YA Fiction: American versus Irish takes on the teen novel
Plus some classics from Gabrielle Moss, Kathleen Glasgow and Maureen Daly
Sarah Carroll author of The Words That Fly Between Us
For the reader under the impression that YA fiction popped into existence at the turn of the millennium, Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush (Quirk Books, $22.99) may be a rude awakening; for others it’s a glorious slice of nostalgia.
This brightly coloured, highly readable guide to the teen fiction of the 1980s and 1990s positions this era - an age of admittedly “fluffy, overmarketed, heteronormative and vapid” paperback series - as a vital stage in YA between the solemn “issue novels” of the 1970s and blockbuster trilogies of the 2000s.
Moss explores an impressively wide range of books in thematically-arranged chapters that acknowledge the hyper-commercial bent of teen publishing at this stage (a popular series like Sweet Valley High could run to hundreds of titles), while also recognising the complexity of the often-flawed work on offer.
This lyrical and emotionally complex account of grief sees a teenage girl left without a home
This treat of a book is nevertheless, as one might expect, incredibly American-centric, reflecting much of YA today. This is not necessarily a negative thing; Kathleen Glasgow’s How To Make Friends With The Dark (Rock The Boat, £8.99) is a prime example of the literary end of YA more common in the US than on this side of the Atlantic.
This lyrical and emotionally complex account of grief sees a teenage girl left without a home after her mother’s sudden death. For Tiger, “the world is a whole new language” now. “I need my mother to come get me, to save me from the fact that my mother is dead.” It’s a devastating book offering no easy answers, and a reminder that a novel with issues is not quite the same as an “issue novel”.
The structuring of the plot as a thriller fools us into hoping for a big solvable mystery
Poet Savannah Brown’s first novel The Truth About Keeping Secrets (Penguin, £7.99) similarly sees a teenage girl confronting loss, with the emphasis here on realising her own mortality. When Sydney’s father dies in a car crash, she begins compulsively watching online videos of other people’s deaths, noting just how “fragile” humans are: “Soft and fleshy. A single slip was enough to kill one.”
But was this crash really an accident - or was someone out to get this man, a therapist who knew the secrets of far too many people in a small town? That the story will not offer up an easy resolution is signposted early on, with a sly, pleasing reference to Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why (“Maybe Dad had left some freaky cassette tapes behind for me so I could avenge him”).
The structuring of the plot as a thriller fools us into hoping for a big solvable mystery rather than the complicated emotional relationship between Sydney and a new friend. A gorgeous read.
Current Irish YA has its own distinctive voice, however, one that is often lyrical but also politically-charged.
Despite the sense of YA as an American phenomenon, it’s worth noting that one of the titles cited among the key foundational texts in the field - Seventeenth Summer (1942) was penned by the Irish-born Maureen Daly. (Sure, we invented the whole thing, really!)
Current Irish YA has its own distinctive voice, however, one that is often lyrical but also politically-charged. Meg Grehan’s The Deepest Breath (Little Island, £6.99), her second verse novel, is on the surface a quiet, gentle tale of eleven-year-old Stevie trying to put a name on her feelings for a girl in her class, and how to tell her mum about it all.
But it is powerful in its simplicity: “I want to touch her hair,” Stevie blurts out, then tries to figure out what her mum’s raised eyebrows mean; later she goes to the library to find books that will explain things to her, but can find “nothing / About a princess and a princess / Or a queen and a queen / Nothing at all”. It’s a fierce reminder of the need for books that show readers of all kinds of love, as well as being this kind of book itself, especially for younger teens and pre-teens.
Her tender, endearing voice makes every single magical element of this beautiful novel completely and utterly believable
Sarah Carroll’s The Words That Fly Between Us (Simon & Schuster, £6.99) explores the flipside of her debut, The Girl In Between, looking now at the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” within the Dublin housing market. Lucy’s dad is a property developer, engaged in “questionable” behaviour in his work and in emotional abuse at home. Lucy reports events with clear eyes, a careful if still young observer of human nature.
Spending time with girls of her own age, she identifies the “vanilla voice, spiked with thorns” of a backhanded compliment; Carroll’s depiction of friendship dynamics here is particularly impressive.
Lucy begins to use her own secret - that the attic above her bedroom connects with the attics of the other houses on her street - to uncover the secrets of others in an attempt to stop the bullies in her life, but inevitably reality proves to be messier and harder, particularly when she finds evidence of her dad’s illegal activity. This is an extraordinary novel about facing one’s fears.
“A girl can turn into an ellipsis so easily.” Neither girls nor small creatures are safe in the world of Deirdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths (Hot Key Books, £7.99), steeped in an Ireland both real and mythic. Sullivan moves deftly between the conversational inner life of narrator Madeline (her twin sister’s new boyfriend is “a lanky yoke of a man”; she recognises a classmate speaking to her with “new-girl solidarity”) and poetic observations of the magical, menacing world of Ballyfrann (Baile Ifreann).
Madeline has always had a way with plants, her “version of mindfulness or yoga”, not quite suspecting that this points to a supernatural gift that could help her save her sister from danger. Her tender, endearing voice makes every single magical element of this beautiful novel completely and utterly believable, right through to its compelling gut-punch of an ending.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator.