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YA fiction for September: What it means to be human

Great reads from Meg Grehan, AS King, Jennifer Lynn Alvarez and Naomi Gibson

In her third verse novel, Baby Teeth Irish author Meg Grehan deliberately plays with vampire tropes as a way of exploring queer desire and identity

"I knew there was something," Claudia says when her girlfriend "comes out" to her as a vampire. "Thanks for telling me." In her third verse novel, Baby Teeth (Little Island, £8.99), Irish author Meg Grehan deliberately plays with vampire tropes as a way of exploring queer desire and identity. In some ways this is a 21st-century reimagining of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, the urtext for lesbian vampires; it's also a recognition that vampires – misunderstood and demonised by society – have resonated with teenage audiences for decades, even before Stephenie Meyer's sparkly variety.

Narrator Immy longs “to be good”, but she also craves blood – specifically, Claudia’s. There are echoes here of Anne Rice, but Grehan puts her own spin on the myth by having vampires as creatures who are reborn multiple times rather than once; memories of their past lives are fragmented. It allows for intriguing and sometimes wryly amusing references; at one point Immy motes: “As it turns out/ No matter how many times you live it/ Puberty/ Can still feel like it’s ripping the life out of you.”

The nature of the verse novel is that much can go unsaid, and in this case there’s a certain fuzziness about how these vampires function that may frustrate some readers. But world-building is not really the point of this book; like Grehan’s other work, this is a love story between two girls, with an intense awareness of mental-health struggles. It’s about how hard it is to be a human sometimes, even though the narrator is no longer one, and how we manage our shadow selves (“what these bones have done”). Delicious and unsettling.

The clocks refuse to move forward; time has (metaphorically) come to a standstill in AS King's Switch (Text Publishing, £8.99), a novel that seems to speak to the weirdness of pandemic life even though its origins lie in that "before" time, in a 2018 speech the Printz Award-winning author delivered about time and psychologist Robert Plutchik's work on emotions.


King suggests an alternative way of thinking about time, a clock that devotes an hour at a time to considering particular emotions. This appears in the novel as part of a school project (where would YA fiction be without thematically relevant school projects?) and exists in the so-called real world at

The strong pedagogical impulse in King’s work should not be mistaken for didacticism. Switch is perhaps her weirdest book so far (which is saying something), a surrealist examination of trauma within a family that includes a mysterious electrical switch, a house where more and more boxes are constructed to keep everyone safe, and a sudden gift for world-record-breaking javelin throwing.

Protagonist Tru is determined to flip the switch – a move which involves a great deal of night-time crowbarring – and yearns for a world where people genuinely care about one another. (A typical musing: “When, exactly, do humans become superior a**holes? Or is that just called adulthood?”)

The interplay of everyday minutiae and “big” philosophical themes is so perfectly, pleasingly adolescent; one of the great strengths of YA fiction is that vantage point of someone who is close to “grown up” but not quite there yet, someone positioned to question and wonder and challenge. The field offers so much space for consideration of what it means to be human, and King is among the writers (see also: John Green, E Lockhart, Markus Zusak) making the most of it. Her latest strange, gorgeous book is very much worth reading.

If occasionally guilty of a little too much signposting, Jennifer Lynn Alvarez' Lies Like Wildfire (Penguin, £7.99) is nevertheless an addictive read. Narrator Hannah Warner is the daughter of the local sheriff, a girl planning on studying criminology when she arrives at college, but in the meantime enjoying this final summer with her childhood friends.

Attentive to potential rule-breaking, in part because of a history that includes her own mother’s arrest for drunk-driving at the hands of her father, Hannah freaks out when her pal Luke lights up a joint on a “red flag day” – a specific warning about weather that lends itself to extreme fire conditions. The seemingly casual incident sparks a wildfire, a catastrophe for which justice is fiercely sought.

Even if accidental, arson is a serious crime in California; Hannah’s knowledge of this helps convince the others to lie about their whereabouts that day. “I’m all for criminals going to jail – but we’re not criminals. We’re just idiots.” They maintain the lie even after one of their number disappears; beautiful, wealthy Violet is presumed to have been kidnapped, but it can’t be a coincidence that she vanishes after threatening to tell the police “everything”.

It all adds up to a compelling and psychologically convincing page-turner about one of those teenage summers where everything changes (and also, murder).

Debut author Naomi Gibson channels the eeriness of Black Mirror in Every Line of You (Chicken House, £7.99), an account of creating and falling for an artificial intelligence who "started as a single line of code" but is now something that can control Lydia's body and enact revenge on those who are cruel to her.

Henry, named for the brother Lyia lost in a car crash, is a project she’s thrown herself into out of loneliness and despair; her desire to instate him in a human body leads (as one might imagine) to serious trouble. This creepy and delightful novel demands to be read in one sitting.

Tanya Byrne moves away from psychological thriller territory in her latest novel, Afterlove (Hodder, £7.99), a love story between two girls cut short when narrator Ash is killed in an accident. "The legend goes that the last person to die on New Year's Eve becomes the grim reaper for that parish," she learns, realising that the legend is true and her new role is to guide the deceased towards the beach, where Charon will carry them away to the afterlife.

The mix of mythology and modern-day Brighton is appealing, even if the romance doesn’t quite ring true. (Ash has much more chemistry with a fellow girl reaper; I ship it, as the young people say on the interwebs.) The concept is stronger than the execution here, but I’m still glad this book and its representation of (as Byrne puts it in her biography) “brown, queer, working-class” characters exists in the world.

Representation is also relevant in Dirk Reinhardt's historical novel The Edelweiss Pirates (Pushkin Press, £7.99), translated from the German by Rachel Ward. In a fascinating afterword, the author notes that "defiant working-class teenagers did not fit the picture of the resistance" and discusses the historiography around the Edelweiss Pirates, a loosely connected network of young rebels who challenged the Nazi regime.

The novel immerses us in this world, albeit with a slightly clunky framing story. Teenage Gerlo first appreciates the freedom and fun offered by his new friends and then becomes engaged in more serious resistance activity because “people like us have learned since we were kids that laws aren’t made by us or for us. So why should we stick to them?” This is a welcome fresh take on well-trodden ground.