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 Again, with an eye to broadening the representation available, the collection features stories by four previously unpublished writers, all of whom are bound to now become more well-known.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.

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 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.