YA fiction: witches and aliens remind us teenagers are weird

Big themes and intriguing scenarios from established and new authors

Caroline O’Donoghue: ‘a fiendishly good novel’

Caroline O’Donoghue: ‘a fiendishly good novel’

 

We have all at some point in our lives wanted to fling a shoe at an authority figure, so when Maeve Chambers does this on the opening page of Caroline O’Donoghue’s All Our Hidden Gifts (Walker), she is immediately endearing. Maeve is the sort of girl who is often in trouble at school, unable to quite manage her frustration at not being as quick as the others. 

This incident means an in-school suspension, where Maeve finds an old deck of tarot cards while cleaning out a cupboard full of confiscated items.Her intuitive understanding of the cards marks the first time she’s really been good at something, and her popularity briefly soars – then plummets when a reading goes sour and her former best friend goes missing. 

“When the cards were in my hands, I felt like I had discovered some part of myself that was better off hidden. Something troublesome and strange, thorny and not completely under my control.” Maeve’s grappling with her newfound power is, on some levels, a metaphor for growing up. But like the best stories about teenagers and the supernatural (and this is very much in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Craft), it’s also a compelling fantasy in which magic is real and the forces of evil can be fought, if not quite permanently defeated. 

O’Donoghue has a great turn of phrase; her protagonist finds an old cassette tape full of “songs where you can hear the bad eyeshadow”, and later sums up so much hurt, angry behaviour with “I felt like a girl who no one could possibly love, and I acted like a girl who no one would want to”. 

As a Cork woman now living in London, the author also casts a sharp eye on contemporary Ireland, a subject she has explored in both her journalism and fiction for adults, and the myth that all is sorted now that a couple of referendums have passed. There is an attentiveness to diversity here that is thoughtful rather than tokenistic; race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, and learning difficulties all come into play without it ever feeling forced. 

All Out Hidden Gifts is a fiendishly good novel that continues a recent mini-trend of “witchy” feminist Irish YA; long may it last.

Alaskan writer Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (The Smell of Other People’s Houses) immediately grabs your attention with the title of her novel, Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town (Faber & Faber). Strictly speaking, this is a collection of interconnected short stories, moving up and down the west coast of the US and introducing us to several small towns and the teenagers who inhabit them, their aching secrets and torments. “In a small town, you are forever defined by the worst thing that happened to you.”

Set in 1995, the book delves into some unsettling territory, including both natural disasters and the evil that men do. In one of the most powerful stories, The Right Kind of People, we are introduced to Delia, whose church-going family turn a blind eye to the abusive behaviour of the local priest; it’s handled skilfully and sensitively and is, for its intended readership, historical fiction and therefore a safer space to address hard topics. But as an adult reader, I wished desperately we lived in a world where no teenager might read this and feel “seen”. 

That being said, this is a gorgeous book that offers up hope while recognising and acknowledging pain. It’s the west coast answer to Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible, in which we see a range of characters face difficulties but also find some kind of solace. Add this one to your “best of” lists for 2021.

The awful things that happen

“Beware of anyone who tells you school was the best time of their life. Chances are, they are a massive psychopath.” UK author Holly Bourne pulls no punches in The Yearbook (Usborne), her 10th YA novel and one inspired by her own experience of “mean girls” and their use of a school yearbook to bully others. Protagonist Paige keeps a record of all the awful things that happen in her school, even though she knows she’ll never use it, and knows that her job as a student journalist is mostly to prop up the egos of the cool kids. 

Bourne blends a meet-cute rom-com scenario with a searing depiction of an abusive home environment in her latest highly relatable novel. Her empathy for teen readers sings: “That’s school in a nutshell. Everyone feeling scared and irrelevant and terrified they’re going to be found out, or even worse, not noticed at all, and somehow we’re supposed to learn algebra on top of all that?” 

Carnegie Medal winner Geraldine McCaughrean steps into alt-history territory with The Supreme Lie (Usborne), in which 15-year-old housemaid Gloria finds herself impersonating Madame Suprema, leader of the nation of Afalia, known for its manufacturing of cutlery and determined to protect its industry at all costs, even – or perhaps especially – at a time of environmental crisis. 

“When people are scared, they tend to take their brains out and put them on a high shelf for safe-keeping,” Gloria is reminded in this tale of fake news, refugees and exploitative capitalism – a story that succeeds in being topical but is also gripping in its own right. This often- surprising novel is a book that will stand the test of time. 

Galway-based writer Pete Mullineaux, author of several poetry collections, draws on his own experience teaching drama to teenagers in Jules & Rom (Matador), in which an earnest young teacher is tasked with a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, against a backdrop of anti-android sentiment and a strange murder. Set in 2040, this novel poses intriguing questions about the potential benefits of artificial intelligence; it is at times a little clunky and would have benefitted from better editorial guidance, but is certainly worth a gander.

After so many years of bleak dystopias (and their fondness for love triangles) it’s a pleasure to witness the return of the space opera to YA. SM Wilson’s The Infinity Files (Usborne) introduces us to Ash, a would-be pilot who becomes guardian of an interstellar library, returning lost artefacts to distant worlds before she uncovers the truth about a planet her home world has fought for centuries. 

The real standout here is Charlie Jane Anders’s YA debut, Victories Greater Than Death (Titan), an account of an average teenager who’s really an alien – or, more specifically, a clone of a renowned heroine whose shoes may be too large to fill. Protagonist Tina assembles a group of human “misfits” to help with the intergalactic war she’s been thrust into, and ends up with a team whose diversity feels natural and very much in the vein of the original Star Trek: sometimes a little heavy-handed but ultimately a force for good. 

Both offer up adventure and excitement (in space!) alongside questions of morality. What is the right thing to do, particularly in a time of war? When the mantle of responsibility lands on our shoulders, do we accept it or shrug it off? Despite the big themes, these books are treats; thoroughly enjoyable above all else.

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