YA Fiction: poetry gives voice to tough topics

Sarah Crossan and Laurie Halse Anderson use free-form verse, also a wartime secret revealed

Laureate na nÓg Sarah Crossan – author of Toffee

Laureate na nÓg Sarah Crossan – author of Toffee


“You make it very hard to love you, /you know,” Allison’s father notes. He is a very patient man – “But don’t push me. OK?” – and therefore she knows, deep down in her bones, she deserves his criticism.

Free verse may sometimes feel like 'easy reading' 

The multi-awardwinning Sarah Crossan is our current Laureate na nÓg and known for making poetry accessible to young audiences through both workshops and her own novels. In Toffee (Bloomsbury, £12.99) she also demonstrates the capacity of verse to tackle difficult, upsetting subjects in a way that facilitates multiple levels of engagement, with the white space on the page as the place where a reader’s own understanding of – and worries for – the protagonist can emerge.

Crossan is not alone in this endeavour; the bestselling American YA verse novelist Ellen Hopkins frequently tackles issues relating to addiction and mental health, for example. Free verse may sometimes feel like “easy reading” – and for reluctant readers in particular it’s a more palatable way of encountering poetry than, say, a sonnet – but a deft writer also realises the ability of this form to pack a devastating emotional punch.

In Toffee, we witness this over and over, as a runaway Allison is mistaken for the long-gone Toffee by Marla, a woman suffering from dementia, and becomes “a girl who could break teeth” – and a girl whose relationship with the vulnerable Marla is both tender and exploitative. The choices Allison makes are not admirable but they are certainly understandable, and her own grief comes alive on the page. This is undoubtedly one of the best books of the year.

White space

Acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson also uses the verse format to structure her memoir, an account of the real-life origins of 20 years’ worth of hard-hitting titles for young adults in Shout (Viking, $17.99). Again, the benefit of the white space – the breathing room – is evident. Anderson’s childhood is one of silence against the backdrop of an alcoholic preacher father still traumatised by his experiences in the second World War: “I learned then that words / had such power / some must never be spoken / and was thus robbed of both / tongue and the truth.”

After a horrific experience of rape as a teenager, Anderson “could hardly think at all / because feelings hid in the closet . . . oceans of noise threatened to spill over if I opened /my mouth, I was afraid / I’d never stop screaming”. Shout is her scream for that girl and for all the others out there who have been hurt, a blazing attack on rape culture coupled with a reminder of the power of telling your own story. It’s an incredibly powerful book, though best saved for readers ready to discover it for themselves.

Little Island continue to demonstrate its commitment to home-grown talent with James Butler’s Dangerous Games (€10), a fast-paced tale of an unlikely friendship that becomes entangled with the criminal activities of the narrator’s suspicious uncle. The depiction of working-class life is both welcome and nuanced, although the capturing of adolescence is slightly less successful. (The notion that teenage boys with access to smartphones would limit their comments on girls’ photos to “look at that face – and that jumper” is implausible, as is the idea that girls of that age would view “Specky Becky” as the cruellest insult available.)

Although understandable – keeping the content relatively “clean” while still recognising and alluding to more “mature” and dubious behaviours makes it more likely schools will stock a title, for example – it is also managed unevenly in this title, with occasional references seeming much more sophisticated (both in terms of sexuality and an awareness of the wider world) than others. It’s a distraction from an otherwise endearing and authentic voice, doubtlessly helped by Butler’s background in theatre for young people.

There is a frustration of a different kind in Kathryn Evans’s Beauty Sleep (Usborne, £7.99), in which the reader will likely recognise much more quickly than the narrator, Laura, that there is something amiss about the too-kind benefactor who adopts her after she wakes up from a 40-year “sleep”. Although there is sometimes a joy in feeling superior to the protagonist, the withholding of the explanation takes a little too long here.

That being said, there are still plenty of surprises in this twisting plot that also takes a sharp look at modern society. Set only a few years into our own future, it cleverly addresses a number of concerns – how we treat the poor and the homeless, the “numbing and comforting” nature of falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, the role of drones and other invasive technologies – while avoiding didacticism.


“I am sixteen. I am lucky. I have had treats all day and my parents are spoiling me with food that mostly nobody can afford to buy any more.” For a teenager like Inge to say this in 1950s Munich, still haunted by the war, is revealing; we quickly learn that a portrait of Hitler still hangs in her father’s study even though most of the population now view his rule as “a disaster”. Although Inge is more concerned with hiding her romance with her Jewish boyfriend, as anti-Semitism still prevails, she discovers that there is a much bigger secret being kept from her.

Adoption, and the discovery thereof, has declined as a dramatic device in teen fiction as society moves towards more openness around the issue; Vanessa Curtis’s The Stolen Ones (Usborne, £6.99) is a stunning revitalisation of this trope, linking it to the Nazis’ Lebensborn project, in which eastern European children were kidnapped to be raised as “perfect” Aryans. This is a haunting beauty of a novel.

Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator

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