Mini-reviews: YA novels featuring resilient female characters

For today’s blog I’ve chosen three recent YA reads which all feature female protagonists in difficult situations who emerge having shown considerable strength and resilience. Not all of them begin as ‘resilient’ characters, or would necessarily describe themselves as having resilience, but each would be a good read for a teenager who was, equally, going through tough times and needing to see others struggling, falling down and getting back up.

These are quite different books in tone, style and genre, but I’ve grouped them because of the ‘gritty’ qualities of their protags. All of them keep going – in each case, for someone else, or something bigger than themselves, and again, this is something they are not always conscious of, or variably so through the text.

In All the Invisible Things, Vetty is moving back to London after a few years’ break in the country. The family had left the city when her Mum died and much of the book is about re-negotiating old friendships and her sense of self which had shifted in mourning. This book is particularly strong in its LGBT rep, and is also, in many ways, a classic coming-of-age YA as Vetty figures out she she really is, where she fits, what she wants, what matters to her. It’s all beautifully done and I dare you to read it and not care for Vetty.

In Music and Malice in Hurricane Town, Jude is a down-on-her-luck musician, trying to make ends meet and support her ailing father (who is supremely ungrateful for her efforts). The book sees her quickly dropped into a mess of Cajou trouble in this New Orleans-influenced atmospheric fantasy (Cajou is like voodoo). I loved Jude’s anger and sense of injustice – she’s a full character who is easy to understand and empathise with, even if sometimes you are wishing she’d make a different choice (but then, that is when you know a character is rounded!)

The Secret Deep is something of a genre-defying novel. Set in the contemporary period, with fantasy/sci-fi and thriller elements and a strong eco-theme, the novel is every bit as gorgeous as its beautiful cover. Aster and Poppy are flown to stay with their Aunt, who they barely know, after the death of their mother. As the blurb tells us, Aster later finds herself alone on a mysterious tropical island and must find Poppy and figure out what has happened. To complicate matters, Aster suffers from panic attacks (which are perfectly described – I felt for her so deeply). The sisterly bond, with all its nuance of tenderness and annoyance is rendered perfectly, and the oceanic detail allows for marvellous escapism and genuine fear.

Overall, I would recommend any (or indeed all) of these novels to encourage a teen who needs a boost. Equally, they’re all great stories to dive into – and it’s fab to see different types of ‘hero’ offered. The cycle of uncertainty and discouragement before taking action is particularly useful to depict, in terms of readers being able to identify with the characters they are reading. We can’t all be decisive, action-heavy hero-types, but most of us can identify with knowing we ought to do something but being a bit scared of the possible consequences, or feeling safer with the status quo, even if it is less favourable.

UKYA review: Proud, compiled by Juno Dawson

Proud is Stripes Book’s third YA anthology and the second to consciously focus on a representation gap in the YA market. Like last year’s A Change is Gonna Come, this book is a triumph and strongly recommended as an addition to classroom and library shelves.

The genius of boosting representation by anthology is in the implicit message that there is not just one voice to be heard. This book offers ten stories and two poems which feature different aspects of LGBT experience, each accompanied by artwork. All work is created by LGBT-identifying creators, and their interpretation of the theme of pride is as multifaceted and various in tone and genre as the rainbow symbol emblazoned on the book itself. Both the writing and the artwork covers a range of styles and genres, offering a real taster of what is (or will be) available from LGBT creators producing work aimed at the YA market. Again, with an eye to broadening the representation available, the collection features stories by four previously unpublished writers, all of whom are bound to now become more well-known. (The two ‘new voice’ writers from the Change collection both have novels releasing this year…)

If you are a teacher reader of this blog, you may be interested to see the teaching resources (which I produced) for this text, available at the publisher’s website. I focused on key skills required for GCSE English, such as analysis of language and of structure, and evaluation skills, as well as A Level Media and Lit and writing skills. I had the AQA and Edexcel specs in mind while producing these, but was thinking about broad skills practice rather than specific exam questions.

