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

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.

Recommendations: Great Examples of Friendship in Recent Children’s Books and YA

I thought it might be good to recommend a few books that model good friendships. This seems especially useful in YA, where the relationship focus is so often on romance rather than friendship, although the reality in teen life is that a lot of emotional energy and time is devoted to friends.

Remix, Non Pratt

YA Contemporary about a ‘best friend’ relationship and all the complexities that entails. It takes place over the weekend of a music festival and deals with fandom, loyalty and the ways friendships change as teenagers get older and start to have sexual relationships. Dual narration by the two protags, with convincing voices. Authentic and engaging for KS5 and 4.

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

YA Fantasy heist novel about a group of outsiders who are effectively forced by circumstances to work together. Their relationship (as they negotiate it) is what makes this brilliant story work so well. The representations in this book are also fab with a truly diverse cast including in terms of disability and sexuality. Multiple narration, so you get to know each character’s outlook. First in a duology. Good for KS5 and 4

Mind the Gap, Phil Earle

YA Contemporary about a boy who’s falling apart since his Dad died, so his best mate helps him recover something of his Dad to help him cope. A really touching story which, unusually, covers male friendship. This is a Barrington Stoke book, so it’s dyslexia friendly – printed in a special font on yellowish, non-glare paper and using a controlled vocabulary. (If you’re unfamiliar with Barrington Stoke’s brilliant work on ‘super-readable books’, do check out their website.) Good for KS3-4

Murder Most Unladylike, Robin Stevens

MG Mystery featuring a fantastic friendship at the heart between Daisy, a classic 1920s boarding-school girl and Hazel, from Hong Kong, who doesn’t always quite know the social norms of the UK. Relationships with other girls at the school also feature and become increasingly important in this hugely popular murder mystery series, narrated by Hazel who plays a ‘Watson’-type role in the girls’ Detective Society. Great for KS3

Perijee and Me, Ross Montgomery

MG Fantasy focusing on Perijee who is an alien being who appears on the beach one day and is at first kept secret but then must be protected from the world of adults. Perijee arrives just when Caitlin is feeling really lonely as her parents are very busy with important work and school is hard for her, but Perijee grows to an enormous and impossible-to-hide size and then the story becomes a mad chase. This is an unpredictable, zany story with a lovely emotional heart. Great for KS3.

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.

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.

Reading Recommendation Slide 4: Black History Month

Four fab Black-authored texts which educate and entertain in equal measure for this week.

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.

This week’s theme is Black History Month, since that starts next weekend.

Download the slide here:

4 – Black History Month

Last week’s was cathartic reads. Some links will be thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

If you’d like a little more info on these books (including their value for BHM), there are brief reviews for The Hate U Give, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo and Orangeboy in this week’s main blog post.

If you haven’t already seen it, I have longer posts on A Change Is Gonna Come, as that’s been my Book Of The Month for September. There’s an introductory post explaining why Stripes commissioned this fabulous Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic-authored anthology at the start of the month, along with some brief classroom ideas on the topic of representation. Then, later in the month, I posted more of a review along with a set of AQA Eng Lang GCSE paper 1 questions on the opening of one of the stories. I’ll be using The Hate U Give as October’s Book of the Month and following a similar pattern, with classroom ideas for A Level Eng Lang and another GCSE paper 1 q.

Event Report: A Change Is Gonna Come in Birmingham

I was fortunate enough to attend a panel event celebrating my Book of the Month, A Change Is Gonna Come, yesterday evening. It took place in Birmingham Waterstones, and we were treated to discussions from two of the authors, Patrice Lawrence and debut Yasmin Rahman, chaired by superstar blogger Mariam Khan (@helloiammariam).

Much of the discussion was around the need for this book, the spaces for BAME voices in publishing and representation issues more broadly. I thought I’d share with you some of the top comments I noted:

