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Pupils vote for tale of nuclear survivor

When does a work of fiction slot neatly into key stage 3 geography, environmental studies and science? When it's a nuclear accident survivor's tale.

Fall-out, a treatment of a Chernobyl-scale disaster by top German novelist Gudrun Pausewang, was shortlisted for last week's Earthworm award for children's books which promote concern for the environment.

A panel of pupil judges from Quintin Kynaston comprehensive in north London, one of three schools recruited by the award organisers, Friends of the Earth Trust, made the novel their choice for the fiction prize in the 12-plus age group.

The story of 15-year-old Janna, who becomes a displaced person after the accident kills her parents and brother, is stronger on human consequences than facts. It focuses on the heroine's psychological state as it charts the post-nuclear collapse of society.

Using semi-invented narratives to teach about the world is nothing new, says environmental educationist Julian Agyeman, the adult Earthworm judge working with the Quintin Kynaston panel of two Year 10 and two Year 8 pupils.

"There are precedents going back to the first explorers' accounts. Well-written contemporary fiction certainly has a place in teaching subjects related to the environment. Some young people who are not excited by facts and figures will respond to a story which involves caring for small animals or the aftermath of a nuclear war. This particular book had an unremittingly bleak message but the students found it compelling."

Ian Green, head of geography at Quintin Kynaston, found the fiction element of the Earthworm project "very helpful in exploring the creative side of our subject. I have used poems about the rainforest in the same way, blurring the line between English and geography."

The pupil judges start by skim-reading all the entries in their age group. They each studied up to eight books closely over the summer holiday and reported back to the panel. By early October they had settled on Fall-out and, as their non-fiction choice, Steve Pollock's Atlas of Endangered Resources, published by Belitha.

Mr Green said the pupils' sharpened critical faculties will now be put to the whole school's benefit. "We can draw on their experience to evaluate books and other resource materials. Schools are bombarded with literature about environmental issues and we don't always assess it critically enough."

Julian Agyeman, an Earthworm award regular, was there to help the team reach consensus, which was not always easy. Last week the three panels of judges - the other schools involved were Hampstead Parochial School and Mount Pellon Infant School, Halifax - met to decide on the overall prizewinner.

The award went to one of Hampstead's choices: The Living Forests, Kingfisher Kaleidoscope's interactive guide for seven to 11-year-olds.

Mr Agyeman stressed that the adult judges aim for "a balanced partnership. If there is disagreement they argue their case and we bargain. We are equal in that we all start off new to the books. Although the teachers may have more knowledge, the children are the users. Unless a book is patently unsuitable - racist, for example - their desires prevail."

Fall-out by Gudrun Pausewang, translated by Patricia Crampton, is published by Viking, Pounds 9.99.

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