UKYA Review: Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones, Katherine Webber, (Walker, Jan 5th 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary, magic realism, romance

Age target: YA

Story basicsFor fans of David Levithan, Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. The cover was revealed at YALC last July and there had been chatter about it before then. All this hype made me slightly apprehensive about reading it, as it can be hard for books to live up to it (especially, for me, for contemporaries which so often rely heavily on romance – personal taste, but that’s not my favourite thing and a book which offers only/solely that is not going to satisfy). Anyway, Wing Jones does NOT disappoint – it’s a fabulous, diverse family drama told with a light touch which offers plenty of warmth and even some humour.

The emotional ride: dramatic and, at times, unrelenting. This is not a ‘quiet’ book, but one full of passion and emotion. It drags you through a range of emotions with poor Wing as she deals with tragedy, family, school and trying to just be fifteen. However at no point does it feel manipulative or gratuitous and there is often humour in amongst the drama.

Narrative style: Wing’s first person narrative is lyrical and beautiful, and we are easily drawn into her imaginative and metaphorical thought process.

Supporting cast: I feel that characterisation is a strength of this book, but I particularly loved Wing’s two grannies, LaoLao and Granny Dee. They often brought warmth and humour to the story.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: the diverse make-up of the book’s cast is fantastic for addressing the narrow range of representation offered by the set GCSE curriculum. I’d love to offer this as part of KS3 or on a ‘reading for pleasure’ list to KS4 to offset the set texts. There are also plenty of SMSC opportunities: bullying, poverty, culture (especially biracial heritage) and Wing herself is a great example of resilience and could therefore be discussed in relation to learning power/four Rs and growth mindset. The writing itself is also beautiful and descriptive, often using metaphor.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Wing Jones is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

This is my first British Books Challenge review for 2017 – and what a brilliant choice of book! I’m also counting this for the Diverse Reads Challenge, as Wing’s dual heritage is important in the story.

Three Recommendations for Transgender Rep: Non-Fic, YA and MG

Non-Fic Recommendation: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin

Recommended for: parents, teachers, youth workers, teens and tweens of all gender identities (and sexualities) – transgender, cisgender (non-trans), non-binary, agender.

The style of this book is very journalistic, but incredibly hands-off. Put together by photographer-author Susan Kuklin, it is clear that she allowed her teen subjects a lot of freedom in expressing themselves. It is also clear that she is a cis author seeking information from that perspective and for that reason, this book is perhaps slightly more useful for a cis audience. That said, there are clear efforts for the book to be representative in that there are two each male-to-female, female-to-male and non-binary teens presented in the book, so it would be very difficult to leave it with the impression that there is one transgender experience, which is great.

At times, probably because of their young age, some of the books’ subjects are a little dogmatic in their opinions and it might have been nice to balance this with the perspective of older, more settled, transgender narratives, but there is also much value in sharing teens’ voices. If a key purpose of the book is to help transgender teens see others in the same position, then the book certainly achieves that. Another would be to help cis teens understand, and I think that purpose is also well met. There are comprehensive lists of resources for support (US and UK) at the end of the book.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Beyond Magenta is out now in the UK from Walker Books, who provided me with a review copy. It was a 2015 Stonewall Honor Book in the US.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.


YA Recommendation: If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo

 

Recommended for: YA contemporary fans of all ages and gender identities. There are separate notes for both trans and cis readers at the end of the novel (which are brilliant and generous but should only be read after the story because of spoilers).

This #ownvoices contemporary YA romance about Amanda with flashes to when she was Andrew is nicely put together and offers a satisfying story with some fantastic characterisation. I thought Amanda’s parents were well drawn, especially her Dad’s struggles with his daughter’s identity. That would be easy to present as black/white, but he is a fully-realised character with plenty of grey and I really enjoyed seeing that. Complex parents are not always something you get in YA.

The ways in which this does fulfil YA tropes are that Amanda is beautiful and desirable and, sometimes, things seem easier for her than they will be for many trans teens who read this. At first, this worried me reading it, but then I realised that it is intended to offer hope and, in fact, the more negative aspects of transition are discussed, they just might be in Amanda’s past or happen to others rather than being centre stage. This is also discussed in the author’s notes.

Overall, the charming story will easily carry readers through, while the author’s notes at the end serve nicely to emphasise the relevant points about trans experience. There are also adverts for UK-specific support services at the end.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

If I Was Your Girl is out now in the UK from Usborne. It was selected as a ‘Zoella book club’ title for W H Smith.


MG Recommendation: George, Alex Gino

Recommended for: readers 9+ (including teachers and parents)

This book really blew me away. I’d read other trans rep before this one, but I couldn’t say I’d had the experience shown to me so definitively before. It’s all in the pronouns and voice.

