Where Are All The Grandparents in YA?

Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m launching a new discussion feature!

‘Where Are All The…’ Wednesdays: an original feature where I attempt to answer your many ‘but where are all the [female friendships/non-fiction books/broom wielding space goats/ninja land mermaids] in YA?’ questions. In short, a way to find what you’re looking for in teen and young adult fiction from someone who has read far too much of it. Enjoy!

Today: grandparents! Perhaps you think YA turns up a blank when it comes to books that feature meaningful relationships with grandparents – it is, after all, so focused on youth and new experiences. It is probably fair to say that you’ll find YA exploring parental or sibling or romantic relationships more often, but for many kids and young people, grandparents play a significant role in their lives – from simply a memory of childhood holidays to having been raised by them, and there are YA books exploring inter-generational relationships out there. So if you are looking for YA where characters know their grandparents or which explore multigenerational ideas, here twelve choices that may be of interest…

(Note: this list is drawn from post-2000 YA, and from books I’ve read, so there may be more out there – but it’s a start!)

25909375Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones is satisfying, swoonworthy, big-hearted and bittersweet. When Wing’s popular older brother makes a catastrophic mistake, her world is thrown into chaos – and in the middle of it, she discovers running. What’s more, she’s fast. She finally has something that feels totally hers – and for a biracial, Ghanaian-Chinese teenager living in pre-Olympics 1990s Atlanta, that’s a new feeling. Paternal grandmother Granny Dee and maternal grandmother LaoLao live with Wing’s family and her relationship with them plays a prominent role in the book, particularly in exploration of cultural identity. A dash of magical realism sees Wing’s personal talismans, a lioness and a dragon, represent both women and their heritage. This was one of my favourite books of 2017 – read my review here!

31574295Margot and Me by Juno Dawson

London teenager Fliss is off to Wales to live with a grandmother she dislikes while her mother recovers from chemotherapy. Margot is so stern and unforgiving, Fliss can’t imagine how they’ll be able to stand six months with her. She’ll just have to keep her head down and concentrate on fitting in at a new school – but then she discovers a wartime diary at the back of a bookcase. Written during the Blitz, it reveals a whole new side to Margot, including a wartime romance – and a deeply buried secret. I really liked the premise of this book, as I’m a sucker for a story which merges historical and contemporary storylines. The diary entries are so evocative; they go long way to illustrating the idea that Margot was young once too, though her older incarnation plays a prominent role, too. Dawson takes her usual wall-to-wall approach to issue-driven YA here.

34325090I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

Angel Rahimi is a devoted fan of The Ark, a pop-rock boyband. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and her life will be complete. But as the teenage trio’s star rises, lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is headed for a downward spiral. When band and fan are thrown unexpectedly together, each starts to question whether this really is all they’ve ever wanted, and whether there’s a world worth visiting outside The Ark. For a book so tied to youth culture and fleeting fads, Oseman makes an effort to feature older characters. Angel’s friend Juliet lives with her nan, who sheds some light on how fandom may not be so new after all, while Jimmy retreats to his kindly, accepting grandad Piero in times of crisis. I Was Born For This is the most recent release on this list – at time of writing it’s not even out yet – so if you’d like more details, take a look at my review!

10594356Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

A twenty-first century teenager finds a novel way to deal with a break-up in Lindsey Leavitt’s Going Vintage: ditch the technology that allowed her boyfriend Jeremy to cheat and take life inspiration from a list of goals her grandmother wrote in 1962. All she needs to do is run for pep squad secretary (her school will need a pep squad first), host a fancy dinner party, sew a dress for homecoming, do something dangerous. and find a steady, if not one of her own then at least for her sister Ginnie (though with her Jeremy’s cousin Oliver on the scene, maybe for herself too). Both Mallory and Ginnie have a relationship with their grandmother, who’s seen both in the present and in the spirit of the book’s 1960s vibe. This one is a light read, with a sizeable dose of cute and quite a few funny lists.

