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David Caddy

In the current overwhelmingly dour landscape of Australian children’s fiction, it’s a welcome relief to pick up three books which at least claim to rely on humour for their effect. Of course, humour comes in different forms, with different purposes.

In Small Sacrifices, for instance, Beverley Macdonald isn’t looking for easy laughs. By its contrast with the harrowing events which constitute the story’s climax, the humour Macdonald injects into the first two thirds of the book effectively maximises the impact of the tragedy. Central to the fun at the beginning are the members of the bizarrely extended family belonging to the narrator, fourteen-year-old Harry. We meet them as they gradually assemble for Christmas at a beachside house in the town where Harry’s artily eccentric grandmother lives.

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These titles are aimed at a primary school readership, yet there’s a wide gap in both ability and life experience between the emerging readers at one end and the almost-teenagers at the other. Some novels successfully bridge that gap, but I’m not sure The Reef (FACP, $14.95 pb, 128 pp) is one of them, despite the publisher’s classification that this is ‘for children aged 8–12 years’. It is certainly an exciting story of suspected murder and missing silver coins, but consider some elements of the plot: Tom, the young protagonist, is menaced and harassed by two nasty out-of-towners who threaten him with death and so terrify him that he has nightmares; while swimming, he’s pursued and threatened with a speargun; later, he’s assaulted and kidnapped, a sack is tied over his head, and he’s taken out to sea and thrown overboard in the expectation that he’ll be battered to death on the reef.

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