George is presented using female pronouns (she/her) and, when the book starts, she’s at home by herself. When you then see her interacting with others who refer to her as a boy, it’s jarring. And then you get it – that’s how clearly and viscerally Alex Gino presents the reader with George’s experience. They never describe George as ‘wanting to be’ a girl or ‘feeling like she is’ a girl, she just is a girl, but everyone inexplicably treats her as a boy. And there it is. For this cis reader, that was the clearest presentation I’d come across. I don’t consider myself stupid and I would say I had (intellectually) understood the concept before, but no-one had made me feel it before. I was right there with George, though.

For a book geek, another delight of this book is the way Charlotte’s Web is used. George’s class is studying the book and they’re going to do a performance of it and George wants to be Charlotte. Of course, her teacher won’t let her be Charlotte because, to her, George is a boy and boys should be Wilbur or Templeton. In all, it’s a lovely story, warmly told, pitched perfectly for the MG audience (I also appreciated that we don’t get into discussing transition or the big questions of how George will be in the future – there’s plenty of time for that). This is the perfect, reassuring and warm introduction to the idea for MG readers who may or may not have questions about gender at this point in time.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

George is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I hope this round-up has been helpful and I really hope to see more books exploring the range of human identity coming out in the future. Some of these books have been out for a while in the States but are fairly new to the UK. I know that in schools we’re starting to see more kids expressing different gender identities and it would be good for teachers and support workers to have resources available to support them and other kids around them.

UKMG Review: A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson

28168228A Girl Called Owl, Amy Wilson, (Macmillan Children’s Books, 26 Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: fantasy, contemporary, school setting, folklore

Age target: MG

Story basics: (blurb) It’s bad enough having a mum dippy enough to name you Owl, but when you’ve got a dad you’ve never met, a best friend who needs you more than ever, and a new boy at school giving you weird looks, there’s not a lot of room for much else.

So when Owl starts seeing strange frost patterns on her skin, she’s tempted to just burrow down under the duvet and forget all about it. Could her strange new powers be linked to her mysterious father?And what will happen when she enters the magical world of winter for the first time?

A glittering story of frost and friendship, with writing full of magic and heart, A Girl Called Owl is a stunning debut about family, responsibility and the beauty of the natural world.

Review-in-a-tweet: Classic-toned story in today’s world. Great on big themes of family, friendship and fitting in, woven through a fantasy landscape using folklore.

 

Plotting and pacing: I felt this was managed perfectly for its tween audience. There’s quite a bit of complexity to it, portioned out slowly enough for young readers who are unfamiliar with the folklore to handle.

Main character: Owl is a lovely character – very easy to relate to and empathise with. Young readers will readily engage with her all-too-familiar worries about not fitting in if she reveals her secrets, even though her problems are magical in origin.

Supporting cast: I loved the relationships created in this book; they are very emotionally realistic. I’m sure many readers will also love Mallory (Owl’s best friend) and Alberic (mysterious new boy at school).

Hearthfire rating:  8/10 Sizzling

A Girl Called Owl  comes out on the 26th January in the UK from Macmillan Childrens, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

Diverse Reading Challenge 2017

I like to look out for diversity in my reading matter, and representation is always something I’m aware of, so this seems like a good challenge for me. It’s a simple one, with a straightforward aim: to try to include diverse representation in your reading.

The challenge is jointly hosted across two blogs: Read.Sleep.Repeat. and Chasing Faerytales, and they define diversity broadly, following We Need Diverse Books’ lead.

There is a theme per month, but this is optional, and diverse books not fitting that theme can also be counted towards the challenge. I do intend to use some of the themes and the suggested reading list/recommendations on Twitter to help me broaden out my reading, though. January’s theme is ‘stories based on/ inspired by diverse folktales/culture/mythology’, so that’s a bit of a challenge for me straightaway. I’ve read Zoe Marriott’s excellent The Night Itself trilogy (Japanese folklore-based, UK-set urban fantasy YA), which is on the list for that section, but I’ll need to get a move on if I’m going to find and read something new and review it this month – eek!

British Books Challenge 2017

As I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump over the past few months, I’ve decided to sign up for a blogging challenge or two to give me a boost for 2017. I’ve participated in the British Books Challenge before, which is hosted this year by the very lovely Chelley of Tales of Yesterday. It’s a straightforward challenge – read and review at least 12 books by British authors during the year (since US titles often get a bigger publicity push), with prize packs sponsored by UK publishers for bloggers remembering to link up their reviews on the official site post each month. Chelley’s also added some extra incentives with an ‘author of the month’ and ‘debut of the month’ – anyone reviewing those will get a double entry in the draw, so we’ll see whether I can qualify for any of those.

