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Hard cases

Gerald Haigh reads stories about children facing life's difficult problems. HORIZONS SERIES. THE GANG By Mick Gowar THE CHALLENGE By Jay Edwards STEVE By Marjorie Newman ADAM WAS HERE By Catherine Chambers Watts Pounds 7.99 each. Age range 7-11

Here is a series of stories about difficult issues. In a sense, of course, all stories, from Beowulf to The Satanic Verses are about difficult issues, and there is a strong case for saying that it is the sensitive teacher, armed with a deep understanding of good literature, who is best equipped to help children confront their emotional lives. To start from the problem, says this point of view, and write the story round it, Brookside-style, risks leading children to believe that meaning and enlightenment must always lie in plain view.

That, though, is an attitude which probably takes too little account of the real world which, for today's children can be awesomely difficult to handle. There will be times when a good issue-led story will be a godsend to a teacher whose own experience may well lag several light years behind that of his or her charges.

The books themselves, though, if they are to work, must serve both purposes - story-telling and issue-handling - very well, and these Horizons do achieve that. For one thing the stories are generally as uncompromising and uncomfortable as good serious fiction ought to be. You read Mick Gowar's The Gang hoping and expecting that Linda, the bullied schoolgirl will eventually find an escape, but you are left only with a tiny glimmer of hope, and plenty for a class to talk about.

The same goes for the others. Steve is about a boy whose father is killed at work. At the very end of the book he thinks he will show something to his dad, and then it hits him - "Memory stabbed him. He couldn't show Dad. Dad was dead."

There is bereavement and despair, too in The Challenge, about a boy whose mother has died from Aids and whose younger brother has developed the disease.

One story - Adam Was Here - does come to a more hopeful ending, but even here we are left in no doubt that there are many families who continue to languish in temporary accommodation.

The authors have had co-operation from such organisations as Centrepoint and Barnardo's and each book gives a list of appropriate organisations and further reading. Because of this, and because the authors know what they are about, the stories are rich in authentic detail.

There is the school secretary who thoughtlessly, with a casual remark in front of the class, publicises Adam's homelessness. There are the parents who will not let their children go cycling with Tom because his brother has Aids. There is the careful description - retailed to Steve by his mum - of how his father will look in his coffin.

Most convincing of all, perhaps, is the account of how Linda in The Gang is bullied not so much by violent acts as by insidious cruelty. Notes are passed; hurtful words are surreptitiously sung to assembly hymns. Linda has become the chosen victim of a girl who wields an uncanny degree of influence over her followers.

As heads know, this is a particular and highly intractable feature of group behaviour among primary age girls, and the way the book deals with it rings chillingly true. Here, for example, is the defining moment when Lucy has to go to school in a pair of embarrassing shorts because her jeans are not ready: "As if by instinct, Natalie turned towards Lucy, and stopped laughing. As if on cue, the rest of the laughter died away. Natalie's eyes shone with delight as she pointed at Lucy. 'What have you got on?' she demanded..."

For individual reading, or for class discussion, these books will find many uses in the upper years of primary schools.

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