“What's the best book you've read recently?”
As an author, it's a question I get asked a lot. When I'm not writing, I'm incredibly lucky to be a school librarian. This means I get to explore stunning new writing for teenagers and it is why I often end up recommending YA (young adult) books to my friends, most of whom could not be classed as young adults.
If you haven't watched Netflix's Dumplin' yet, I recommend you do. If you have, you'll know that it's an empowering movie about family relationships, queerness and subverting beauty standards. What you might not know is that it's adapted from a novel you probably haven't read. Its author, Julie Murphy, also wrote one of my favourite recent reads: beautiful Ramona Blue, about a girl living in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, trying to figure out if she likes girls or boys or both.
When I think of the best books I read in 2018, many of them were YA. Understandably, YA fiction is marketed towards young adults, but I think that by not reading it, we older adults are missing a trick.
Modern YA fiction handles, deftly and frankly, some of the most difficult issues we encounter as human beings. I wish I could say the publishing industry has got diversity nailed down, but it hasn't, yet. What I can say is that it's really trying and that outsiders as brave protagonists are an increasingly common theme.
I was a troubled teenager and I wonder how different things might have been had I had access to relatable books like the ones I read today. I got called “psycho” and had the shower-scene theme screeched at me in the street, because word got out I was on antidepressants. Sick with an eating disorder, the idea that being fat wasn't the end of the world would have blown my mind. I don't think I knew that bisexualuality was a thing, even though I was it, and surely the only happy ending was to land in the arms of a gorgeous boy?
I wish I could say the publishing industry has got diversity nailed down, but it hasn't, yet. What I can say is that it's really trying and that outsiders as brave protagonists are an increasingly common theme
Through reading YA, I have discovered books that skilfully discuss race, sexuality, gender, disability, mental health, bullying, bereavement, eating disorders, abusive relationships, addiction – all the difficult stuff. My favourite YA novels take even the darkest of subjects and deal with them, with often acerbic humour and wonderful, rolling prose. The overarching messages are that the world isn't always just, that resilience pays off and that heroes don't have to fit in.
The best modern YA books are just too good to miss, whatever your age, and there's way more to them than cheerleaders, jocks and magic (although there are still plenty of those, if they're your thing). If you got a book token for Christmas, consider bypassing the bestsellers and heading to the YA section of the bookshop for your next great read. I could recommend YA books well into 2020, but to get you started, here are just a few of my favourites:
Starr lives in two worlds: her poor, predominantly black neighbourhood and her wealthy, mainly white school. Both are rocked when she witnesses the murder of her innocent friend at the hands of a policeman and she has to decide the right thing to do. The movie version is outstanding, but as I advise my students: always read the book first.
This heartbreaker opens with the death of two teenagers in a car crash in Saudi Arabia. People think they know everything about the kind of girl who'd be in a car with a boy, and the story rewinds to show us how they came to be there. It's a fascinating novel, set in a place most of us have only ever read about in the news, where the stakes for free-spirited teens are terrifyingly high.
Oh, another death opener! But this is an absolute beauty. Witty Cameron Post was kissing a girl the night her parents died, which makes her feel unfounded guilt. When she gets caught with another girl, her religious aunt believes there's only one place for her: God's Promise, a camp where she'll be “cured” of her “same-sex attraction”. The film adaptation, directed by Desiree Akhavan, is exquisite; watch it after reading.
Holly Bourne writes masterfully about mental health for teenagers, knocking out taboos with her humour and badass feminism. I heartily recommend all her books, but this one, about bipolar sufferer Olive, who heads to Camp Reset in search of normality, is especially good. Check out How Do You Like Me Now? Bourne's first hilarious foray into adult fiction, too.
Louise O'Neill is perhaps best known for her second YA book, Asking For It, which is remarkable, but readers shouldn't overlook her first. Set in a dystopian school that's a little too close to reality for comfort, this is the scathing story of a world where meeting strict beauty standards and impressing males are everything.