Is the adventure story alive and well? The ones where a group of normal children wander out of parental supervision, get into scrapes of varying levels of danger and inconvenience and live to tell the tale?
Or has the common-or-garden adventure tale, in which human error and human flaws create the obstacles, been outrun by the more extreme perils created by parallel universes, global crime lords, totalitarian dystopias and zombie hoards? Geraldine Brennan investigates.
Now that many children are not allowed to play outdoors unsupervised and are likely to carry better smartphones than their parents, can they fully commit to a story set firmly in real life circumstances, in which many predicaments could be resolved by the right app?
Remember, however, that technology is only as efficient as its handlers and depends on electricity, chargers, money for phone credit and so on. We are all a pickpocket away from losing our support system, especially when not on our home turf: an adult Romanian tourist was recently lost in London for four days after getting off the Tube a stop too soon.
I set out on the quest for the adventure story armed only with the essentials: a packet of jam sandwiches, two weeks’ pocket money and an intrepid dog. I set some rules: technology must be limited to a level accessible to most of the child readers and the elements of the story must be rooted in the child’s world but take them beyond regular school and family routine.
Stories about children faced with serious challenges in their tough daily lives therefore need an extra dimension to become adventure stories. In David Gilman’s funny, fast-paced and touching Monkey and Me (Templar), nine-year-old Beanie is in the middle of treatment for leukaemia but oblivious to the danger he is in. Despite his family’s efforts to shelter him, he throws himself into the antics of his big brother’s gang, a well-meaning outfit in the spirit of William Brown’s Outlaws whose chief secret mission is to protect Beanie. Bemused and worried by his family’s anxiety, Beanie escapes into an eternal action film in his head, but finds himself in a real adventure when he befriends a chimpanzee in a deserted house.
One way to lift a story into adventure territory while neatly sidestepping the technological concerns, is to introduce historical context. Philip Pullman’s first Sally Lockhart tale, The Ruby in The Smoke, will be 30 years old next year. It set a standard for tales set in the past in which contemporary characters and exciting plot are more prominent than the events of history.
Hetty Feather, in Jacqueline Wilson’s series about a feisty Victorian foundling, is a fictional descendant of Sally Lockhart, but rather than fighting crime she is solving the mystery of her own life from birth to early teenage years. The Hetty books (Hetty Feather, Sapphire Battersea, Emerald Star and Diamond) also explore the lives of children working as circus performers, street sellers and domestic servants and allow young readers to grow alongside Hetty.
Victor Watson’s Paradise Barn series (Catnip), set in World War 2, reflects the texture of wartime childhood and the anxiety of chaotic, dangerous times in a way that appeals to contemporary readers of nine and above. Although this period is already well documented in fiction, the material seems fresh and exciting.
Paradise Barn, the first of four books, introduces the core characters. Molly, whose mother runs a guesthouse, and Annie, whose mother is a level crossing keeper, are best friends growing up in the Fens near Ely. With a maverick evacuee, Adam, they investigate a local murder and tangle with espionage and art theft via many red herrings and over-enthusiastic assumptions. With the key child characters around 11 in the first book, this series can entertain readers through upper primary years and beyond.
An alternative is a setting in the immediate future in which all the events are entirely credible. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a celebrated young adult novel, is set in almost-contemporary Britain but at its heart is a quest narrative of wanderers returning home through a war-torn landscape, similar to that of The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier or Morris Gleitzman’s Holocaust novels Once and Then (or, for that matter, Homer, the original adventure story writer).
With most of the sandwiches eaten, it’s time to take the plunge into contemporary adventures. My top two high-stakes mystery novels of recent years, The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd (David Fickling Books) and She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick (Indigo), have much in common.
Both feature a young investigator with special needs on the trail of a missing family member in which the city setting (London and New York respectively) can be part of the solution or part of the threat and children operating without adults meet with suspicion or exploitation.
Published in 2007, Siobhan Dowd’s multiple award winner has not dated although there is a quaint reference to waiting for photographs to be developed at a chemist’s shop. Digital cameras were then common, but clearly too expensive to be handed over to children. But even if the relevant clues had been instantly available on a smartphone, ingenuity and stamina would still have been needed to make use of them and the outcome is deeply satisfying.
Marcus Sedgwick’s novel is a multi-layered tale pitched at young adults but accessible to younger readers who might enjoy the many coincidences related to the troubles of Laureth’s missing father, an expert in synchronicity. The sought-after notebook stuffed with clues which Laureth, who is blind, relies on others to read, is an unreliable but intriguing source. Technology plays its part here: Laureth’s IT skills allow her and her younger brother to fly to New York unknown to their mother.
After some diversions, I found the perfect contemporary primary school library adventure series along the Cornish smugglers’ path. Helen Moss’s Adventure Island series (Orion) is now complete with 14 tales starring her ‘Famous Four’: Emily, who lives on a Cornish island, her dog Drift, and her two townie visitors Scott and Jack. The books have a retro look but have updated the Enid Blyton formula that inspires them: Emily has a rock musician dad and beats the boys at martial arts. Readable, punchy stories with cliffhanger chapter endings will help to build up reading stamina.
Cornwall has adventure in the ozone, and that’s where Lauren St John locates her heroic investigator-in-training Laura Marlin, although Laura, her buddy Rafiq and husky dog Skye are more often found far from St Ives on international assignments. The pair rely on their wits and Skye’s inner genius rather than on gadgets, the presiding spirit of Laura’s uncle Calvin, a resting detective on the books of MI5, make the more exotic locations and evil adversaries plausible and St John’s knowledgable passion for animals shines through.
The illustrations by David Dean add to the escapist appeal, with the jackets evoking Tintin and Snowy’s finest hours. The latest book in the series, Rendezvous in Russia (Orion), ends with a picnic and lashings of ginger beer. What more could you want?
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.
Monkey and Me, David Gilman, Templar, 978-1848773356. £6.99 pbk
The Ruby in The Smoke, Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 978-1407130545, £7.99 pbk
Hetty Feather, Jacqueline Wilson, Yearling, 978-0440868354, £6.99 pbk
Sapphire Battersea, Jacqueline Wilson, Yearling, 978-0440869276, £6.99 pbk
Emerald Star, Jacqueline Wilson, Yearling, 978-0440869856, £6.99 pbk
Diamond, Jacqueline Wilson, Yearling, 978-0857531070, £12.99 hbk
Paradise Barn, Victor Watson, Catnip, 978-1846470912, £6.99 pbk
How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff, Penguin, 978-0141318011, £7.99 pbk
The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier, Vintage Children’s Classics, 978-0099572855, £6.99 pbk
Once, Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 978-0141320632, £6.99 pbk
Then Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 978-0141324821, £6.99 pbk
The London Eye Mystery, Siobhan Dowd, David Fickling Books, 978-1849920445, £5.99 pbk
She Is Not Invisible, Marcus Sedgwick, Indigo, 978-1780621098, £9.99 hbk
Adventure Island: The Mystery of the Whistling Caves, Helen Moss, Orion Children’s Books, 978-1444003284, £4.99 pbk
Rendezvous in Russia, Lauren St John, Orion Children’s Books, 978-1444000238, £9.99 hbk