It’s both impossible and unfair to talk of favourites in so broad-ranging a collection, as so much of that is down to personal taste. And yet, there isn’t space here to review each piece. Please know that I enjoyed ALL of the writing in this book and would happily rate each piece separately at least 4 stars on Goodreads. What allows me to rate the collection as a whole 5 stars is its breadth, particularly in terms of genre and tone and the sheer delight I felt as a reader in picking my way through these various pieces.

I loved the reworking of Pride and Prejudice as a queer high school romcom. If you are teaching P&P, you MUST explore I Hate Darcy Pemberley by Karen Lawler, sassily illustrated by Kameron White. It’s a glorious insertion into Austen scholarship which presents key conflicts engagingly and relevantly for contemporary readers, while offering plenty of affectionate nods for those familiar for the source material.

On the Run by Kay Staples initially grabbed my attention as it’s set near my adopted hometown of Leicester, clearly chosen for its vague identity as a city and lack of glamour. I really enjoyed the wry details of the somewhat miserable Travelodge as setting for these teens’ high drama, and particularly appreciated the accurate portrayal of a character’s clinging to and enumerating ‘certainties’ in times of rapid change. Alex Bertie’s artwork with careful use of white space underscores this aspect, I feel.

Finally (because I limited myself to three…) I was thrilled to find fantasy in the collection in the form of Cynthia So’s delightful fable The Phoenix’s Fault, with the dramatic accompanying art by Priyanka Meenakshi. This richly symbolic tale of a young girl realising her true desires is beautifully entrenched in mythic language and landscape, with magical creatures.

These appear alongside many other brilliant examples, including David Levithan and Moira Fowley-Doyle’s pieces which both use form in unusual ways, Simon James Green’s wonderfully ‘light touch’ writing Penguins, Michael Lee Richardson’s amazing and complex cast, Tanya Byrne and Fox Benwell’s tales of fear and bravery and the poems by Caroline Bird and Dean Atta, which zoom in on particular details of LGBT+ experience, in the way that only poetry can.

So, as I’m sure is clear, I am definitely recommending this collection. The one part I haven’t yet mentioned is the foreword by trans author Juno Dawson, which outlines very clearly why the collection is important. She shares part of her own history for context, as well as some of the political background – such as Section 28, which forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexual lifestyles in schools between 1988 and 2000 (yes, 2000), effectively gagging teachers from even acknowledging that LGBT people exist, never mind that it’s a normal/acceptable/healthy way to be. The ramifications of this haven’t yet really left education, so it is important that we grab opportunities like the resource that this book offers.

Proud is out now from Stripes Books and available in all book outlets.

Mini-reviews: fab YA genre reads offering great representation

Often when we talk about diversity and representation, it’s contemporary novels that get all the attention. Somehow, it seems that those ‘edgy’ reads set squarely and realistically in the present lend themselves maybe a little more easily to reflecting the world’s diversity a little more readily. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. Here are three novels I’ve read recently that are both fab YA genre titles AND offer something more positive in the way of representation.

White Rabbit, Red Wolf, Tom Pollock (Walker), 2018

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This absorbing spy thriller features a maths genius protagonist with a severe anxiety disorder. The book opens with Peter in the midst of a panic attack, and the inciting incident (as stated in the blurb – don’t worry, we’re still spoiler-free here) is his scientist Mum being found stabbed before an awards dinner in her honour, his twin sister Bel missing. So, you can see that the tension levels are high from the start, and trust me, things do not get any easier for poor Peter, who already found it difficult just to go to school and cope with life on a normal level.

It’s quite difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it but, trust me, if you like high-octane thrillers, codes and conspiracies with plenty of uncertainty about who to trust and what’s coming next, this is a masterpiece. And, of course, the representation of Peter’s mental state is perfectly executed.

