A cast of young fighters determined not to be dragged under

Children’s Books

Stay safe: drowning is a central feature in both Patrick Ness’s More Than This and Siobhán Parkinson’s Heart Shaped. Photograph: Will Burgess/Reuters

Stay safe: drowning is a central feature in both Patrick Ness’s More Than This and Siobhán Parkinson’s Heart Shaped. Photograph: Will Burgess/Reuters

Fri, Sep 20, 2013, 17:44

Few young adult novels make quite such an immediate impression as More Than This, the new title from the widely praised Patrick Ness (Walker Books, £12.99). Its three opening pages, constituting a carefully focused introduction to the unfolding events, describe in the most dramatic of terms the death by drowning of a boy – “strong, and young, nearly seventeen” – whom we will later know as Seth. “He dies,” the introduction concludes. But this, it turns out, is to be a death from which he apparently recovers, as we see him come awake, finding himself in a place that seems at once familiar and foreign. His adolescence may have been spent in America but it is to the England of his early childhood that he now returns, to the house where he had grown up.

This house, we are told, is “a memory asking to be re-entered”, and what follows is a fascinating reconstruction of a young man’s life, his relationships with family and friends and, most significantly, the circumstances that led up to his drowning. The narrative – enthralling in its many strands and complexities – is dominated by Ness’s empathetic understanding of the ache and yearning of the adolescent experience, of that sense of its being a period that might appear to offer all sorts of possibilities, only to see many of them cruelly frustrated. “Life does not have to go how you think it will,” as Tomasz, one of the novel’s most engaging characters, points out, but, as Ness convincingly demonstrates, it is our belief in the possibilities that ultimately sees us through. And all the better if, in the book’s concluding words, we “go in swinging”.

Siobhán Parkinson’s Heart Shaped (Hodder, £6.99) also begins with talk of drowning, here a recurring detail in the nightmares of Annie, the novel’s 14-year-old heroine. Given the traumas she has already experienced in her young life – including her mother’s death, bullying at school and a disappearing boyfriend – the wonder is not that she should have such nightmares but that, not without considerable pain, she should eventually emerge from them, still scarred but on the way to being healed.

The strength of the novel lies in Parkinson’s ability to balance seriousness of theme with entertaining moments of what Annie describes as “distraction therapy”. The author’s deadpan humour becomes part of Annie’s armoury.

For readers fond of spotting literary allusions there are several passing references to The Merchant of Venice, the last of which very poignantly incorporates the line “Love me and leave me not”. Clever stuff.

There is a moment in Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Home (Penguin, £12.99) when its principal character, 12-year-old Mila, ponders, “Is there an age, a week, a moment, at which all the secrets of the universe are revealed and adulthood descends on a cloud from heaven . . ?” For Mila, an unusually perspicacious preadolescent, the waiting for total revelation is both tiresome and perplexing. She is accompanying her father on a trip from London to New York state as he embarks on a search for an old friend who has, mysteriously, gone missing.

In a sophisticated novel that subtly plays on the reader’s expectations the journey will bring enlightening discoveries (and harsh truths) about the prevarications of the adult world, especially where these relate to the intricacies of parental-child relationships. A very close reading is recommended if all the nuances of these are to be appreciated.

Structuring a novel in such a way that the narrative is divided among some 20 first-person voices is an ambitious undertaking. But, where Anne Fine’s Blood Family (Doubleday, £12.99) is concerned, this multiplicity of voices and perspectives contributes immeasurably to the novel’s overall effect. Eddie, seven years old when we first meet him, lives with an abused mother and Bryce, her scarily violent abuser. Social services eventually step in: Eddie is fostered and subsequently adopted, and, at least until the boy’s early teens, a happy outcome seems possible. But then Eddie makes an alarming discovery about Bryce’s real identity, and the teenager’s life becomes a journey leading to ever-increasing degradation and despair. Not all the details here make for cosy reading, but such is Fine’s assured command of the material that they never lose their credibility. We accept the resolution when, finally, it comes while shuddering at the experiences that preceded it.

Earlier titles by Ness, Parkinson and Fine are among the 400 or so young people’s books recommended in Mad about Books (Dubray, €2), an indispensable guide for those adults concerned to bring children and books together. Edited by Sarah Webb and extremely attractively produced, the guide provides brief commentaries on each of the selected books, arranged in such a way that all age groups, from babies and toddlers to young adults, are catered for. Additionally, there are sections on poetry, information books and books about “particular experiences”, the last of these relating to such matters as starting school, family issues and death and bereavement. Where the young-adult pages are concerned, an attempt has clearly been made to recognise the diversity of material, stylistic and thematic, available for this age group: Judy Blume’s Forever finds itself (for alphabetical reasons) on the same page as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Happy the young reader equally at ease with both of these.

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