Challenging times

25th August 2000 at 01:00
In Faraway Home, by the Dublin-based writer Marilyn Taylor (O'Brien Press pound;4.99), two Austrian Jewish children are evacuated after the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) by a refugee programme organised by Quakers. Karl and Rosa are sent to Millisle, a derelict farm on the Ards peninsula, 20 miles from Belfast.

The novel, for Years 5 and 6, won this year's Bisto Book of the Year award in Ireland. The story is based on research involving interviews with Millisle survivors. The wartime experience of child refugees has been written about before, but the Northern Irish setting gives this book a special slant. The tensions between Catholics and Protestants, although mentioned only occasionally, cannot help but challenge the reader to think about the Jews' predicament from more than one viewpoint.

The central relationship between Karl, the older Austrian child and Judy, a 14-year-old volunteer from Dublin, provides a human and - towards the end - romantic interest.

Bound For America, Elizabeth Lutzeier's sequel to The Coldest Winter (Oxford University Press pound;6.99) is another powerful novel about displacement for Years 5 and 6. Some aspects of the lead character's emotional response to life in North America in the mid-1900s can only be properly understood if the earlier book, set in the Great Famine, has been read. However, this is also a satisfactory stand-alone read.

Eamonn has been separated from his brothers and mother after a disastrous sea-crossing during which most of the Irish emigrants sucumb to fever. His experiences as a mill worker in the United States will give children insight into the reasons workers had to organise themselves into unions and sometimes resort to strike action.

The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (O'Brien Press pound;4.99) is a first-person narrative accessible to readers from Year 4 up.

It tells of the experiences of Widge, an orphan "prenticed" to a rector, Dr Bright. He teaches Widge a form of shorthand, called Charactery, so that he can transcribe his sermons. It is for this skill that the boy is later employed by the Shakespeare Stealer and instructed to transcribe a copy of Shakespeare's latest play. Finding himself acting as a double agent, Widge has to grapple with questions of honesty and trust. The American author concentrates on the dialogue and action, and gives the story just enough accurate Elizabethan colour.

The Time Detectives series by the Horrible History man himself, Terry Deary, offers lighter historical fare for Year 3 pupils and above. Case No 3: The Princes in the Terror Tower (Faber pound;4.99) presents various possible explanations for their disappearance.

In a parallel story, missing millionaire Mabel Tweed is imprisoned in the tower by her wicked uncle Ricky, a Beefeater. Alliterative chapter titles, groan-inducing jokes, heavy-handed puns and the odd bit of teacher-knocking should make this go down a storm with Deary's usual audience.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex


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