Tales from the deep

1st September 2006 at 01:00
From punk fathers to mums in denial, Jo Klaces finds anthologies to please a range of secondary students

In the Frame: 13 short stories. Edited by Rowena Edlin-White. Five Leaves. pound;6.99.

You're the Best! Stories about friendship. Selected by Belinda Hollyer. Kingfisher. pound;6.99.

Shining On: in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust In association with CosmoGirl! Piccadilly Press. pound;5.99.

Like Father Like Son? 12 stories about boys and their dads. Edited by Tony Bradman. Kingfisher. pound;6.99.

Like Mother like Daughter? 12 stories about girls and their mums. Selected by Bel Mooney. Kingfisher. pound;6.99.

Replete with issues (relationships, children growing up and contrasting starkly with often sadly immaturing adults), short enough to be read for homework, dense enough to be provocative, each of these books offers a crackling and chewy selection of opportunities to get students reading and talking.

The stories in In the Frame are by writers living and working in the East Midlands, and explore that no-man's land between childhood and becoming an adult. They offer interesting enough phenomena for class discussion before a word is read.

There is a terrific range of stories here, ranging from a futuristic expose of the bleak consequences of so-called joyriding ("Drive" by Chris d'Lacey) to the soothing and surprising "Newts" by Pauline Chandler which reaches back a few years and weaves still darkness, sweet innocence and family drama in a surprising dark pond. Some well-known authors are represented: David Belbin, whose edgy prose prickles and disturbs, and Berlie Doherty, whose extract from a longer work, "Strawberry Wine", whets the appetite.

One of the many good things about this collection is that the cover is gender-neutral, welcoming both boys and girls to stories featuring heroes and heroines.

You're the Best! is aimed at younger readers and plonks itself squarely in the girly camp, but there are some lovely, issue-rich stories. "Annie and Me" by Libby Gleeson looks at a child's unlikely response to her friend's serious illness: she builds a wall covered in shells. In "Toad", by F Thomas, weirdness and character are vindicated over shallow conformity, a theme picked up in several of the stories. Jamila Gavin's "The Gardener's Daughter", set in India, adds cultural diversity to the collection, whilst the letters in "Dear Meena" by Angela Kanter are both touching and funny, hinting at tragedy and heartache behind the antics being reported. Again, any one of these stories, besides providing a good read, could stimulate at least a week's worth of interesting work in class.

Shining On, a collection of stories being sold in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, is aimed at older teen girls with themes including edgy love, feckless parents and blindness both real and metaphorical. There are some great authors here, including Melvin Burgess, with a sexy and provocative story in the familiar groove of adults and their lies, affairs and inadequacies, behaving much worse than their children. I loved Anne Fine's "Getting the Message" about a gay boy coming out to his less than thrilled parents. It's good to see this topic being tackled, and Anne Fine hints at the role books can take in helping children to explain things when their own words might fail them. However, this is not an entirely successful tactic with the hero's mother as she dumps the proffered Telling your Parents: a teenager's guide in the bin: "If you're planning on making me live the bloody book I'll be damned if I'll dust it." Meg Rosoff's story also hisses with maternal resentment as a successful career woman abandons her family. It's witty, but raises serious questions about roles and responsibilities within families and the wider world. Great cause, great stories, but why does the cover so firmly suggest "girls only" when there is much for boys to ponder?

The collection Like Father Like Son? should be on every school library shelf for Tony Bradman's honest, confiding and moving introduction alone, which opens up the debate that takes place on the ensuing pages. The stories range from the punk father in the band called Bucket of Snot, who is having difficulty maturing as gracefully as his son would wish, to the gentle "Physician" who pokes language into archaic and, for his son, embarrassing shapes. "Twenty Crows" has a wildly imaginative child talking to his dead father and in so doing somehow healing a whole community. This is a pulsing collection for nine to 14-year-olds, full of unusual takes on fatherhood and coming gently to the conclusion that your dad doesn't have to be the best dad, just your best dad.

The sister volume is Like Mother Like Daughter? edited by Bel Mooney. This is a much more domestic selection, and I am not sure that boys would get as much from reading these stories as girls would from the Bradman collection.

However, there are stories from good writers and some meaty issues: death, dislocation, friendships and arguments, which all look at the sometimes soft, and sometimes jagged underbelly of mother-daughter relationships.

Jo Klaces is director of the National Literacy Association

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