Life in a land of confusion

7th March 2003 at 00:00

Elaine Williams looks at novels that deal with the troubles of growing up in a changing and image-led world

The Animal Garden By William Mayne Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99

Earthborn By Sylvia Waugh The Bodley Head pound;10.99

Feed By M T Anderson Walker Books pound;4.99, hardback

The Earth, My Butt and other Big Round Things By Carolyn Mackler Walker Books pound;4.99

Sharp Returns By Dominic Barker Corgi Books pound;4.99

Young people can feel lost and confused in a shifting world where rebellion and terror call the shots, drought and flood ravage the land and abject poverty butts against scientific advance. William Mayne captures this sense of confusion in The Animal Garden, the story of Philip and Shanya, whose fathers are both scientists working on "pugs", a rare breed of mammal with the power of speech. Philip and Shanya, forced to rescue the creatures after their fathers are captured by rebel forces, end up with a pugs'-eye view of the world, full of innocent logic. This is a challenging novel for 10 to 14-year-olds, full of contemporary themes based around the essential goodness and force of nature. Mayne is always full of surprises, uncompromising and powerful in his use of language and image and this book is no exception.

Sylvia Waugh takes up the "brave new world" theme in her accomplished sequel to Space Race, the story of Nesta Gwynn who was born near York, but is the daughter of aliens from the planet Ormingat. Nesta's parents have worked as Ormingat spies on Earth for many years, learning about human ways. When humans become suspicious of "alien" activity, the Gwynns are summoned to return to the home planet, but Nesta is traumatised at the thought of leaving. Waugh is an accomplished writer and Earthborn is a well-crafted story for readers aged 10 to 13 which conveys with sensitivity and skill the anguish of a child with loyalties split between two worlds and cultures.

Teenage angst and the search for meaning in life is the theme of another futuristic setting in Feed, a bold read for older readers (15-plus). There are real shades of Aldous Huxley here as humans become dedicated pursuers of pleasure across the planets with the aid of an internet implant in the brain which does their thinking for them. Titus is a bored adolescent, sated by easy and constant gratification, but is jolted out of his disinterest by a girl called Violet who rebels against corporate culture and the "streamlining of personalities". This searing satire of conspicuous consumption is a stop-you-in-your-tracks must-read for jaded teenagers - and adults.

Also on Walker's impressive new list of teenage fiction is a rather different but equally sharp story. The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things is the moving and at times funny account of a "larger-than-average" middle-class New York girl struggling to come to terms with her body image.

Her quest is not helped by a body-fascist mother who believes thin equals successful. The underlying message - you are what you are, make the best of it - is self-affirming.

For a lighter and wittier account of teenage trouble, see Dominic Barker's third novel, Sharp Returns, in the Mickey Sharp series for 11 to 14-year-olds. In an effort to earn cash Sharp finds himself supporting a no-hoper in the school's head boy elections. This series tears uproariously into the logic of English school life and the rituals of adolescence on a rollercoaster of insightful irreverence.

* A new award for poetry published for children and young people has been launched by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. Collections, anthologies and critical works are eligible for the CLPE Poetry Award, which could also be presented to a poet whose output has impressed the judges (poet Michael Rosen, Morag Styles, reader in children's literature at Homerton College, Cambridge, and Margaret Meek, emeritus professor at London University's Institute of Education). Email:

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