Seventeen-year-old Justyce has always thought that trying to be a good kid – "I don't sag my pants or wear my clothes super big. I go to a good school, and have goals and visions" – would exempt him from racial profiling. But within the first chapter of Nic Stone's Dear Martin (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), his attempt to help out his white ex-girlfriend sees him assaulted by a police officer.
“Before he can get his head out of the car, he feels a tug on his shirt and is yanked backward. His head smacks the doorframe just before a hand clamps down on the back of his neck. His upper body slams on to the trunk with so much force, he bites the inside of his cheek, and his mouth fills with blood.”
It’s at moments like this – the undiluted ugliness of how young black men are treated – that the novel is at its finest.
At other points it’s heavy-handed; there are several class debates that focus on racism and privilege as well as a device – letters that Justyce addresses to Martin Luther King – that serves mostly to tell, rather than show, readers that racism is still rampant today. Still, it’s impossible not to be impressed with novels that tackle such topics head-on; Stone joins authors like Angie Thomas and Jason Reynolds in a growing collection of work for young adults that calls attention to violence and discrimination towards people of colour.
Malcolm Duffy's Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. (Zephyr, £10.99) explores another topical issue: what it means to live with a violent abuser. The endearingly Geordie Danny, whose narration is peppered with "alreet" and "canny", feels wonderfully teenage; he recalls being asked to the cinema by a girl with "I hoped she might have gone for a later screening. Newcastle were live on telly, twelve-thirty kick-off." It's details like this that balance out the horror of watching his mother be beaten by her new boyfriend, and Danny's fear that she'll end up dead.
When he asks around about how to deal with bullies – pretending it’s a general query – almost everyone mentions their dad. Dads sort things out. So Danny sets off to track down the father he’s never met – and ask him to kill the man who is hurting his mother. It’s an intriguing premise and one that Duffy, whose work as creative director at Comic Relief inspired and informed this novel, handles with aplomb. The empathy he has for his characters – including Danny’s mother, who still loves her partner, and Danny’s father, whose life is turned upside down by the appearance of his long-lost son – shines through.
Class conflict propels much of Karen Gregory's second novel, Skylarks (Bloomsbury, £7.99), in which Joni's increased politicisation eviction is juxtaposed with her burgeoning romance with the wealthy Annabel. Joni, dealing with "a revolving door of supply teachers" at school and her family's impending eviction, is fairly sure she understands "how it works for people like" Annabel – and she's right.
Gregory offers up a nuanced deconstruction of the “poor little rich girl” trope – as the narrator notes, “there’s still a part of me that thinks she’s complaining her designer handbag is too heavy or something” even as she begins to understand the pressures of her new girlfriend’s life. As with her first book, this is an authentic, hopeful-but-not-saccharine account of contemporary life.
"I'm never doing enough to keep Mom happy. She never notices how hard I try, how much I care, or that maybe I just need to be noticed every now and then. And not just when it's convenient for her." Kiko's complaints here will resonate with many teenagers, but the heroine of Akemi Dawn Bowman's Starfish (Ink Road, £7.99) has a parent whose neglect, we slowly understand, goes far beyond "not getting it".
Feeling like “the dark smudge in somebody else’s life”, and navigating both casual and overt racism due to her Asian heritage, Kiko yearns to escape to art college – the trouble is, art college has rejected her. Reconnecting with a childhood friend just as home becomes unbearable prompts her to escape to California instead, where a new mentor offers insights into her mother’s destructive behaviour. “Some people are just starfish,” he explains. “They need the world to sit around them . . . But you can’t spend your life trying to make a starfish happy, because no matter what you do, it will never be enough.”
Having a supportive adult who can offer both psychological and career guidance is a familiar YA trope but executed skilfully here. If at times it seems a little too close to wish-fulfilment, it’s difficult not to be glad for this relatable, vulnerable young woman.
Mid-18th century London
Julie Mayhew's The Electrical Venus (Hot Key Books, £7.99) is adapted from her BBC radio drama of the same name and brings the same immediacy to the page. In mid-18th century London, curious "specimens" offer up entertainment. "I wear a glowing crown of sparks," the titular Electrical Venus declares. "I pull the stars from the sky . . . it gives them a nasty shock, dunnit, when they kiss me . . ." Exploited by her master, the former "girl-exotic" Mim believes that electricity literally equals love, a wonderful conceit that still resonates today.
The novel shifts effortlessly between a highly stylised omniscient narrator and the distinctive dialects of its two central characters, all three pitch-perfect in their depiction of a world on the cusp of enlightenment. As with Mayhew’s previous novels, this is a welcome reminder that the terms “literary fiction” and “young adult” are not mutually exclusive: a sophisticated text offering up both intellectual and emotional pleasures. A must-read.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator