Jessica Yates considers Walker Teens, Macdonald Frontlines and Orchard Originals.
Although these three teenage paperback lists launched in 1989 concentrate on contemporary, realistic fiction, nearly all the books under review have positive, if not completely happy, endings. Only two end with the tragic death of the hero, which the author signals beforehand to prepare the reader.
Walker Teens come in A-format, paperbacking novels already published by Walker and Julia MacRae; Macdonald Frontlines (also A-format) are paperback originals; and Orchard Originals, in trade size and simultaneous hardback, are a selection of British, American and Australian novels for older readers. All are quality fiction without any of the socialising, cheerleading stuff you find padding out ‘ some other teenage lists to entice reluctant readers.
Most Walker Teens are set in modern Britain, and are rite-of-passage novels about a crucial experience which launches a teenager into young adulthood. Judy Allen’s Awaiting Developments (0 7445 1321 9) won the Children’s Section of the Whitbread Award and the F.O.E. Earthworm Award; less intimidating than the accolades suggest, it is a very personal narrative by a shy girl from an educated, but not wealthy, background, who finds that the large garden around which a terrace of houses, including hers, had been built, has been sold to build luxury flats and houses.
Jo is afflicted by nervous conditions and allergies which make it hard for her to organise a residents’ petition to save the garden and its wildlife, but nighttime bat-watching pays off, and even the developer congratulates her when conceding her partial victory.
Alison Leonard’s Tinker’s Career (0 7445 0844 4) also focusses on a teenage girl with, possibly, an inherited disorder. Does the overheard phrase ‘Tinker’s career’ refer to Tina’s nickname Tinker and her future, or to something more sinister? (Both, really.) Tina tracks down her dead mother’s sister and learns the truth. A hectic narrative, told from Tina’s point of view, and occasionally by the mysterious aunt herself.
Bernard Ashley’s Bad Blood (0 7445 0848 7) is cleverly titled: it’s both the leukaemia the hero’s father suffers from, and the bad blood between him and his elder brother. Young Ritchie has to unearth his uncle and persuade him to be tested for a bone marrow transplant, and isn’t prepared for a bitter refusal. He’s also attracted to two girls of contrasting natures, one pretty but jealous, the other generous and undemanding. A pity the cover illustration shows Ritchie so prematurely-aged!
Now for Macdonald Frontlines and Orchard Originals. First a group of family stories with a lighthearted, sensible approach to typical teenage concerns. Rose Impey’s Instant Sisters (185213 170 5) and Sue Limb’s Me Jane (1 85213 172 1) have the best of the Orchard covers: social details are up-to-date and the authors do not patronise or stereotype working-class people and ethnic minorities, and successfully portray the boisterous vitality of inner-city teenagers.
Two sisters worry that their aunt isn’t caring for Granny properly after Grandpa’s death. Is aunt driving her into senility, or is Granny senile? They kidnap Granny in The Granny Heist by Ann Ruffell (Frontlines, 0 361 08570 2) to see if she’s really senile – and the author keeps you guessing.
Frontlines also publish some strong novels about today’s underclass, at first sight depressing, but winning me over by compelling narrative, truthful situations and fairly constructive conclusions building on the leading character’s resilience. January’s Child (0 361 08529 X) and Bad Company (0 361 08711 X) by Jenny Oldfield portray working-class teenage girls at risk from male exploitation by sexual abuse or battering. Adults fail them, but the love of steady boyfriends pulls them through.
Steven Saunders’ Blind Ally (0 36108495 1) adds new twists to the plot of a holiday romance between a `nice’ boy and a strange girl, in the delineation of neurotic, unpredictable Jo-jo, and shy, but tenacious Ally, who thinks he can save her from her criminal tendencies.
Paula Fox’s In a Place of Danger (185213 166 7) and Maureen Pople’s The Other Side of the Family (185213 144 6) are also worthwhile, even suspenseful stories about young girls discovering family secrets which adults have hushed up.
Finally, some genre fiction from all three imprints (especially for those reluctant boy readers!): David Skipper’s Runners (Walker Teens, 0 7445 1312 X) is a fast-paced thriller about drug dealers in the north of England, and Redmond Wallis’s Starbloom (Frontlines, 0 361 08503 6) and The Mills of Space (0 361 08537 0) are the first two parts of an exciting space trilogy about an alien threat to Earth, with strong female characters as well as the usual dashing heroic space pilot.
Michael Noonan’s McKenzie’s Boots (Orchard, 185213 145 4), an exceptional war novel set in Australia and New Guinea, tells of the life and death of Rod Murray, who enlisted under a false name because he was under-age and over-sized – hence the boots especially made for him, salvaged after his death. Battle-scenes are relatively few, as the story is also concerned with Rod’s family and friends. The war is seen through modern eyes, with sympathy for `good’ Japanese and two homosexual characters, and in its combination of the practical and sentimental it reminds me of Nevil Shute’s writing. This novel has much to offer teenage boys reluctant to yield to the power of narrative.
Hunter Davies, eat your heart out!
Walker Teens: £1.99 each.
Macdonald Frontlines: January’s Child, Blind Ally and Starbloom, £1.99 each: Bad Company, The Granny Heist and The Mills of Space, £2.99 each.
Orchard Originals: Paperbacks R£4.95 each; hardbacks £7.95 each
Jessica Yates has been an ILEA school librarian, and is now a mother and freelance reviewer. Her annotated bibliography of teenage fiction in paperback. Teenager to Young Adult, is available from the School Library Association and her anthology of heroic, feminist fantasy Dragons and Warrior Daughters (0 00 673179 1) was published in October by Lions Tracks at £2.50.