Chat beats smack

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Jo Klaces reads novels about boys who find it's better to talk than to fight

Aunt Gawgon and the Amazing Invisible Boy; By Lloyd Alexander Usborne Pounds 4.99

Blood Pressure; By Alan Gibbons Dolphin pound;5.99

Divided City; By Theresa Breslin Doubleday pound;10.99

Lobster Boy; By Rodman Philbrick Usborne pound;4.99

Noodle Head; By Jonathon Kebbe Corgi Books pound;4.99

These boy-friendly novels present alternative heroes, as each of the young male protagonists is more inclined to talk than fight his way out of the trouble he finds himself in.

Aunt Gawgon and the Amazing Invisible Boy features David, who suffers a bout of "New monia" in 1920s America. When he has to take several months off school, he is taught by his Aunt Gawgon, who opens up his world through her knowledge and eccentric enthusiasms.

What started out as a sentence turns out to be liberation for David. This book is delightful, a warm homage to creativity and the power of the imagination. The story of the relationship between the two main characters is punctuated with David's own adventure stories, creative writing that has been kick-started by his aged aunt.

Blood Pressure, set in present-day Liverpool, is a thoughtful and provocative read from that utterly reliable writer, Alan Gibbons. When the story opens, the only pressures on Aidan are his GCSEs; he lives a comfortable, middle-class life as the only child of professional, loving parents. His mother takes him up north to visit his dying grandfather, a seriously inconvenient trip for the self-absorbed young man. Aidan is forced to make choices about his life and future happiness and to contemplate whether to engage his heart and soul with life, or maintain an ironic distance. His agonising is wrapped in a tense and convincing story.

Equally compelling is Divided City, set in Glasgow. Two boys, one Catholic (Joe), the other Orange Protestant (Graham) are brought together through their football talent and their fanatical love of the game. They are forced to confront the religious prejudices of their own families; when Graham helps an asylum seeker who is attacked in the street they encounter another form of prejudice which crosses sectarian lines.

In the end, the boys take decisions that are not necessarily the "right" ones, but the messy compromises that life often demands when you engage with people -especially family, and even more especially if you love and respect your family despite disagreeing with their politics. This humane and edgy story prickles and nudges the reader towards tolerance and understanding of other communities.

In Lobster Boy, 12-year-old Skiff Beaman's mother is dead and he looks after his alcoholic father in a fishing village on the New Hampshire coast.

Skiff works out ways of making money from the sea to refit the only female character in the story - the Mary Rose, his dad's fishing boat. His determined expeditions are so convincingly described that the reader feels the slap of the waves, and the tug on the line as the fish bites.

It is beautifully written; achingly precise about Skiff's feelings about his father as well as the need for the right bait to catch the one that nearly gets away; an unusual blending of domestic chaos and epic struggle in which the boy becomes the father of the man.

Back in the UK, 15-year-old Marcus King has repeatedly run away from school and finds himself sentenced to Dovedale Hall, "England's Alcatraz for teenage tearaways", in the opening pages of Noodle Head. He is not a criminal, just wedded to freedom, and immediately clashes with the heavy-handed drugs-and-discipline regime.

Marcus's eponymous nickname comes from his red dreadlocks (inherited from his redhead English mother and Jamaican father), which are peremptorily shaved off.

The story champions the values of co-operation, tolerance and spontaneity as Marcus builds trust among a small band of misfit inmates who include a cross-dresser and a hyperactive asthmatic boy whose speciality is "flashing his enormous bum". It is funny, sparkily paced and full of youthful exuberance.

Along with all these books, it is an excellent antidote to the recent rash of reality TV shows which seek to tell us what a terrible bunch the nation's teenagers are.

Jo Klaces is director of the National Literacy Association

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