Young adult fiction: February titles forgo romance in favour of feminism
Homelessness, refuges, black eyes, gymnastic endeavour and funny ‘un-feminism’
Simone Biles at Aspire Dome in Doha, Qatar, in 2018: Jennifer Iacopelli’s Break the Fall focuses on a fictional American women’s gymnastics team.
Fifteen-year-old Tyler is “trapped in a place where excitement has been abolished, with no mates whatsoever” – a small village in Yorkshire his family has relocated to from stressful, manic London. With the summer holidays stretching out ahead of him, he yearns for something to do. Teaching swimming to spiky, mysterious Spider isn’t quite his dream gig, and things get a great deal more complicated when he discovers his new friend is homeless.
Malcolm Duffy’s second novel, Sofa Surfer (Zephyr Books, £10.99) offers up another believable, colloquial teenage-boy voice, with Tyler sympathetic but also helpless (“Sometimes feeling sad for people is all you can do”) when faced with Spider’s dilemma. His attempts to make things better for her are clumsy and realistic, with his own disastrous love life (the wildly dramatic Michele has set her sights on him) providing a welcome helping of humour. This moving story is a call for empathy and a firm reminder that “homeless doesn’t equal hopeless”.
Amy Beashel’s debut, The Sky Is Mine (Rock the Boat, £7.99) delves into one of the reasons why women so often can’t go home. Izzy and her mum leave behind the abusive Daniel for a new life in a refuge. Beashel conveys the power of emotional, and later physical, violence in quietly devastating details, noting “this skill he has of making our hearts snap like twigs with just the idea of him entering a room” and small, seemingly innocent incidents that have left Izzy feeling “like he was laying foundations, building up to something so awful it might black out the sky”.
Daniel is not the only bad guy in this novel; Izzy’s classmates include a coercive rapist whose horrific conversations about girls and women are seen as “just bants”. (Worry not, there are some good men in there too.) Beashel joins feminist writers like Louise O’Neill and Holly Bourne in portraying rape culture rather than simply focusing on an isolated incident or single monstrous individual, encouraging girls to speak up and shout out about their own experiences and the problems with even what seems like casual, “jokey” behaviour. When Izzy finds within herself “that girl won’t stand for it, that girl who won’t sit quietly on the sidelines”, it’s genuinely inspiring and powerful. I am cheering her and the author on.
Alyssa Sheinmel’s latest novel tackles similar issues although approaches them very differently; in What Kind of Girl (Atom, £7.99) a teenage girl walks into school with a black eye and tells the principal that her boyfriend – a popular athlete – hit her. She knows it’s not normal behaviour. But she finds herself wondering “if all boys hit, and all girls kept their secrets.” Many of her classmates seem to think she should have kept this one – after all, the poor boy might lose his scholarship. “No one blames you, you know, for getting confused,” one student piously opines. “You’re the victim here, and none of would ever blame the victim.”
Although Sheinmel’s capacity to capture the earnest, if sometimes misguided, intensity of young people at moments of injustice is spot-on, the real interest in this book is her look at the contradictions and complexities within each of us. The girls in this novel struggle with anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders; they are trying to figure out their place in the world and unsure about how to communicate to others just what’s going on. Sheinmel’s chapters provide labels – “the popular girl”, “the bulimic”, “the activist” – but in the style of The Breakfast Club, both reader and characters realise that people are far messier than just one detail, just one story. This is an immensely satisfying book from a skilled author.
Conflicts and scandals
In an Olympic year, expect a few sports-themed books. Jennifer Iacopelli’s Break the Fall (Hodder, £7.99) has already won my heart by focusing on a fictional American women’s gymnastics team en route to the competition, grappling with a variety of conflicts and scandals while trying to do what they do best – this difficult, complicated sport.
The sheer joy of their activity – “it’s not flying, but it’s as close to it as a human will ever achieve” – leaps from the page, even as the huge commitment and dedication required is acknowledged. Narrator Audrey is also conscious of her own physical limitations; a back injury means that competing at this high level is unsustainable. At 17, this is her one shot for a gold medal, even though her lifelong best friend is also on the team. “We’ve all earned it. We all deserve it. Every girl here has the talent and has put in the time and the effort for this. That doesn’t mean I don’t still want it for myself, though. I want this more than anything.” The deft balancing of female solidarity and ambition is one of many pleasing things about this book; another is how vividly the gymnastics routines come to life, playing out as though on a screen and inspiring the same level of breath-holding, wincing and cheering as the real Olympics might.
Finally for this month, British comedian Kate Weston delves into teen fiction with Diary of a Confused Feminist (Hodder, £7.99), in which a hapless and anxious narrator counts up her daily “un-feminist thoughts” and frequently conducts internet searches to try to answer her worries, such as “Can you be feminist and have a boyfriend?” or “What’s the longest that a lonely dead person has gone before they find the body?” There are echoes of the late great Louise Rennison here, and we can only hope that future titles about this Confused Feminist (“Why do most boys smell of gone-off cheese?”) make their way on to the shelves. In these issue-heavy times, it’s vital to keep some space for laughter.