Something to prove

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Jo Klaces explores action-packed teenage fiction about boys with tough challenges to face

The Boy Who Haunted Himself By Terry Deary Usborne pound;4.99

Shattering Glass By Gail Giles Simon Schuster pound;5.99

Jacob's Ladder By Brian Keaney Orchard Books pound;10.99 (March)

Hite By Kate Saksena Bloomsbury pound;5.99

Skinny B, Skaz and Me By John Singleton Puffin pound;4.99

In these boy-friendly books for teenagers, young heroes tell their stories of urban torment, each one emerging wiser, with the girl on his arm, or somewhere thereabouts.

In The Boy Who Haunted Himself, Terry Deary writes about young Peter Stone, whose Dad is the most hated teacher in the school that Peter miserably attends. To increase his self-confidence, Peter goes to a dodgy hypnotist who opens his client's mind to the influence of Martin Lane, a homeless and angry spirit from the previous century. In a series of adventures Peter proves his mettle physically and mentally, gains his father's grudging respect and lays the troubled Martin to rest. This is an exciting story, firmly on the children's side and sceptical about the adults in their lives. It shows that even a six-stone featherweight can take hold of his own life, make decisions and be an agent of change.

Much more sinister, partly because it sticks with cold realism, is Shattering Glass, about a group of American 16-year-olds who decide to fashion the class geek (male) into the "senior class favourite". The story is told in convincing retrospect in the voices of the boys who eventually murder Glass, the eponymous turned worm of the title. The tense, gripping and well told story pulled me through initial reservations about puzzling US terminology. This is A Secret History for older teenage readers - boys and girls alike should be chilled by it and enjoy it.

Jacob's Ladder, coming next month, tells the story of Jacob, who is dead and has ended up in a grey, pointless land called Locus, where all the children are the same age, eat the same white spongy food, do a daily round of stone-picking and play a memory game for light entertainment. Jacob is determined to escape and we follow him and his companions, Toby and Aysha, on their epic journey back to life. This is another story for the younger teen reader, which affirms that you can, and perhaps should, take hold of your own destiny. It's much too important to leave to others, especially adults.

I was alarmed by my 11-year-old daughter's dismissal of Hite after she had read half a page at random. She proclaimed that it was written in the kind of model sentences to which she is supposed to aspire at key stage 2 ("He was breathing heavily. His eyes flashed angrily") and therefore she was not inclined to read it.

I proceeded to read it all and found it engaging, exciting and sympathetic.

It tells the story of Lee, aged about 13, who lives with his violent father, defeated mother and frightened younger brother. Lee is dreamy and has problems with reading and writing, so finds school a torment and seldom steels himself to attend. He finds solace on the roof of his tower block and in his new-found tagging skills. His traumas include petty crime, arson and physical assault, but all ends well and, I think, daughter notwithstanding, that it will be popular with younger teen readers.

Skinny B, Skaz and Me is set in an urban wasteland, coyly named the Feck Estate. The "Me" of the title is another Lee (no Ruperts, Charleses or Peregrines in this batch), who lives on the edge of the estate; his parents fear that he will slide into the abyss that it represents, in behaviour terms. They are also tormented by the failing health of Lee's little sister, Skinny B, who has leukaemia. Lee is concerned with fighting Ju Ju - his catch-all expression for everything he finds frightening - and buying presents for his would-be girlfriend and his sister. Despite being led into trouble by his rival Skaz, he manages to overcome some of his deepest fears during this breathtakingly action-packed story. Lee tells it in a language rich in adverbs and youthful abbreviations; the author has captured an authentic street voice, which might well appeal to disaffected young male readers.

Jo Klaces is director of the National Literacy Association

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