My all time number one is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend but someone’s nicked my copy so I couldn’t refer to it. Love it to bits. My Top 10 is based on books that have ‘stayed’ with me long after I’ve read them.
In alphabetical order of title:
I Am Apache by Tanya Landman (2007)
‘He was in his fourth summer when the Mexicans rode against us. Tazhi, my brother: the child who delighted the hearts of all who looked upon him. The wind flowed in his veins and the sun itself seemed to shine through his eyes when he smiled.
Only Tahzi stood and faced them.
And for that, he was cut down. In a flash of reddening steel, Tazhi was sent to the afterlife, condemned to walk for ever headless, and alone.’
So begins Tanya Landman’s beautiful and moving story of 14-year old Apache Indian girl Siki, already orphaned and now witnessing the brutal death of her little brother. Published in 2007, Landman whisks us back to the Mexican border in the mid nineteenth century and drops us there. Rarely do we hear the woman’s side of the Native American’s story. Even rarer still are we taken on such a gripping adventure. Read it. Read it now!
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (1993)
This is not strictly a young adult novel but who else would relate to the characters better than young adults? Who else knows what it feels like to have all this energy trapped inside you and no outlet for it, except through music? Not just any old music, but sweet, soul music. Dublin lad Jimmy Rabbitte, that’s who. So when his mates ask him to manage a band it’s obvious he’s the right man for the job, right?
This was Doyle’s first novel, published in 1988. It might seem a bit dated now but it’s still a laugh a minute. Half play, half narrative, its style seemed refreshing and brave. Above all, it was hilarious. Give it a go.
The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean (2009)
I adore Geraldine McCaughrean; she is such a good writer. Every book she writes is different from the last. Pepper Roux is probably my favourite. Like Apache it has one of those arresting openings: On the morning of his 14th birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realizing it was the day he must die.’ His death on this day, he has always been led to believe, was inevitable, following his Aunt Mireille’s prediction. ‘Saint Constance, she told the family, ‘has decreed it.’ What follows is a rip-roaring adventure of high seas, crazy characters and high-jinx as Pepper tries to avoid his fate.
Flour Babies by Anne Fine (1991)
Again, another old one but a groundbreaker. Anne Fine went through a period in the 1980s and 1990s of writing books that caught the zeitgeist. The Granny Project, Bill’s New Frock and this one, Flour Babies. Then, as now, society’s dread of teens having sex – and worse – having all those babies as a result of all that sex – resulted in shedloads of ‘prevention’ projects. One was Flour Babies. Flour Babies were simply bags of flour that Y10s had to take home and look after as if they were real babies. They had to ‘feed’ them during the night, organise babysitters, take them out to parties etc. In her story, Anne Fine doles out these Flour Babies to her characters – the hapless Y10s in Mr Cartwright’s science class. The results are both moving and funny.
Willis is better known for her picture books so the Hard Man of the Swings was a huge departure for her. However, there was no dipping the toe in the water of YA fiction here –Willis plunged us, head first, into the icy depths of sexual abuse. Based on a true story her builder told her, I found Mick’s journey almost unbearable at times. I even wrote an Amazon review questioning whether the book was suitable for young adults as the neglect and abuse Mick endures was so appalling. But while it makes for uncomfortable reading, Hard Man of the Swings is an important book, well written, on a subject we ignore at our peril. That’s why, as well as questioning its suitability, I also gave it a five star rating on Amazon.
Keeper by Mal Peet (2003)
This is the first of two I’ve selected by Mal Peet, whom I believe is one of the top YA writers in the UK today. Keeper was a book I couldn’t get into at first; I had to give it a second chance. Once I did, and really engaged with Paul Faustino, the central character, I was hooked. Don’t let the topic of football put you off if you don’t like football; Keeper is more of a ghost story really, with a magical-reality setting. We’re taken from TV studios to South American rainforests. The writing is masterful.
Killing Honour by Bali Rai (2011)
Good young adult fiction should be unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. They should tell readers the things parents can’t or won’t; they should tackle issues in a subtle way and they should break taboos. No one’s better at this than Bali Rai. Killing Honour is a gripping crime story, first and foremost. We have sleazy nightclubs, dodgy dealings and drugs. We also have Jas, Sat’s married sister, who has disappeared. The explanation from her husband, Amar, is that she’s run off with some guy. Adultery is frowned upon in Sat’s Sikh family. No one thinks to look for her; she’s dead to them now. Sat’s uncomfortable, though. The explanation just doesn’t ring true; Jas wasn’t like that. She’d never run off with another man – even though he knew she’d been unhappy with Amar – she’d never do that. So Sat sets out to find his sister and walks straight into danger. What follows is heart-in-the-mouth storytelling. Warning: box of tissues a must (king-size).
Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn (2009)
Another dark one, I’m afraid. Rowan has always been strange. Good as gold one minute, behaving oddly – dangerously – the next. His family are at their wits’ end and when Rowan hurts his sister they know it’s time to seek help. He is diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to a mental hospital where he is put on a ward with other children. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, Hearn deftly weaves a powerful story of family ties, unlikely friendships and heart-rending incident. One for historical fiction lovers.
‘When her grandfather dies, Tamar inherits a box containing a series of clues and coded messages,’ reads the blurb.
Historical fiction again. World War 2 again. This is a multiple narrative with the story flicking between past (Nazi occupied Holland) and present (England). It’s gripping stuff. Like in Keeper, Peet doesn’t talk down to his YA readers; he expects them to be mature enough to cope with the things his characters have to endure. At its heart Tamar is a love story but it’s a bittersweet one with a twist that will make you gasp. Beautifully written.
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay (2010)
Puberty sucks; everyone knows that. But what poor Bernardo wouldn’t give to have problems like spots or bad breath – at least you can get stuff to hide things like that. There’s no way you can hide the fact that you’re EIGHT FOOT TALL. Fortunately for Bernardo he lives in San Andres, a small village in the mountains of the Philippines where being tall is seen as a lucky omen and revered. Unfortunately Bernardo’s mother lives in London and wants her son to live with her, her new husband William, and his half sister Andi. So Bernardo, with great trepidation, his steps down from the plane at Heathrow and into a strange, new world. I loved this book. Told alternately between Bernardo and Andi, it’s a story that covers so much and leaves the reader with a warm glow. Highly recommended (and not too dark!)
Helena’s YA books, Saturday Girl, Never Ever and Accidental Friends are available on Kindle.