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Rapunzel redux: October’s best YA titles

Reviews: Big Bad Me, The Truth About Riley, Let’s Chase Stars Together, H.A.W.K.S., Let Down Your Hair and Rapunzella

The opening lines of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes echo in my brain. “I guess you think you know this story. You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.” Like many of us, I grew up reading fairy-tale retellings alongside the traditional stories, and delighted in that sense of discovering “what really went on”. Readers of a certain age will remember a set of books of this kind from a young Irish writer named Aislinn O’Loughlin. They played with the tropes. They were exquisite fun.

Then — in a move that many of that same generation made — she went gallivanting off to Canada, where (as a recent author bio informs us) “she sometimes took her kids to day care in a sled”. Fortunately for the Irish kid-literary scene, she’s back — and leaping into YA fiction. Her supernatural adventure Big Bad Me (Little Island, £8.99) is a new departure — in its scope and complexity — and a development of her capacity to poke fun at the stories we all know. O’Loughlin knows that readers are familiar with Buffy, Supernatural and Stranger Things; references are peppered throughout. But rather than feel overindulgent, it lends credibility to the world: this is the real story. And it is, indeed, much more gory.

The narrative duties are divided between Evie, who has been told her entire life that she has a “super-dangerous, ultra-rare” form of diabetes, and her older sister Kate, who knows the truth: that Evie is a werewolf whose powers can no longer be medicated away. Kate would much rather flirt with the cute girl next door, but when a hunter starts tracking Evie, it’s time for the two girls to get out of there. They find refuge in a guest house and team up with a vampire whose “angsty monster rant” they have little patience for. Supernatural fight sequences and knowing quips ensue. There’s blood and guts and vomiting, and yet there’s also a strange wholesomeness about this “little monster family”. This endearing and action-packed book is an ideal Halloween read.

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Best-selling author Sinéad Moriarty’s second venture in writing for a younger audience also arrives on shelves this month. The Truth About Riley (Gill Books, £12.99) focuses on a girl who loses her home after her father’s death. Unable to find anywhere, she and her mother live in their car for several weeks, hungry and cold and desperately ashamed of their situation. Riley can’t tell her best friend, Sophie, and the snake-like Vanessa (an unsettlingly-accurate portrait of a particular type of nasty girl) keeps asking pointed questions that threaten to expose the secret.

Occasionally the narrative is a little heavy-handed, with Riley’s mum reminding her daughter how “it’s amazing how one kind gesture can make such a difference to someone — in this case us. We must remember that. It’s so important to be kind in life.” On the other hand, sometimes the messaging is absolutely justified: “Ireland was a wealthy country and there was food in all the supermarkets and lots of houses and apartments, so how come so many people were homeless? It didn’t make sense.” Spot on, Riley.

There is hope for Riley, thanks to the assistance of some kind adults, and although the resolution may seem like an obvious one to some readers, it’s also the only plausible way to end this story on anything other than a note of despair. This is a deeply moving book, which is reviewer code for sobbing your way through the final chapters.

Another hopeful title for young teens and preteens: Matt Goodfellow’s poetry collection Let’s Chase Stars Together (Bloomsbury, £7.99), illustrated by Oriol Vidal. The topics reflect what it means to be young in the world today, making space for vulnerability and strength. “I spin the wheel of worry every day,” one poem notes, but another cautions: “don’t mess with this battle-scarred child.” Nature, school and family feature in these accessible poems.

MA Bennett brings her addictive series about a murderous secret society to a close with H.A.W.K.S. (Hot Key Books, £7.99). Greer has been invited to “The Red Hunt”, and as “hunting” for this crowd always includes human prey, her main goal is to survive the weekend. But almost as important is her plan, aided by friends old and new, to bring down this group of “privileged predators” once and for all. This is a compelling and satisfying read.

And now we return to fairy tales — though these Rapunzel retellings fall into the ‘empowering’ rather than ‘more gory’ category. Journalist Bryony Gordon makes her fiction debut with Let Down Your Hair (Orion, £7.99), taking in mental health and the world of online influencers. Gordon has written extensively about the first in her non-fiction, and her capacity to get to the heart of it is on display here. When 16-year-old Barb, known for her amazing hairstyle videos, reflects on online abuse, she says, “when I see the nasty comments, they kind of feel familiar to me. They feel like the voice in my own head, the one I use on myself.”

The analysis of social media is also spot on: it is “toxic cesspit” and a space that can be used for good, as Gordon has done in the real world and as the “prince” figure does here. The contrast between the glossy surface and the calculated, cruel underbelly of “influencer life” is skewered wonderfully, particularly in the character of the super-evolved, wellness-focused Marnie, who “is so accepting of herself that she doesn’t actually spend any time with anyone else”.

There are lines that hit like a punch; Barb imagines “experiencing relationships, rather than transactions” as she considers the ways in which she’s been exploited by the aunt who should have protected her. With a light touch, Gordon weaves a compelling story that reminds us to prioritise authentic human connection over the algorithm.

Ella McLeod’s Rapunzella (Scholastic, £8.99) is a more formally inventive work, moving between poetry and second-person prose, between the mythic and mundane. In the world of dreams there is a girl, Zella, whose hair “grows to fill the gaps in the air around you. It becomes a ceiling, it covers the sky, taking on new shapes and forms. Life around you crackles and shimmers with magic”. In the real world there is a hair salon under threat from a greedy landlord and a boy who is a “lean panther, a sweet-juiced dark berry”.

The subtitle, Don’t Touch My Hair, will remind some readers of Emma Dabiri’s non-fiction work of that name, and much of what Dabiri explores about the various ways in which black hair is and has historically been coded and policed features here. McLeod’s use of a fantasy setting to delve into these themes is a smart move, and staves off the risk of didacticism. While certainly political (as indeed most things are), it is also lyrical and stylish.

Growing up, for example, is described as “your gobstopper days. Childhood looms large initially, almost chokes you in your rush to get through it and then, in no time at all, it will evaporate on your tongue. You don’t know this yet”. There are lines to love on every single page of this impressive debut.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature