The Children's Book Guide

7th November 1997 at 00:00
A Girl Named Disaster. By Nancy Farmer. Phoenix House Pounds 15.99.

The journey of 12-year-old Nhamo ("Little Pumpkin", "Little Disaster") from her village in Mozambique to a research station in Zimbabwe, from the family of her mother (killed by a leopard) to an alternative "family", is the tale of this substantial novel for teen-agers. A work of power which holds the value system of the Shona people in respect. Imogen Forster (TES, April 4)

Chasing Redbird. By Sharon Creech. Macmillan Pounds 3.99 (pbk).

Zinny is lost amid "a slew of brothers and sisters", constantly asked "Which one are you?" and suffering in glamour-puss May's shadow. Her path of self-discovery is tortuous - she literally has to hack through an overgrown trail. Her solo trek into the Kentucky backwoods is satisfyingly daring but not implausible. Her Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nate take comfort in her when they lose their daughter; when Jessie in turn dies, Zinny's project helps Nate to cope while explaining some family secrets. The novel traces the cycle of bereavement, mourning and recovery. Geraldine Brennan (TES, March 21)

Dreamweaver. by Louise Lawrence. 1st Deck Pounds 3.99

A pair of star-cross'd lovers are caught between two cultures as a spaceship from our galaxy hurtles towards the planet Arbroth. Aboard Exodus 27 are 3,000 escapees (arms dealers, police, media folk and the like) from a decayed Earth who aim to colonise Arbroth, which has rejected the tyranny of technology and turned into a subsistence utopia. The issues are strong and ambiguous enough - and the speed with which the collision of cultures literally and ideologically approaches is urgent enough - to make this a very satisfying read. Geoff Fox (TES, March 21)

His Dark Materials Volume 2: The Subtle Knife

By Philip Pullman

Scholastic Pounds 12.99

This audacious sequel to the acclaimed Northern Lights, winner of the Car-negie Medal, is . . . fantasy for the millennium at its most ambitious and serious. In the tradition of Tolkien and CS Lewis, Pullman is working in the English line of what may almost be called "theological fantasy", which is not to say that this cracking adventure does not move with the pace of an Indiana Jones movie. This is rare storytelling by a master of labyrinthine creativity. Janni Howker (TES, September 19)

See book offer, page 16

No Roof in Bosnia

By Els de Groen

Spindlewood Pounds 10.95

Readers between the ages of 12 and 15 will surely already have many images of recent conflicts in their minds: the Gulf War, the plight of the Kurds, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Such images are indelible, and novels such as this offer mediation between that suffering and ours. Here's a novelist who understands the craft. Gaye Hicyilmaz (TES, September 26)

Pig-heart Boy

By Malorie Blackman

Doubleday Pounds 9.99

The warm, well-paced story of Cameron, who is given a pig's heart to save his life. Even as his physical strength builds up, his emotions take a battering from other people's attitudes. Voyeurs, angry critics (the animal rights debate is acknowledged) and weak-spirited friends all put Cameron and his family under pressure. Moving but never maudlin, this is a tale of courage stretched to the limit. Geraldine Brennan

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

By Karen Cushman

Macmillan Pounds 3.99

Lucy Whipple does for the California gold rush what Cushman's previous excellent titles, Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice, did for the Middle Ages. Historical detail is absorbed almost invisibly alongside the strong central account of Lucy's struggle to put down roots in harsh new terrain. When the Whipples open a boarding house for the Forty-Niners of Lucky Diggins, Lucy keeps her heart firmly back east. Massachusetts represents not only civilisation and luxuries such as fresh fruit and books, but Lucy's past life with her beloved father. Geraldine Brennan (TES, August 15)

The Sandy Bottom Orchestra

By Garrison Keillor and Jenny Lind Nilsson

Faber Pounds 9.99

Sandy Bottom is a small Midwest town not a million miles from Lake Wobegon, but this novel from Garrison Keillor and his wife is more than an update from Keillor country. It is also a rewarding study of what it means to live in a small community as the only child of arty, liberal, eccentric parents. Ironically, this kind of family life would have suited the young Keillor in Lake Wobegon days, brought up on Plymouth Brethren lines while dreaming that his parents ran a circus.

Rachel Green, a 14-year-old about to play in her first professional concert, grapples with stage fright and self-consciousness, loses her best friend to softball and finds first love in the second violins. Readers of all ages will identify with her, and with the excitement of the performance taking shape amid the chaos of clashing egos and jangling nerves. Geraldine Brennan (TES, July 4)

The Vision

By Pete Johnson

Methuen Contents Pounds 3.99

Distressed schoolgirl Tara finds comfort in charismatic black teacher Paul, with his earnestly proffered spiritual guidance. Non-judgmental and non-committal, Johnson offers no final verdict on the validity of Tara's subsequent and questionable "vision" and expertly side-tracks the issues of racism and teacher-pupil relations which might so easily have swamped this finely balanced but potentially precarious novel. Joanna Porter (TES, January 3)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Orion Dolphin Pounds 3.99

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 trauma and eventual recovery. Geraldine Brennan (TES, August 15)

Two Tickets to Freedom

By Florence B Freedman

Peter BedrickRagged Bears Pounds 4.99

Graphic historical material, this true story about an African-American who ran away from slavery with his common-law wife, who passed for white, is set in Georgia in 1848, 10 years after slavery had been abolished in the British West Indies. The researched material is well organised, with an easy flow towards its stages of dramatic impact. The writing makes you sense a racial majority's on-going violence - reinforced by law - against helpless others who are radically different. And it poses questions about psychological aftermaths on both sides.

Showing the human spirit in battle against a mangled life of dispossession, this is a story for all ages, a kind of story still not getting the celebration it deserves, a story of special non-submission for Spike Lee to treat with full cinematic intensity, as he did in Malcolm X. James Berry (TES, May 2)

Outside Permission

By Eleanor Nilsson

Viking Pounds 7.99

A sophisticated, deeply uncomfortable thriller with believable lads-about-town characters whose worst problem is mild self-obsession until they attract the attention of invisible, powerful enemies. David and Simon live in a society indistinguishable from present-day Adelaide, except that Big Brother holds secret files which predetermine the date of each citizen's death. When David sneaks a look at his file, it's bad news. The ending is pure X Files stuff, guaranteed to cast a chill. Geraldine Brennan (TES, August 29)


By Robert Cormier

Gollancz Pounds 11.99

Cormier catches exactly the spiky, false self-assurance of a neglected adolescent left to shift for herself. Lori is pulled into the orbit of psychopath Eric Poole, 18 years old, newly released from juvenile custody for the murder of his mother and stepfather, with three unsolved murders (of young women) to add to the list.

Psychos are, by definition, dead inside, totally lacking in empathy. How, then, to keep the reader turning pages? Cormier imperceptibly shifts sympathies to arrive at an ironic sweet-sour ending. Gerry Byrne (TES, May 9)


By Melvin Burgess

Penguin Pounds 4.99

A rare creature - a well-informed drugs story. It encompasses the raw, savage and ecstatic world of the adolescent mind, taking readers through accounts of an "adventure" that leads to addiction. A superbly crafted and important book. Winner of the Carnegie Medal. Elaine Williams (TES, February 7)


New Connections: New Plays for Young People

Faber Pounds 12.99

The 12 plays in this fat volume result from the bubbling energy of the 1997 BT National Connections season, in which writers including Liz Lochhead and Bryony Lavery created original, hour-long scripts for young people to perform. An excellent range of challenging material for youth company and school productions. John Somers

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