Young adult fiction: Girls challenge rape culture
The best new young adult novels: everything from fashion in Auschwitz to macabre romance
Amy Reed: avoids reassuring readers that everything will be okay. Photograph: Erika Hart
“People laugh at fashion. It’s just clothes, they say . . . Except, not one of the people I’ve heard mock fashion was naked at the time.” In Birchwood, everyone learns quickly that clothes matter – because when you are stripped of them, you are stripped of your identity. In Birchwood, Ella aches to be more than just a number – but in a world divided into Them and Your Sort, she is the latter, marked by a yellow star and clinging to the tiny slivers of hope offered to her through her role as a dressmaker.
The Red Ribbon (Hot Key Books), by fashion historian Lucy Adlington, offers up an unusual take on the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is inspired by the real-life Upper Tailoring Studio, and narrated in a rather conversational tone, which seems almost trivial at first – like Ella’s passion for fine clothes at a time when staying alive is a greater concern – yet gradually and elegantly it unfolds to explore the role of these “props of real life” and what it means “to be a real person, not an animal”. Like many Holocaust narratives it invites the reader to consider what choices they would make, in a world with so few and where the desire to survive wars with personal morality.
Sheena Wilkinson’s Star by Star (Little Island) ventures slightly further back in history to 1918, when the first World War is just about coming to a close and Europe is losing many of its citizens to the influenza pandemic. Fifteen-year-old Stella has just lost her mother and arrives in a seaside village in Ulster to stay with long-lost family members, feeling “noble and determined, a cross between Anne of Green Gables and Joan of Arc”.
Stella is passionate about the suffragette cause, and opinionated about politics, even though the local tensions between nationalists and unionists are new to her. Determined to be a “modern, adventurous girl”, she sets about getting involved in the lives and problems of those around her – much like Jane Austen’s Emma, one of the titles in her bedroom – and congratulates herself at being “excellent at fixing people’s lives”. Stella is Wilkinson’s most endearing heroine yet, and her narrative offers up an insightful look into the losses and traumas of the era, with pitch-perfect period details woven throughout.
Carnegie-shortlisted William Sutcliffe ventures into YA for the third time with We See Everything (Bloomsbury), a chillingly authentic account of a near-future London (“a seething spine of overcrowded land shaped like a sticking plaster, cut off from the rest of the world”) constantly monitored by drones. Behind the drones, of course, are real people engaged in military surveillance.
Alan – bullied at school but whose talent for gaming makes him an excellent candidate for working in “The Base” – is one of them. His target? The father of the second narrator, 16-year-old Lex, who is quickly recruited as a messenger for The Corps. Alan watches as target #K622 parents his son, oscillating between yearning for a father of his own and reassuring himself that he is doing the right thing, that it is only “bleeding heart snowflakes” like his mother who would disagree.
Although clearly a commentary on current military techniques – the novel was partially inspired by the use of drones in Gaza – and their dehumanising effect, We See Everything is also a taut thriller where story rather than moral is king.
When Grace moves to the small town of Prescott, Oregon, the carvings on her bedroom wall – “Kill me now. / I’m already dead” – immediately have her wondering what happened to the girl who lived there before. New friends Rosina and Erin reluctantly explain: Lucy left – was hounded out of – town after accusing the popular boys of rape. No one believed her – or rather, no one was willing to admit that they did.
But so many of the girls of Prescott have a story, and the horrific bragging on The Real Men of Prescott blog – a painfully real rendition of the kind of pick-up artistry and misogyny advocated online – only supports these accounts. Amy Reed’s The Nowhere Girls (Atom) portrays what happens when these girls come together to speak up and challenge rape culture.
Reed, whose previous novels have taken an unflinching look at addiction and mental illness, avoids reassuring readers that everything will be okay; in fact, this is a book often distressing to read for its authentic and nuanced account of sexual coercion and assault.
With a powerful message about consent on the one hand – “Silence does not mean yes” – and a diverse range of female protagonists and attitudes towards sexuality on the other, this is an engrossing and inspiring read about contemporary young women and the difficulty of negotiating patriarchal systems. One of my absolute favourites of 2017.
For a Halloween read, Juno Dawson’s novella Grave Matter (Barrington Stoke), accompanied with eerie black-and-white illustration by Alex T Smith of Claude fame, is an accessible and engaging account of a teenage boy left to face the world as no longer one half of “SamandEliza”, as “half a thing”, after his girlfriend’s death.
Sam, blaming himself for the fatal car crash, seeks out an estranged relative and then the mysterious Milk Man in an attempt to bring Eliza back from the dead. Naturally, there will be a price – and “results may vary”. The supernatural element is knitted deftly into the modern landscape of adolescence, and the flickering between what is real and what might be is appropriately spooky. Dawson, though now best known for her nonfiction, began as a horror writer, and this reluctant-reader-friendly book proves she hasn’t lost her gift for the macabre.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator