Stories of courage and lunacy

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Elaine Williams chooses inspiring tales of heroism and adventure

Heroic stories - novels and picture books about characters who survive on their wits are the life blood of children's literature. They achieve greatness by moral superiority or by exposing cheats and liars.

Child heroes are currently in favour with publishers: like our Book of the Month (below), Tough Stuff by Kirsty Murray (Allen and Unwin pound;4.99), which is a collection of true stories about children who did remarkable deeds or showed outstanding courage.

Murray, who is an Australian, enlisted worldwide organisations such as Amnesty International and Free the Children to gather her material. She also used sources closer to home, such as the Melbourne Jewish Memorial Museum and Library, where she found the story of six-year-old Helena Podgorska and her 13-year-old sister Stefania, who hid Jews in their attic in Poland in the 1940s.

Then there are children such as 12-year-old Iqbal Masih, who crusaded for human rights in Pakistan and died in the cause, and Kaspar Hauser, the boy with the mysterious past, found abandoned in 19th-century Germany.

Murray also found the stories of wild children, such as Amala and Kamala of India, believed to have been raised by wolves, and gifted children like Yehudi Menuhin. Tough Stuff is occasionally over-sentimental and the bundling of so many profound stories together may dilute their impact, but it vividly shows what children are capable of in extreme circumstances. It is a great book for older primary readers to dip into and is hard to put down.

Children interested in real-life taes of exploration and adventure should enjoy Extreme Expeditions, a stirring paperback series by C J Charley (Puffin pound;3.99 each). Conquering the World, part of the collection, features people who have sailed, ballooned, walked, biked, flown or travelled in a wheelchair around the world.

Beginning with Magellan in the 16th century and ending with Fabrice Gropaiz, who set out on roller skates at the end of the 20th century, the book is full of fascinating facts and figures. The Big Freeze, another part of the series, focuses on those who have tried to conquer the North and South Poles. Both books look at the perverse, lunatic, and heroic nature of those who love adversity.

Being courageous can simply mean giving things up for a good cause, negotiating and compromising. My Cat Charlie by Becky Edwards and illustrated by David Armitage (Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;9.99) is a moving picture book about a girl who has to give away her cat when her parents move into a city flat. The story follows her struggle and success in coming to terms with the fact that her cat is better off with her cousins who have a garden. Text and pictures shimmer with emotion.

Courage also entails using one's intelligence to the full. The Tale of Gilbert Alexander Pig by Gael Crisp, illustrated by David Cox (Barefoot Books pound;9.99) is a dazzlingly witty adaptation of the classic Three Little Pigs. Gilbert Alexander likes to play his trumpet to the stars, but is pursued by a hungry wolf into the city where the story proper begins.

Cox is a master of line drawing and his delicious pictures are extremely funny.

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