Jul 17, 2022
A bewitching fantasy debut mixes magic with sharp insights about power structures and discrimination along with pop-culture nostalgia
Five girls gather in a treehouse in the opening scene of Juno Dawson’s debut adult novel. The following day, on the summer solstice, they will pledge their oaths to Gaia and Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, a top secret government department of witches founded by Anne Boleyn and charged with protecting the United Kingdom from magical forces and otherworldly evil. (The nifty acronyms continue: the US equivalent is the Coven Intelligence America.) Dawson may be best known as a young adult writer, but this is no witching coming-of-age story. In a playful twist on fantasy tropes, the action leaps forward 25 years. A magical civil war has been fought and won and our witches are now navigating life in their late 30s.
White, wealthy Helena is the youngest ever high priestess of HMRC. Elle is a nurse who has largely eschewed the witching community for the comforts of middle-class mediocrity. Leonie, a mixed-race lesbian, has broken away to form Diaspora, her own, more inclusive, coven. Irish Niamh, widowed in the war, is a country vet in Hebden Bridge and Ciara, her twin sister who fought on the wrong side, is now incarcerated in magical prison. Whisperings of an apocalyptic prophecy foretell a “sullied child” with the capacity to destroy both the coven and the world. Can the friends put aside their differences and work together to thwart the coming darkness? And what does it mean that the child comes in the form of a transgender teenage witch? Continue reading...
Jun 28, 2022
The highs and lows of first-love relationships, modern-day mythology and summer escapism are among this month’s pick of teenage fiction
Readers facing a long wait for their next fix of Heartstopper: look out for two new teenage romances that channel some of that warmth and feelgood energy, framed by diverse casts of characters. Only on the Weekends (Hodder, £8.99) is Dean Atta’s second young adult verse novel, following the Stonewall book award winner The Black Flamingo. Hopeless romantic Mack longs for love, certain it’s the real deal when Karim becomes his boyfriend. A family move to Scotland presents fresh challenges, not least Mack’s instant attraction to new friend Finlay. It’s full of tender truths on the joy and agony of first love, amplified by the confessional tone of the verse format.
In I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston (Macmillan, £14.99), Chloe has endured the puritanical Willowgrove Christian academy only through her steely resolve to become valedictorian. A month before graduation her main rival, the perfect Shara, unexpectedly kisses her and then vanishes, leaving an unruly breadcrumb trail of cryptic notes for Chloe and two unlikely accomplices. Sharp, funny and deliciously entertaining, it reads like a 21st-century take on a John Hughes classic teen movie; a Netflix adaptation can only be a matter of time. Continue reading...
Apr 05, 2022
Jacqueline Wilson returns with a novel about teen pregnancy, while tales of arranged marriages, a killer super-flu and girls who turn into dragons all impress
From Tracy Beaker to The Illustrated Mum, Jacqueline Wilson has long written about difficult childhoods. In Baby Love (Penguin, £12.99), her first novel aimed at teenage readers for several years, she tackles the thorny topic of teen pregnancy. Laura is a painfully naive 14-year-old in suburban 1960 when, flattered by the attentions of a French exchange student, a fateful walk home changes her life for ever. Fearful of societal shame, her parents send her to a mother-and-baby home to have the child and give it up for adoption. Wilson, who writes about the lives of girls with such compassion, is particularly perceptive on the complexities of friendships and the realities of the British class system. Heartbreaking, yet full of warmth and hope.
Also tackling big themes with a light touch is Christine Pillainayagam, a new voice in teenage fiction with her debut, Ellie Pillai Is Brown (Faber, £8.99, May). Fifteen-year-old Ellie describes herself as “somewhere between invisible and not very cool”, stumbling through the classic teen tribulations of first love, friendships, school and parental expectations, underpinned by the challenges of being brown in a very white town. An aspiring songwriter, Ellie’s favourite song lyrics are peppered throughout the book as she strives to find her own voice. Continue reading...
Jan 11, 2022
Fantasy worlds, feminism and school squabbles are all on the agenda this month
For long winter nights, Joanna Ruth Meyer’s lush, folkloric debut Echo North (Pushkin, £8.99) is certain to enchant. In a Russian-inspired fantasy world, Echo makes a pact with a strange talking wolf: she will live for a year in his house and in exchange the wolf will save her father’s life. There, she finds secrets, danger, a magical library and the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment to unravel. Immersive and romantic, it’s a unique spin on fairytales such as East of the Sun and West of the Moon and Beauty and the Beast.
