12 APRIL 1975, Page 20

Peter Ackroyd,

A Proper Place Joan Lingard (Hamish Hamilton £2.20) Z for Zachariah Robert C. O'Brien (Gollancz £1.75) Let me tell you a simple story. I was reading, the other day, a novel by a Mr Alan Bleasdale called Scully. It had a garish and rather badly drawn cover, showing four boys lounging around in attitudes only ever seen on book covers, and the blurb told me that it concerned the life and times of a fifteen-year-old growing up in Liverpool — so naturally I assumed it was a story for teenagers. But, no, the publishers told me that it was about children but strictly for adults. So I started another novel, Z for Zachariah, only to be told that the Times had reviewed it as an adult fiction although it was, really and truly, a story for children. And then Leon Garfield, the distinguished children's writer, tells me that his latest novel — which I shall be reviewing shortly — has been issued as adult literature in the United States and as junior literature in this country: this may, of course, say something about relative standards. And then, to compound this confusion, another publisher told me about his series of books for "new adults". Being in my middle twenties, I always thought of myself as a relatively new adult but now, it seems, you become adult from the age of eleven and such old-fashioned terms as child and teenager have presumably been abandoned.

This preamble leads me to one overwhelming• question: who are children's books for? Judging by the number of books that are sent to this office, it is the largest single category on publishers' lists, and with this economic status there has grown up a number of activists and pressure-groups who hold meetings and discuss, Whither Children's Writers, and so on — but I have yet to be convinced that children enjoy and appreciate them. And that leads me to my second overwhelming question: Why children's literature? I can quite see the point of picture books for the very young, and information for the not so young, but would teenagers really prefer Scrub Dog of Alaska to Joseph Conrad, or Jock of the Bushveld to Wilkie Collins?

A Proper Place doesn't really resolve these questions. It is presumably a book for new adults rather than children, since it concerns the struggles of a young married couple, Sadie and Kevin with the unfortunate name of McCoy, to make a new life among the tenements of Liverpool. They have left behind the even more grimy reality of Belfast in order to live here, but the children of violence are never far behind. Kevin's brother, Gerald, travels from Ireland to stay with them and this rattled and battle-scarred youth refuses to settle down. And Sadie's mother, a Belfast matron of the Protestant school, pays a flying, visit in order to confirm her prejudices: anti-Catholic, anti-black and anti-happiness. But it seems that no children's story can afford to stay in the flat world of social reality for very' long, and Joan Lingard exports her characters out of the city and into the dull country. Kevin becomes a farm labourer, Gerald works with horses, Sadie buys a puppy — and the baby, Brendan, is doing very nicely too. The hard grind gives way to rural and doggy pursuits, experience bows to innocence, discord to concord. This is a world in which everything turns out for the best.

I do not know if that is a tone which the children's writers' pressure groups impose upon all their members, or whether it comes naturally to those who prefer anodynes to the real thing. But I have an uneasy feeling that children are supposed to identify with these one dimensional characters; of course I have no idea whether they enjoy or appreciate them. In the writing designed for them, everything is spelled out as simply and as self-consciously as possible, the prose veers toward the faux-naif, the plots are generally of the flimsiest kind and the characterisation barely credible. If you wanted to kill an adult with boredom, this would be the handiest weapon — and children can be just as discriminating and just as easily bored as adults. I imagine that there are a great many children laughing up their sleeves at happy endings and cardboard villains.

Z for Zachariah — a novel which seems to have nothing whatever to do with its title, by the way — is in a different league. It is an extremely good and interesting novel, and if it is good enough for children then it must be good enough for adults, too. In fact, it is a great deal more adult than a lot of adult novels I have been reading recently; it is well written, with none of that pandering to the faux-naif, it has a certain imaginative strength, without degenerating into crude fantasy or adventure, and its theme is a resourceful one. Z for Zachariah is set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, somewhere in America. Ann Burden, sixteen years old, is living alone in a sheltered valley, a cosy spot which has somehow been spared the devastation around it and so becomes the perfect image of innocent childhood. Ann thinks that she is the only person left in the world, but events prove her too optimistic. A stranger wearing a green radiation-proof suit invades the more naturally green world of her hide-away. He is a scientist, and science will turn any paradise sour.

Especially since this particular scientist has a manic streak: it transpires that he killed another man to get the suit, and that he is quite willing to kill Ann unless she buckles under, in every sense, and serves his scientific whim. But Ann runs off to the furthest reaches of her little world, tricks the scientist, steals his radiation suit and sets off herself into the expanse of the "deadness" looking for another valley. This rather solemn precis cannot catch the pleasing shape and tone of this little fable; it is clearly written, in a prose which can be generally imaginative at the same time as it conveys a wealth of revelant detail. It is the sort of writing to which all novelists should aspire, whether they are writing for children, new adults and even old adults. In fact, at this level of competence, there ceases to be such an entity as the 'children's novel', to be opposed to the 'adult novel', and any writer who starts self-consciously writing for any particular constituency will become grotesquely self-indulgent and rhetorical. There are only good. books and bad books.

Peter Achroyd is the literary editor of The Spectator