It's a jungle out there;Children's books;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00
LITTLE SOLDIER. By Bernard Ashley. Orchard pound;4.99

THE BABOON KING. By Anton Quintana. Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. Allen amp; Unwin. pound;5.50

FEELING LUCKY. By Pete Hautman. Bloomsbury pound;4.99

Geraldine Brennan on three tales of survival for teenagers

When David Blunkett demanded more "boy-friendly" books on the curriculum earlier this year he specified Raymond Chandler and Homer's Iliad, but any of these novels, full of action and emotional depth, would do the trick.

Bernard Ashley's despatches from the front line of gang warfare is his best work yet, a gripping and compassionate tale of children robbed of childhood. The territory is one Ashley knows well - the riverfront estates near the Thames Barrier, where every street corner has a built-in network of allegiance and protection.

The gang chiefs' young hangers-on think they are pretty hard, but Kaninda, the new kid on the block, has learned to be harder than they can imagine. A refugee from east Africa, he has served as a boy rebel soldier and is desperate to return and wipe out the rival tribe that massacred his family. When Kaninda's guerrilla skills are harnessed in the south-east London turf war, the result is explosive.

Meanwhile the Christian soldiers are on the march. Captain Betty Rose of God's Force has given Kaninda a home, but is too busy saving souls to meet his other needs, or to notice her daughter's troubles.

More insights into tribal civilisation, human and animal, in The Baboon King. This excellent account of physical and psychological endurance has reached us via Australia 17 years after publication in the Netherlands, and tells its timeless story in a contemporary tone that will appeal to young teenagers.

Moreng ru is the son of two tribes, accepted by neither the Masai, the nomadic hunters, nor the Kikuyu "maize-eaters" with their wealth-driven hierarchy. To survive in the wilderness he learns to live alongside a troop of baboons who are both more humane than humans and more brutal. This has echoes of Jean Craighead George's 1972 novel Julie and the Wolves (Red Fox pound;3.50) but the narrative is sparer and tougher.

Feeling Lucky is an American import that narrowly escapes being issue-led in its tale of 15-year-old Denn, whose addiction to poker damages the lives of all around him.

Like Melvin Burgess's Junk, this book is honest about the lure of the forbidden. The descriptions of maverick players, the game's intellectual challenge and the ever-higher stakes reveal why Denn is unlikely to go back to mowing lawns in his spare time.

He's a textbook case, with his hopeless parents and his in-denial exit from Gamblers Anonymous because "they're all losers", but his strong narrative voice will keep readers hooked.

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