Some of life's great challenges

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Christina Zaba reviews a crop of novels for key stages 2 and 3 in which young heroes deal with major issues

Shrinking Ralph Perfect By Chris d'Lacey Orchard Books pound;4.99

Going Out with a Bang: an Almost-True Story by Dylan Douglas (age 13) By Joel Snape Scholastic pound;4.99

Bella Balistica and the Indian Summer By Adam Guillain Milet pound;5.99

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips By Michael Morpurgo HarperCollins Pounds 10.99

Across the Creek By Rosanne Hawke Lothian Takeaways pound;3.99

The Great Switcheroonie By Alex Shearer Hodder Children's Books Pounds 5.99

Transformation, learning, self-mastery, commitment, finding out who you are and where you fit: life's challenges meet both new and tried-and-tested solutions in the latest crop of fiction for Year 5 and above. And there are new worlds to discover along the way.

Some are literally tiny, though full of action and high drama. Chris d'Lacey's Shrinking Ralph Perfect stars a clever hero who figures out where his mum's nice plumber boyfriend has gone, and what the dodgy builder next door is really up to, by pondering his favourite passion: ants. In an escalating sequence of fight and flight, ending in a truly breathtaking fishtank showdown, criminals are apprehended, bullies are tamed and Mum makes everyone a nice cup of tea in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to a very unusual adventure. Many readers will like Ralph, with his slight weirdness; and they'll cheer when this very weirdness proves to be everyone's salvation.

The worry about being weird and different is always a pressing one, and Joel Snape's hilarious novel Going Out with a Bang, in the voice of 13-year-old Dylan, seems custom-made to get non-reading boys reading. How do you get your first girlfriend? The process is embarrassing, even agonising; no one else can do it for you, though they can trip you up. You just have to pick yourself up, try again and see the funny side. This book will give boys everywhere a way forward.

Ways forward can also be put more formally, as in "Love, learn, forgive and move on", the ritual incantation that breaks a malicious trance in Adam Guillain's Bella Balistica and the Indian Summer. Confidently playing along the boundaries of the possible, this is the second short novel about intrepid Bella, adopted daughter of a down-to-earth single mum living in south London. Bella happens also to have Mayan Goddess heritage, the benefits of which include a talking portrait, a magic pendant that lets her fly, a companion bird and the ability to talk to animals.

Facing everyday problems (she does not trust her mum's new man, she can see he's up to no good) Bella's solutions are singular - but her feelings and thoughts are very real. Whether facing an evil witch in the heat of the Indian night, or walking tightrope along a live electric cable stretched over a ravine, this is a girl who loves her mum, longs to meet her dad, and worries about the state of the world. Go, Bella! We want more of her.

When Michael Morpurgo, until recently Children's Laureate, needs to handle adolescent feelings and thoughts he does it with all the humility and art of a master. The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, the tale of a boy's relationship with his grandmother, is also about a child's passion for her cat, compassion, awakening teenage love, and lifelong fidelity. Using an old diary to point up both narrative and emotional links between the present and the past, the story includes one of the most infamous historical incidents of the Second World War, which occurred in Devon when a simple training exercise at Slapton Sands left many young American soldiers killed by their own side. The story describes wartime England in an English rural way of life that's all but forgotten, and any teacher who can make time to read it aloud will find that the class is riveted. Like all the best stories, Adolphus Tips is simple and truthful; though only 160 pages, it will make you think, and perhaps even cry.

Rosanne Hawke's Across the Creek is set in Australia but populated with a range of traditional faerie beings, including Cornish piskies, brownies, a giant, a dragon and a Lady of the Lake. Aidan Curnow's suspenseful adventures in the malevolent mirror-land as he tries to rescue his best friend from their clutches, test his endurance and cunning to the limit.

Easier, perhaps, to copy Bill Harris, the hero of Alex Shearer's new novel, The Great Switcheroonie. When trying to escape from malicious kidnappers (but why on earth did he want to pose as the son of a millionaire footballer?), Bill constructs an obvious escape route, then simply hides in a cupboard. This hero might be ordinary and self-deprecating; but he's got style and so has the book. Fun from beginning to end and thoroughly readable, it's a romp through the daftness of contemporary celebrity culture as well as a joyous vindication of real friendship.

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