Rich and varied: The best young-adult fiction of 2018
Year in Culture Review: Moby-Dick and Frankenstein given impressive YA reworkings
Jacqueline Wilson: the author’s Rose Rivers was a top pick for 2018. Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images
Twenty years ago it would not have been possible to put together a list of the best young-adult fiction of the year for a newspaper this side of the Atlantic. The genre was still a weird subsection of literature, of interest to very few – librarians and teachers and maybe some parents – but the average reader didn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Nowadays it is both success story and (perhaps inevitably) deeply misunderstood; we reduce the field to sexy vampires and hyper-articulate cancer patients.
Without denying the impact – especially financial – of those stories, it’s important to note the vitality and diversity of YA fiction today. This year has been glorious for novels aimed at, and about, teenagers (though their adult audience is sizeable). It’s a year in which we’ve been reminded that YA is not just the cool new thing, but something sustainable, with a crucial reason for being.
Brian Conaghan, winner of the An Post Irish Book Award for teen/young-adult book of the year is an obvious and yet necessary name to note here. His novel The Weight of a Thousand Feathers is moving without being sentimental. Its depiction of a teenage carer is brave, eloquent and fiercely realistic.
Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin invites us into a post-apocalyptic Dublin in which a teenage girl builds a boyfriend for herself. It’s a compelling work of literary speculative fiction and one of several reworkings of Frankenstein for its 200th birthday; Paula Rawthorne’s contemporary reimagining, Shell, is another title well worth checking out.
Other intertextual works have proved mightily pleasing this year. Patrick Ness’s “writing back” to Moby-Dick, And The Ocean Was Our Sky , imagines the hunt for a mythic enemy from the perspective of the whales (somehow it works!), and is gorgeously illustrated by Rovina Cai. Laura Weymouth’s The Light Between Worlds is a loving homage to C S Lewis’s Narnia series that interrogates the impact of returning to the real, war-torn world after a childhood in a fantasy land.
Jacqueline Wilson is more typically associated with younger readers, particularly with the bright and cheerful Nick Sharratt covers, but Rose Rivers is very much a teen read. Set in the Victorian era, a field Wilson has made her own with her recent titles, it never shies away from the uglier aspects of the time, particularly its treatment of women and children. Dramatic, immersive and thoroughly enjoyable.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say by Leila Sales should be required reading for anyone using social media. Drawing heavily on Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it explores the impact of one hastily-composed tweet on a 17-year-old girl who, for a brief time, becomes public enemy number one. Topical without being preachy, this is a plea for empathy in a world increasingly prone to knee-jerk outrage.
When YA is at its best, you forget you are reading it as a critical adult taking note of the most telling quotes, and instead revert to an intense younger self. This is absolutely the case with Robin Talley’s Pulp. In 1955, Janet is all too aware she can tell no one of her love for her best friend, but finding a pulp novel about women just like her is revelatory. Meanwhile in 2017, Abby is out and proud, part of a group attuned to social-justice issues, but her obsessive focus on a research project about 1950s pulp novels masks problems of her own. The differences between the eras are skilfully drawn, and the stories come together neatly.
Robin Benway’s Far From The Tree looks at families and adoption from the point of view of three recently reconnected siblings, each with their own complex worries. Moving, powerful, and more than a little bit of a tear-jerker.
I have yet to encounter dystopian fiction as prescient as Tracey Mathias’s debut, Night of the Party, a portrayal of post-Brexit Britain that manages to be both a thrilling story and a cry for sanity and kindness. In the months since its publication it has only become more relevant. Other political issues have led to some fine writing; Susin Nielsen’s No Fixed Address is a moving, but funny, tale of homelessness. Laura Steven’s The Exact Opposite of Okay, is a hugely readable feminist call-to-arms, with a sequel due out next year.
Magic and magical realism are knitted into some beautiful titles; Emily X R Pan’s The Astonishing Colour of After is a stunning depiction of grief while Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood offers up a dark and enchanting fairytale. These are both remarkably accomplished debut novels.
For pitch-perfect teenage voices, you can’t go wrong with Malcolm Duffy’s Me Mam. Me Dad. Me., in which a teenage boy tries to track down his estranged father as a way of coping with the violence at home. Holly Bourne is also on form with Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes?, a chatty but poignant take on mental illness, friendship and kindness.
Finally, the wonders – and horrors – of the past are brought to life in two gorgeous titles set during the 18th century. Julie Mayhew’s The Electrical Venus evokes the exciting, if seedy, world of travelling fairs; Sandra Gulland’s The Game of Hope immerses us in post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon’s stepdaughter finds herself haunted by the Terror.
Here’s hoping 2019 will be just as rich and varied in its literary offerings for teens.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator.