Irish Times review: New books for younger readers
From suffragettes to feminists and revolting rhymes for teens
Anna Carey, author of ‘The Making of Mollie’. Photograph: Ivan O’Brien of the O’Brien Press
“I don’t know how much you know about suffragettes,” 14-year-old Mollie writes to her friend. “I must admit that until last night, I had a very different picture of them. Whenever I heard grown-up people talking about them, it always seemed to be in a disapproving way. I remember Father looking at a picture in a magazine and saying that if the women really wanted to prove they deserved the vote they shouldn’t be making an exhibition of themselves.”
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Today’s criticisms of “feminists” are eerily similar to the complaints made about suffragettes in 1912. The Making of Mollie (O’Brien Press, €8.99) is Anna Carey’s first venture into historical fiction for younger readers, although it is just as relevant – and conversational (although with period slang) – as her contemporary novels. Mollie, along with her best friend, takes her first tentative steps into Dublin’s growing suffrage movement after discovering her sister is a supporter of the cause. But how much can two teenage girls really do – especially with the everyday worries of mean classmates and wretched siblings to contend with?
This is an important and most of all incredibly readable depiction of a feminist awakening, one that balances the big important issues with day-to-day life – the unfairness of one’s older brother always getting more chicken at dinner, for example. It concentrates on a much-neglected aspect of Irish history – typically overshadowed by the focus on Home Rule – while also serving as a call to action. “Votes for women” seems like such a basic right today, but when it was scrawled all over Dublin more than a century ago it seemed radical. The modern parallel is clear.
“I had to rescue myself, but I didn’t know how.” Jacqueline Wilson’s newest Victorian protagonist is Clover Moon (Doubleday, £12.99), an 11-year-old girl routinely beaten by her stepmother and not quite noticed by a father too fond of ale. There are only two people who really care about her – her younger sister Megs, and the old hunchback who runs the nearby doll shop and has taught Clover how to read and write.
A death in the family only escalates Clover’s sense of desperation. She cannot stay in a house where she is unwanted, and live the life planned out for her: factory work followed by marriage and children. So she runs away, encountering both allies and enemies as she crosses London to a home for destitute girls.
This determined and creative heroine will appeal to fans of Wilson’s Hetty Feather series, and manages to provide a hopeful ending even in a world cruel to children.
But where would children’s and young adult fiction be without these dangers to young people? In Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call (David Fickling Books, £10.99), the threat is the Sídhe, who will “Call” every Irish teenager to them for a day, or three minutes in human time. Most don’t survive. Nessa – despite her “twisted legs”, a legacy of childhood polio – is determined to.
This futuristic Ireland, in which “a veil of mist hangs off the coast, and all those within, whatever their passports used to say, now belong to the same endangered species”, is both familiar and unsettling. The survival colleges every teenager must attend bear a striking resemblance to summers in the Gaeltacht (in which both the speaking of English and night-time shenanigans are forbidden), with just as much adolescent turmoil and a great deal more blood and disfigurement.
The Call is an immensely enjoyable, fast-paced read – though not for the faint of heart. Certainly not a title anyone would ever give to 13-year-old Elliot, the protagonist of multi-award-winning Kevin Brooks’s Born Scared (Electric Monkey, £7.99). “I’m chronically afraid of almost everything,” he reveals early in the novel; he has lived in fear ever since a traumatic birth and the death of his twin sister.
At the beginning, this seems like an exploration of mental illness and an invitation to empathise. “I wish this was easier,” Elliot reflects. “I wish I could just lay my hands on your head and transfer what’s inside me to you. I wish you could be me, if only for a moment, so you’d know exactly how I feel.” But even as we witness his everyday paralysing terror, another storyline emerges: two men in Santa costumes driving a stolen car to the scene of a future crime. Their paths will intertwine with Elliot’s, and his family’s, and force him out into a cold winter’s evening where his life is at risk.
The potential danger of works like these is that a character going through something “really” scary or traumatic might serve as a cure for an illness, as with Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now – a stunning book which nevertheless unfortunately suggests that the best cure for anorexia is to live through a war and essentially “get over it”. Without giving too much away, it’s pleasing to note that Brooks avoids this trope.
Finally, on a lighter note, say hello to revolting rhymes for teenagers. A Teen’s Guide to Modern Manners (Corsair, £9.99) features tongue-in-cheek cautionary tales in verse, penned by Sam Norman and illustrated by Jack Parham, both teens themselves. Each chapter details the unfortunate fate of a different deeply-flawed teenager, from Lily (“whose pedantic nature turned out to be her ruin”) to Tim (“who made sexist jokes and got exactly what he was asking for”). Have you heard about Melissa, whose addiction to skinny jeans led to her legs being amputated, or Zak, whose ever-increasing laundry pile caused his untimely death? This is a funny and sharply-observed guide to the perils of modern adolescence.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator.