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           Albeson and the Germans was the first of Jan Needle’s books that challenged the notion that children needed to be somehow mollycoddled or written down to. Set very firmly in his own background as a slum kid in Portsmouth, it involves a cast of characters who have all, in various ways, been dealt a pretty bum hand in life. Jimmy Albeson is central, but he is at the mercy of people and things he does not really understand. His best “friend” Smithie is a much older boy with severe learning difficulties, and their “mentor” is a wayward girl called Pammy, whom they both think is a witch.

           The event that puts Albeson on a helter-skelter of crime and danger is the announcement that two German children are coming to his crumbling, rundown school (in real life Church Street Infants, now reconstituted as Charles Dickens, in honour of the city’s literary son). Whether he really believes it or not, Albeson chooses to treat this as a disaster, which he has to kick against. In the tender hands of Smithie and Pam it does indeed turn very bad, with a decision to run away to London leading to a chase, and a final act of stupidity that nearly kills him.

           As in all Needle’s “realist” children’s books, the attitudes and opinions of the adults count for very little to the protagonists, who see them only through a haze of incomprehension and misunderstanding. Strangely, it is only the feared and hated Germans who offer Albeson any real hope for the future.


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