To thine own self be true

29th July 2005 at 01:00
There's fitting in and there's being yourself. Michael Thorn selects books for key stages 2 and 3 that explore the balance

. Trust Me, I'm a Troublemaker. By Pete Johnson. Corgi pound;4.99.

Parent Swap. By Terence Blacker. Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99.

Makeover Madness. By Josephine Feeney. Oxford pound;4.99.

Stuff: the life of a cool demented dude. By Jeremy Strong. Illustrated by Seb Burnett. Puffin pound;5.99. One Weird Day At Freekham High: Thumb. By Steve Cole. Oxford pound;4.99.

Chicken Friend. By Nicola Morgan. Walker Books pound;4.99.

These are books to which the publishers' "crossover novel" epithet could be attached with more accuracy than it is usually applied (to those books that span both the adult and children's audience). They are books that will appeal to the top end of key stage 2, and carry over that appeal into key stage 3. They cross over the two main stages of education and should be found in both key stage 2 and key stage 3 class libraries.

Archie, the main character of Trust Me, I'm a Troublemaker, is a 12-year-old "natural nerd" or "bod". Pete Johnson, one of our best contemporary children's humorists, has created a first-person voice that sums Archie up much better than the information that he walks around with an umbrella, newspaper and scarf. He calls his home his "abode" and says things such as "I realised further dialogue was futile". At school he's on the side of the teachers, until Miranda takes him in hand and tries to teach him to become a troublemaker. "Being a troublemaker really increases your confidence," Archie observes. And when his actor father finds a new girlfriend, Archie moves out.

While Archie does change as the book progresses, he still retains his characteristic way of speaking, albeit that remarks such as "I've always been a big hit with the senior citizens" are, by the end of the book, being said with a degree of self-mockery. Miranda is a feisty, bossy, controlling character, and when Archie finally stands up to her at the end of the book the confrontation makes for high-powered fiction.

Parent Swap is an entertaining satire inspired by Big Brother, reality TV in general and films such as The Truman Show. Danny is unhappy at home. His mum has moved out and his dad sits on the sofa all day strumming a guitar.

When he picks up a flyer for the Parent Swap programme the novel's train of events takes its complex course.

Terence Blacker slowly reveals what's going on through a series of interviews, as well as regular narrative. Being an excellent satirical writer, he is very good at dropping in throwaway says-it-all detail, although this does mean that his audience needs to be savvy enough to pick up the various subtexts and, just occasionally, he forgets that his audience does not have an adult frame of reference. For example, a gibe about Elton John's song "Candle in the Wind", rather dependent upon memories of Princess Diana's funeral, may not mean much to a 13-year-old who was only five at the time. But Blacker's wit is multi-layered and capable of delivering superbly pleasurable one-liners, such as Danny's confession, "I've been seeing other parents."

The book has heart too. The climax, a big show in front of the Queen and Prince Philip, at which Danny's father performs (twice, with varying success), is splendidly evoked, and Blacker proves himself not shy of sentiment. At its end the book reminded me somewhat of the cathartic climaxes in Joan Bauer's novels: moving and humorous at the same time. This is a book that should make readers think carefully about television versions of reality.

For a slightly younger audience, Makeover Madness is a much lighter, more straightforward read about a school that invites a makeover team in to transform classrooms, dining hall and teaching, with results that don't, in the end, altogether please the children.

Stuff features an eponymous hero who prides himself on being a "fund of information". This is Jeremy Strong's first novel aimed at an older audience. He wants to write something funny for teenage boys and owns up to having been inspired by Louise Rennison.

It's another "dad's new girlfriend" tale, this one further complicated by the fact that the new partner has a daughter the same age as Stuff, who spends most of the book plotting to leave home. He falls in love with new-girl-at-school Sky, but can't bring himself to tell his current girlfriend Delfine because he's intimidated by her brother.

The narrative is punctuated at regular intervals with comic-strip instalments of Punykid's Battle With The Drooling Dorkoids, which cleverly replay events from the preceding chapters.

In Thumb, the first title in a new series, two teenagers (Sam and Sara) move to a new school on the same day, discover they have the same birthday and other things in common. Written to appeal to those who enjoy gross-outs, the action is interspersed with bleeding human digits and mass vomiting in the style of Barf-O-Rama, an American series from the mid 1990s that took this kind of material to extremes.

Here the storyline, which hinges on a misdirected delivery of frozen hand-parts, is just about strong enough to carry the set pieces.

Although making much of family dissatisfactions, these books are ultimately about making friends. Like Pete Johnson's book, Nicola Morgan's Chicken Friend makes a powerful case for remaining true to oneself. The story of a girl who has moved out of London to the West Country with her eccentric home-schooling parents, it demonstrates the dangers inherent in changing styles and demeanour to fit in.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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