Teenage fiction

4th May 2001 at 01:00
HEATHROW NIGHTS. By Jan Mark. Hodder Children's Books. pound;4.99. WOLF ON THE FOLD. By Judith Clarke. Silverfish pound;5.50. WITCH HILL. By Marcus Sedgwick. Orion Dolphin. pound;4.99. YOUNG NICK'S HEAD. By Karen Hesse. Simon amp; Schuster pound;7.99.

How do young people, especially boys, grow up? Throughout human history, initiation rites have been devised to herald and shape the change from peach-cheeked child to rough-haired lout. Today, in the developed West, when life's difficulties are masked by affluence and better health, the transition point from boy to young man is obscured. Is it puberty, finding paid employment, taking drugs, moving away from home, joining the army? How do boys "put away childish things", as St Paul has it, and become part of the world of men? And what part do adults play?

Locating this problem in the 18th century, Karen Hesse takes the adventures of a real-life boy, Nick Young, who stows away aboard the ship, Endeavour, in 1768. Endeavour was captained by James Cook, luckily for Nick, who on being discovered becomes surgeon's boy and part of Cook's thrilling voyage past Australia to discover New Zealand. It's a real basis for a sensitive tale, told in diary form, of a lad finding out about the world and himself at the same time. "Young Nick's Head" is the name given to a New Zealand promontory by Captain Cook himself.

Captain Cook's benevolence is active but distant. Distancing from adults is the motif of adolescence: in Marcus Sedgwick's Witch Hill the adults are either so distant as to be ineffective or else horribly, evilly present, the stuff of nightmares. When Jamie's house burns down, he moves south to spend time with his aunt. Soon the dreams start, dreams in which a witch threatens his life. Is the witch real, a projection of ong-ago wickedness in the village, wickedness that still lurks in unfriendly eyes? Or is she a projection of Jamie's guilt at being alive when he left his little sister in the fire? Sedgwick leaves the conclusion open but lets us feel the resolution of dream and guilt as part of Jamie's growing up.

Confronting the horror outside and dealing with darkness within mingle, too, in Judith Clarke's Wolf on the Fold. Clarke traces cataclysmic events in the youth of members of a couple of families living in a small Australian town more than a century or so. From 14-year-old Kenny cycling to work and escaping a murderous psychopath in the bush, to 11-year-old James watching his mother flirt with suicide after a marital row, Clarke tenderly evokes the freshness of young consciousness: moments in which, through terror or joy, a young person suddenly says, "This is me".

Jan Mark is one of the masters of this kind of writing. In Heathrow Nights she is on top form, accompanying three mixed-up young lads on the run from adult disapproval. Perhaps the hero, Russell, has an unlikely degree of literacy as he sees parallels with Hamlet and Claudius in his adventures and relationship with his stepfather, but this book could be a great introduction to the play for Year 9 boys. In other ways - in the detail of how to survive for four nights in London's largest airport or what you do when you are bunking off - the story is spot-on contemporary.

It's interesting, too, in that all three boys return to families which, though fractured, really do care for them and try hard to help them through their troubled transition by recognising common ground. Heathrow Nights, unlike Hamlet, is hopeful; readers must judge which is the more realistic.

Victoria Neumark

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