The Wrath and the Dawn series, Renee Ahdieh (Hodder), 2016

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This is a gorgeous take on the Thousand and One Nights, which opens with sixteen-year-old Shahrzad facing down death to be a bride of the Caliph, Khalid, and avenge her friend who met a terrible fate.

I’m not generally a fan of purely romantic books, but there’s plenty going on story-wise in this sweeping fantasy duology which explores a kingdom in ruins through the introduction of various amazing characters. Be warned that book 1, The Wrath and the Dawn, has a shocker of an ending, so you may want to have book 2, The Rose and the Dagger, to hand ready!

If, like me and many other readers, you find you can’t get enough of those characters, there are also novellas which add to the world Ahdieh has created. Some of these are insertions from specific points in the story, while others provide backstory.

The Fallen Children, David Owen (Atom), 2017

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This gripping novel brings creepy sci-fi unease to a contemporary London tower block, and reflects the community you would expect to find there. Owen offers a retelling of The Midwich Cuckoos that explores how teens are othered by society and treated as inherently problematic and dangerous, as well as layering on additional social problems.

The result is unsettling and provides well-rounded teen characters that it’s easy to understand and root for in their context, even if sometimes you’re willing them to make different choices.

All three of these are great examples of books offering positive representation, with The Fallen Children presenting contemporary reality as it is, not the default white, and both The Wrath and the Dawn and White Rabbit, Red Wolf offering #ownvoices perspectives.

For more information about these authors and their fabulous books, I’d recommend looking them up on Twitter:

@tomhpollock

@davidowenauthor

@rahdieh

Happy New Year – my 2018 discoveries

Well, it’s been a while! I’ve been a busy bee this last term, going back to uni after 20 years to begin a PhD looking at the possibilities diverse YA might offer in the classroom. It’s been great to read theory about reading and to look at some studies into different types of reading (as long as I can avoid getting despondent about the limitations of GCSE English/Lit, of course…).

Anyway, this is just a quick post to wish you all a happy new year and give a quick rundown of some of my 2018 favourites. You may well have heard me mention these before, but just in case, in no particular order…

image of the covers of the books recommended in the post
  • The Fallen Children, David Owen, Atom – brilliant creepy vibe in a YA sci-fi novel (aliens!!) which also explores the contemporary UK setting and its realities for many teens perfectly.
  • Out Of The Blue, Sophie Cameron, Macmillan (YA) – great pace and twists alongside fab representation, plus a truly brilliant angels plot allowing for an exploration of grief and family dynamics.
  • Slay, Kim Curran, Usborne – so much fun packed into this YA urban fantasy featuring a boy band with a sideline in killing demons. I’m looking forward to the sequel due this year.
  • The Death of Mrs Westaway, Ruth Ware, Harvill Secker – great modern (adult) thriller, with plenty of red herrings and atmosphere. A tarot reader down on her luck, a big old Cornish house, mystery and tension – what’s not to love?
  • White Rabbit, Red Wolf, Tom Pollock, Walker – possibly the twistiest YA I’ve read. A great spy thriller focusing on a maths whizz with extreme anxiety who gets caught up in a web of deceit.
  • Before I Let Go, Marieke Nijkamp, Sourcebooks (YA) – described by the author as her antidote to disability inspiration porn, I felt this was beautifully achieved in this tale of a friend’s death in an atmospheric Alaskan small town.
  • The Queen of Bloody Everything, Joanna Nadin, Macmillan – a rare adult read for me, and the author’s first adult novel. This is a hugely entertaining (and sometimes poignant) meditation on mother/daughter relationships, spanning several decades and particularly great for those of us who remember the eighties.

