Both of these recent novels for pre-adolescent girls follow a well-tested recipe: Start with a shy, 11- or 12-year old heroine who invests much of her energy and love in something that is abandoned -- like a Staffordshire bulldog puppy or the carved angels in a deserted, 14th -- century church.
Next, create a problem that the girl must work out -- have te pooch dognapped or the church condemned.
Mix in some family difficulties (an ex-convict father who is hiding that secret from his children, a lonely widower father who has drawn into himself). Make it necessary for the girl to seize the initiative and act while the adults around her are floundering, and, in acting, have her rescue the lost dog or save the threatened church and its carvings.
Most importantly, show that the child has grown up and into the mainstream of life because of her experiences.
Top it all off with restored domestic tranquility, and voila, you have it -- a fairly typical, pre-teen girl's novel.
"The Staffordshire Terror," a story set among poor families in present-day southern California, is about a sixth-grader, Cissie Rose, and her search for the Stafforshire bulldog, Spook (the "terror" alluded to in the title), that has been stolen and thrown into the dog-fighting pits by Cissie's nasty, red-neck Uncle Cletus. Author Patricia Beatty's idea has undeniable, fictional potential , yet the story never comes alive. Her characters are stereotypes: a Mexican who runs the fights only does so in order to take money back to his poor village in Mexico; Uncle Cletus is brutal because he has not had a high school education and is jealous of everyone who has. So little attention is paid to the details of place and scene that the story could be set in Florida or New Hampshire or Minneapolis.
All these weaknesses might be forgetten if only the book had suspense, if there were some risk in Cissie's tracking down of her pet in the low-life world of the dog-fighters. But Cissie and her friends never seem to be in any real danger, even when they sneak into the attic of the old barn to watch a dogfight in what should be one of the more dramatic moments of the story. In fact, Cissie's character is never fully tested in the book, and this seems unrealistic given the violence and evil that licks around the edges of the world into which her dog and she have been drawn. Thus, the reader's expectations also go unchallenged and unsatisfied.
The novel could have been a powerful portrayal of a seamy slice of life and a young girl's forced confrontation with it, but instead the book turns away. Instead of barking loudly, strongly, the novel merely emits a series of pat, sociological and psychological whimpers.
On the other hand, K. M. Peyton's "Marion's Angels" holds the reader's attention because it creates characters and action of sufficient depth for the reader to care about.
Marion, an imaginative, independent girl, has become the self-appointed guardian of an abandoned church in the small village in England where she lives with her widowed father. The villages think Marion is "disturbed" because she makes unusually emotional scenes in public. At a benefit concert for the church's preservation fund, Marion meets and becomes friendly with a virtuoso pianist who also has had a difficult, misunderstood childhood, and she discovers , slowly, that her "fits" are not as crazy as she fears and as everyone else believes them to be.
There are complications, though, Marital problems develop between the pianist and his wife, Ruth, and Marion's father has begun to fall in love with this attractive and lonely woman who reminds him of his dead wife. Only a miraculous ending could avert the domestic tragedy toward which the story seems to be heading, and that's just what Marion and her angels unexpectedly provide during the big storm that climaxes the book.
Deux ex machina? Perhaps. However, the gimmicks work because we care about Marion, the "idiot child," her father and his sad burden, the work-obsessed pianist and his neglected wife, the cliffs and coastline along which the story is set, and the old church itself with its beautifully carved angels hanging from the crossbeams. Rather than creating merely another juvenile potboiler, Peyton turns "Marion's Angels" into an articulate, intelligent, compassionate portrait of growth -- at many points painful growth -- for Marion as well as the adults who people her world.
What makes one of these novels better than the other, when so much of their general structure is similar, is style and the strong sense of reality that a skillful, uncondescending style conveys. This is the proof of any pudding.