YA titles for January: How to be better
From the science of adolescent sleep to Angie Thomas’s return to Garden Heights
January, the time for resolutions: a month when capitalism is at its most pernicious, when the legacy of a puritanical work ethic is monetised, when we are encouraged to set ambitious goals for ourselves that most of us will fail to reach. We are drawn to quick fixes, to “one simple tip” ads, to snake oil and other nostrums.
It is a tad disconcerting, therefore, that Nicola Morgan’s The Awesome Power of Sleep (Walker, £7.99) is so measured and reasonable. Morgan, author of many excellent non-fiction titles for teenagers, explains the many benefits of sleep clearly and with reference to the available scientific evidence, without getting as evangelical about it as some of the experts she draws on (Matthew Walker of Why We Sleep fame among them).
Getting enough quality sleep is not a thing to “win” at, Morgan recognises; throughout the text she constantly reassures her anxiety-prone audience not to panic if it’s hard to nod off (“a sure-fire way to make sleep elusive”), even before vital events such as important exams.
The tone is accessible but never condescending; Morgan has empathy for young people and is unafraid to note the hypocrisy of adults when it comes to “sleep hygiene” measures such as avoiding screens before bedtime. She’s also careful to note when the evidence is limited, or to explain that “averages” refer to statistically likely, rather than definite, outcomes. This encouraging of scientific literacy is very welcome – and necessary.
For escapist reading this month – perhaps to consume just prior to bedtime – there is a new instalment of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm series, Winterkeep (Gollancz, £18.99), which sees the return of Queen Bitterblue of Monsea and introduces a whole new continent to this high-fantasy world. Winterkeep, with its more advanced technology, allows the series to slide into steampunk territory, with airships, weapons and environmental threats offering a different sort of challenge to established characters.
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There’s also the arrival of a new protagonist, Lovisa, who has a (metaphorical – it is important to clarify in this genre) fire inside her that she keeps “to a low steady blaze, always controlled, always hungry”. Like Cashore’s other heroines, Lovisa has experienced mistreatment at the hands of those tasked with protecting her, and while the fantastical elements – including telepathic foxes and singing sea creatures – let this play out in original ways, the human emotions at the core of the novel are all too real.
With elegant writing and an immersive setting, this is a superb example of how to return to a series after a hiatus and breathe new life into it.
Bestselling author Angie Thomas revisits her own fictional universe, the predominantly black and poor neighbourhood of Garden Heights, by stepping back in time to the late 1990s. Concrete Rose (Walker, £7.99) depicts the young Maverick Carter, who will grow up to be father to Starr (The Hate U Give). Readers already know Maverick has a history with a local gang; this novel delves into this but also his discovery that he’s a teenage father. (Twice over by the end of the book – at Thanksgiving his grandmother implores, “Take all that fertileness and mannishness away from him, Lord!”)
This is a sympathetic view of a good kid in a bad situation, a teenage boy who wants to be there for his son but finds it hard: “I love him, I swear I do, but it’s a lot, man.” The everyday messiness of small babies and the sleep deprivation – “I’m never gon’ sleep no more” – are handled well, as is a pull towards revenge when a family member is murdered. Like Thomas’s other work, this is a book that will stay with you.
Towards the end of January, another opportunity to be better – as a species, rather than as consumers – comes with Holocaust Memorial Day. Two established writers address this theme this month: When the World Was Ours (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) by Liz Kessler and What We’re Scared Of (Scholastic, £7.99) by Keren David. Both draw on research as well as personal experience; both emphasise the importance of survivors’ stories. And both occasionally veer towards being heavy-handed while ultimately offering up moving, powerful accounts.
Kessler’s tale begins in 1936 Vienna, when three best friends have one perfect day, captured in a photograph that they each keep a copy of as their lives take very different turns. Both Leo and Elsa, as Jews, are increasingly under threat as anti-Semitism is legitimised by the state and enforced by the SS; Max is drawn into Nazi ideology in part due to what becomes an “addictive” desire to fit in and be praised, even as it means constructing elaborate “mental hoops” for his mind.
“How rapidly something unthinkable can become commonplace,” Elsa muses, on her way to a work camp. “How easily we let the inconceivable become a new normal.”
This is one particular historical atrocity, but not an isolated one; the modern resonances are emphasised in David’s contemporary novel, in which twin sisters explore their Jewish heritage against a backdrop of anti-Semitic abuse that plays out online as well as in real-life violence. The idea of generational trauma is handled deftly as we see how Lottie and Evie respond differently to their mother’s means of dealing with their family’s past; there are also moments of humour.
David, who works at the Jewish Chronicle, presents various ways of “being Jewish” (from bagels to bat mitzvahs) for an audience that – despite the horrors of the 20th century – still battles racism and prejudice today. Stories like these that foster empathy are a gentle yet effective tool in this ongoing fight.