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?

Fab Fiction Friday: 3 Great Recent UKYA Reads

For this Fab Fiction Friday post, I’m micro-reviewing three books by fab UKYA authors that I’ve read relatively recently, all of which are gripping stories with great diverse representation. The first two of these have ‘incidental’ representation – the stories are not ‘about’ the character’s identity as such (although it may add complications to their situation). It is important that these stories exist in order that readers can see a range of characters experiencing adventures – otherwise we can find ourselves left with the situation in which I found myself in the classroom a few years ago:

We were covering ‘narrative writing’ for the GCSE and, frustrated by the weirdness of my 70% Asian class naming all their characters ‘Bob’ and ‘Susan’ (and equally ‘old white person’ names), I asked them why they weren’t writing about ‘Mohammed’ or ‘Sufiya’. They were stunned into silence. Eventually, one boy answered, ‘But Miss, we’re supposed to write real stories. Stories aren’t about us. They’re about you.’

That’s when I knew we had a problem. A problem that books like these are addressing. It’s not just race, though – when I was growing up, as a working-class kid, there weren’t many books about me, either.

My Box-Shaped Heart by Rachael Lucas

(from Goodreads): My Box-Shaped Heart is a powerful story of an unlikely friendship from Rachael Lucas, author of The State of Grace.

Holly’s mum is a hoarder, and she is fed up with being picked on at school for being weird . . . and having the wrong clothes . . . and sticking out. All she wants is to be invisible. She loves swimming, because in the water everyone is the same.

Ed goes to the swimming pool to escape the horrible house he and his mum have been assigned by the women’s refuge. In his old life he had money; was on the swim team; knew who he was and what he wanted. In his old life his dad hit his mum.

Holly is swimming in one direction and Ed’s swimming in the other. As their worlds collide they find a window into each other’s lives – and learn how to meet in the middle.

genre(s): contemporary

representation notes: British working-class (specifically Scottish), blended family with complex relationships, mentally ill parent, domestic abuse

read it for: a touching but not sentimentalised story of first love and growing up; a vividly-drawn emotional journey with pace and real action; gentle (rather than ‘gritty’) treatment of issues but never sanitised

This would be appropriate as an ‘eye-opening’ read for young readers, or potentially as a comfort for those in similar circumstances. I’d also recommend it for swimming lovers.

Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

(from Goodreads): When angels start falling from the sky, it seems like the world is ending. Smashing down to earth at extraordinary speeds, wings bent, faces contorted, not a single one has survived.

As the world goes wild for angels, Jaya’s father uproots the family to Edinburgh intent on catching one alive. But Jaya can’t stand this obsession and, still reeling from her mother’s recent death and the sudden disappearance of her ex-girlfriend, she’s determined to stay out of it.

Then something incredible happens: an angel lands right at Jaya’s feet – and it’s alive …

genre(s): fantasy (angels), contemporary

representation notes: MC is biracial lesbian with Sri Lankan heritage, chronic illness/disability

read it for: a beautiful story about dealing with grief and loss – and love; a character-led, very ‘literary’ feeling novel with fantasy elements with a solid focus throughout on relationships and emotions; an original premise that is explored in an interesting and very human way

This is a book with wide appeal, I think: there are almost post-apocalyptic elements with the angels seeming to herald the end of days, as well as the strong relationship and character focus that contemporary fans crave.

We Are Young by Cat Clarke

(from Goodreads): On the same night Evan’s mother marries local radio DJ ‘Breakfast Tim’, Evan’s brand-new step-brother Lewis is found unconscious and terribly injured, the only survivor of a horrific car crash.

A media furore erupts, with the finger of blame pointed firmly at stoner, loner Lewis. Everyone else seems to think the crash was drugs-related, but Evan isn’t buying it. With the help of her journalist father, Harry, she decides to find out what really happened that night.

As Evan delves deeper into the lives of the three teenagers who died in the crash, she uncovers some disturbing truths and a secret that threatens to tear her family – and the community – apart for ever…

genre(s): contemporary

representation notes: bisexuality, mental health

read it for: thriller-like pacing and gritty but never sensationalist treatment of some difficult issues (if you want specific trigger warnings which are too spoilery for me to share, check Goodreads first)

As with all Cat Clarke titles, this handles complex and disturbing issues well, treating young adults with the respect they deserve. There are a few low ratings on Goodreads because people have bought into the ‘snowflake’ rhetoric, but a book like this may be just what a young person struggling with serious problems (or having come out the other side) needs – to know they’re not alone.