There are more fairytales in Natasha Bowen’s epic debut Skin of the Sea (Penguin, £7.99), which fuses The Little Mermaid with west African mythology. Simi, a young black mermaid, is one of the Mami Wata, duty-bound to gather the souls of those who die at sea. When a living boy is thrown from a slave ship, Simi defies the decree to save his life and must travel to the supreme creator to make her amends. Fantastical creatures and vengeful gods form a vivid backdrop to this rich and original story of one girl’s journey to find herself. Continue reading...
Dec 12, 2021
Fiona Noble looks back on the year and, below, our critics pick their favourites in each age group
Children’s books bounced back in buoyant style in 2021. As bookshops reopened in the spring, children’s books enjoyed an 11% boost in sales against the equivalent period in 2019, according to the Bookseller. Michael Rosen’s own journey of recovery from Covid was movingly documented in Sticky McStickstick (Walker), illustrated by Tony Ross.
A move towards greater diversity heralded a rich array of new and emerging talent. Hey, You! by Dapo Adeola (Puffin) took an empowering, celebratory look at growing up black, showcasing the work of 18 black illustrators. Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston (Farshore) is first in an outstanding fantasy series following a young black girl and her adventures in the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Neurodivergent author Elle McNicoll’s debut, A Kind of Spark (Knights Of), winner of the Waterstones and Blue Peter awards, told the story of an autistic girl campaigning for a memorial of witch trials. The Marcus Rashford Book Club was created to give books to children who need them the most; Rashford’s You Are a Champion, written with journalist Carl Anka, is the year’s bestselling children’s nonfiction book. Continue reading...
Sep 21, 2021
The heart-rending final act of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses saga, green-fingered teenagers and the spark for a new Netflix film work their magic
One of the standout young adult series of the past 20 years reaches its conclusion in Malorie Blackman’s Endgame (Penguin, £7.99). The series began in 2001 with Noughts & Crosses and, six novels and three novellas later, the repercussions of Sephy and Callum’s forbidden romance are still being felt. Following directly on from the cliffhanger ending of Crossfire, multiple narrators bring things to a bold, heartbreaking but ultimately satisfying finale. The narrative is spliced with news stories that cleverly mirror current events, touching on race, power, corruption and the media to make the series as timely and relevant as ever.
Femi Fadugba’s The Upper World (Penguin, £7.99) is a startlingly original thriller, combining the gritty realism of teenage life in Peckham, south London, with an electrifying time-travel twist. Esso is haunted by glimpses of the future and the vision of a bullet fired in an alleyway. A generation later, Rhia is searching for answers about the parents she never got to meet. Their fates, and the key to a future worth fighting for, hang on one desperate moment and an exhilarating race against time itself. One of the most compelling debuts of the year, and soon to be a Netflix film starring Daniel Kaluuya. Continue reading...
Jun 29, 2021
As well as books tackling big issues, there’s a good dose of sharp laughter in the latest clutch of titles for teens
Fans of Karen McManus and Holly Jackson, prepare for your next YA obsession. In Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s debut, Ace of Spades (Usborne, £8.99), an anonymous bully begins to expose the secrets of the only two black students at the elite Niveus Academy – scholarship student Devon and high-achieving head girl Chiamaka. The pair team up to discover some sinister truths behind the glossy veneer of privilege in this impressive debut, combining a highly addictive thriller with a blistering take-down of institutional racism.
Manjeet Mann won the Cilip Carnegie Shadowers’ Choice award for her debut novel, Run Rebel. Her second book, The Crossing (Penguin, £7.99), is even more accomplished. Written in response to the refugee crisis, this verse novel is told from the perspective of two teenagers: Natalie, a girl struggling with grief following the death of her mother, and Sammy, who has fled his home in Eritrea in search of a new life in Europe. Powerful, compassionate and ultimately hopeful. Continue reading...
Jan 12, 2021
Hate U Give author Angie Thomas follows up her acclaimed debut, and there are tales of racism, mystery and magic in the latest crop of young adult fiction
Angie Thomas returns to the world of her award-winning debut The Hate U Give in one of the most awaited books of 2021. Set 17 years earlier, Concrete Rose (Walker) is the story of Maverick Carter, father of protagonist Starr and pillar of the community in the first book, here the son of a drug lord battling pressure to join a gang and the shock of teen parenthood. Thomas smashes stereotypes at every turn in the lives of her raw, complex and unforgettable characters, her writing underpinned by immense humanity. A powerful and important novel.
