Books of the Year: Teenagers

Harsh reality is balanced by a slew of fantasy tales

Susan Elkin
Sunday 19 December 2010 01:00

Trawling through the many enjoyable new titles for older children and teenagers, I am astonished, yet again, by the variety of subject matter – from the realism of sexual abuse, rape and teenage parenthood to gothic horror, fantasy, amateur sleuthing and various coming-of-age challenges.

For instance, in You Against Me by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books, £12.99), there's a whiff of Romeo and Juliet as privileged Ellie and Mikey, a lad dealing with an alcoholic mother and a sister rendered agoraphobic by an alleged rape, are drawn to each other. But if her brother really did rape Mikey's sister, their relationship is beset by split loyalties and Ellie's indecision over whether or not to tell the truth in court. It is, arguably, 50 pages too long, but the characterisation is spot-on.

And Malorie Blackman, of Noughts & Crosses fame, is back with another winner. In Boys Don't Cry (Doubleday, £12.99), a bright teenage boy with four A* A-levels and a university place is suddenly left holding a child he didn't know he'd fathered, born of a one-night stand nearly two years earlier. As usual, Blackman has reversed a stereotypical situation – a boy raising a child alone, rather than a girl. Meanwhile, his cheerful younger brother is openly gay, with near-disastrous consequences. Gradually, the boy learns to love his daughter, his brother is thriving and family values are re-affirmed. It's a well-plotted, quite upbeat page-turner full of "issues" to think about.

The chilling Learning to Scream by Beate Teresa Hanika (Andersen, £6.99) isn't short of issues, either. Translated from German, this is a disturbing first-person narrative about a teenage girl sexually abused by her grandfather since early childhood. It makes you desperate to reach into the pages, give her a shake and insist she tell someone. If it has that effect on even one young person with a similar dreadful secret in her or his life, it will have earnt its keep. The novel reads well, too, with several engaging characters such as the girl's grandfather's Polish neighbour, and the boy, Screwy, who befriends her.

Time for some magic. Michelle Lovric's The Mourning Emporium (Orion, £9.99) is a sequel to The Undrowned Child but works as a stand-alone. Teo and Renzo have magical powers and are trying to defeat Il Traditore, who has flooded Venice in 1900. Mermaids, nuns, cormorants, seagulls, Syrian cats and vampire eels add to the action as it shifts to London and back to Venice. It's a big-cast world of adventures, frights and near misses clearly influenced by Philip Pullman, Charles Dickens and CS Lewis.

And so to gothic. Kate Cary's Bloodline (Egmont, £6.99), a Dracula spin-off with multiple diarist narrators, opens with a British officer in the trenches in 1916, vampirishly dispatching German soldiers. Inevitably, the action winds up in Transylvania and family links are established.

Another take on gothic is White Crow (Orion, £9.99), in which Marcus Sedgwick, also with multiple narrators, tells a ghoulish story of an 18th-century experiment involving decapitation, discovered by a 21st-century girl who has serious personality problems and a compulsion to try out ideas on another troubled girl newly arrived in the village. It is all set on the Suffolk coast as it crumbles inexorably into the sea, against the background of a child-murder case.

Set in 1970s New York, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me (Andersen, £5.99) is a gently philosophical take on how the future can affect the present. Miranda, the narrator, is baffled by Marcus, who may have Asperger's, at school, and the elderly, demented "Laughing Man" on the street corner, until she realises they are the same person and she is seeing the future.

In a completely different mood come John Smelcer's Edge of Nowhere (Andersen, £5.99) and Dead Man's Cove by Lauren St John (Orion, £9.99). In beautiful, literate prose, Smelcer's novel is about shipwreck and endurance along with growing up in modern Alaska. Seth falls off his father's fishing boat with his dog. Against the odds, he isn't drowned. It's a (cold) desert-island story for our times and I enjoyed Smelcer's weaving in of the folk tales of Seth's cultural heritage.

In truth, St John's Dead Man's Cove may be a tad young for this age group but I'd have loved it at 12 or 13, and Laura Marlin is a feisty, intelligent, articulate heroine of whom I'm delighted we are to hear more. After nearly 12 years in children's and foster homes, orphaned Laura goes to live with a previously unheard-of uncle in St Ives, Cornwall. He turns out to be the best thing that's ever happened to Laura, but nonetheless mysterious. It's a wittily told detective story, involving kidnapping, undersea tunnels, ruthless villains and, of course, a heroic dog. I cheered at the end.

Susan Elkin is the author of 'Unlocking the Reader in Every Child' (Ransom, £19.99)

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