When one and one make three;Children's books

4th June 1999 at 01:00
DON'T LOOK BACK. By Sandra Chick. Women's Press Livewire pound;4.99.

MEGAN. By Mary Hooper. Bloomsbury pound;4.99.

DEAR NOBODY. By Berlie Doherty. Collins pound;4.50.

I saw Don't Look Back coming last summer when I read Cheap Street, the first novel by Sandra Chick about teenage Lisa and her struggle to see life beyond existence on a drab estate. On the final page of this downbeat tale, Lisa has unprotected sex with waste-of-space Liam simply because he is paying cursory attention to her when nobody else is. Novels in which the teenage heroine becomes pregnant have built-in tension and drama and will appeal to secondary-age girls as relevant to what their lives could be like - but books need something extra to build on that appeal.

Many girls will identify with Lisa, a streetwise character (though not streetwise enough, apparently) whose caustic wit and feisty spirit flourish even as her options shrink. As in life, an unplanned baby brings out the best as well as the worst in the supporting cast. It seems to work for the novel too - Don't Look Back has a swifter pace than Cheap Street and is somehow a more optimistic tale as well as a cautionary one.

Mary Hooper's mother-to-be, Megan, is also a sympathetic figure, touching in her naivety and the speed at which she has to grow up. (It seems that Lisa, with her tougher childhood, has never been young.) Megan giggles her way through sex education lessons until she hears the horrifying words "It is possible to be pregnant and still have periods". Five months pregnant, to be exact, which means the pace is even faster in Hooper's novel than Chick's. It is so fast that Megan's headteacher excludes her with a telephone call: no interview, no mention of a school governors' meeting.

Social class provides a framework for comparison between these two new treatments of an old story. Megan remains protected by a system that has failed Lisa: social workers are a lifeline for Megan; for Lisa they're the enemy. But the desperate upward mobility of Megan's mother piles added pressure on her vulnerable daughter, while Lisa's mother performs better than expected.

Both books give a sense of the future child as part of an existing family history, but the fictional potential of the past is explored to much greater effect in Berlie Doherty's Dear Nobody, published in 1991. This is the classic treatment of the topic and it remains more satisfying as a novel than Megan or Don't Look Back.

The class setting shifts a notch higher: glittering prizes are at stake for bright sixth-formers Helen and Chris, but the couple's dilemmas are no less keenly felt and there is a sense of why they wanted to have sex which is missing from the other two books. Unusually, Doherty gives the baby's father half the narrative, and boys need to read it too.

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