25582543Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham has a propensity for writing hard-hitting, almost adult-crossover YA, and that’s certainly the case with Unbecoming, which focuses on three generations of women, and three generations of secrets, in one family. There’s Katie, a seventeen-year-old grappling with expectations and coming to terms with her sexual orientation. Her mother, Caroline, is uptight and demands a certain standard of behaviour from her children. It’s a standard that isn’t even met by her own mother – Katie’s grandmother – Mary, who despite suffering from Alzheimer’s has a fiery tongue and knows when she’s being made to feel unwelcome. Just like in Margot and Me, the past – particularly Mary’s wild youth – is explored through journals, letters and flashbacks. This one is quite long, but was nominated for the 2016 YA Book Prize.

23266378The Next Together by Lauren James

The Next Together has to be one of the UKYA books I recommend most often. It’s a warm, unusual, engaging début which draws on contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction. It’s got time travel, romance, humour, texting, crossdressing undercover war correspondents – something for everyone, really. In this case, it’s married lesbian grandmothers Nancy and Flo. While main character Kate spends much of the book falling in love, accidentally uncovering secrets that somehow always involve chases, and making ‘said the actress to the bishop’ jokes, she also spends time with her grandparents, who provide some emotional support and are always sure to offer a sensible cup of tea during crisis situations. You can read more about them (and just what exactly is going on in this timey-wimey wonder) in my review here.

22929578The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

This is a little something different, in case issue-driven contemporary or semi-historical fiction isn’t your style. Imagine Scandal but written by the likes of YA’s Gallagher Girls’ author Ally Carter. Set in Washington D.C., it sees sixteen-year-old Tess uprooted from her grandfather’s ranch when he develops dementia only to be reunited with her estranged older sister, Ivy, who leads a high-prestige existence salvaging political PR crises before they happen. Enrolled at Hardwicke Academy, Tess unwittingly becomes a fixer herself, facing teens’ problems the way her sister fixes problems for their rich and powerful parents. Tess was raised by her grandfather, but one of the major mysteries she has to solve is the murder of a classmate’s grandfather, too. If you like contemporary thrillers, this one might be more up your alley.

8621462A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls isn’t technically young adult fiction, but it is an older children’s book which has successfully wrenched the hearts of many a YA and even adult fan, so it’s going on the list. This one may already be on your shelf (it won the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway in the same year for both Ness and illustrator Jim Kay, and of course was made into a film), so if you haven’t read it, go and immediately pick it up (but bring Kleenex with you for the tears). It follows a young boy, Conor, who’s struggling to deal with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. His relationship with his fiercesome grandmother, icy and awkward at first, is one of the most important in the novel (almost as important as his escapades with a terrifying, metaphorical, storytelling monster-tree).

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older 

Another option if contemporary isn’t your thing: although Shadowshaper is set in painfully-cool Brooklyn, New York, it’s an urban fantasy. For fans of Tom Pollock and Cassandra Clare, it fuses a heady combination of music and art, magic and monsters. Teenager Sierra had plans for a perfect New York summer – hanging with her friends, skateboarding, finishing her dragon mural on the walls of an old high-rise – but that was before she started uncovering the secrets of a supernatural order known as the Shadowshapers – and the man who wants to wipe them out. What’s more, the dark events afflicting her neighbourhhood seem to have something to do with her abuelo, who has suffered a stroke by the time of the book but features in underlying themes of Sierra’s relationship with family and identity.

35817737The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

The Exact Opposite of Okay is another new release, though this one at least is already out, and explores lots of feminist issues with a modern contemporary YA lens, ideal if you like books by Holly Bourne or Louise O’Neill. When brash, confident Izzy is caught in a compromising position with a politician’s son at a party – and there are photos to prove it which send the media into a frenzy – she must brace herself for scandal and slut-shaming as well as other teenage problems, like trying to pursue her dream, in this case, to get into comedy. Izzy lives with her grandmother Betty, which is a real living situation for lots of young people, and they have a really strong, engaging relationship.

