Seven weeks ago I started a new Instagram account, dedicated entirely to short reviews of young adult fiction novels. You can follow me if you want: jimmy_reads_books There were quite a few years where I really didn’t read as much as I should, convincing myself that reading the novels set for my classes was enough – it’s not. Being an English teacher who works with words and young people every day, I have discovered that reading YA has made me feel more connected to my students, appreciate how complex their lives are, and also helped me find amazing contemporary books that I know students will love to read – and that are actually totally teachable! (OK, yeah, so I also legitimately love YA – the heart, the drama, the honesty, the guts, the humanness!)
Below are some of the books that I have read and reviewed in the last 7 weeks that I think would make powerful inclusions in all English classrooms. I’ve listed them under sort of conceptual headings, as I know a lot of units of work are concept based these days. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these are all beautiful stories that delve into a wide range of themes, and being YA typically touch on issues relating to identity, love, friendship, family, and acceptance. Finally, a lot of these books are by Australia YA authors, which is so awesome – we have heaps of super talented young authors being published in this genre and you can find them using the hashtag #loveozya.
Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson.
🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱 I give this book 5 green shoots of awesome! Why? 1. Great narrative voice (the naivety, courage, passion, honesty of Astrid is hard not to love). 2. Clever integration of gardening techniques (no joke!) and facts about the environment and living sustainably (I learnt a lot!). 3. The secondary characters are believable and really engaging (loved Hiro from the minute he was introduced as Shopping Trolley Guy). 4. Nerdy references to comics and superheroes the whole way through (if a book mentions Thor, you know I’m loving it!). 5. Wilkinson’s easy to read yet beautiful prose style which means you’ve finished the novel well before you wished you had because it’s too fun to read. Teachery point for my teacher mates: this book is PERFECT for a unit/project on sustainability – if your students read this and aren’t inspired to become guerrilla gardeners, well, there’s something seriously wrong with the world! Now to go find Wilkinson’s other books – can’t get enough, total fangrrrl!
Nona & Me by Clare Atkins.
🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Oh this book!! Five stars of awesome! Such an important read for all Australians – young and old. This is the book we NEED our teens to be reading in high school. All the usual themes of YA – growing up, identity, young love, family relationships, friendship – are explored, but so too is the complex relationship between coloniser and the colonised, problematic (and dangerous) attitudes towards race and culture, and the stunning capacity of human kindness, and love, to bridge the divide between cultures. I desperately want to teach this novel. I love Atkins’ ability to craft beautiful sentences, and imagery, whilst also capturing the voice and experiences of young people in an authentic way. This has everything you want in a YA novel, and more. Thank you Clare Atkins for the novel, and for continuing this important conversation.
Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison.
🍌🍌🍌🍌 This book is essential reading for all Australians – it gives honest, at times confronting, insight into the daily racism and prejudice experienced by Indigenous Australians, and the shocking consequences of this on individual identity, families and relationships. Really, Australian history is fucked, but that’s not the sole message of the novel – of course! I really enjoyed the structure – giving us access to two different narrators, and two different times. I also think the voice of Kirrali is really well developed – she’s your average angsting teen who is trying to find herself, and her place. The themes of identity, reconciliation, colonisation, family are well explored. I’ll be suggesting this as a possible core text for a postcolonialism project. 👎 I feel bad giving a thumbs down to this important novel, but at times it did feel a little too didactic, and it may turn off some younger readers, sadly those who should read it the most.
Laurinda by Alice Pung.
🌟🌟🌟 Strong characterisation of protagonist Lucy, and a nice twist revealed in the last third of the novel. The novel is strangely set in the mid 90s – when I was a teenage girl just like Lucy – so it was fun to see references to silverchair (except she capitalised it! 😁), PushPops, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The novel has a powerful message about the complexity of adolescent identity which can be compounded by issues relating to race and class. 👎👎 At times I felt like I was reading a novel that I had to teach, or write about for others to teach – some descriptions felt a bit laboured – and I wasn’t as compelled to finish it as I have been with other YA books I’ve read recently. Also, as much as I enjoyed the 90s references, I felt it odd to tell this story set in that context, like Pung missed an opportunity to shed light on the adolescent experience today, which very much still reflects the story she has told. I hope that makes sense – I just think that by setting it in her/our era, it might lose its currency with today’s teen readers.
The First Third by Will Kostakis.
I read this novel much earlier this year, but remember it fondly as being genuinely warm and funny, honest and perfectly Aussie in a not tacky oi oi oi kinda way. It’s a gentle coming of age story about Billy, a funny but sort of awkward guy with Greek heritage, whose somewhat dysfunctional family is held together by his grandmother (yiayia). This book is a really quick read, but it’s got some good themes – relationships, loss, sprinkling of teen love, and of course growing up. I enjoyed it, and you should go and buy it to support young Australian writer @willkostakis!
Pink by Lili Wilkinson.
🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Pink is the story of Ava, a super clever, super confused girl who is struggling to find her place in a new school. She meets new people who challenge her values, and her sense of self. I loved this story! Ava is a believable, likable protagonist, and it’s a genuine joy to see her grow as the narrative progresses. Wilkinson has a natural way with words, an ease of expression that’s very authentic and human. I particularly enjoyed the diversity of characters – so important for YA fiction. I read this book in less than a day – it’s that engaging. It’s also clever – lots of funnies for us nerdy literary types… so many witty references to theory! Highly recommended for resistant readers too!
I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson.
The story of fraternal twins torn apart by tragedy. That’s the tag line of this book, but it really doesn’t warn you that your heart will be ripped from your chest and smashed by word hammers. Seriously. I find it hard to think back to this book without feeling a bit sappy, and it’s not just the real as real gets characters – Noah and Jude are so alive, I know them like I know Holden Caulfield – it’s the writing. My cousin recommended this book – he jumped right in on a FB thread he wasn’t part of just to tell us to read this book – and I’m sure I’ve annoyed him with my gushing thanks for his suggestion. Every. Single. Page. Is. Beautiful. I love the inclusion of the handwritten pages too. Have I said love too much? Argh!! Go read it!
7 by Eve Ainsworth.
Jess struggles to fit in at school, and it doesn’t help that her home life is hard also. Things get worse when she starts to get bullied by Kez. Little does anyone know, Kez is dealing with her own traumatic home life too. 🍌🍌🍌 The themes in this novel, make it very suitable for year 7 or 8 students. The dual protagonists gives readers insight into the thoughts and experiences of both the bully, and the victim. The writing style is very accessible. 👎👎Whilst the writing is accessible, at times it’s a little pedestrian, a few forced metaphors here and there, but mostly it’s quite literal in the telling of the girls’ stories. I found myself skim-reading through the second half, not really feeling any great connection to either character. Its simple narrative style means it’s more suited to use as a ‘thematic’ novel in the classroom.