Reading Recommendations Slide 22: International Women’s Day

These books all offer something relevant for International Women’s Day this week (March 8th). Buffalo Soldier and Things a Bright Girl Can Do both provide historical perspective on the position of women, while Asking For It and What’s A Girl Gotta Do? are both focused on the contemporary situation. Asking For It is suitable for older students as its discussion of rape is fairly brutal at times (although as Emma doesn’t remember the incident, there isn’t a description of the event as such. I wouldn’t personally give this one to yr10 and below though as the ideas are mature).

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 – International Women’s Day

The last theme posted was fairy tales. 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 18: for LGBT History Month

These five books are all good reads to explore during February, which is LGBT History Month, as they all offer great representation for a range of sexualities and gender identities. The slide shows which identity is particularly highlighted in each book, to help student selection. There is also a plug for @QueerYA on Twitter, who recommend a range of great LGBT-friendly books and will point to other relevant accounts, helping students to find a way in.

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: 4 – LGBT History Month

The last theme posted was film and photography (creatively-minded characters). 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.

The State of Grace Review and Lesson Ideas for KS3, GCSE and A Level Lang on Gender representation (Book of the Month in-depth)

Age Range: 12+ (according to publisher’s website; I would happily use this throughout the secondary school – plenty to engage older teens, nothing ‘unsuitable’ for yr7/8, although they will be less interested in the romance aspects)

Themes: family, friends, being different, romance

Narrative style and genre: Strong first-person narration plants you firmly in Grace’s world and gives you clear access to her thinking. She is highly self-aware and able to explain in-depth how her world is different to everyone else’s being painfully aware of her differences.

The opening passage (and a few other sections dotted here and there) are brilliant for explaining what Asperger’s is like – see my last post on this book for an analysis task on this.

The State of Grace is a brilliant contemporary YA which centres on Grace, an autistic girl who is just trying to negotiate the world. In the novel she deals with family issues, the problems of not easily fitting in with what school wants, and the complexities of first love. It’s a great story, which also teaches about autistic experience. The author is autistic herself and has an autistic child, so it’s written with clear knowledge and understanding that there is a range of experience within the condition.

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Teaching Ideas: Gender and Book Sales

One thing that makes me a little sad about this book is that it its cover is coded in a way that is designed to mark it as ‘girly’, which reduces its potential audience. But probably the publisher believed that boys would not be likely to read it anyway. There is a belief among many adults – parents, publishers and teachers included – that boys are reluctant to read books about girls, and that is problematic for various reasons.

This idea can be seen as contributing to a society where women are seen as ‘other’ and potentially even less than human (witness the size of the sexual harassment/assault scandals we’re seeing at the moment). But of course it also simply reduces the art available to boys and men as they grow – concepts centred around a male character are seen as universal, while those centred on a woman are reduced to ‘women’s interest’. Obviously, this is not always the case, and those few exceptions may be showing that the world is more than ready for a wider range of stories. This article, citing writer Shannon Hale on how her ‘Princess Academy’ books are marketed and received, and providing clear feminist analysis of the issues might also be useful.

These concepts could be introduced for a media lesson at KS3, a non-fiction writing lesson for KS4 and as peripheral to the gender topic for A Level Lang.

For KS3, I would first allow students to read the opening extract from the publisher’s page, so that they have some familiarity with the content. They can then discuss the idea of ‘boy’ books and ‘girl’ books, with some careful questioning. I might give them prompts in groups such as:

  • Do you believe that there are topics that boys and girls are naturally more interested in? What kinds of topics would they be?
  • Do you think a book with a girl character is more ‘for’ girls and a book with a boy character is more ‘for’ boys? Why/why not?
  • Are you aware of having read and enjoyed a book that you think was ‘supposed’ to be for the other gender? What was it?

They could go on to discuss the book’s cover and then create alternative covers for the book which are less ‘girly’.

For KS4, I might choose some obviously boy-targeted and girl-targeted novel covers (or even go to the adult shelves for books the students are less likely to be) and pop them on a powerpoint with the 200-word challenge prompt:

Write an article that argues FOR OR AGAINST the idea of marketing books and films by gender.

You should include:

  • a sentence that opens with an adverb (e.g. obviously, clearly)
  • a rhetorical question
  • a reference to a well-known film, book or myth
  • a sentence of five words or fewer
  • a metaphor
  • the word ‘segregation’ (n) or ‘segregate’ (vb): the division of people into groups against their will/ to divide people… e.g. This is nothing less than segregation/ This idea segregates us

For KS5 Eng Lang, I might open with some covers, discuss their graphology and then dive into a couple of blurbs to do a bit of language analysis. If time allows, you could look at a body of four of five blurbs aimed at each gender to try to show methodology and model investigation practice.  Alternatively, you could take a more theoretical route and ask students to relate the ideas of boys not being expected to read about girls/from girls perspectives to representation theories. It might be a good way to make muted/dominant group theory a bit more real world, for example.

