Walking the tightrope

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Skin Deep: a collection of stories about racism Edited by Tony Bradman Puffin, pound;4.99 Walking a Tightrope: New writing from Asian Britain edited by Rehana Ahmed Young Picador, pound;9.99 Short Stories The Dyslexia InstituteBliss magazine, pound;3.99 The Perfect Ghost Story?

GuardianPiccadilly teen writing competition winners' anthology Foreword by Helen Dunmore Piccadilly Press, pound;5.99 Xtreme: short stories and poems by kids aged 12-15 Edited by Julia Waring Dreamcatcher Publishing, pound;7.99 www.storycatcher.co.uk

Shazkaz and other stories: Winning entries from the EMC writing competition for teachers Foreword by Michael Rosen The English and Media Centre, pound;7.95 www.englishandmedia.co.uk

In these of story anthologies for - and sometimes by - teenagers, most of the editors have no agenda beyond providing enjoyment and illumination for both writer and reader.

The exception is Tony Bradman, whose Skin Deep collection aims to "tackle racism head-on". Settings range from Ireland to Japan and Australia; familiar names such as Alan Gibbons and Farrukh Dhondy appear alongside talented newcomers such as Siobhan Dowd, who shows an eye for the telling detail in "The Pavee and the Buffer", about a traveller boy starting school.

Gibbons' contribution, "The Blokes", is a powerful, economical tale of a boy manipulated into a vengeful act against a Kosovan newcomer; Dhondy's "The Great Satan" and Janet McDonald's "Zebra Girl" both show that racial tension can infect families. In "The Returnee", by Chu-Ching Chen, a Chinese-born Japanese girl learns to sympathise with her father and find a new pride in her own identity after learning of his brutal wartime experiences.

Such an issue-driven compilation runs the risk, though, that to reach its message of tolerance and humanity, the young reader must first be exposed to the pervasive impression that to be different in any way is to invite hostility.

The contributors to Walking a Tightrope - all Asian and British - have been given more freedom. Although some stories would fit into the Bradman anthology, the collection ranges widely. In Rukhsana Ahmed's accomplished "First Love", Shah records the progress of her brother Rafi and best friend Feroze, the object of her adoration, as they enter the RAF. While immensely proud of her brother, Shah questions his willingness to kill in combat, but events intervene before this arises.

"One Small Step", by Shyama Perera, cleverly sets the excitement of the 1969 moon landing against Mala's tentative steps into adolescence; "Tsuru" by Aamer Hussein portrays a mixed group of London students in which Murad's fascination with an assured Japanese girl, Tsuru, leads to the joy, pain, self-doubt and confusion of first love.

The Dyslexia Institute's Short Stories could have done with a snappier title, although the cover - showing a pair of flip-flopped feet, with painted toenails -directs it firmly at the chick-lit market, where contributors Sophie Kinsella and Serena Mackesy are popular. Reading the stories is like dipping into a box of chocolates, but Julia Green's cleverly crafted "Will's Story" and Catherine Webb's witty "The Phone Call" offer more to chew on than most.

The book also includes winners of Waterstone's Teen Writers competition, among them the exceptionally gifted Jasmine Robinson. Teenage winners of the fourth PiccadillyGuardian writing competition feature in The Perfect Ghost Story?. There's a refreshing absence of formulaic fiction here, with highly imaginative and compelling stories such as '"Jewel Wasp", by Laura Friis, which explores questions of free will and destiny.

Xtreme, supported by Essex County Council and following the success of the Story Catcher scheme for younger children, also gives keen teenage writers the chance to see their stories and poems in print.

As a former English teacher, I remember the days when teachers were urged to write alongside their students - a suggestion likely to provoke hollow laughter in these national curriculum-dominated times. But teachers are ideally placed to sample a range of fiction and to see its effect on young readers, and a great many successful children's writers began their careers in classrooms. Shazkaz and Other Stories, the result of the English and Media Centre's search for new stories to use with Years 7 to 9, is the work of 11 teachers, or ex-teachers. Particularly enjoyable are "Learning to Breathe", by James Prickett, the moving title story by special needs teacher Tony Smith, and "Jellyfish" by Rachel Davidson. The pervading sense of this collection is that the contributors relished the fun and freedom of writing for themselves.

Linda Newbery's At the Firefly Gate is published in hardback by Orion Children's Books

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