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YA fiction: Posing the questions that continue to haunt us as adults

Book reviews: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; The Balloon Thief; Fire Becomes Her; Rock Paper Killers; Only A Monster


“Why does everything hurt all the time?” might be the perfect YA fiction line. It refers to emotional pain (if it were physical pain, it’d be the perfect summary of adult life once the knees start going) and to philosophical questioning, to reckoning with an unfair world in which pain is unavoidable and sometimes overwhelming. It may seem melodramatic, but like so many questions raised within young adult fiction, it’s one  we return to throughout our lives. Why can’t things be easier? Why can’t things be more fair?

The line appears in Erika L Sánchez' I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Rock The Boat, £8.99). Already acclaimed in the United States, it arrives on this side of the Atlantic in advance of a Netflix adaptation later this year. On the one hand, it's a classic coming-of-age story concerning itself with an adolescent establishing an identity separate to that of their family and particularly her parents. But it's also a mystery: Who was Julia's reclusive, obedient, "perfect" older sister having a secret relationship with before she died?

We meet Julia at her sister’s funeral and quickly learn about her family’s resistance to “normal” American behaviour such as “hanging out”. Julia’s mother “doesn’t have any friends and sees no point to having any. She says all a woman needs is her family. According to her, only orphans and whores run around in the streets by themselves.”

Julia aches for freedom, to make her own choices, to reach beyond what is hoped for her (an office job), and to attend college to become a writer. The tensions of first-generation immigrants are explored deftly, with Julia caught between the opportunities and hope the US offers and the Mexican traditions her family still cling to, without romanticising either country.

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Sánchez, who is also a poet, gives us an authentic teen voice here. There’s a specific ache associated with being young and hurting – old enough to try to make sense of things but not yet an adult who can make independent decisions that might alleviate or change some of those things – and it leaps off the page in this novel. Illustrating the capacity of proper support to alleviate some of that pain (ranging from honest communication to therapy and medication) also offers necessary and realistic hope. This is a gorgeous novel.

The unfairness of a wider, more societal pain is also a concern of YA fiction, even if this is sometimes described, reductively, as "making it all about the issues". There is certainly a danger of didacticism when addressing the broader ills of the world, but the risk of being heavy-handed exists with any kind of fiction writing. The possibilities – for a gripping and engaging story that illuminates and invites empathy without demanding it – far outweigh the risks, and that's what debut author Aneesa Marufu has achieved with The Balloon Thief (Chicken House, £7.99).

Thematically, this is a book “about” racism, discrimination and terrorism – but it’s also about magic, friendship and luxurious hot-air balloons. Khadija, member of the ruling Ghadaean class but still limited in her autonomy by virtue of being a girl, escapes an arranged marriage in a stolen balloon. She falls in with Jacob, a boy from the oppressed and pale-skinned hari class. As Malorie Blackman did so effectively in the Noughts and Crosses series, Marufu reverses the real-world pattern of oppression and creates a vital critical distance for the reader.

These reluctant travel companions are drawn into a political struggle that has turned violent; the tension stems from which side either will ultimately choose. There are occasional clunky moments in the text, particularly related to exposition, but the characters’ nuanced emotional journeys in the face of inequality and violence ring true. This lushly described world is well worth vanishing into.

Questions of power and fairness also inform Rosiee Thor's Fire Becomes Her (Scholastic, £7.99), which opens in a magical speakeasy (be still my heart). In this world, "flare" is an essential commodity, a magical substance mined from within the earth and then refined. The wealthy have so much flare they can use it in their cosmetics or fashion, while for the poorer it is "a small miracle...the difference between starving or freezing, living or dying".

Protagonist Ingrid straddles the space between these two camps, as a scholarship student secretly dating the son of a wealthy, influential senator. Joining his presidential campaign as her senior year internship, Ingrid draws the attention of the senator’s glamorous and principled political opponent, and begins to question the purpose of the power she so desperately craves.

There are obvious resonances with the real world here – economic inequality, energy supplies, electoral campaigning – but this doesn’t take away from the delightfulness of the 1920s-inspired setting (it’s the US, so think Gatsby rather than Michael Collins).

A summer session in the Gaeltacht, the quintessential Irish-teenager experience, forms the backdrop for Alexia Mason's Rock Paper Killers (Simon & Schuster, £7.99). Five privileged friends from a Dublin school arrive for their stint in a Connemara college after discovering their Irish teacher won't be back for their all-important Leaving Cert year. One of them won't make it back alive, and it may or may not have something to do with another classmate of theirs who holds a grudge.

The plot moves swiftly and neatly, as one would expect from this author (Mason is another pen name for crime writer Alex Barclay). But the characterisation feels thin, and this significantly lessens the impact of the dramatic events on the reader.

Speaking of drama, there's a full-blown massacre only a few chapters into Vanessa Len's Only a Monster (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99). It's a story that begins with a possibly magical but seemingly normal history-nerd girl on her way to meet a cute boy but then takes a sharp swerve into time travelling.

Sixteen-year-old Joan Chang-Hunt discovers she’s a “monster”, a member of one of the 12 great families of London with particular powers, including the capacity to steal time from humans. And that cute boy, incidentally, is out to kill her – he is the legendary “hero” determined to and prophesied to put an end to all of Joan’s kind.

This is only the beginning of a thrilling adventure that includes venturing into ancient times such as the 1990s (where “the Rachel haircut is a time marker”) and grappling with the seemingly immutable rules of an unfair world. Joan desperately wants to save her murdered family, even as she is told it’s impossible: “Every monster goes up against the timeline...Everyone tries to change something at some point.”

What it means to be a “monster” or a “hero” is interrogated in this immersive tale, moving beyond “good” and “evil” into much murkier, messier, complicated territory. “What kind of person do you want to be in this world?” is another of those big questions we return to over and over again, and it’s played out beautifully here.