738148Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

Jenny Valentine’s novels are eccentric, quirky and a little chaotic, and her 2007 début is no exception. I intentionally haven’t included many books here that focus on the death of an elderly person, but rather ones where grandparents are full of life or their actions in life become important to the plot, but Finding Violet Park touches on both: when sixteen-year-old Lucas finds an abandoned urn belonging to deceased pianist Violet Park in a London cab office, he is propelled into a strange journey of discovery, and self-discovery, which sees him discovering more about Violet and facing up to his own damaged family situation. Valentine has him enlist the help of his grandparents, Pansy and Norman, and paints a sympathetic, if characteristically kooky, portrait of his bond with them.

28383390How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss

How Not To Disappear features a great aunt rather than a grandparent, but it gets an honourary shout-out because I liked it so much. It was also nominated for the 2017 YA Book Prize (I reviewed the shortlist in its entirety here) and longlisted for the Carnege Medal. With her family busy with her younger siblings, her best friend distracted by a new girlfriend and charismatic friend-turned-one-night-stand Reuben off to Europe to find himself, Hattie is facing an unexpected pregnancy seemingly alone – but then she ends up on a thought-provoking roadtrip with her gin-slinging great aunt Gloria, who is in the early stages of dementia. This tale of mouthy teenagers, hard truths, fading memories and unreliable exes is quintessential contemporary UKYA from start to finish.

 

Have you read any of these books? What would you like to see more of in YA? If you’d like to see more of these ‘where are all the…’ features, do let me know in the comments!

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a pair of reviews // Night Owls by Jenn Bennett and Second Best Friend by Non Pratt

It’s a veritable contemporary YA extravaganza on the blog today!

25327818Author(s): Jenn Bennett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 13th August 2017
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Meeting Jack on San Francisco’s night bus turns Beatrix’s world upside down. Jack is charming, attractive, and one of San Francisco’s most wanted graffiti artists – and he makes Beatrix wonder if art can be more than the medical drawing she’s confined herself to. 

By night and on city rooftops, Beatrix and Jack get to know each other – and each other’s secrets. But will these secrets come back to haunt him? Or will the skeletons in her family’s closet tear them apart?

Page-turning and often charming, I was surprised by how much I liked this contemporary standalone. I hadn’t heard much about Night Owls before I started reading, and I had to start and re-start reading it a couple of times before it really hooked me, but once it did I flew through it. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward, neat and fast.

Thrown together in a San Francisco of slick city streets and trendy yoga studios, Jack and Bex – a  rebellious, enigmatic graffiti artist grappling with his wealthy family’s secrets and a single-minded aspiring medical illustrator, daughter of a single mom – make an unlikely but believable pair. Their romance, which is to an extent built on friendly verbal sparring, features some miscommunication (or lack of communication), but also has considerable stretches of swoon, and there is frank communication about relevant teenage experiences like sex. Bennett’s finest achievement, however, is to conjure an almost sweeping sense of artistry and passion from two unexpected, and very different, types of art.

Bennett’s reveal of Jack’s motive and treatment of serious mental illness could have been better handled, and there’s a touch of ick factor to descriptions of Bex’s medical illustrations. The resolution relies on a suspicious number of characters existing only to offer to splash a considerable amount of money around, like very privileged guardian angels. The story needed more fleshed-out friendships and while Beatrix’s brother brings his boyfriend home to meet his family in one particularly memorable scene, the book as a whole perhaps isn’t the most memorable YA fiction.

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Set in slick San Francisco, this arty contemporary has faults but also a rich seam of swoon. For fans of Lydia Ruffles and Susane Colasanti.

352228491Author(s): Non Pratt 
Publisher: 
Barrington Stoke
Publication date:
15th January 2018
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Jade and Becky are best friends. But when Jade’s ex lets on that everyone thinks Becky is better than she is – at everything – Jade finds herself noticing just how often she comes second to her friend. 

