Robin Hood was my father's best friend

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
CHILD OF THE MAY. By Theresa Tomlinson. Julia MacRae. pound;9.99

Frozen Out. By Carlo Gebler. Mammoth. pound;4.99

THE HOMECOMING. By V Sulaiman. Illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu. Ravi Dayal. pound;9.95

Theresa Tomlinson has thrown down a challenge to the sort of reader who holds their nose at the first whiff of things "legen-dary" or "folksy". I'm just such a reader, but Child of the May has won me over - I loved it. It's a dignified novel for 10 to 11-year-olds, with its author's note, prologue and 18 neat chapters.

Everything from the decorated and titled chapter headings to the well-balanced, pacy plot has been done with care and skill. Historical and social comment and assertion are intrinsic, not added on.

This is the story of Magda who lives among the peasants and legendary outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Robert, the Hooded One (or Robin Hood, to ignorant souls like me, who used to groan at the mention of his name, let alone the thought of Kevin Costner), is Magda's father's best friend.

Tomlinson invites us to think about him and those distant times neither with a caustic teenager's glance nor with the infantile grin of the heritage mongers.

Hers is the thoughtful, gutsy gaze of the older child, before the dismaying tempests of adolescence are unleashed.

Carlo Gebler charts these storms in Frozen Out, another carefully structured work in three parts, fastened up by a "postscript". I like this formality which links these modern stories for competent readers of 10-plus with all those which have gone before.

Yet while Child of the May is centred in childhood, Frozen Out navigates the roller-coaster of early adolescence. Phoebe may only be 10 in chapter one, but very soon she is balancing on the crest marked "boyfriend" before diving back to the warmer ripples marked "toys".

Her personal drama, which we must all endure and survive, takes place in contemporary Northern Ireland. Phoebe and her family have just moved there, and it's tricky in the messy, everyday sort of way that one would expect.

The novel is sub-titled, "A Tale of Betrayal and Survival" and it could, less eloquently, have been called something dreary like "soldiering on", because that is the sub-text: how to survive the painful messiness of everyday life in contexts both familial and political.

We learn with Phoebe about "half-truths" and "almost promises" and lies that are actually omissions.

It's a story about the colours of cowardice and courage and, as we read, we sympathise not only with Phoebe, but with her enemies, too, and with ourselves.

Why, then, does The Homecoming fail to engage our hearts? It's a picture book with a short text by V Sulaiman and colour illustrations by Suddhasattwa Basu.

It's a lovely idea: a magnificent old house has long provided a haven for human, animal and insect families. Political upheavals see it tragically abandoned, but its non-human occupants protect it from looters until another generation can reclaim it.

Yet something is missing. Both young people experiencing the trauma of war and displacement, and those luckier ones who contemplate such events from a safe distance, deserve more than this.

Are the colours too grey? Is the text too pedestrian and fussy? I find myself answering "yes" and wondering why. Skill and good intentions are not quite enough. This is one of those "almost" books and it's a pity. Its creators should have had a bit more of the courage of Magda and Phoebe.

Gaye Hicyilmaz

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