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Young-adult fiction: Let’s talk about important books

Great reads from Jane Mitchell, Jacqueline Wilson, James Goodhand and others

There is a word that we – the adults in the world of books for young people, from reviewers and editors to writers and teachers and librarians – use about certain titles. We deem them “important”.

“This is an important book,” we declare, and we believe it, too – but somewhere inside us (particularly if our inner adolescent remains as rebellious as ever) there is an awareness that this is possibly the very worst thing to say about a book if you want young people to actually read it. “Important” signifies “worthiness”, adult approval, and possible examination questions about the themes within – not a novel that someone might pick up of their own volition.

So I am in a terrible bind when it comes to Jane Mitchell's latest novel, Run For Your Life (Little Island, €9.99), because it is, undoubtedly, an important book. It is a book for young people – young teenagers upwards – that this country desperately needs, because it depicts a problem that this country desperately needs to sort out. It is a searing, devastating novel from the perspective of a teenage girl in Ireland, an asylum seeker living within the dehumanising system of direct provision.

Narrator Azari describes, in painful detail, a world of little privacy and even less compassion, in which centre managers operate for profit and care little about the vulnerable people they serve. “We’re not part of Ireland,” she reflects. “We’re not real people at all.”

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It is a damning indictment of the system that not a single thing needs to be exaggerated for dramatic effect here. The difficulties that MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) have consistently drawn attention to play out here, and the racism to which Azari is subjected to, both verbal (“my da says yous are only here for free handouts,” a girl at school says) and physical, echoes countless real-life accounts.

To read this novel is to be angry about the system of direct provision, designed as a short-term emergency measure and now in its 22nd year. It is fiercely political, and unapologetically intended to draw attention to a real-life crisis. So, yes, it is important – but it is also a skilfully-structured novel.

Mitchell, whose past work has explored migration from Syria, child soldiers, homelessness and physical disability, is at the top of her game here. Deftly and lyrically, she moves between Azari’s past and present, slowly building tension: “What happened back home shreds my sleep.” Caught between worlds “as different as lemons and mangoes”, this talented runner itches to escape the oppressive, misogynist culture of home, yet has been shaped by it. On the one hand, she is frustrated at her mother’s insistence that men are always right, particularly when it manifests as a reluctance to speak up during their official interviews to see whether they can stay in Ireland; on the other, she is all too aware “how men watch women. That look they have. It frightens me.”

There are further stories to be told about what it is to live within direct provision as a young person, and the many ways in which Ireland needs to be kinder and fairer to everyone who has landed in her shores. Mitchell is not attempting to tell a definitive account here, but her capacity to write sensitively about trauma, and to weave a compelling story, makes this a powerful read by an advocate who speaks to, and not just for, the 2,000-plus young people she has dedicated this book to.

Problematic state-run or state-sanctioned institutions are of course nothing new for this country, and Jacqueline Wilson's latest novel, Baby Love (Penguin, £12.99), set mostly in a mother and baby home, will have a particular resonance for Irish readers. Teenaged Laura, like many of Wilson's heroines, feels an outsider and a misfit. Aching for friendship, and ashamed of her poor-yet-proud family (her mother is in awe of the "Upper Crust"; Laura reflects that they are therefore "the Soggy Bottoms"), she falls in with a glamorous girl at school and tries desperately to fit in. Part of this means going along with what happens when they meet two French exchange students, not quite understanding what it means when handsome Leon wants to be alone with her.

Wilson excels at depicting just how easy it is to get caught up in a tricky situation if your sense of belonging depends on it, and her portrayal of this painfully naive girl, who is unsure about what activities have actually taken place, never mind their potential consequences, is as sharp as ever.

"Why is it easier to be violent, to smash stuff up, than it is to break down and cry?" James Goodhand's second novel Man Down (Penguin, £7.99) sets out its stall early; this is a book about toxic masculinity, an "important" (I do apologise) topic. When there are two men causing hassle at his part-time job, Will realises that even though he is only a teenager in the presence of adults, he – as the "man" here – "is expected to fix this". He can see, with some distance, that macho posturing is "a nonsensical bit of theatre", yet another part of him yearns to step in, to fight, to "defeat" his own inner "cowardice".

Then we have a delightful swerve into the supernatural – or possibly metaphysical – as a voice from the near-future speaks to us, and tries to send messages to Will, in an attempt to avoid a terrible disaster. It moves the work from “issue book” into stylish, thought-provoking thriller territory, with some clever plot misdirection along the way. Highly recommended.

Erik J Brown's debut All That's Left In The World (Hodder Children's Books, £7.99) may hit a little too close to home for some readers, set as it is in the aftermath of a global pandemic. The Superflu has wiped out most of the population, and in America they "didn't even try a mandatory quarantine like the Netherlands or a lockdown like in France or Spain. Everyone was full-on Live Free or Die in America. And so they did." This post-apocalyptic road-trip love story between two boys is clunky in parts but there's an earnest sweetness to it that will appeal to younger teenagers.

In a similar vein, Phil Stamper's Golden Boys (Bloomsbury, £7.99), about four high-achieving queer best friends over the course of one summer (I would argue the publishers have missed a trick by not titling this Brotherhood of the Travelling Angst) notes some serious issues, such as exploitation within summer internships, but ultimately lands on the side of cosy and hopeful.

Finally, Morgan Owen arrives on the YA scene with The Girl With No Soul (Scholastic, £7.99), a romantic fantasy set in a world where souls are classified and measured, run by an order who believes that "only the pure of soul were worthy of a place in society" and demands that citizens carry "psychographs" wherever they go. The world-building may be a little generic at times, but what it enables in terms of a swoony – and twisty – love story makes the book worth reading. It is important – there we go again! – to have joyful escapism in this field too.