Level playing fields

7th November 2003 at 00:00
KEEPER. By Mal Peet. Walker Books pound;4.99

THE BRAVES. By David Klass. Puffin pound;5.99

FREEDOM FLIGHT. By Bernard Ashley. Orchard pound;4.99

A LITTLE PIECE OF GROUND. By Elizabeth Laird. Macmillan pound;8.99

Jan Mark reviews fiction for key stage 3 readers that uses sport and adventure to raise serious issues

Mal Peet's novel is, in brief, an interview between sports writer Paul Faustino and a footballer - a boy from an obscure logging settlement in the South American rain forest, with no advantages and no detectable talent, who became El Gato (The Cat), the world's greatest goalkeeper. On Faustino's desk stands the Holy Grail in the shape of the World Cup, which Gato has brought home for his country and for the coach who made him what he is.

Any lingering suspicion that we might be in Billy the Fish territory is swept away by the second page. Faustino gets the scoop he is looking for, but it is not the story he has been expecting, and Gato has his own agenda.

Written with skill, humanity and a vibrant passion for its subject, the book is irresistible on two counts: the absolute conviction of the football journalism and the mysticism of the scenes where Gato meets his mentor and coach, a man cheated by the death of his own dream, who cannot rest until he sees the dream fulfilled. Physical, spiritual - Arthurian, even - this is true enchantment.

The Braves is the name of a New Jersey high school soccer team. Joe Brickman, the captain is dismally aware of the team's shortcomings - until a new boy joins the school, muscles in on Joe's captaincy and steals his girl. Joe is willing to step aside for the good of the team; instinctively he will always do the right thing and there are many other wrongs to be righted in the school. Towards the end, the book buckles under its own weight and the various denouements are a little too fortuitous, but Joe is a sympathetic narrator: a jock with a heart of gold.

Literacy is not Tom Robinson's strong point and history bores him. Freedom Flight catches him during school holidays in the seaside resort where he lives; avoiding his set project on the town's past, he takes refuge in something he excels at, sailing. When he rescues a Polish girl from the sea he at first believes, like his neighbours, that she must be an illegal immigrant. In fact, she is trying to leave the country, fleeing an abusive stepfather, but she does possess something which may tie her both to the place and to the past. Tom, who has always seen himself as a loser, wins esteem and love and his father's long-desired approval.

Karim Aboudi is an ordinary lad, mad about computer games and football. He finds a place he can call his own where he can hang with his mates and kick a ball around, unsupervised. Unfortunately it borders a refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah. Karim is a Palestinian living under a military occupation which poisons every aspect of his life. He sees his father humiliated at a checkpoint, his grandmother's olive groves appropriated by colonists; his school is shelled, tanks blockade the streets, children are shot.

A Little Piece of Ground is inevitably one-sided, the story of the occupied, not the occupiers - but herein lies the problem. The soldiers and settlers are Israelis, obviously, but this is all we are told about them.

Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they there?

My generation is older than the State of Israel; the Nazi death camps were liberated in our lifetime. Appalled, we have watched the current situation develop and are familiar with the dubious "historical" rationale for Zionist expansion, but we are not the readership addressed here. A 15-year-old of my acquaintance does not know who Margaret Thatcher is. This is a powerful and emotive book but it assumes a knowledge in its readers that probably does not exist, and it does not supply it.

For more ideas for the football-crazy, see the National Literacy Trust's Reading the Game site: www.literacytrust.org.ukindexrtg.html

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