Issue section: 

Children's books - police corruption and racism

In major bookselling chains every child is an emerging market. With the spending power of parents who want to encourage them to read, they are meant to be passive consumers of highly marketed formulaic stories. If not actually set in exclusive schools with magic, flying polo and characters destined for greatness, these books reflect mainstream ideas as a whole. They deal with possessions, personal relationships and physical appearances, and are full of moral blacks and whites. But children live the social problems of the adults around them, and then they go to schools - the ideological battlegrounds of Blunkett's Britain.

At school there has always been racism, homophobic and sexist bullying. But the tensions have been ratcheted up with the school police officer who checks lunch passes at the gate and searches bags. There are exclusions, whole class detentions, the pressure of exams, being told they're underachieving and, in their spare time, being yobs and getting Asbos.

Two new books reflect the complexity of this world. In Gansta Rap (Bloomsbury £5.99) Benjamin Zephaniah draws families under stress, the frustration of teachers and black teenage boys bursting with talent but bored sullen in class. He also has a great ear for the colour and energy of teenagers' language. Walking Naked by Alyssa Brugman (Faber £5.99) is about teenage girl bullies told from the point of view of the bully. She looks for the path of least resistance and has to live with the consequences. It doesn't have a happy ending - but then bullied children don't lead happy lives.

Then there are books about those children who appear without warning in schools, conjured out of years of revolution and war. In The Girl in Red by Gaye Hicyilmaz (Dolphin £4.99) Emilia, a Romanian Gypsy, is the oddball of her family. They are in Britain, but while she's making friends her parents cannot wait to get away. In Pictures from the Fire Emilia is now 16 and even more exasperating to her parents, with her passion for drawing. She is locked with her little brother in their room in a hostel in Germany while Nazis are organising protests against them and planning to burn them out. Emilia is planning an escape from the building and her childhood.

In The Breadwinner and its sequel Parvana's Journey by Deborah Ellis (both Oxford £4.99) the refugees are displaced people within Afghanistan. As war goes on, normal life is wrecked. Children have to bury their relations, everyone's hungry, girls are safer if they dress as boys, and minefields may provide food when all else fails.

There is one outstanding book that describes the life of Palestinian children looking for a large enough rubble-free space to play football. A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird (Macmillan £8.99) is a simple tension-filled story. Without anything too violent happening, it will give those over ten a very good idea of what it is like for the Palestinians to live as pariahs in their own country - which explains why this book has driven Zionists into paroxysms of fury. Bonus!

If you have any illusions in the probity of the police then Untouchables: Dirty Cops, Bent Justice and Racism in Scotland Yard by Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn (Cutting Edge £18.99) should soon disabuse you. Advertised in fittingly 'anti-social' fashion via flyposting, black teenager Stephen Lawrence's murder is one of five cases put under the spotlight.