Introducing November’s Book of the Month: The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas (including GCSE English Lang teaching idea)

This gorgeous YA novel, focusing on Grace’s normal teen issues, handled in her atypical way, is a brilliant #ownvoices look at Asperger’s. Grace’s way of engaging with the world is clearly filtered through the symptoms and differences she experiences and these are rendered crystal-clear for the reader right from the start. The plot deals with changes around Grace’s family life and friends – there is a romance plot – and there is plenty to get caught up  in.

It’s very easy to root for Grace, and Rachael Lucas’s first-person narration plunges us into her thoughts and feelings with ease, with some interesting direct address telling about her unique take on the world.

[Note that the cover is very ‘feminine’, but there’s no reason that the lesson tasks described couldn’t be used in mixed classrooms. Some of the book’s content may be of more interest to some girls than some boys, but the book is not ‘unsuitable’ for boys to see – do check out the extract below to help you decide. The issue of ‘girls’ books/’boys’ books will be raised in my next post on this book, by the way…]

The publisher’s website has the opening extract available to download and this could be shown to pupils as the focus for a lesson activity (although of course I would also recommend picking up a copy or three for your school/classroom library).

The opening two paragraphs are very suitable for an AQA Eng Lang paper 2 q3 type task focusing on language (although I know that this is likely to focus on the older text – the skills are the same, it’s all practice and I’m keen to boost confidence and showcase worthwhile/enjoyable outside-of-lesson reading).

Show the extract and ask ‘Looking at the first two paragraphs, how has the writer used language to present an impression of being autistic?’ The passage in question is brilliant for discussion of the impact of imagery and the verbs used to create a sense of repeated/constant happenings.

The State of Grace is out now from My Kinda Book at Pan Macmillan in the UK.

Look out for a more detailed review in a fortnight, with another teaching idea.

Recommendations: Outsiders in YA

Although arguably all YA deals with outsiders, I’ve picked four of my recent reads to recommend to you that deal with this theme particularly well and are worth recommending to students. They all have a contemporary setting, but the first is a sci-fi in terms of plot.

More of Me, Kathryn Evans

In this amazing contemporary UK YA sci-fi, sixteen-year-old Teva hides the weirdest secret from her school friends (and, in fact, everyone except her mother): there are literally more of her at home. Each year, she separates and casts off her old self, to leave it behind. The novel mostly focuses on how she faces knowing this is coming up and she’ll have to be trapped at home while the ‘new’ Teva lives in the outside world, all while last year’s Teva (known as ‘Fifteen’) is sulking at her for stealing her friends and boyfriend, and she’s dealing with the normal issues of school, A Level choices and UCAS (how on earth would she go to uni etc?). Fascinating concept, rendered beautifully.

The Circus, Olivia Levez

This great UK YA contemporary begins with Willow running away from her posh boarding school (which she’s attempted before). Her father may be wealthy but his attention is all on his young fiance and Willow decides to run away to the circus to discover her heritage – that her mother was a performer is pretty much all she knows/remembers about her. Most of the novel focuses on her ‘adventures’ on the streets and with the circus, which is a very different life to the one Willow is used to. Great characterisations and lots to think about here.

Indigo Donut, Patrice Lawrence

Patrice Lawrence won the YA Prize and the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize last year for her debut Orangeboy, and this is just as accomplished and thoughtful. Indigo is troubled and she sees herself as empty in the middle (hence ‘donut’). The novel uses dual narrative focus and is shared between Indigo and Bailey, who is also an outsider of sorts, thanks to his ginger afro. I really liked that the families in this book were so unconventional in different ways: Bailey’s family are dull and middle-class in lots of ways – his Dad’s a social worker and Bailey tries to help Indigo, but doesn’t always get it right (as teenagers won’t…). (it’s also nice that it’s the girl who’s ‘problematic’ and the boy who tries to do the caring work). Look out for this one on a future slide about families… Fab representations, lots to be eye-opening for students in different situations.

One Of Us Is Lying, Karen McManus

This one was on the ‘multiple narrators’ slide and has been described as ‘The Breakfast Club plus murder’ – do I really need to say more? In terms of outsiders, one of the four narrators/suspects, Nate ticks all the boxes of classic teen misfit: broken home, criminality, drugs etc and is beloved by most readers of the book. Although this is a big US hit and obviously I do love to champion the UK books, I can’t help but recommend this one, as it is beautifully done. Four voices, but they are distinct and separately knowable.

