Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

June’s YA titles: reckonings with the past and the present

Joyce Efia Harmer’s How Far We’ve Come and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming are among a good crop

“Me love to dream that me is a person, a proper one, like them white folks is … But I know that dreams is not the same as truth. I is not a proper human. Masser himself confirm that at every Sunday sermon. I is nothing close. I is just like a dog or chicken excepting one difference, I dream.” Meet Obah, a 17-year-old slave girl on a plantation in 1830s Barbados, who may dream of better things but is also profoundly shaped by a lifetime of conditioning. Her firm belief in her own inferiority, and a realistic awareness of the potential tortures that await her if she ever steps out of line, remain even when the mysterious Jacob rescues her and pulls her into the future — his and our present day.

Joyce Efia Harmer’s How Far We’ve Come (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) is a clever and sensitive inversion of the time-slip trope, which more typically features modern children or teenagers falling backwards in time to learn about a particular period in history. Here the protagonist is the girl living in the past, brought into a world she does not understand. Obah’s observations about our world, related still in her Creole dialect, are both humorous and poignant: she feels sorry for the girls wearing trendy, torn jeans “in them poverty” and learns about the “secret potency” controlling “all the wonders that me see” that is “Lectric”, but she also shivers when putting on a seat belt (“the tight feeling … reminds me of being tied to the whipping post”) and is conscious of performing “obedience” towards Jacob’s mother.

While the title suggests a self-congratulatory nod at how the world has progressed since Obah’s day, the novel offers a much more nuanced approach. Although amazed at being served in a restaurant by a white man, Obah is soon made aware of a viral video depicting a young black girl “be stripped of clothing and defiled of body, just as them do in my time”. It is occasionally a little too pointed for the more informed reader — a history teacher asks, “Slaving? What do you mean? We’re talking about British history, the history of the Empire.” But, of course, the role of that empire plays out very differently in Irish and British history curriculums.

This is a seriously impressive debut, the kind of book that is bound to win prizes not just because it tackles important issues —though it certainly does - but because it does so skilfully. The authenticity of Obah’s voice and worldview never falters, never gives in to easy or reductive answers, and we come to understand her world and its limitations, as well as seeing our own through fresh eyes. Read it now.


“I am born as the South explodes,” Jacqueline Woodson writes in her acclaimed and award-winning verse memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming (Orion, £7.99), which finally makes its way to this side of the Atlantic. As with Harmer’s book, this is a title encouraging reflection on racism and discrimination both historic and immediate. Woodson notes: “My southern grandfather missed slavery by one generation. His grandfather had been owned.” Growing up just after segregation has officially ended, its impact still lingers, made clear in details like the “white only” signs on public bathrooms having been painted over yet “you can still see the words, right there like a ghost standing in front”.

But it is also a personal tale of finding one’s path as an artist, a Künstlerroman that sees a young Woodson discover, amid a family where others have clear skills, that “words are my brilliance”. Amid the disruption and upheaval, there is beauty to be found in the way the author records her youth. This is a pleasure to read.

“Do you really have to leave the people you love to force them to save themselves?” Astrid wonders when her boyfriend’s mother talks about separating from her deeply depressed husband. It seems just as heartless as her own father’s belief that willpower and “gritting your teeth” will solve her older sister Cecelie’s severe anxiety. Astrid adores Cecelie, and has strategies in place for helping her, but as the future looms — an inter-railing trip for Astrid, final school exams for Cecelie — it becomes more difficult to be both a good sister and good friend.

Danish author Lise Villadsen’s In Your Orbit (Little Tiger, £8.99) is a nuanced and thoughtful account of the impact of mental illness on a family. The narrative is both sympathetic to Cecelie’s struggles and honest about the frustrations and disruptions they present to Astrid. Intellectually she understands Cecelie is unwell, and her love for her sister makes her want to do what she can to alleviate the pain. But she also knows that professional help is available and that Cecelie seems resistant to it. There are no quick fixes here.

Translated from the original by Caroline Waight into an immensely readable English that draws on both British slang and the American-influenced vernacular of the internet, this is a moving and memorable novel.

Philip Womack returns to the world of Wildlord with Ghostlord (Little Island, £8.99), in which a new teenage character, Meg, encounters the shapeshifting Samdhya and a sinister necromancer upon moving to a haunted cottage. Moral questions are posed — “What did it matter what the ends were,” Meg wonders, “if the end made them happy?” — and the plot unfolds elegantly. There is fine writing here, and intriguing mythology, though at times the characterisation feels a tad generic.

Former model Jan Dunning’s Mirror Me (Scholastic, £8.99) is a reminder of the endless durability of fairy tales, reworking Snow White into a modern tale focused on the fashion industry and a mirror who whispers “like an invisible frenemy, balancing sympathy with shame” to those who stand before it. Freya’s stepmother is clearly up to something sinister with her Fashion Week plans, and it’s up to Freya and her friends to save the day. Fast-paced and accessible, this is one for younger teenagers — particularly in our image-obsessed era.

Tamsin Winter continues her sympathetic-yet-cautionary tales of online life with Bad Influence (Usborne, £7.99), in which protagonist Amelia — cruelly nicknamed “Maggot” by her peers — is good at many things but has “realised that succeeding at school had nothing to do with grades whatsoever. If you wanted to be somebody, the important thing was getting people to like you.” An attempt to reinvent herself, along with a friendship with new boy Evan, ends up going awry, and Amelia finds herself in trouble when a revealing photograph goes viral.

Winter hits just the right note in her understanding of young people and the internet; while Evan notes that “it’s like trying to stop a tsunami with an umbrella” once an image is out there, the point is also made that trusting someone is very human, and that life can and should move on after public shaming. Woven throughout are references to the Little Mermaid, with the school’s production reminding us of the parallels with Amelia’s own life: a girl giving up her voice for a boy. Wholesome and uplifting, but never too twee.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

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