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Sex and drugs and feeling blue

Graham Handscomb looks at books designed to help teenagers cope with the pressures of growing up


WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SERIES. Bullying. Divorce. Disability. Eating Disorders. Vegetarianism. Wayland Pounds 8.99 each.

LET'S DISCUSS SERIES. Getting into Drugs. Getting into Trouble or Crime. Love, Hate and Other Feelings. Personal Safety. Sex and Sexuality. Watts Pounds 9.99 each.

FACE THE FACTS SERIES. Diet and Health. Sex and Relationships. Body Changes. Drugs. Wayland Pounds 9.99 each

How children make sense of themselves and of the world in which they live is as much a part of education as the accumulation of paper qualifications. These four series of books are valuable resources for 11 to 16-year-olds getting to grips with teenage problems.

Producing quality texts in this area is difficult. It is important to strike the right note by giving accurate factual information in a straightforward way, avoiding over-dramatisation and adult "preachiness" that the young reader will spot immediately. All these titles aim, with varying degrees of success, to encourage learners to address the issues for themselves and arrive at their own informed judgment.

The books in the What Do You Know About series start with a brief introduction, and feature a cartoon-illustrated story-line augmented by a commentary and photographs. A good deal of straight practical information is provided: "There are a lot of supposed cures for a hangover, but in reality the only true cure is time." Difficult topics are dealt with sensitively: "For some people depression goes beyond the mild negative feelings we all experience... for them their depression becomes very intense and long lasting"; and key controversial issues are squarely faced: "Many people consider it is not impairment itself which is disabling, but the fact that society often limits the opportunities which are available to disabled people".

The Let's Discuss titles adopt a similar identical format, with the addition of what are euphemistically called case studies - in fact, merely boxed quotes containing lightweight reflections on various teenage situations.

The most powerful aspect of both series is the way in which they build their messages on the bedrock of developing self-esteem. Thus: "The first step in being liked is to be comfortable with who you are and to like yourself. "

The titles are successful in exploring teenage perceptions of sexual attraction and emotional feeling without imposing judgment. However, they stop short of probing ideas of love and commitment. No picture is given of the notion of selfless love, and there is a danger of sex being seen just in terms of individual readiness and optimum emotional stability.

The continuous cartoon story- line in each book works well, with a few reservations. They are generally plausible, although at times a little contrived; for instance, one tale contains every conceivable type of drug abuse. The various plot lines all have positive endings and it would have conveyed a more powerful message for some characters not to be fully redeemed. Stopping the action to make analytical comment is effective but does tend to reduce the reader to the role of passive receiver of wisdom The Let's Discuss series contains no practical suggestions for teaching and learning activities beyond two paragraphs at the end which naively envisage teenager and adult sitting down together, reading the book and sharing their thoughts. It is much more likely that these books will be used for private library browsing, or by experienced PSE tutors developing learning modules around selected extracts.

The We're Talking About series is of high quality. The humane explorations of divorce assure children that "...parents are the people who love you most in the world... neither of them has divorced you". Bullying encourages positive responses to aggressive behaviour. The case studies are powerful and poignant, showing, for instance, in Eating Disorders how shame and secrecy are an integral part of bulimic illness. The only mild reservation is a tendency to give categorical solutions to complex problems.

On balance, the Face the Facts series, aimed at special needs learners, is the pick of the bunch. The books are attractively presented, making full use of coloured photographs, and employing lists of bullet points and boxed quotes to best effect. The language level seems somewhat sophisticated for the intended readership, but the volumes fully reflect the central aim "to build readers' confidence in their own capability for rational, careful and informed decisions". These titles are the only ones to provide very helpful guidance notes for teachers.

Each of these series successfully steers a course between mere presentation of cold facts on the one hand, and imposition of adult values, however well intentioned, on the other. All recognise that nurturing personal and moral development is essentially about truth-telling and enabling young people to arrive at their own solutions.

Graham Handscomb is deputy headteacher at Tabor High School, Braintree, Essex

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