Young adult fiction has exploded over the last few years. And not just in the US, where the attention so often seems to be, but also in the UK. So it’s only right that there be a prize for the UK’s best YA fiction. There are 10 books (11 authors) on the inaugural YA Book Prize shortlist, and I’ve had fun reading them all (although there were also some tears too). So without further ado, here is what I think of the books competing for the first ever YA Book Prize (in alphabetical order by surname of author).
Disclaimer: I work for the company behind the YA Book Prize, but am in no way involved in the judging process.
A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond
One-sentence synopsis: A retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in modern day Tyneside.
Mini-review: Poetic and so, so beautiful, Almond’s novel definitely has that feeling of an epic myth. Its characters aren’t teenagers like any I’ve ever met, but they’re relatable, yet still dreamy and mysterious. Its central love story (or stories) may be unusual, but I think Almond captures the feeling of being a teenager in love, and the heightened emotions and sensations when you’re enamoured with someone or something. I didn’t understand everything that went on, and where the lines between fantasy and reality were, but I was swept up in the narrative, and in the fact that this is a physically gorgeous book to match the gorgeous words inside.
Salvage by Keren David
One-sentence synopsis: Cass knows she’s adopted, but when she finds out she has a half-brother, whose life has not been nearly as privileged as hers, the two must find a way to reconnect that doesn’t destroy them or their families.
Mini-review: The first thing to note is that this is a book that is ram packed full of diverse characters, and it all feels totally natural, proving that diversity in literature is not a difficult thing to achieve and doesn’t need to feel shoehorned in for the sake of it. David deals with some difficult topics, and I’m not sure I’ve read a YA novel that talks about adoption so frankly, and that also acknowledges not everyone’s happy ending looks the same. A satisfying story, with a realistic ending.
Say Her Name by James Dawson
One-sentence synopsis: At a boarding school for girls, a group of teenagers try out the legend of Bloody Mary, with dire consequences.
Mini-review: I’m not good with scary books, but this was a fun and freaky update on the Bloody Mary legend. Clearly influenced by the classic Point Horror books, but far more sophisticated and nuanced with great, diverse characters, and a chilling tone through to the very last word. I was terrified, but I did enjoy reading it (although mirrors were not my favourite thing for a little while afterwards).
Half Bad by Sally Green
One-sentence synopsis: As a half Black, half White witch, Nathan doesn’t fit in anywhere, and now his father, the most evil Black witch there is, wants to find Nathan and get him to join the business.
Mini-review: An epic tale of good versus evil, I felt Half Bad wasn’t as strong as I expected on the fantasy elements, and I found myself frustrated at the behaviour of the characters, and wanting more to happen. It’s a slow burn, and as the first in a trilogy, that’s understandable but I still felt more needed to happen. Where I think Half Bad shines is on Green’s portrayal of male/male friendships, which are shown as having the kind of subtlety, intimacy and depth that are usually only shown when talking about female friendship.
Finding a Voice by Kim Hood
One-sentence synopsis: As an escape from her tough life taking care of her mother, who suffers from depression, Jo volunteers at school to help Chris, a teenager who has cerebral palsy.
Mini-review: Finding a Voice is a brave book, tackling both mental and physical disability, and our view of people who suffer from either (or both). Chris is a brilliant character despite not having a voice in the conventional sense, and Jo asks all the questions teenagers think but never give voice to. I thought the ending was slightly over dramatic, and as a journalist I cringed a bit at the writing of the newspaper articles, but this book is talking about things few YA books talk about, and with a refreshing honesty, so it’s worth a read, even if the writing isn’t the strongest.
Lobsters by Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen
One-sentence synopsis: Hannah and Sam are perfect for each other and know it, but between friends, enemies and misunderstandings, they can’t seem to get it together.
Mini-review: A funny, touching look at that period between leaving school and starting university. Full of awkwardness, and with a central romance that was fun. However, I personally preferred the friendship stuff to the romance stuff. I loved the girls with their bitchiness, because no group of female friends ever lives in total harmony with each other (even if they pretend to). And because this is a co-authored book, I got an insight into the world of male friendship that is essential to any teenage girl. The boys were hilarious, and I could have read a whole book about them.
Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
One-sentence synopsis: Sixteen-year-old friends frida and isobel are in their final year at school, but the pressure of knowing everything they do leads to their classification as either companions (wives to the wealthy and important men of the world), concubines (prostitutes for the wealthy men of the world), or chastities (teachers for future girls), gets to both of them.
Mini-review: Only Ever Yours is a viciously pointed, scarily accurate critique of society’s obsession with image, its narrow parameters and definition of beauty, and its labelling of women as possessions and of their bodies as public property. And all those issues are wrapped up in a fascinating dystopian story that had me hooked from beginning to end, and tearing through the pages to find out what happened next. This book broke me, but I still loved it.
Goose by Dawn O’Porter
One-sentence synopsis: In the sequel to Paper Aeroplanes, best friends Flo and Renee deal with boys, religion, family and tragedy, all while trying to do their exams and figure out what they want to do with their future.
Mini-review: You might not share every experience that Flo and Renee go through, but Goose is an accurate description of how it feels to be on the cusp of adulthood, and not have a clue what you’re doing. O’Porter deals with love, loss and betrayal while navigating a host of everyday, and not so everyday, experiences. Having gone through one of the more tragic elements in the book while at school, I can saw that O’Porter has nailed the feeling of being a teenager. This might not work as well if you’ve not read Paper Aeroplanes, so I recommend reading both.
Trouble by Non Pratt
One-sentence synopsis: When 15-year-old Hannah becomes pregnant, new boy at school Aaron steps in to pretend to everyone that he’s the father.
Mini-review: A touching, humorous, angst-filled read. I didn’t think it was full of surprises (I guessed who the real dad was easily), but I think Pratt’s emphasis isn’t on that as a shock tactic. Rather, the book is about kids dealing with life day to day. I thought the protagonists were lovely, with authentic voices, and I can’t begin to say how much I appreciate Pratt’s portrayal of a pregnant teen girl as neither a slut or stupid, but instead as a girl who made a mistake and is now dealing with it (not always well, but still dealing), and trying to reconfigure her life.
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
One-sentence synopsis: A novel in four parts, told in prose and poetry, covering the past, the present and the future, and preoccupied with spirals.
Mini-review: Beautiful, lyrical, literary and difficult to describe, The Ghosts of Heaven is something completely different for readers of YA. Sedgwick’s book is complicated, yet easy to read because of its masterful language and structure and Sedgwick’s ease with words, and credits its readers with intelligence. I wish I’d had the courage to read it out of order, which readers were invited to do, and taken advantage of the fact that I, like Sedgwick in his writing of this book, didn’t have to be bound by form.
And my favourite is… Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill. I don’t know how well this works for teenagers, since it’s been a long time since I was on, but as a feminist, woman, and human being, it worked for me on every level.
But… go read them all! I read so many books I otherwise wouldn’t have picked up, and I had a great time. I’m sure everyone (young adult or older), can find at least one book they like in this list.