My plans so far are to read and review some of the British titles I’ve already got, along with some new books that I’m eagerly awaiting. I’m sure more books will emerge as the year goes on too. If I review all of these, I’ll more than meet the challenge, but some of these are quite chunky tomes, so we’ll see…

New titles to look forward to are:

  • Wing Jones by Katherine Webber (out 5th Jan)
  • Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt (out 1st Feb)
  • The Night Spinner by Abi Ephinstone (out 23rd Feb)

Titles I already own:

  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (on Kindle)
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (on Kindle)
  • How Not to Disappear by Claire Furness
  • Cuckoo by Keren David
  • My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons and Laura Ellen Anderson
  • Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans
  • The Graces by Laure Eve
  • Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
  • Barefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott
  • Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanne Cannon
  • Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)
  • Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)

These are a mix of adult, YA and MG – thankfully, everything goes for this challenge: as long as the book was both read and reviewed in 2017, it counts.

Spotlight: Secrets and Ghosts by Dennis Zaslona

sg-book-coverToday I thought I’d share with you the details of a middle grade book which is out now by a member of my writing group. Here’s what the Amazon blurb has to say:

A boy who doesn’t believe in ghosts. A girl with a terrible secret. A very haunted hotel. 13 year old Dan confronts a deadly presence in the hotel to risk his life for Shafilea. But being friends with Dan has given away her secret and now it is the living as well as the dead who threaten the children. Can the new friendship between Dan and Shafi survive?

I found this an enjoyable read for the upper end of middle grade. There is considerable suspense and plenty of spooky goings-on. The friendship between Shafi and Dan introduces unexpected elements into the story – it is not ‘just’ a ghost story and raises some issues that children at the young end of middle grade would potentially not be ready for (but no spoilers here!)

The book is self-published and is available in Kindle and paperback formats.

UKYA Review: Haunt Me by Liz Kessler

haunt-meHaunt Me, Liz Kessler, (Orion, Oct 2016)

Genres in the mix: paranormal/magical realism, some themes in common with contemporary genres

Age target: YA

Story basics: (taken from Goodreads):

Joe wakes up from a deep sleep to see his family leave in a removals van. Where they’ve gone, he has no idea. Erin moves house and instantly feels at home in her new room. Even if it appears she isn’t the only one living in it. Bit by bit, Erin and Joe discover that they have somehow found a way across the ultimate divide – life and death. Bound by their backgrounds, a love of poetry and their growing feelings for each other, they are determined to find a way to be together.

Joe’s brother, Olly, never cared much for poetry. He was always too busy being king of the school – but that all changed when Joe died. And when an encounter in the school corridor brings him face to face with Erin, he realises how different things really are – including the kind of girl he falls for.

Two brothers. Two choices. Will Erin’s decision destroy her completely, or can she save herself before she is lost forever?

Review-in-a-tweet: Gorgeous dual narrative tale exploring Erin and Joe’s developing relationship as Erin seeks to rebuild her reality after a crisis and Joe comes to terms with his own death.

The emotional ride: Complicated! Erin’s inner life is complex already, as she has plenty to handle without Joe’s appearance in her life. And Joe is no simple catalyst either, but a fully rounded character with a full set of problems of his own. This is a perfectly nuanced and emotionally satisfying read, which just happens to use the concept of one character being a ghost to further complicate matters.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health issues, bullying, some key ‘what would you do’ moral discussion moments present themselves – this would be lovely for a school book group

Supporting cast: I’ve already indicated the characterisation is a strength of this book – that does not only go for the two leads. There are so many great characters here! I loved Erin’s mum and had a lot of sympathy for her (perhaps as a parent of teens myself), trying to do the right thing but not always quite managing that, as parents in stories must not. Olly and Erin’s classmates are also beautifully drawn to do more than just fill out the story.

Overall, a definite recommendation from me. Quite lovely.

For more on Liz, check out her website or see her Twitter feed.  Her last YA novel, Read Me Like a Book, is reviewed on my site here.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Haunt Me is out now in the UK from Orion, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and please note that I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend. (There is only so much time in the world and So Many Books!)

Review: Creative Writing Journal and Good Things Are Happening Gratitude Journal

creative-writingCreative Writing: A Journal with Art to Kickstart Your Writing, by Eva Glettner (Chronicle Books, Sept 2016)

good-things

Good Things Are Happening: A Journal for Tiny Moments of Joy, by Lauren Hom (Chronice Books, Sept 2016)

Both of these write-in books exhibit excellent design and are fabulously good-looking objects, but this is by no means all they have to offer.

The Creative Writing journal has a full-page image for each spread, with a lined page for writing for each prompt. It is a good sized book, at a little smaller than A4 size, with good quality paper that fineliners haven’t bled through. The designs are unusual and inspirational and the exercises all offer interesting food for thought, with genuine reference to the images.

The book as a whole works really well and is definitely adding to my practice. It is not just a few illustrated exercises, but is a striking use of artwork to inspire.