  • There are more BAME writers in this one volume than are being published in YA in the UK this year. Ouch.
  • Both authors spoke about wanting to contribute to a breadth of representation, to help young people be able to find themselves in books. Patrice Lawrence specifically talked about being a child who was never like the heroine in books (‘girls described as beautiful never had my skin colour, nose shape or lips like me’) and was saddened by Yasmin’s agreement, as she is much younger (‘Still? This is why we need this book.’)
  • Both authors also agreed that there is pressure on BAME writers in particular to be seen as representing their whole ethnicity when they write, whereas that pressure does not seem to apply to white writers, so whatever a Jamaican heritage writer does for example would be seen as therefore reflective of Jamaican writers, rather than purely themselves. There was some discussion about this also being true in the world in general: that you are expected to reflect the community in how you behave/dress/generally comport yourself, so this naturally also carries across to writing.
  • It was very clear that this collection is not just ‘for’ BAME readers. Obviously, there is a desire to reach readers of different heritages who may not have been able to find themselves in books before, but it is also important that white readers are able to read outside of themselves (ourselves), which we haven’t had enough opportunity to do in the past. I would add that this is a really important aspect for empathy and understanding. It’s really hard for people to see past themselves when they are only ever presented with images like themselves.
  • I was struck by Patrice Lawrence’s generosity and humility when asked about her feelings on winning the YA Book Prize and the YA category of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with her debut novel Orangeboy (which is fab, by the way). She talked about how pleased she was that the award proved that there was an appetite and a market for BAME stories and that it might encourage publishers to be bolder in publishing them. She had talked earlier about how hard it had been to get the book published, with only one editor at one publishing house being willing to take a chance on it.
  • Both writers, and Mariam as chair were very complimentary to Stripes the publisher for their work on this project. It represents the start of a real commitment to increasing BAME representation in YA for them. They took on a (paid) editorial mentee to work on the collection (who has since gained an editorial role in another publishing house), who is credited in the book. They have since advertised for an editor of BAME background and are currently (through September) open to submissions from BAME writers, so this wasn’t a one-shot, trend-hopping thing for them.

It was a great event and if you have anything similar near you, or have the opportunity to book a #ChangeBook school event, grab it with both hands. Contact Charlie at Stripes’ Marketing/Publicity for more info.

Introducing September’s Book of the Month: YA BAME Anthology A Change is Gonna Come

This book is a superb introduction to a range of BAME writers working in the UK today. In this collection, they all tackle the theme of ‘change’ in short stories and poems for a Young Adult audience. The collection features many well-known authors such as Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence and Nikesh Shukla, but the publishers also held open submission slots for previously unpublished and and unagented writers and the collection thus introduces new voices: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy. The project demonstrates a serious attempt to tackle the issue of BAME representation in YA writing, and since its publication, the publisher has also announced other proactive measures to increase opportunities for writers in this under-represented area.

The stories and poems cover a range of genres: contemporary, historical, fantasy, mythical and topics from personal loss to dramatic and fantastical transformations. (A fuller review detailing individual texts will follow later in the month.)

Lesson on representation issues and stealth-recommending the collection to students

Starter to highlight the gap in representation: how many Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic writers or characters from fiction can students come up with? In pairs, students could work separately on either characters or authors each, and then pair and share their ideas.


Non-fiction work: the collection features a thoughtful and thought-provoking foreword by Darren Chetty (@rapclassroom).  If you’re considering using this book in the classroom, or having copies in your classroom library, a lesson based on the foreword would be a constructive way to highlight the book to students. This text can be used to open up debate on representation and interventions such as this project. Students could be invited to discuss issues such as:

  • the eternal problem of minority writers being expected to record only the minority experience (e.g. gay lit reduced to ‘coming out’ stories)
  • the question of privileged writers writing from minority positions (but what about imagination?)
  • public perceptions of special collections such as this one
  • how/why increased and improved representation is important to minority or less privileged groups

Additional resource: a further text that could supplement this work is Tanya Byrne’s excellent article for the Guardian on the issue of BAME representation and resistance. (There are a couple of examples of strong language in this piece, so you may want to use caution with younger students). Again, this is a great text to open up debate, and it raises the issues particularly clearly. Students could be asked to trace Byrne’s arguments and/or look at how she gathers and presents her evidence in order to convince her audience. Tracking this through the piece via a flow diagram is a useful way of visualising it.


Creative approach: students could be asked to plan and perhaps also produce their own narrative on the theme of change. This may (or may not) be followed by a discussion of the stories and poems in the collection themselves.


I think if I had the space to use this anthology like a set text, I would teach from the foreword as discussed here, then set a creative writing challenge, then explore the stories. In reality, of course, it’s more likely that I’ll only be able to sneak in one extract as a means of ‘teasing’ the book and hopefully encouraging some students to read it. I think both non-fiction and lit-focused tasks have the chance to do that with different classes, depending on their interests.


A Change is Gonna Come is out now from Stripes, a division of Little Tiger Press. For a poster of the book for your classroom, contact @StripesBooks on Twitter (they did say I should tell people this!)