LOSER. By Jerry Spinelli. Collins Children's Books pound;4.99
HOME IS A PLACE CALLED NOWHERE. By Leon Rosselson. Oxford University Press pound;6.99
WHEELS. By Catherine MacPhail. Puffin pound;4.99
DOLL. By Nicky Singer. CollinsFlamingo pound;4.99
Linda Newbery finds young people triumphing over tough emotional circumstances in fiction for key stages 2 and 3
Readers in Years 4 to 6 will find Jonah - a short and pacy American novel - hugely enjoyable. Like all children nowadays, Jonah is well drilled in story structure and knows the beginning and the end of his own story, but not the middle (just like many authors, if the national curriculum advisers would only realise). He decides, however, that sheer bluff will help him towards his ambition of becoming famous.
Teaming up with Blister - another outcast from his new sixth-grade class - he announces himself as presenter of a television programme called Jonah, the Whale. Chutzpah is enough to circumvent all sorts of obstacles and by the end Jonah has not only made his programme aimed at inspiring other children, but reunited his mother with her boyfriend. The linked story Blister, whose opening pages appear as a taster, looks equally appealing (reviewed in The TES, December 11, 2002).
Jerry Spinelli's Loser is a charming eccentric called Donald Zinkoff. We follow his progress from infancy to sixth grade, through the first chunk of the 2,160 days he will eventually spend at school. In his early years he disarms bullies by being happily unaware that others consider him odd: Zinkoff - last in the alphabet and last to be picked for any team game, being inept at sports. But as he moves to fifth and sixth grade he is nicknamed Loser and becomes painfully aware of his inadequacies and lack of friends.
Spinelli is too good a writer to give us an implausible transformation, but by the final pages - after a misjudged attempt at heroism - Zinkoff has earned grudging respect from the class jock and a lot more from the reader.
Most children will recognise the cruelties and injustices of the school jungle and Spinelli's writing is enjoyably witty, as in his portrayal of the teacher whose face is "so stone-chiselled into a permanent scowl that her smile appears to be merely a tilting of the scowl".
Amina, in Leon Rosselson's short novel Home is a Place Called Nowhere, faces more urgent problems: with no idea of her origins or family background, she has run away from her unofficial foster home and is sheltering in an empty house when she meets Paul, a helpful older boy. With his help she meets other asylum seekers and eventually finds the mother she hasn't seen for seven years. It is then that she and the reader learn of her Palestinian background and displacement. The style is direct and accessible enough to be read by an eight-year-old, while the outsider's view of English life and prejudices give topical interest.
Catherine MacPhail's Wheels moves up the age range to lower secondary.
James, who is wheelchair-bound since a road accident in which his father was killed, has been forced to adapt to his disability and is resentful and withdrawn. These feelings are exacerbated when he thinks he sees the teenager who was driving the vehicle that caused the crash, despite knowing that he had also been killed. James finds a surprising ally in the form of Kirsty, the dead boy's sister, whom he initially dislikes but then realises her briskness in treating him as no different from anyone else is exactly what he needs. Kirsty's father has taken to excessive drinking since the tragedy. Together they attempt to find out who really was at the wheel of the car. The author's straightforward, emphatic style makes it easy for readers to engage with this fast-moving story.
Nicky Singer's Doll is a more complex novel for teenagers that also deals with the loss of parents. It brings together Tilly - whose mother, we are led to believe, has killed herself - and Jan, a Chilean boy living with an English foster-mother. Both children are loners who court danger through a powerful mutual attraction that is evident from the moment of their first meeting on a railway bridge. Each carries a doll-figure to represent - dangerously in Tilly's case - the absent mother. As she did in Feather Boy, Singer draws on folklore and mythology for layers of meaning. The novel reaches a moving finale in which both Jan and Tilly give themselves permission to hate as well as love their mothers.
#a-5 The latest batch of free bookplates created by cutting-edge cartoonists and illustrators can be downloaded at www.myhomelibrary.org, the website set up by Children's Laureate Anne Fine. It also offers competitions, the chance to submit book reviews, and encouragement to children to collect secondhand books.