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.

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.