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Has your 11+ reader has moved on from middle grade chapter books but struggling to find something more challenging? We have a selection of books we think might fit the bill..strong storylines, excitement, social realism and sometimes a bit of danger. Guaranteed to draw even the most reluctant reader in...
June 2021 Book of the Month | Set in an unspecified time not too dissimilar to now, and in a country that strongly resembles our own, this tense, gripping graphic novel demonstrates just how quickly civilisation can fall apart. Bea lives with her dad, big sister and little brother; her mother has already had to flee their country, which is in the midst of a civil war, the forces of the state fighting the rebel Free Kingdom movement, with civilians bearing the brunt, enduring food shortages, power cuts and bomb attacks along with casual brutality from both sides. The family know they’ll have to leave soon, and the book describes the events that trigger their decision to go and live as refugees. The story describes what it’s like to live in a society where trust has collapsed, and where everyone is scared and desperate. But it underlines too the power of family to hold together during the most difficult times and the importance of hope. Powerful and original, it makes for thought-provoking reading, text and illustrations carrying a very strong message. Brian Conaghan explores similar territory in his prize-winning dystopian novel The Bombs That Brought Us Together while the refugee experience is captured in A M Dassau’s Boy, Everywhere.
Raw, haunting and elemental, Jason Cockcroft’s We Were Wolves is a beautifully-written, atmospherically illustrated tour de force. Multi-layered, rich in symbolism, and suffused in the wild majesty of the natural world, it explores love, loss, father-son bonds and PTSD with devastating power. Boy lives in the woods in John’s caravan. “John was my dad’s name,” Boy explains. “He never liked me calling him Dad and didn’t call me son, not even when I was young and he was away in the desert making sure we were all safe.” During duty as a solider, John witnessed “men turned to red dust in a gunflash, and flames that spewed up from the black sand, straight like fountains”. On returning, he retreated to the caravan and ended up in prison, leaving Boy alone in the woods. Sagely, Boy realises that “what happened was set out before I was born even, and before John and my mam met, and before the war, too. Before the beasts that had laid quiet under that wood for thousands of years finally climbed up out of the soil. It was all set like a sleeping stone in the earth beneath our feet long before any of us were here, like the bones of bears and wolves and wild bulls that are there if you dig deep enough.” This is typical of Boy‘s voice - it cuts to the soul with brutal power, at once wise beyond his years and sorely young. Now alone, Boy has been instructed to keep himself hidden - especially from the Bad Man - as he awaits his father’s promised imminent return. He’s even lied to Mam about John’s imprisonment. But trouble encroaches Boy’s place in the woods like expectant vultures. Utterly unique (though reminiscent of David Almond in its brilliant bone-deep evocation of primary emotional states and of-the-moment situations, and its transcendence of age boundaries), We Were Wolves is a tense and timely triumph.
The premise of this fascinating book is two teenagers from opposite sides of the world who form a connection through odd circumstances. Natalie has just lost her Mum to cancer and struggles to find a calm place in the world, whilst her brother reacts by rebelling and joining a hate filled far right anti-refugee protest and action group. Sammy has had to leave his home in Eritrea on the chance of a new life in Europe – running from conscription into the army - which is a form of slavery in his home country. Both characters have huge issues to face. Sammy’s seem more obviously dangerous and overwhelming, though Natalie’s are equally as difficult - without the imminent danger. Told through a narrative poem using both voices to alternately express their fears, dilemmas and friendships this is a book you really can’t put down. You have to know if Sammy and Natalie do get to meet. As the plot carries you along you also want to know more about the plight of refugees and the horrific characters that exploit them in many many ways. Natalie’s decision to swim the channel to raise funds for the refugee charities creates a counterpoint in the narrative. The detail of her struggles and training plan seem an unlikely text for poetry - but it works! The author says “I wanted to make sense of what I was seeing, I wanted to do something that would help build empathy and understanding.” She has most emphatically succeeded in this aim. This is such a profound story of hope, grief, and strength - I do recommend it to all. Be aware you will weep, too.
Recommended by Stephen L Holland, Guest Editor, June 2021: “I think it’s important to be true to yourself. If something feels wrong you should speak up.” Farai is taken by train by her boyfriend Adam to meet his parents in the countryside. Feeling beholden to their hospitality and trying her hardest to make things work, Farai soon discovers that Adam’s controlling and calculating mother is an all- too-real racist nightmare. With the lushest of lines, form and colour, Kristensen has created something deceptively complex with extraordinary economy that will give readers much to ponder upon.
