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

35109486

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

32370233

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

32594919

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 9: Something Different

Both of these are fabulous reads which break boundaries or challenge expectations in terms of genre and/or style. Mortal Chaos is essentially a thriller, but it uses chaos theory as its organising concept, and is told in incredibly short chapters. Every Day has a body-free character at the centre known simply as A, who simply inhabits a different body each day, with no understanding of where the body’s usual inhabitant goes. A is therefore genderless, but they do have an age, as they have progressed through bodies of different ages over time.

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 – Something different 1

Last week’s theme was bullies. 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.

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.