When Jade is voted party leader ahead of her school’s mock general election only to discover she’ll be up against Becky, she sees it as a chance to prove herself. Surely if there’s one thing she can win, it’s this election – even if it means losing her best friend.

Second Best Friend is Non Pratt’s second novel for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher for readers with dyslexia, after 2016’s successful Unboxed. This standalone comes with the same colour-adjusted paper, clear font and novella length, but Barrington Stoke books are about more than just physically adjusting for reading difficulties – they’re a reminder that teenagers with dyslexia are interested in the same kind of content that fills the rest of the UKYA shelf. For this reason, Second Best Friend is full of school pressures, jealousy, drinking, and rapidly escalating sexual antics in utility rooms.

Like Unboxed – in which a group of teenagers return to their old school to open a time capsule – Second Best Friend has a straightforward premise: Jade and Becky find themselves facing off in their school’s mock election, and Jade, feeling insecure and always in Becky’s shadow, is determined to do whatever it takes to win. This plot is carried throughout and provides an undeniable sense of narrative drive. There’s plenty for readers to recognise, from politics and sibling rivalry to the drudgery of homework and the strange sense of competition that can overtake a school full of naive teenagers with nothing better to do.

Pratt packs Second Best Friend with real teen concerns and a veritable maelstrom of seesawing emotions. I liked the casual mention of Becky’s two mothers and even at a brisk pace, there’s a suitable denouement – though the ending is rather abrupt, and I noticed slight sense of simplicity to the story in a way I haven’t with some other Barrington Stoke titles. This may be down to the fact that the premise didn’t entirely click for me. I’ve been really enjoying seeing much-needed positive female friendship in YA – think Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder, or Pratt’s own Remix – and to see it reduced to jealousy and insecurity, mostly through the interference of a boy, without enough narrative space for deeper exploration or resolution here was a bit of shame. However, to Pratt’s credit, she tackles her themes with aplomb.

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Non Pratt’s second Barrington Stoke novella does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides user-friendly, utterly teenage drama with a thematic twist. 

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The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll // eerie, serious début joins the greyscale of Irish urban fiction

34457237Author(s): Sarah Carroll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 4th May 2017 (U.K.) / 20th June 2017 (U.S.)
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In an old, abandoned mill in the heart of Dublin, Sam and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for Sam neither of those things matter. It’s The Castle – a place of her own, a place like no other.

But hard as she tries to hold on to her world, things are starting to change. As the men in yellow coats close in on their refuge, and her ma spins further out of control, Sam finds herself seeking friendship in the ghosts of the mill, and questioning who is really there.

The Girl In Between – quite apart from being the latest addition to a seemingly never-ending string of recently published novels with ‘girl’ in the title – is the latest addition to the Irish YA scene. Its main character is technically not a teenager, but the seriousness of its themes will likely ensure a YA shelving in libraries, bookshops and reading lists alike. Set in a ‘Castle’ – an abandoned mill – and surrounded by a moat – really a canal – it explores the border between surviving and living, between love and fixation, between staying invisible and becoming a ghost.

Sam has only ever known what her mother has told her, and she’s been told to keep herself hidden in the Castle. Hidden away from the Authorities, the hi-vis jackets, the coppers and the do-gooders, who are all in on it together, and who will all drag her away into care if they so much as see her. But when it seems that their dilapidated home is under threat, Sam becomes desperate to save it from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal torment. With only Caretaker, the old man who’s slept outside the mill for decades, to answer her questions, she begins to seek out the ghosts the building, but soon starts to wonder exactly what kind of demons haunt the mill and her mother.

The Girl In Between is a relatively short read, written in an economical, idiosyncratic style. It aims more for class and voice than it does for description or elegant turns of phrase. It’s a contemporary only in the sense of implied timeframe and setting, but verges on mystery, a touch of thriller and above all the eerie. It’s not quite lush or risky enough to plunge into magical realism, but there’s a hint of the uncanny throughout. The protagonist’s youthful naivety makes for some unreliable narration, and readers are invited often obliquely to fill in the blanks and gaps in Carroll’s sketching of her life. There’s a dissonance between what Sam understands about the world and the overarching inkling that there’s something more going on. I called the twist quite early on, but I found the writing style jarring and the lack of drive in the plot off-putting. It’s the kind of book where a lot goes unsaid, and even then some key details, like characters’ names, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief.

As is the vogue in Irish YA, this book deals with heavy themes. What I wouldn’t give for a handful more Irish books in the vein of Sara Barnard, Non Pratt or Sarah Dessen – or even just some featuring teenagers who are capable, realistic, messy, even happy. This book’s confrontation of homelessness, neglect, addiction and substance abuse will garner plenty of serious head-nodding and murmurs of approval from adults on the literary scene. Carroll’s début has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s slang-strung, gritty urban fiction than it does with Moira Fowley-Doyle’s heady, surreal The Accident Season or Meg Grehan’s delicate, LGBTQ+ love story The Space Between – both novels which really brought something new and engaging to the table – but if you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan or Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson, you may find something to like here.

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The Girl In Between is contemporary-mystery with a touch of the eerie which will leave readers scrambling to unravel the resolution, but the writing style of the book just didn’t work for me. Fans of Deirdre Sullivan, Sheena Wilkinson and Keren David may find it’s more their style.

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Reviewing The YA Book Prize Shortlist

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phoro courtesy of @yabookprize

Today on the blog, I review the first half of the YA Book Prize 2017 shortlist! I set myself the challenge of reading the entire list – whether through new purchases, the library or my review pile – a little because I think that’s what shortlists are partly for and because it’s helped me work on short reviews, but also to give you all the details! First, some thoughts…

  • The shortlist features a mix of genres, but contemporary has, not unexpectedly, come out on top with five titles (Beautiful Broken Things, How Not To Disappear, Paper Butterflies, Orangeboy and Crongton Knights).
  • Adventure and mythology make their usual appearances, but I was surprised to see no historical fiction. The closest is probably How Not To Disappear, which delves into some of the letters and recollections of heroine Hattie’s great-aunt Gloria.
  • I was also surprised to see two technically-dystopian books shortlisted, but significantly both have major elements of other genres (The Call is fantasy-horror and Chasing the Stars is science fiction), perhaps reflecting the fact that pure dystopia really isn’t what teen readers are going in for anymore.
  • There are three débuts on the list: Beautiful Broken ThingsOrangeboy and Riverkeep. That’s compared with four in 2015 (Trouble, LobstersOnly Ever Yours, and Half Bad) and just two (The Art of Being Normal and The Sin Eater’s Daughter) in 2016.
  • This is a first-time nomination for all of the authors on the list. Louise O’Neill, winner of the inaugural YA Book Prize, remains the only author shortlisted twice.
  • Irish YA also gets a look-in this year! It’s so pleasing to see the recent outpouring of (much-improved and engaging) Irish children’s and teen fiction rewarded. I wrote more about Irish YA you might like here. 
  • The shortlist is diverse (five books feature protagonists of colour, three of them by BAME writers, two have disabled protagonists, and several deal in some way with mental health and sexuality). More so in terms of authorship than the recent Carnegie shortlist (which you can read more about, from people who know more about it, here and here) but less so than the Jhalak Prize (which was created specifically to recognise writing by authors of colour and saw the wonderful Girl of Ink and Stars on its inaugural shortlist).
  • For publishing nerds like me: with three shortlistings each, publishers Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books are tied for most all-time nominations.
  • Most strikingly, dark and blue-toned covers seem to be the key to being shortlisted this year! Only Orangeboy’s cream-and-colour concoction defies the trend.

