June’s YA reads: Not quite beach reads

Magnificent reads for older teens and some nonfiction for YA mental health

"The Irish girls find it the most challenging . . . Always searching for tiny hands that were ripped off breasts the moment they gave their first cry." Welcome to Louise O'Neill's fourth novel, in which her trademark tendency to cast a sharp eye on Irish society and misogyny is ever-present even within a fairytale setting. The Surface Breaks (Scholastic, £12.99) retells Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid with a particular interest in exploring the pain suffered by the protagonist – here named Gaia – as she sacrifices her voice to live on land, and walks in agony for the sake of a human beloved.

Is this human beloved worthy? Not so much. “It flashes into my mind that Oliver can be petty, with his competitive drinking and now this ridiculous party. And he can be moody and difficult – but I push away the creeping worry. He is my love, I remind myself, my great love. And my only remaining chance.”

The desperation Gaia feels echoes that of O’Neill’s other protagonists, with similar focus on the difficulty of what it means to be – and present as – “female” in this world. This is a sharp feminist read but best saved for older teens who will understand and critique Gaia’s sense of herself (and adore the fiercely pleasing Sea Witch).

Reminder of why YA is so important

Australian author Cath Crowley's Words In Deep Blue (Hodder, £7.99) came to my attention via Dubray children's bookseller Helen Corcoran, who had selected it as the YA book of the month and, in doing so, altered my expectations around it.


The premise – a second-hand bookshop about to close, love letters slipped into specific significant titles – seems desperately twee. “It’s called a Letter Library because a lot of people write more than a note in the margin – they write whole letters and put them between the pages of books . . . Mostly people write to strangers who love the same books as them – and some stranger, somewhere, writes back.”

The execution is anything but. The central characters are dealing with loss of various kinds – the loss of a possible future, the loss of a loved one – and despite a burgeoning romance, this story covers so much more than sheer teenage infatuation. Who are you and what kind of person do you want to be? The capacity for – and indeed interest in – asking these questions reminds us why YA is important as a field.

Gripping read about two sisters

Annalie Granger, whose "day job" involves working as an editor for Walker, crosses over to the other side of the desk for the second time with In Your Light (Simon & Schuster, £7.99). Despite a slow start, this account of two sisters – one waiting at home, the other captivated by a cult – is a gripping read.

Mella “had been looking for the Sisterhood her whole life without knowing it. Desperately searching for something beyond herself, something that knotted her frayed edges together, made her whole”. The capacity for charismatic strangers to promise a quick fix is delicately explored, and even though Mella’s rebellion against the cult feels a little too quick for someone so previously coerced, it’s nonetheless a gripping account of when faith goes astray.

Marvellous read for older teens

Lygia Day Penaflor's second novel, All Of This Is True (Bloomsbury, £7.99), presents us with a delicious concept: three teenage girls befriend a writer. They trust her; they tell her their secrets. And a year later she publishes a novel – all about them.

“Fatima Ro [the author] did not prey on us,” one girl insists, with another character insisting she’s a “selfish, opportunistic egomaniac”. The format of the novel – entirely in interview transcripts and diary entries – offers insight into various perspectives, with an increasing sense of wariness as the novel progresses. Can we really trust what we’ve learned about this alleged “nice guy”?

Thought-provoking and page-turning, this is again one best saved for older teens but a marvellous read for them.

Dark humour

Irish author Cethan Leahy won last year's Mercier Press Fiction Competition with his YA manuscript, now out in the world as Tuesdays Are Just As Bad (Mercier, €12.99). Leahy is co-editor of the Penny Dreadful literary magazine, with a particular interest in weird fiction. His capacity for dark humour weaves its way through this novel – which addresses a ghostly companion to a suicidal teen – and is evidenced in lines such as, "As it turns out, the Church was vague on the matter [of exorcism], but he did find a website which featured a surprisingly detailed description of the process . . ."

Dark, funny, moving – this is Irish YA to champion.

YA nonfinction

Last month being focused on mental health awareness means that we've also seen YA nonfiction emerge. Alice James and Louie Stowell's Looking After Your Mental Health (Usborne, £7.99) is an ideal introduction to mental health awareness for the young teen, and one that offers up a rational take on diagnoses that remind us of the difference between, say, being a bit melancholy and being clinically depressed.

Similarly, Nicola Morgan – a British author particularly interested in the quirky development of the teenage brain – has a mental health guide out this month. Positively Teenage, published by Franklin Watts, focuses on how to encourage positive mental health and how to understand the strangeness of the human brain. Morgan has written numerous nonfiction guides for teens, including Blame My Brain, and is meticulous about supporting her advice with references to scientific studies, as well as delving beneath the surface of much familiar advice. She advises readers, for example, that the full practice of mindfulness – so often touted as the one true path to mental wellbeing – should be taught by an expert. Hear hear.

Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator.