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Sudden adulthood

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Orion Dolphin Pounds 3.99.

MUSIC ON THE BAMBOO RADIO. By Martin Booth. Viking Pounds 10.99 (hbk).

JOINING THE RAINBOW. By Bel Mooney. Mammoth Pounds 4.99.

"What could be better than driving on a mountain while 'Yakety Yak' played and cool, light air blew over you?" asks Kenny Watson as his warm, argumentative family hit the road in Christopher Paul Curtis's beautifully paced tale of the trip which tangled with tragedy.

The Watsons are black Americans from Alabama, exiled in chilly Michigan where bad boy Byron freezes his lips to the car. Kenny's preoccupations are universal - How can he outwit Byron and the other bullies? Why does he feel ashamed of his best friend? - until September 1963. On a visit to his grandmother in Birmingham, he witnesses a landmark in the civil rights struggle - the Sunday-school bombing in which four girls were killed. Curtis puts his witty horseplay and clever character studies aside to take us through Kenny's resulting trauma and eventual recovery.

While the bombing casts a chill, it does not dilute the pleasures that have gone before. The chaotic journey south in the Watsons' 1948 Plymouth, lovingly customised by Mr Watson with an Ultra-Glide record player and a stack of rock'n'roll discs (he doesn't like the country music on the radio) is a fictional road trip in the fast lane.

Music on the Bamboo Radio, a taut thriller from Martin Booth, again shows a child jolted into sudden adulthood by horrific events. Nicholas leads a privileged life in Hong Kong until the Japanese invade on Christmas Day 1941. After his family's Chinese servants take him into hiding, he survives by posing as a Cantonese peasant and becomes an agent for Communist guerrillas.

The mechanics of the deception sound implausible - surely dark hair and a coolie hat are not enough? But the tale has an overall ring of truth, and the glimpses of Nicholas's ritualised life under cover in his saviours' village exude a serenity which balances his terrifying predicaments.

Bel Mooney's likeable heroine, Kaz, grows up more slowly, but surely, when she joins the eco-guerrillas in Joining the Rainbow.

In this tale, based on the author and her daughter's experiences, a campaign to save an area of woodland from a bypass scheme gives Kaz not only a cause to fight for, but an outlet for her boiling-over urge for self-expression. She befriends a travelling band of green activists and falls in love with a Swampy figure called Ash.

Bel Mooney is partisan (she has created no reasonable opponents to tree-saving, although some of the police are friendly) but sensibly cautious.

Kaz soon learns to tell her parents the truth and draws them into the cause. She doesn't run away with Ash; she decides not to neglect her school work.

The book is also honest about the difficulty of upholding unconventional beliefs in a small town - Kaz loses friends. Ideal background reading for a young person desperate to save the world, but the rambling narrative is unlikely to convert the uncommitted.

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