Matters of the heart

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Jo Klaces explores emotionally demanding fiction for teenagers

Crash

By Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters

Hodder Children's Books, pound;9.99

Spilled Water

By Sally Grindley

Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;10.99

The Diamond Girls

By Jacqueline Wilson

Doubleday, pound;10.99

dunno

By Peter Inson

Charles Kimpton Publishers, pound;6

Keep Your Hair On

By Elizabeth Vercoe

Piccadilly Press, pound;5.99

These books are bracing reads, tending toward the tragic and, at their best, offering realistic glimpses into worlds that young readers may have either heard of or experienced.

Crash is told in verse. The authors have imagined a story behind a bunch of flowers left at the scene of a road accident, and they have done so with force, tenderness, eloquence and economy.

The story is mainly told in the voices of the 17-year-olds involved and even a circling buzzard has its say in the sprung rhythms redolent of Hopkins's "The Windhover".

Nat, the boy killed in the crash of the title, has an adoptive mother who wears her dead son's shirt till the scent of him is gone. She cannot throw out the half pizza in the fridge that he left for the later that was taken from him. Her pain is made into a tumbling list of a sentence: "No one will ever call me mum again."

The story not only captures tragedy, but also the agony of not knowing how to be, the helpless and ecstatic obsession of new love, and the healing power of friendship. It is original to its core in both telling and the tale - it should be read and discussed in classrooms and student common rooms up and down the land.

In Spilled Water, Lu Si-Yan's beloved father dies, leaving the family in poverty. Her mother is utterly defeated and allows Lu Si-Yan to be sold into servitude by her father's older brother. We follow the 12-year-old heroine on her fraught journey home.

We are never explicitly told what country we are in - although all the clues suggest China - and I worry that there is a certain amount of negative stereotyping in the portrait of the persistent undervaluing of young women, the veneration of the boy-child, and ruthless exploitation of child labour somewhere oriental. But the story does hold positive universal truths about, for example, the redemptive power of forgiveness, and offers a view of a society different from our own.

My copy of The Diamond Girls instantly disappeared, stolen by my 11-year-old daughter. She returned it the next day, bleary-eyed and declaring it good. She lamented the wicked ways of parents and their general incompetence, and was pale from the shock of one mother who cuts her daughter's nails to the quick. However, Jacqueline Wilson always does more than shock; she subverts stereotypes, champions the dreamy and imaginative child and finds the life and soul in ostensibly dysfunctional families.

The eponymous Diamond Girls live with their pregnant, whimsical mother.

They all have different fathers with whom they have little contact. The story is told from the viewpoint of Dixie, the youngest girl, who has a stuffed budgie called Bluebell as her confidant.

Dixie befriends the daughter of an obsessive-compulsive mother and all turns out well in the end. Outsiders everywhere can be reassured that it doesn't matter about society's labels, what does matter is how we behave towards each other.

Although dealing with a young man in the same social class as the Diamond girls, dunno offers considerably less uplift and reassurance.

Fifteen-year-old Jon doesn't like school and his circumstances conspire against achievement. His mother is ground down by poverty, his teachers are ineffective, and Jon ends up working in a garage and gaining a small amount of autonomy, though falling well short of happiness.

This is a relentlessly gloomy portrait, which seems to be saying that school is not for everyone, particularly the poor; that women can be feckless victims; that people with a "darker complexion" sell drugs, and working-class people drop their aitches and swear a lot. I wondered quite what I was supposed to learn from reading this book.

In Keep Your Hair On, 16-year-old Jess has cancer and her treatment makes her lose her hair. She wonders how to tell her boyfriend about her illness and how to cope with her girlfriends' differing responses. In the end Jess finds that sharing the truth, however difficult, is liberating for everyone.

This is a modest, life-affirming read which may well offer support to young people suffering from chronic illness.

Jo Klaces is director of the National Literacy Association

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