Beyond the Barricade by Deborah Ellis

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Beyond the Barricade by Deborah Ellis

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: An excellent issue-based novel about the plight of coca growers in South America. A crisp, no-nonsense prose style makes its theme central, but the central character is also tremendously well-drawn. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: April 2009
Publisher: OUP Oxford
ISBN: 019272763X

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Twelve-year-old Bolivian boy Diego has had a tough life so far. He spent four years sharing a prison cell with his parents who have been wrongly convicted of smuggling coca - the base material for cocaine. In an attempt to help his mother pay off her prison debts, he's spent months tramping those very coca leaves as a virtual slave in the jungle. He's suffered the death of his best friend, Mando, and only narrowly escaped with his own life escaping from the drug-dealing gringos.

Now, he has been taken in by the Ricardos, a poor cocalero - coca-growing - family, who are prepared to share what little they have with a boy in need. But just as Diego is beginning to feel at home, along come the army to destroy the family's precious crop and only source of income. Should he join the family on the protest blockade and risk yet more violence? It doesn't seem as though he has much choice.

This is Deborah Ellis's second book about Diego and she has also written about children facing war in Afghanistan and HIV in Malawi. I am all for this kind of issue-based fiction for middle readers, exploring as they do the stories behind the news headlines, and the very different experiences of children in much less fortunate parts of the world. Ellis does it wonderfully well. She writes with a crisp, no-nonsense prose style that lends accessibility and puts the social themes to the fore. But she also knows children, and she draws a tremendously sympathetic character in Diego. The events in his life may be shocking and alien to children in the UK, but the emotional landscape is perfectly familiar.

I keep saying it, but at the risk of boring you, I'm going to say it again: children's fiction is perfectly placed to explore political and social issues. It humanises them and it unravels the associated conflicts in ways that make perfect sense to young readers, who are very subjective. It can present competing opinions without propagandising or reducing the subjects to black and white. In a society where we bemoan the lack of political engagement in our young people, it seems to me that books like this should be welcomed, especially when they are as well done as this one.

I don't think Beyond the Barricade is the last we'll see of Diego, and I look forward to reading more about him soon.

My thanks to the nice people at OUP for sending the book.

Other issue-based fiction that middle readers could look at are Oranges in No Man's Land about the war in Lebanon and Lost Riders about child camel jockeys in the Middle East, both by the redoubtable Elizabeth Laird. Torn Pages by Sally Grindley is a moving account of AIDS orphans in Arica.

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