemporary accounts, are excellent; the panicky violence of battle is evoked quite as vividly as anything in film. The modern scenes are necessarily less immediate, and could have benefited from tighter editing. But this thoughtful, ambitious story deserves to be read; it is the type of serious teenage fiction that should be cherished lest we lose it altogether to the lure of the trivial series currently popular, or film tie-ins.

Annie Campling's Smiling for Strangers (Dolphin, pounds 4.50) is a well- written story, reminiscent of Anne Holm's postwar classic I Am David. Escaping from the carnage in Yugoslavia by hiding in an aid lorry, young Nina finds herself in Britain with only a photograph and an address. Speaking a few words of English, she finds her way to a tiny village in Sussex. There she is given shelter, but nearly spoils everything by behaving badly - a note of psychological realism that rings far truer than the effortless gratitude described by Dickens when that famous escapee, Oliver Twist, lands up with kind Mr Brownlow. With asylum seekers in the news, this story is timely as well as convincing, except perhaps for its over-symmetrical ending.

Children's fiction published straight into paperback risks missing out on library sales, and this would certainly be a pity in the case of Julie Bertagna's Soundtrack (Mammoth, pounds 4.99), a highly-wrought story told in sharp and fresh language. Set in a Scottish seaside village, it describes a three-way clash between a naval submarine base, a Peace Camp and local fishermen. In the middle of all this, young Finn has an overwhelming premonition of disaster. Fearing he is going mad, he is finally vindicated when his beloved uncle is drowned. Other family tensions erupt and Finn's decision to leave the village seems justified. This is an original, strikingly confident story.

Diane Matcheck's The Sacrifice (Bloomsbury, pounds 4.99) is set in mid 18th- century America, where Plains Indians are the chief threat to each other and white men make no appearance. The unsmiling adolescent heroine Weak-One-Who-Does-Not-Last has more than her name to worry about. She also believes she caused the death of her twin brother, and that she is fated to become the redeemer for her tribe. She rides away to new adventures with another Indian group, described with an anthropological precision - a chance to learn more about these people, while enjoying a well-crafted story.

Sadly, Livia Bitton-Jackson's I Have Lived a Thousand Years (Simon & Schuster, pounds 10.99) is not fiction. It is instead an autobiographical description of one year spent in Auschwitz when the author was 13. Nothing is spared: worms are eaten, parents dragged away and young people turned into prematurely aged wraiths from whom German citizens turn away in horror. This book is included in the publisher's Young Readers series; "young" defined as 12 upwards. Older children should surely know about such suffering, and this dignified, austere account offers a suitable place to start.

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