At once hard-hitting and heart-stirring, Black Brother, Black Brother confirms Jewell Parker Rhodes as an exceptional writer whose work resonates with authenticity, empathy, and powerful truths about race and equality. One of the few black boys at his prestigious school, 7th grader Donte has a hard time of it, to say the least. “I wish I were invisible…Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming in whiteness. Most of the students at Middlefield Prep don’t look like me. They don’t like me either.” He’s singled out by teachers, and subjected to racist bullying by his classmates: “You dress thug”. “Your dreads are dreadful.” “Why can’t you be like your brother?” “Can your brother find you in the dark?” The brother in question is Trey, who presents as white and, as a result, occupies a very different place in the world. As Donte is arrested - for nothing - he experiences (yet again) that “Black is not invisible”. So, he resolves to get his own back on the student who got him in trouble, and the best way to do that is to beat the boy at his own game - fencing. Donte’s first-person narrative is pitch-perfect and incredibly powerful, and the brothers’ family life is beautifully portrayed too. Their dad is a computer architect whose family were “poor seafarers from Norway”. Their mom is a social justice lawyer whose family is “descended from captured Africans.” But despite the love and support of his brother and parents, Donte’s loneliness is powerfully palpable, especially when he’s suspended. This makes his determination to track down and learn from an African American Olympian fencer all the more moving, all the more inspiring. What an incredible tale of triumph and fortitude this is. Mention must also be made of the author’s afterword, in which she lays bare historic and cultural prejudices against darker skin, the falsehood of black/white categories, and her fascinating reasons for featuring fencing.
A coming-of-age novel set in contemporary London and Hertfordshire. Fifteen-year-old Donald Leroy Samson is the son of an absentee St Lucian father and a drug-addicted English mother. Growing up in dire poverty in Hackney, East London, his life is shaped by casual violence, gang initiation, drug-dealing and knife crime. When Donny’s bored, rich, white girlfriend Zoe is offered a dubious modelling audition, the couple ‘borrow’ a barge and navigate the 29 locks on the canal system from Hertfordshire down into Kings Cross. When they start out on their journey, the future for both of them looks unpromising, like the fake audition, but as each lock is navigated and conquered, as the waters fall then rise again, their adventure takes on a new dimension. Life will never be the same again. A gritty, urban tale of redemption!
Winner of the Everything with Words’ YA Competition 2019, Rebecca Henry’s The Sound of Everything is an authentically gritty, involving coming-of-age novel that speaks to young people who struggle with feeling unseen, unheard and unloved. Shipped from foster home to foster home, frequently betrayed, and having “never had a dad that I could call Daddy”, it’s no wonder Kadie (aka Goldilocks) has trust issues. The only thing she’s sure of in this world is music - listening to it, and creating it. It’s the “only thing that keeps my head straight.” To protect herself, she’s set out three rules: “1. Don’t count on anyone. 2. Act. Always act. 3. Be prepared to lose everything.” Constantly in trouble at school, though told she has potential, Kadie bonds with a boy called Lips, aka Dayan, the name he reserves for use by special people, of which Kadie is one. Dayan records with his AMD mandem (Amalgamandem) and she’s happy to be invited to hang out with them, while remaining ever-mindful of the fickleness of group dynamics: “one day you’re in the group, the next you’re invisible.” But, just as things start to take an upturn, everything explodes in the aftermath of hideous online trolling and trouble with her foster sister. What’s unique about this novel is the author’s considered, long-game exposition of Kadie’s complex character - it’s not rushed, not forced too soon to serve the plot. And, true to life, her problems aren’t easily solved either - it really is powerfully authentic all round, from Kadie’s voice and interactions, to its portrayal of mental health problems, among them self-harm. At times Kadie will have you pulling your hair out at her own-worst-enemy outbursts, but mainly, though, you’ll warm to her. You’ll will her to find her way. Appropriately enough for a girl named Goldilocks, there is - ultimately - a glint of gold among the grit. I don’t want to spoil it, so let’s just say she finds what might turn out to be her “just right” and begins to learn to open up to people she can trust.
Gripping from the first moment on, this is a scary, an unputdownable and a brilliantly plotted fantasy. One minute all the adults are there - next they're gone! Only the children remain and they are trapped, cut off from the outside world and, scarily, left to rule themselves. Can they survive? With no guidance, gangs start to form. Danger lurks at every corner and everyone has to make a choice – to be cruel or humane. It’s a chilling prospect and the new world order is scary for all. It's Lord of the Flies for the Heroes generation with just a dash of the X-Men thrown in for good measure.
Exhibiting the same intense sense of place as in her highly acclaimed debut, The Smell of Other People’s Houses, and set once again in Alaska and the American West during the 1990’s, this collection demonstrates absolutely remarkable storytelling and authenticity. Every word in each short story counts in bringing another character so vividly to life that we become completely immersed in their lives. These troubled teens encounter love, loss, coming of age, grief, abuse, and friendships with the minutiae of daily life often revealing or foreshadowing a deeper and darker truth. All the narratives share the backdrop of an increasingly devasting forest fire and the history of a little girl’s disappearance. Each story relates to these major events in different ways and the links between the individual stories and these shattering events gradually become apparent. What is also revealed is the universal dichotomy of small communities, where everybody knows everybody and yet does not actually know them at all. The struggle to get your voice heard and for people to accept your truth is at the heart of these beautifully crafted stories. This is a book which should be garlanded with awards and will definitely linger long in the reader’s mind.