Plus two great YA series concluded this year:

  • Hero at the Fall (Rebel of the Sands, book 3), Alwyn Hamilton, Faber – read this series for action and magic combined with real feminist sensibility (i.e. not just a ‘tough heroine’ but female friendship and a range of female characters as well as male ones) in a fabulous desert setting infused with shades of the Wild West and the Thousand and One Nights.
  • Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, book 7), Sarah J Maas, Bloomsbury – read this series for strong character development across the seven books, which takes place in a complex set of lands showing strong world-building. One for fans of high fantasy.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to blog more consistently, so I’ll be seeing you again soon. What have you resolved to do more/less of in 2019?

Reading Recommendations Slide 26: Revision Season Escapism 2 – Fantasy

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering three titles featuring fantasy worlds, all of which have at least one sequel to get stuck into (and the one that is ‘only’ a duology are classic fantasy big fat books, so plenty of reading there!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – Revision Season Escapism – Fantasy

The last theme posted was contemps not set in school for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 24: Witches

A nice set of different novels with witches: two contemporaries (one including mystery, supernatural and historical elements), one historical and one dystopian eco-thriller – something for everyone!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 5 – Witches

The last theme posted was for fans of the Big Bang Theory. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 21: Fairy Tales

These books all borrow from fairy tales, folklore or existing classic stories as their source material. This is a genre of its own with plenty to choose from. (I’m particularly looking forward to Louise O’Neill’s take on The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks, due out in May – bound to be an interesting feminist re-interpretation of that problematic story…)

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 2 – Fairy Tales

The last theme posted was friendship. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links. (Next week I’ve got a nice set ready for International Women’s Day)

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton: February’s Book of the Month in-depth – review and a writing activity adaptable for KS3-5

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: identity, diversity/ethnicity/race, protest & politics

Genre: fantasy + western 

Narrative style: first-person past tense with plenty of pace and an engaging voice with plenty of ‘sass’ and wit. It’s really easy to root for Amani as she tries desperately to escape her situation by dressing as a boy and entering a shooting competition.

It’s great that she is a skilled shooter and can be admired for that, but she does have weaknesses to engage our sympathy too and her world is all too ready to dismiss her as ‘just’ a girl. With the imaginative combination of the Western setting and the magical 1001 Nights tales as a folkloric backdrop, there is plenty here to get involved in.


Using the opening page, which is available to read on the Guardian website, here is a writing-focused task which can be adapted for years from KS3 to 5:

Paste the opening page into the centre of an A3 page.

Ask students to examine the opening for the different jobs that it is fulfilling. They could highlight sentences in different colours to show this. For example, looking at information that helps:

  • establish setting
  • establish character

This can be further complicated by labelling the techniques used.

A more interesting/complex exercise for older/more advanced students might explore how Amani’s voice is created using a combination of words and phrases (lexis/register) and sentence structure (syntax), further considering how the information chosen to be provided to the reader through Amani helps characterise her by showing her attitudes to those topics. Again, different colour highlighters could be used for lexical vs syntactical techniques with the labels and subject-based comments written on around the text.

This analytical work can then feed into writing of the students’ own, where they introduce a character/setting/situation with attention to the same issues. A scenario could be provided for them, or they could be invited to come up with their own. Some possibilities include:

  • An already-known character from a fairytale/folktale but not the central character (e.g. telling Red Riding Hood from the Huntsman’s perspective)
  • An ‘outsider’ character in a dangerous situation
  • A young person readying themselves to do something difficult (a test, delivering some difficult news, telling a friend a tough secret)

Introducing February’s Book of the Month: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton (including GCSE Language prep task on inference)

This fantasy YA novel opens a glorious trilogy (the final instalment has just published this week) exploring identity, loyalty and other eternal themes relating to the classic battles between good and evil. As with many other books I’ve recommended, I love and recommend this series for its genuine feminist principles – not just a ‘strong girl’ lead, but well-rounded female (and male) characters, great examples of female friendships as well as serious moral dilemmas, not just glib ‘this is right, I must do it’ scenarios.

