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Best YA of 2023: Claire Hennessy’s top picks: sense and censorship

Young adult fiction came under attack this year but there is much to celebrate

In a year that’s seen so many challenges to young adult fiction both locally and internationally, with conservative lobby groups storming libraries and filing reports with the Garda about certain books, it feels especially necessary to take a moment to note and celebrate some of the wondrous work that has been published for young people in 2023.

This is not to suggest that literature for young people should not be subjected to any kind of scrutiny, or that a resistance to censorship means that ‘anything goes’ – but it is to note that anyone who does not understand that YA fiction is a separate category from ‘children’s fiction’, or that a 15-year-old with a smartphone might have different reading capabilities and interests from a five-year-old still learning their letters, is perhaps not the wisest voice on this topic.

Some of the best titles of this year explicitly draw attention to censorship, with Patrick Ness’s novella Different For Boys (Walker Books, £12.99), illustrated by Tea Bendix, featuring black boxes that cover up swearing or sexual references. “It’s that kind of story,” the narrator explains. “Certain words are necessary because this is real life but you can’t actually show ‘em because we’re too young to read about the stuff we actually do, yeah?”

Similarly, Simon James Green steps away from his usual rom-com mode to explore the impact of Section 28, the UK law preventing teachers from “promoting” homosexuality, in Boy Like Me (Scholastic, £8.99). A librarian breaking that rule allows the protagonist to find someone “like him” in his very own school, and reminds us of the power of finding books that speak about things some would prefer go forever unmentioned.


It’s not all doom-and-gloom as far as LGBTQ+ representation goes. Among the joyful rom-coms out this year are Sophie Gonzales’s Never Ever Getting Back Together (Hodder, £7.99), in which two girls competing on a reality TV show end up falling for one another; William Hussey’s Broken Hearts and Zombie Parts (Usborne, £8.99), an endearing and occasionally tear-jerking tale of movie-making, friendship and love; and Becky Albertalli’s thought-provoking and adorable Imogen, Obviously (HarperCollins, £8.99), in which protagonist Imogen realises that not everyone takes the same path of self-discovery.

The most swoon-worthy of the contemporary rom-coms about straight couples are Ann Liang’s This Time It’s Real (Scholastic, £8.99), in which overachiever Eliza persuades a classmate to pretend to be the love of her life by presenting a PowerPoint titled “A Strategic, Mutually Beneficial and Romantically Oriented Alliance to Help Further Our Respective Careers”; and David Arnold’s high-concept I Loved You In Another Life (Hot Key Books, £8.99), involving a mysterious song bringing sets of lovers together over the centuries.

Historical fiction also comes with a good dollop of romance this year; standouts include Laura Wood’s The Agency for Scandal (Scholastic, £8.99), involving a group of Victorian lady detectives working to protect other women; Sally Nicholls’s epistolary novel about three boarding-school pals beginning their adult lives, Yours From The Tower (Andersen Press, £14.99); and Joanna Nadin’s A Calamity of Mannerings (UCLan Publishing, £8.99), a warm and witty novel with plenty of nods to the Mitfords.

Concerns about contemporary life, and particularly the ways in which social media facilitates the evergreen problem of bullying, make themselves known in several thoughtful titles: Amara Sage’s Influential (Faber, £8.99), delving behind the scenes of influencer life; Tamsin Winter’s sympathetic-yet-cautionary Bad Influence (Usborne, £7.99), and Sara Barnard’s Where the Light Goes (Walker Books, £8.99), a sensitive portrayal of losing an older sister to suicide. The potential dangers of technology also turn up in sci-fi tales, including Naomi Gibson’s Game Over Girl (Chicken House, £8.99) and Kate Dylan’s Mindbreaker (Hodderscape, £18.99), both eerily plausible dystopian adventures.

For gothic fantasy, Laura Steven’s page-turning Every Exquisite Thing (Electric Monkey, £8.99), a modern retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the way to go; for immersive high fantasy, Helen Corcoran’s darkly magical Daughter of Winter and Twilight (The O’Brien Press, €14.99), is both elegant and gripping.

The impact of chronic health conditions and long-term pain is handled beautifully in Jenny Ireland’s The First Move (Penguin, £8.99), and Alexia Casale’s delightfully snarky Sing If You Can’t Dance (Faber, £8.99). Other titles offer insight into neurodiversity, including Méabh Collins’s Freya Harte Is Not A Puzzle (O’Brien Press, €9.99) and Gavin Extence’s Finding Phoebe (Andersen Press, £8.99), both of which allow the autistic protagonists explain their own view of the world.

It can be easy to forget that toxic masculinity hurts men and boys as well as women and girls; there are some particularly good titles about male friendships (and fights) this year, including Keith Gray’s novella The Den (Barrington Stoke, £7.99), Luke Palmer’s Play (Firefly Press, £8.99), and Brian Conaghan’s fearless and compelling Treacle Town (Andersen Press, £8.99).

Finally, the books that wowed me the most this year provided insights into other cultures while avoiding didacticism, with lyrical prose and dollops of magical realism. Clara Kumagai’s exquisite Catfish Rolling (Zephyr, £14.99) is a haunting account of a time-fragmented Japan; Joyce Efia Harmer’s How Far We’ve Come (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) cleverly inverts the time-slip trope to bring a nineteenth-century slave girl into the present day; Blessing Musariri’s All That It Ever Meant (Zephyr, £14.99) takes us through Zimbabwe and a family haunted by grief in more ways than we initially realise. Seriously impressive titles, in a rich and varied year for YA fiction.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

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