25437747Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things is, in many ways, a love story – it’s just not the love story you’d expect. Quiet, clever Caddy longs for a Significant Life Event to make her teenage years more interesting, but she is about to find that sometimes, the most significant thing in life can be a friend, and those courageous – or foolish – enough to love her. Authentic, heart-shattering and disarming, this is a book which takes pleasure in the little details: in small joys, in sunflowers, in baking, in hilarious (realistic, and occasionally drunken) texts. Barnard’s second novel A Quiet Kind of Thunder is perhaps even more brilliant (it’s my forerunner for next year’s YA Book Prize) but I’d love to see this one win, if not because I’m quoted in it (you can read my reviews here and here), then for the prominence it gives to one of the most powerful and underrated of all loves: heartfelt female friendship.

28693621Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

OTHELLO! IN SPACE! So reads every press release for the brilliant Malorie Blackman’s latest, and it joins a plethora of YA retellings that claim descent from Shakespeare. Having read Othello, I was intrigued to see how Blackman would handle a retelling when I picked this up in the library. Chasing the Stars’ alternate narration follows siblings Aidan and Olivia, known as Vee, who are travelling back to Earth after surviving an epidemic onboard their spaceship, and Nathan, rescued while travelling in the other direction. Unfortunately, it’s overly long and what Blackman takes from Shakespeare’s original play – fanatical jealousy, raging suspicion, misogyny, and a severe case of insta-love – turn out to be pretty much the worst things to put in the book for me. I found the melodramatic, unhealthy relationship at the centre of the novel undermined its twisty sci-fi mystery-dystopia set-up. Fans of Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars or Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars (I’m sensing a bit of a theme…) might be more suited to this.

25365584The Graces by Laure Eve

Laure Eve was a terrific panellist at DeptCon last year (I wrote about the panel and Laure’s amazingly cool hair here), so her stylish approach to The Graces comes as no surprise. Definitely in the running for UKYA’s most hyped book of 2016, for a time The Graces, and its eye-catching cover, was all anyone in the blogosphere could talk about. Mysterious and richly written, this is a contemporary-pseudo-thriller wrapped in prose like incense. Unreliable narrator River introduces the reader to the beautiful and enigmatic Grace siblings, Summer, Thalia and Fenrin, who are rumoured to be witches by her small town. It’s River who becomes the most obsessed of all, ingratiating herself into their lives with dramatic consequences. However, among others things this novel’s dragging pace, unrealistic and unwieldy dialogue and sizeable dose of the “I’m not like other girls therefore I hate other girls” trope made it a less enjoyable read for me.

28383390How Not to Disappear
by Clare
Furniss

For fans of Juno Dawson’s Margot and Me and Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming, this tale of mouthy teenagers, ardent friendship, hard truths, family strife and unreliable exes is classic contemporary UKYA from start to finish. Teen pregnancy is a fairly well-travelled YA road – Non Pratt’s Trouble was nominated for the first YA Book Prize – but clever, hapless, sometimes overly loyal Hattie is more Holly Smale’s geeky Harriet than Pratt’s gobby Hannah, and it’s the weaving of her modern story with that of her elderly great aunt Gloria which makes How Not to Disappear really stand out. It’s quite a serious book but there are some brilliant dashes of warmth and humour and I loved Hattie’s chatty, sharp, charming emails. I spent most of the book wanting to punch her charismatic, self-centred friend-turned-love-interest Reuben in the face. He’s a scene-stealing character, but he’s a terrible human being. Hattie deserves better – way better. After a strong début with The Year of the Rat, Furniss’ second book was also longlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. 

34031732Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield

In Electric Monkey’s first YA Book Prize shortlisting, one of the more difficult reads on this year’s shortlist, Paper Butterflies, is unflinching, harrowing and harsh, flecked rather than brimming with hope. Split into two intertwining timelines – ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – it tells the story of June, who finds an escape from her suffering at the hands of her vindictive stepmother and stepsister through her friendship with Jacob, also known as Blister, and his family. June’s relationship with Blister is reminiscent of Holly Bourne’s short story in the UKYA anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas, but its new, bright colourful cover is thematically deceptive. A trigger warning for themes of horrific abuse means this isn’t one I’d recommend on the basis of its shortlisting alone; it isn’t exactly a book to enjoy, but may be your kind of thing if you have the stomach for writers like Louise O’Neill and Tanya Byrne, or indeed Heathfield’s début novel Seed. Paper Butterflies works best when it’s building extraordinary and immediate empathy not just for but with June, showcasing her voice and agency both within and beyond struggle.

What do you think of (the first half of) this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist? Are there any other books you’d like to have seen included?

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a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

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A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

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At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

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The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson // so full of sunshine it’ll give you a tan

17838528Author: Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 3 May 2016
Category: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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From college dreams (good grades, summer programs, med school) to great friends (level-headed Palmer, movie-mad Sabrina, emoji-fluent Toby), Andie has always had it together. The only child of a Congressman with a reputation to protect and the media spotlight to withstand, she can’t afford not to. But when political scandal sees her father locked out of office and her pre-med summer plans go down the drain, Andie is faced for the first time with finding out what – and who – she loves when she doesn’t have to be the person the world expects her to be. Ideal for fans of Sarah Dessen, Rainbow Rowell and Jenny Han, this is the story of a girl who finds that, for once, the unexpected may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

There’s a lot I’ve been asking for from YA in The Unexpected Everything. It has a strong plot which keeps momentum right to the last pages (and I liked the ending, too). Dogs who survive until the end? Dozens of them. Cameos from some of Matson’s best-loved characters? Several. Teens in long-term, committed relationships? Check. Pizza, happiness, scavenger hunts? Check. Teens who get to be positive and driven and are anything but apathetic? Check. A heroine whose intelligence, kindness and ambitions are celebrated? Check.

The book’s romance is cute and quirky. It’s in natural moments that Andie and the bashful, bookish Clark find each other. It won’t win awards for hottest romance of the year, but the string of choices and coincidences – if Andie’s father hadn’t been rocked by political scandal, leaving her to pick Maya’s job offer off the noticeboard at the diner; if Clark hadn’t agreed to house-sit that summer; if he hadn’t called for help wrangling a giant Pyrenees; if that same giant Pyrenees hadn’t been ill and given them the chance to remedy a disastrous first date – which bring them together lead to a relationship you can see lasting. Tom and Palmer are also a great example of the fact that not all teen relationships need to be insta-love will-they-won’t-they romances.

Unfortunately for a novel with ‘unexpected’ in the title, the book is a little predictable. It’s slow to start, the setting is generic, the pacing needed to be tighter, and I guessed twists early on. Tired tropes (like break-ups just to add some unnecessary obstacle to a relationship) seem thrown in because they ‘have’ to be, not because they need to be. Friendship  takes pride of place, though I occasionally found myself wishing for more laughter and messiness from it (sometimes you really just need writers to remember that being a teenager also often means being a shambles). This book has characters trying so hard to be perfect it’s like they’re not talking to each other in any real way. However, Matson does take time to explore Andie’s rebuilding of her relationship with her dad, a politician who’s spent so much time working that their lives are practically on different planets, and fans of Rainbow Rowel will appreciate excerpts from an in-world Game of Thrones-style book series. 

The Unexpected Everything has a lot going for it, but I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the impact of storytelling light and shadow, of books as rippling and hypnotic as the open sea, before I read this contemporary. Opening this book was like looking at the sun. Or possibly a tanning bed. It’s just a blast of heat, so intent on roasting your retina to let you see anything. It doesn’t reach into your heart or leave you awash with highs and lows – though it benefits from Matson’s competent pen and it still makes for a satisfying read.

4Stars.fw

Generous, warm and packed with sun, The Unexpected Everything is a page-turning read, longer and chunkier than you’d expect. It’s full of things I’ve been looking for in YA, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable four-star read.

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