It’s a very popular trilogy, so well worth putting in front of students, as it’s likely to tempt less keen readers in with its vivid and unusual 1001 Nights-inspired setting crossed with the Wild West (at least in this opening section – it’s more fantasy and less western as the story moves on).

The opening chapter can be found here on the Guardian website, but (as ever) I would also recommend purchasing a classroom/library copy. Here’s an activity using the first four paragraphs only to really focus on inference skills. I’d use it with year 9 or 10 students to practice/build these before serious exam-paper-focused work.

Paste a copy of the book’s first four paragraphs into the centre of a blank page (ideally A3).  Students need to annotate the passage with statements to show what they can infer from it. The inference should be written as a statement, with the evidence for it underlined and linked to the inference statement. They might feel that more than one part of the text could be evidence – that is fine.

For lower ability groups, or to start them off, you could pre-annotate with ‘the narrator is a girl pretending to be a boy’ and link it to the clause in the third paragraph ‘but so long as I didn’t seem like a girl it didn’t much matter’. For the weakest students, I might be tempted to provide inferences on post-its that they just match to relevant places in the text, e.g.:

  • the narrator is doing something they shouldn’t be but it isn’t evil/wicked
  • the book seems to be a Western
  • the narrator lives with their uncle
  • the narrator is a girl pretending to be a boy

With more able students, you could then discuss how the writer shows us these aspects, to lead into a discussion of how information is introduced at the start of a narrative (perhaps introducing ideas about structure, or ‘show, not tell’, depending on where you’re headed next).

Look out for more detail about this book in a couple of weeks, and another teaching idea.

Recommendations: Witches in YA

There’s something about dark, chilly nights and great witchy titles that just go together well, so I thought I’d share a few recommendations for some good ones for YA readers across a few genres.

A Witch In Winter, Ruth Warburton

This kicks off a contemporary-set trilogy (all of which are now out) which starts off ultra-modern with typical high-school, new-girl issues and quickly heads into beloved fantasy tropes with warring witch clans and centuries-old battles over power. The story kicks off with kids playing around with spells and the main character casts a love spell which works dramatically well, showing that she has power which she was previously unaware of. Fab, pacey writing with a keen ear for dialogue from the author who also writes adult thrillers as Ruth Ware (In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10).

The Graces, Laure Eve

Another contemporary-set novel (with a sequel, The Curses, coming out in 2018), based heavily around high school. Inspired by the film The Craft, this book focuses on the Grace family and the town’s legends about their being witches, which inspire a new arrival to be obsessed with them. Teen readers will lap up the creepy vibes and good sense of school hierarchies and politics.

 

 

Crow Moon, Anna McKerrow

Near-future dystopian set in an England that’s been split by ecological disaster, this novel kicks off a trilogy (of which the last was released recently). In this version of the world, Devon and Cornwall form the Greenworld, an eco-pagan, self-sufficient community separated from the rest of the world (the Redworld), where resources are scarce. Magic and mystery rule as young Danny comes into his witch powers in a world ruled by women. The trilogy is a great read, with each novel focusing on and narrated by a different young witch.

Witchstruck, Victoria Lamb

Start of a historical trilogy about a witch set in Tudor times, with royalty and a witchfinder thrown in for good measure. The young witch, Meg Lytton, is also charged with looking after the imprisoned Lady Elizabeth at her half-sister, Queen Mary’s request.  She also has to hide her powers. These are pacey reads with plenty of historical detail and a good deal of intrigue, romance and suspense.

 

How To Hang a Witch, Adriana Mather

Contemporary-set high school paranormal drama with historical resonance. A new kid in school scenario, only this one is  set in Salem, and the new kid finds herself instantly unpopular simply because of her family name and its meaning in relation to the seventeenth-century witch trials (but yes, this is set in the 21st century!). The author makes interesting links between historical witch hunts and modern-day bullying in this novel packed with ghosts, witches, high school politics and a dash of romance.