Turning over a new leaf

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Jo Klaces follows young protagonists on journeys of discovery

Small Steps

By Louis Sachar

Bloomsbury pound;12.99

A Swift Pure Cry

By Siobhan Dowd

David Fickling pound;12.99

Where the Kissing Never Stops

By Ron Koertge

Walker Books pound;5.99

The Great Harlequin Grim

By Gareth Thompson

Doubleday pound;10.99

This collection of books is aimed at the older teenager, a difficult group to reach without self-consciously focusing on issues, especially the usual suspects of sex and drugs. However, although sex is lusting along either explicitly or as a pervasive backdrop to the action in most of these books, there is enough variation in plot and theme to reach a wide variety of readers aged between 13 and 16. And not a drug in sight.

Louis Sachar often gives a voice to the inarticulate and dispossessed, and Armpit, the 17-year-old African American hero in Small Steps, is just such a one. It helps to know that Armpit - one of the characters in Sachar's bestselling Holes - was sent to the Camp Green Lake detention centre when he was 14, after a dispute involving minor violence and a bucket of popcorn. Now he is determined to turn his life around by taking the small steps of the title.

The novel shows that we are not bound by the low expectations of others, but it is a tense journey for Armpit (for whom reclaiming his real name Theodore is one of the small steps). He is helped by his 10-year-old neighbour Ginny, who has cerebral palsy, and unwittingly hindered by X-Ray, an old colleague from Camp Green Lake.

A Swift Pure Cry, set in rural Ireland and loosely based on the Kerry baby scandal, tells the story of 15-year-old Shell, who blunders into pregnancy, charmed by a fellow with a roving eye who brightens up her thankless existence. Her mother is dead, her father an alcoholic who uses religion in the form of fearsomely retributive prayer sessions to terrorise Shell and her younger brother and sister, whom she is bringing up with little money or expertise. The reader passes through emotional terrain that is as chilly and damp as the landscape, but the story ends on a credibly redemptive note. It should appeal to thoughtful older girls, particularly those who are tussling with their own religious beliefs.

Where the Kissing Never Stops is another story built around a space where a parent should be. Sixteen-year-old Walker's father is dead and his mother has, much to Walker's chagrin, taken a job as a stripper, not just to make ends meet, but (even worse) because she enjoys it. Set in small-town USA, this is an amiable, often funny book with a light touch and appeal for teenage boys. It is great on teenage fears, insecurities and first sexual encounters, as well as raising serious issues to do with the pillage of the environment, dramatised as a conflict between the mall and the small farmer. It is both wry and sensitive about relationships between the sexes and between mothers and sons.

The Great Harlequin Grim is a tense, humane story with a younger boy at its heart. Glenn is 13 when he moves from riot-torn inner-city Burnley to the supposedly more hospitable environment of a village in the Lake District.

Once again, there is a missing adult: Glenn's mother has stayed behind in Burnley. With his father more interested in karaoke nights, Glenn's life becomes entwined with the eponymous hero of the book, an 18-year-old giant with learning difficulties who is living rough above the village, and Gareth Thompson traces their unlikely relationship to its tragic denouement. Glenn is an artist and his depiction of the landscape convincingly insists on its impact on the events as they unfold. An exciting, raw read which, like the rest of these novels, is firmly rooting for the outsider.

Jo Klaces is director of the National Literacy Association

Teenage fiction

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