Another author whose characters always feel achingly real is Lisa Williamson. First Day of My Life (David Fickling) is set at a pivotal time for teenagers: GCSE results day. The local news reports that a baby has been stolen and Frankie discovers that her best friend, Jojo, is missing. With ex-boyfriend Rab, Frankie sets out in search of Jojo and the truth. Various perspectives lend depth and nuance to a gripping mystery that frames friendship, love and new beginnings. Continue reading...
Dec 13, 2020
From Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter, children’s books tackled the world-changing events of 2020. Here, Fiona Noble looks back on the year and, below, our picks in each age group
As Covid-19 tightened its grip in March, forcing schools, bookshops and libraries to close, so the children’s book world responded in characteristically generous style, producing an explosion of free online content to educate, entertain and support children and families. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler created a series of Covid-related cartoons featuring beloved characters (“The Gruffalos stayed in the Gruffalo cave’”) and children’s laureate Cressida Cowell read daily chapters of How to Train Your Dragon. Picture book creator Rob Biddulph became a viral phenomenon thanks to his Draw With Rob videos, culminating in no less than a Guinness world record for the largest online art class when 45,611 people joined him in drawing a whale. A whole new Covid category of children’s books was born, both instructional and inspirational. There was Coronavirus: A Book for Children about Covid-19 (Nosy Crow), While We Can’t Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar (Faber), and a slew of rainbow-hued picture books. Health workers were celebrated in The Hospital Dog by Julia Donaldson and Sara Ogilvie (Macmillan) while Captain Tom Moore’s record-breaking fundraiser for the NHS became the One Hundred Steps picture book (Puffin), illustrated by Adam Larkum. And although not written in response to the pandemic, Maggie O’Farrell weaves resilience and bravery into her elegant debut picture book, Where Snow Angels Go (Walker), an unforgettable winter adventure with illustratrions by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. Continue reading...
Sep 22, 2020
Ancient legends, fairytales and real-life injustice inform the latest crop of fiction for teenagers
Alex Wheatle won the Guardian children’s fiction prize for Crongton Knights, his chronicle of life on a fictional London council estate. Now, his first work of historical fiction for teenagers proves to be every bit as compelling and relevant. Cane Warriors (Andersen Press, £12.99) is the story of a real-life slave rebellion in 18th-century Jamaica, seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Moa. Giving voice to characters seldom heard in British children’s books, this is an important, powerful novel about hope, freedom and brotherhood.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (HarperCollins, £7.99) takes the story of Salaam’s wrongful conviction as one of the “Central Park Five” as the starting point for a searing fictional story of racial injustice in contemporary America. Alam Shahid, 16, is a promising art student until the night he is accused of assaulting a white boy. His trial and subsequent incarceration expose the devastating impact of systemic racism in a taut, non-linear verse novel with the potential to resonate in the same way as The Hate U Give. Continue reading...
Jun 30, 2020
Three tales of sibling secrets, a slick Hunger Games prequel and a modern twist on Robin Hood
It wouldn’t be summer without a sun-drenched coming-of-age story, so beautifully realised in Meg Rosoff’s seductive and elegant The Great Godden (Bloomsbury). In an almost implausibly golden British summer, two families congregate at an idyllic house by the sea until the arrival of American brothers Kit and Hugo is the catalyst for devastating change. The heady nostalgia and sweet ache of first love and lost innocence recall classics such as Bonjour Tristesse.
More family drama in Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (Hot Key), a verse novel narrated by two teenage girls, one in New York, the other in the Dominican Republic whose father has died in a plane crash. Only after his death do they discover they are sisters. Acevedo won the CILIP Carnegie medal for her debut, The Poet X, and this unforgettable portrait of grief, loss and forgiveness is equally accomplished. Continue reading...
Apr 07, 2020
A dark detective adventure, a prophetic dragon and a prison breakout lead this spring’s treats for teen readers
Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder was last year’s big breakout debut, introducing schoolgirl turned detective Pippa Fitz-Amobi. The sequel, Good Girl, Bad Blood (Electric Monkey, £7.99, May), is set one year later. Pippa and Ravi Singh have released a true crime podcast about the murder and are insistent their detecting days are behind them – until a local boy goes missing. Jackson ensnares readers in another highly addictive web, woven from the dark shadows of small-town secrets.
More mystery from Akala, the Bafta-winning musician and founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, in The Dark Lady (Hachette, £12.99). In the brutal streets of Elizabethan London, Henry is a brown-skinned boy thief in the Devil’s Gap, the city’s most notorious slum. He survives on his wits and tough moral choices, and an exceptional secret gift. Themes of race, class and identity, familiar from Akala’s bestselling adult book Natives, are driven by powerful prose in an exhilarating, magic-laced adventure. Continue reading...