The Hate U Give Review and GCSE Resources (Book of the Month In-Depth)

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes:  race, equality, justice

Narrative style and genre: The novel is contemporary YA, told in first person present tense to maximise immediacy and tension. The blurb tells us that Starr’s unarmed best friend is shot by police, so this comes as no surprise in chapter two, but everything up to this point feels like it’s pulling you there, and everything afterwards unfolds as a mystery, but with a degree of inevitability.

This is a really important novel. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and written by a young black woman with an authentic voice and heaps of credibility, but perhaps even more importantly for this message, this is a incredibly well-executed story with strong characters. It’s easy to lose yourself in and readers (especially those of the target age range) will readily engage with Starr’s moral quandaries as she navigates the uncertainties that follow Khalil’s shooting. There is plenty here for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) readers to relate to and feel represented by, as well as tonnes for white readers to learn from, without feeling preached at or unfairly judged.

Easily one of the best US YA contemporaries I’ve read in years.

The pull quote on the back would make a great starter to introduce the novel to a class. Since the blurb clearly reveals the shooting, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with showing this to a class before using the GCSE qs below, as this would  make their inferences more definite and clearly is the intended reader experience.


Here is a set of GCSE-style questions on the opening to Chapter 2. This can be found in one of the downloadable preview excerpts online if you don’t have the book, but obviously I strongly recommend getting hold of a copy for your school library if not for yourself.

These questions are based on AQA, as it’s what I have experience of, and I’m using Eng Lang Paper 1 as that’s the most likely place for a book like this to show up (and this section is great for structure and tension, so I’ve focused on questions 2 to 4). I’d probably use this as a group task, with different groups in a Yr11 class working on different questions depending on what they most needed to work on at this point. Then we could have a compare and consolidate session with three ‘mastermind’ groups with the aim of between them coming up with every possible point to be made (like a master mark scheme) for the question, before feeding back and explaining ‘their’ question to the class.

Use pages 24 and 25 – the beginning of Chapter 2 – as the full extract (‘When I was twelve,’ to ‘that’s even better.’).

2. Look in detail at page 24. How does the writer use language here to create a sense of Starr’s parents?

  • You could include the writer’s choice of:
  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms  (8 marks)

3. You now need to think about the whole of the source. This text comes near the beginning of a novel. How has the writer structured it to interest you as a reader?

  • You could write about:
  • What the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
  • how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops
  • any other structural features that interest you  (8 marks)

4. Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the source, from ‘Momma fussed’ (paragraph 4) to the end.

A student, having read this part, said: “The writer really shows that something big is going to happen. She creates a lot of tension in the narrative voice, the action and the hints she gives.”

To what extent do you agree?

In your response, you could:

  • write about your own impressions of the tension created
  • evaluate how the writer has created tension
  • support your opinions with references to the text.    (20 marks)

I do hope somebody out there uses this. Please do let me know!

Introducing October’s Book of the Month: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (including A Level Language teaching idea)

This YA novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is a great contemporary pick for Black History Month. It tells the story of Starr, a 16 year-old girl, who is with her friend Khalil when he is shot by a policeman after being pulled over (this is not a spoiler – it happens in chapter 2 and is covered in the blurb). The novel treats the aftermath of this event in Starr’s life, which is complicated by the fact that she lives in a poor (black) neighbourhood and attends a ‘posh’ (white) school. The novel beautifully presents issues facing Americans of colour today (and not just Americans, for some aspects at least), without being didactic or preachy – it’s a damn good story, extremely well told. The movie of the book is being filmed at the time of writing, with Amandla Sternberg (Rue from the Hunger Games) as Starr.

There are excerpts available online, and I’m basing lesson ideas off those, but please do buy the book for your school/classroom libraries – you will not regret it.

A Level Language Lesson Idea: Language Diversity (AQA spec)

Extract to use: opening pages (7-13 – 4 double pages): find one here at the Reading Agency (if that doesn’t work, it is worth googling as there are others and not all of them work from school accounts)

Copy 4 spreads and shrink to A5 each. Arrange onto A3 and give one copy between 2 students.  Students to highlight/annotate examples of language which reflect different aspects of the narrator’s/characters’ identity (teen, black, US) and feedback.

[suggestions – teen: semantic fields of fashion, music, school, ‘hoes’; black: elongation of ‘shit’ to ‘shiiit’ (or is that teen? – discuss), dope (ditto), stank-eye, gon’ say; US: bougie, third grade]

The Hate U Give is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

Look out for my more detailed review and a GCSE Language activity on this title (likely to be questions for an AQA Paper 1) in 2 weeks.