Welcome to the age of adolescence

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Critic's choice The road ahead: longer novels

Growing up can leave young teenagers stranded, especially at that tentative stage when people haven't even started to say things like "My, you're quite the young lady now!" and "Bet the girls all look at you!" For 11 to 13-year-olds, experience offers few resources to deal with a wider world, yet the cocoon of childhood has almost been shredded away. Adults don't trouble to keep things from you, nor do they necessarily trouble to explain. Sometimes it can feel like the weight of approaching adulthood pressing down. Conversely, some at this age feel at the peak of their powers: a fully graduated child just about to enter the class of adolescence.

A Long Way From Chicago (Hodder pound;3.99) explores this borderline position with humour and warmth. Richard Peck slots his ever-optimistic world view into the lives of Joey and Mary Alice, city dwellers who visit their grandma in small-town Illinois for a week every summer.

The time is the early 1930s, with the Depression a stern fact of life and memories of early pioneers still fresh in the town's mind. Grandma is a redoubtable heroine who doesn't speak much, cans lots of produce, has a shotgun under her arm and cares for various dependants while despatching gossips and malefactors with fleas in their ears.

So far, so finger-lickin' good. But Peck infuses his Brer Rabbit-type fables with laughs and shrewd observation: I specially liked the way Mary Alice changes over the years from a Shirley Temple wannabe into a young lady who spends a week teaching a dumb hunk of a mechanic how to foxtrot, so that Grandma can pay out the stuck-up estate agent's wife.

Everyone needs a Grandma, or maybe an Auntie Bruiser would do. Philip Ridley's latest novel, Vinegar Street (Puffin pound;4.99), offers similar inspiration in quite a different style and setting. Whereas Peck writes in Steinbeck-esque punchy sentences, Philip Ridley has a ball with typography, graphics and the keyboard, scattering poetic phrases, neologisms, and mix-and-scratch names all over the shop. The baddy, who moves into Vinegar Street with an eye to colonising its scruffy anarchism into a conventional suburb, is called Mandy Nylon. The heroine, Poppy, has a mother called FudgeMa and an Auntie Bruiser. New arrival Rocky, son of Mandy Nylon, is caught in the middle. Whn even Auntie Bruiser is seduced by the powers of lace curtains, Poppy has to defend her mum. All she has is her music. Luckily, that turns out to be enough.

Philip Ridley takes a roundabout approach to explore the difficulty of being yourself when it is too early to say what your self is. Michael Harrison, in his sensitive novel It's My Life (Oxford pound;3.99), tackles this theme head-on. On one level, this is an improbable thriller centred on a kidnap, on the other a cold-eyed look at the effect of conflicting parental expectations - the book tracks a week in Michael's life, torn between his cold and pushy mother and his warm but weak father. In the end, he starts to forge his own identity, with difficulty.

Despite its melodramatic plot, It's My Life feels unheroic. Hodder's other new novel from Richard Peck, Strays Like Us (Hodder pound;4.99), is equally downbeat in tone and characterisation, though its subject matter - drug abuse, Aids, child cruelty, mistaken identity - is no less brutal.

Molly, 12, has been abandoned by her junkie mother; Will is 12 and another stray. How will they ever fit in at junior high? Luckily, they have each other. It's a painful ride but Peck again takes the reader through small-town life with tact and compassion.

Molly's Great Aunt Fay, another dauntless elderly female, is a standard-bearer for the eternal values that get you through: cooking a proper meal, looking after your friends, facing the music.

Another 12-year-old, Jessie in The Throttlepenny Murders (reprinted by Oxford, pound;3.99), is less lucky. Roger J Green successfully evokes a child's terror and confusion at facing the gallows in the middle of the 19th century. When her miserly employer is murdered, Jessie tries to save her boyfriend, John, from suspicion and is herself condemned to hang. John hunts down the supposed villain across several counties between stints as a canal labourer.

The flavour of the period, with its privations and thrills, is well conveyed. Jessie's life, its scrimping and saving, its work until 11 at night, with fruit an unheard-of luxury, ought to elicit a gasp or two of horror from some pupils. The plot is creaky but it does have the required flavour of a Victorian melodrama. And its moral - that it's no good relying on adults - should strike a chord with the 11- to 15-age group.

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