The best of young adult fiction
Autism, family life, politics, murder, love and romance – young adult fiction has it all
Benjamin Ludwig, author of ‘Ginny Moon’.
‘Ginny Moon’ by Benjamin Ludwig
“I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where a girl who doesn’t belong anywhere should go.” Benjamin Ludwig’s debut novel introduces us to Ginny Moon (HQ, £12.99), an endearing if at times frustrating narrator who recalls both Katherine Paterson’s Gilly Hopkins and Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone. Ginny is 14 and on her fourth “forever home” (each time she’s placed with a new set of foster parents she is promised it will be for good), but she yearns desperately for her mother and needs to make sure her “baby doll” is still alive.
Ginny’s perspective is skewed by her autism, her developmental delays, but most achingly of all by the neglect and abuse that marked her early childhood. Despite this, she plots her own kidnapping, determined to reconnect with the woman who still “doesn’t have her act completely together” (a colloquialism Ginny frowns at).
This is one for older teenagers as well as adults, who may empathise with Ginny while also sympathising with her “forever parents” and the strain that her secret-keeping places on them. Ludwig has drawn on his own experience of adopting a child with autism, although he acknowledges his experience has been a great deal less dramatic, and his compassion is evident on each page.
‘Trouble Makers’ by Catherine Barter
The difficulties and joys of family life are also explored in Catherine Barter’s Trouble Makers (Andersen, £7.99), in which 15-year-old Alena lives with – and adores – her older brother and his boyfriend. Like Ginny, Alena worries about whether she’s really wanted there, particularly after her brother’s new job – working for an opportunistic London mayoral candidate – creates tension at home.
Set against a backdrop of vandalism and unexplained bomb threats, Barter uses Alena to explore a variety of issues: whether politics should be righteous or pragmatic; whether violent protest is ever acceptable; whether paying the bills matters more than principles. Her political awakening goes hand-in-hand with uncovering more about her dead mother’s life, and thankfully avoids dictating to the reader what or how they should believe or act. It’s also refreshing to see a contemporary YA novel that focuses so much on family and politics and allows its heroine to escape the narrative without a boyfriend in tow.
‘The Names They Gave Us’ by Emery Lord
Lucy of Emery Lord’s The Names They Gave Us (Bloomsbury, £7.99) has a more traditional romance narrative, with Lucy meeting a mysterious, cute, talented boy at summer camp and learning what it means to be really attracted to someone. But, as with the best summer camp stories, the focus is not on who’s kissing whom but about what it means to reinvent and rediscover yourself in an intense and heightened environment away from everyday life.
As junior counsellors, Lucy and her new friends are responsible for the kids in their charge, even as they face their own difficulties. The camp, Daybreak, is specifically geared towards “troubled” youth, and each of the counsellors carries their own baggage (or “checked bags”). For Lucy, it’s her mother’s illness – the cancer that hit three years ago and means her family rather than her friends have been her priority throughout high school. The cancer that has just returned, prompting her life-long faith in God to splinter, even though as a “preacher’s kid” she has always found solace in prayer.
Lord’s handling of faith is impressive here; even though Lucy feels, at times, a little too wholesome, she is a thoughtful character concerned with doing the right thing and whose religion has long been a source of comfort and community to her. Her genuine desire to help others and be “good” separates her from the many teen rebels in fiction today.
‘Phantom Limbs’ by Paula Garner
Paula Garner’s Phantom Limbs (Walker, £7.99) presents another “good” character, though Otis is immediately established as concerned with matters physical as well as spiritual, lusting after both girls and sugary doughnuts in the opening chapter. He is the sort of guy who’s always there for his friends, including his moody swim coach, Dara, whose literal phantom limb pains inspire the metaphor for how Otis views loss. Yet he is less capable of “saving” Meg, the girl now back in his life after three years away, who is still haunted by the accident that shattered both of their families.
Otis is an immensely likeable narrator, dealing with both love and loss but still capable of noting cringe-worthy adolescent moments, like having his hair ruffled by the girl he loves. “Great – now I was a puppy,” he despairs. At times the introspection feels a little grandiose, but for a boy who writes sonnets – voluntarily – this is perhaps forgivable.
‘My Favourite Manson Girl’ by Alison Umminger
Finally, Alison Umminger’s My Favourite Manson Girl (Atom, £7.99) offers up a gorgeously self-absorbed teenage voice in Anna, whose take on her mother’s miscarriage-induced grief is: “It’s not that I wasn’t sad for my mom, I was, but she took so long to start getting out of bed again that I practically had to move in with my best friend, Doon, just to get a bowl of cereal in the morning.”
Describing her family as “the place where optimism went to die”, Anna steals a credit card and lands on her older sister’s doorstep in Los Angeles, where she becomes immersed in the semi-glamorous, semi-seedy world of movie-making and the murderous world of the Manson girls. As the narrative progresses, Anna’s flippancy cracks open enough to let us see that she’s hurting, building up a story that is both engaging and emotionally honest.
At one point, Anna laments that the only books in her new school library are “young-adult lit as written by Barney the Dinosaur”. To suggest that this novel is the antithesis to such earnestly wholesome material is an understatement.
Claire Hennessy’s latest YA novel is Like Other Girls (Hot Key Books).