The gratitude journal  asks you to record three good things for each day you use it. It is undated, so there is no pressure to complete it every day, or guilt about starting at the wrong time. The book is a small hardback, with good quality multi-colour pages that don’t allow bleed-through.

Bold graphic designs appear every so often, either with helpful suggestions as to things with could be one of today’s ‘good things’ or occasionally with extra prompts for further cheering lists (as in the image on the left).

The book as a whole is another pleasure to use and makes a regular gratitude practice simple and even more pleasant.

It is an increasingly well-known fact that both gratitude practice and regular creative writing can have strong mental health benefits so I would definitely recommend these beautifully-produced books, either as a simple addition to a self-care routine, or a thoughtful gift.

Both titles are out now in the UK from Chronicle Books, who kindly provided me with review copies.

Please note that accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only review books that I feel able to recommend.

UKYA review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Rose3Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Louise Gornall, (out now from Chicken House)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basics: Norah has agoraphobia and OCD and only leaves her house for therapy. She only experiences the outside world through her windows with pink panes (the rose glass alluded to in the fantastic title – love the pun on ‘tinted’ with its implications of staining -) and longs for normality. The arrival of new neighbours, especially Luke, who is her age and interacts with her, intensifies this longing.

Review-in-a-tweet: Fantastic portrayal of mental ill health with well-rounded and easy-to-care about characters on all sides.

The emotional ride: Not exactly smooth! But then, that is as it should be with a book with such themes. At the same time, I at no times felt annoyingly/clumsily manipulated as I have done when reading some other mental health-themed teen books. There is no glorification/romanticisation of Norah’s condition and, however the summary/blurb may lead you to think so, it’s no straightforward ‘romance saves the day’ plot, either – that would be an unjust simplification and Louise Gornall is too smart and honest for that.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health issues – how they are handled in society, how they are/can be written about/presented in art/culture/media, why we shouldn’t equate OCD with liking tidiness etc (perfect opportunity to discuss/show the crippling nature of the actual condition).

Plotting and pacing: the beautifully lyrical style may be a little slow for impatient readers/those who prefer action-packed books, but I loved it and feel Gornall should be applauded for pulling off a novel set almost entirely in one house. There is a great attention to detail, which naturally fits with Norah’s narrative style and personality.

 

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is out now in the UK from Chicken House, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

The Reading Teacher: 3 Ways to Sneak ‘Reading for Pleasure’ Recommendations into GCSE English Classes

I think (hope?) many of us can agree that GCSE set text lists do not inherently encourage students to become readers. By exposing young teenagers to  books deemed ‘classics’ or ‘great’ and requiring detailed analysis, we often in fact risk putting them off reading. This is, unfortunately, especially true for those not from a reading background whose only exposure to books is in school and who are left with the impression that the set texts they are given is what all books are like.

It is important, therefore, to try to share with pupils good examples of recently-published, engaging fiction for Young Adults (YA novels or Teen Fiction – although these are not interchangeable labels; teen is generally a little ‘younger’ and less likely to feature romance or tackle gritty issues). Here are some suggestions for ways that this can be achieved without going too far off-piste – especially if your school doesn’t have a school-wide initiative like Drop Everything And Read time.

  1. Use YA novel extracts when teaching writing skills. I know we often reach for the classics here, but especially now that this skill is tested in an exam and not as a CA, the boards are no longer looking for pre-1950s-style (and currently unpublishable) purple prose. More modern exemplars are likely to be useful to students.
  2. Offer extracts from YA novels as early practice texts for reading skills before moving on to the more demanding types of texts set by the boards (e.g. the 20th century lit set by AQA).
  3. Share recommendations, possibly supported by extracts, or simply blurbs and covers on slides for topical reads or good reads linked to students’ interests (including the canny use of TV shows and films as genre guides – here‘s my sizable list from the summer). This makes a nice plenary as a ‘how do these link to the lesson?’ or an end of half term task: choose one or two to look out for and read over half term (it’s always worth promoting libraries – kids don’t have to BUY books to read them…)

As of today, over on Twitter I’ll be sharing  daily #ReadingTeacher recommendations, which I’m hoping will be of use and interest to other secondary teachers. I’ll be using recently published YA and occasionally MG novels, and will link them to: curriculum possibilities such as teaching particular writing/analysis skills; broader curriculum issues such as SMSC/the four ‘R’s of Learning Power; themed months/days such as Black History Month or World Mental Health Day; students’ interests/TV/film to allow easy recommendations. I intend to use books I’ve personally read (although I may occasionally rec something based on reliable intel 🙂 ), but they won’t always have already been reviewed on here.

If you don’t yet follow me on Twitter, I’m @BethKemp (and I talk mostly books, but also dogs, so be warned!)

Personal blog: mostly bookish, plus some dogs, feminism and whatever else occurs.