May 2021 Book of the Month | Framed by a lyrical, mythological story of the Great Sky Wolf and every mother-dog’s desire to protect her pups (“she cannot know what lies ahead…when they are taken from her, into the world of man”), Gill Lewis’s A Street Dog Named Pup is a poignant tale of survival, and the lifelong, life-changing bonds that can be formed between humans and dogs. Brimming with empathy and understanding, it’s a thrilling and deeply moving novel that will be adored by animal-lovers and fans of adventure fiction alike. From the off, the special human-dog bond sits centre stage when Pup, “a dog with a big heart”, lovingly refers to “his boy, who held him tight and told him that one day he would grow into his big puppy paws.” But something isn’t right. Pup’s boy isn’t there, and in his place is a big man who abandons him in Dead Dog Alley, where the Street Dogs take him under their paws. Among them Frenchi, a French bulldog, imparts the wisdom that in order to survive, you need shelter and food, but “Pup wanted his boy. He wanted him more than ever.” While this desire to be reunited grows deeper each day, and no one else will do, hope fades as time passes. What’s more, Pup and his new-found canine crew have other pressing problems to attend to. At times gritty, and always gripping, this has all the hallmarks of an animal adventure classic - a story with the power to move readers in every possible way.
Shortlisted for CILIP Carnegie Medal 2021 | Carnegie winner Ruta Sepetys seems to specialise in illuminating forgotten or unknown aspects of history. The Spanish Civil War may be widely known but Spain lived under Franco until 1975. Rather like post-Apartheid South Africa there was a reconciliation movement that did not pursue retribution for the human rights abuses and crimes of the dictatorship. But this outstanding, impeccably researched novel seeks to shine a light on those crimes. In a fascinating afterword she tells us that studies estimate over 300,000 babies were stolen from their Republican parents. This is indeed a story to shock and horrify but its power comes from the characters and the very human stories she tells. We get different perspectives from different viewpoints and voices, but very cleverly our main guide is an outsider looking in just as the reader does. Daniel is an American boy visiting Spain as his father negotiates a lucrative deal. America’s complicit dealings with the Franco regime are also under the spotlight here. Daniel aspires to be a photojournalist and he naively wants to find the real Spain. He finds fear and suspicion, makes friends and falls in love but tragedy strikes, and he must leave. The full sinister picture is only revealed many years later. This is a book which absolutely demonstrates the power of a story to reveal truth and to develop real understanding and empathy. Perfectly pitched, evocative and utterly enthralling.
Wearing its heartfelt messages proudly on its sleeve, this coming-of-age nail-biter sees a gay American teenager in London struggle to find the sweet spot between embracing new experiences and self-care. “Being a gay kid with sometimes shitty parents isn’t easy” - so Marty sums up his situation as he moves from his “conservative shithole of a town” in Kentucky to London, hoping to make it as a musician. He arrives giddily excited, on the verge of a new life, but also seized by anxiety when he’s met at the airport by his cousin’s handsome musician mate, Pierce. Marty’s first months in London are a whirlwind of first-time experiences - busking in public, drinking in pubs, going on road-trips, falling head-over-heels in love. But navigating a new life in a new city with debilitating anxiety and overwhelming romantic awakenings sure ain’t easy. Then there’s the crushing disapproval from his religious parents, and toxic trouble courtesy of his best friend back home. Alongside the principle refrains of finding yourself, finding your tribe, and the life-enriching power of music, this theme-focussed novel also tackles toxic friendships, and explores anxiety, homophobia, body image and eating disorders with bold honesty. It’s nothing but direct and driven by empathy and compassion, much like the author’s debut, The Gravity of Us.
A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month March 2021 | Fitting in is hard for most teenagers because it is a time when being the same and therefore accepted seems the most important thing. And Sander has a particular problem because he has Silver-Russell syndrome, a condition which affects one in a hundred thousand, which means he will always be shorter than everyone else. Sander has to work through all the familiar feelings of being an outsider while also dealing with feelings that relate especially to knowing that he will always be so short. But gradually Sander discovers that much about conforming is unimportant and that what matters most to him, friendship in particular, is not affected by his size. Beautifully observed, this captures so much about adolescence from many angles and, in doing so, celebrates the importance of accepting difference. Find more books with Positive Images of Disability.
What a stirring sunbeam of a story, with characters you’ll care about, be moved by and take enormous inspiration from. Mapping the transformational bond between a girl incapacitated by chronic illness and a young artist, The World Between Us is shot-through with a resonant reminder to appreciate being able to do what seem like life’s little things - leaving the house, being by the sea, going to a friend’s party - all of which are beyond Alice’s desperate reach. It’s also an ode to the power of friendship, opening up, and following your heart, delivered with 100% charm, 0% cheese. From her bed, Alice’s only experience of the outside world comes through watching Stream Casts. Though this means “I don’t have to be trapped inside by body. I can be strapped to the chest of brilliant people and I can watch them live lives that could perhaps be my own,” Alice remains a silent spectator - until she connects with Rowan, that is. But though their friendship forms fast, she initially keeps her illness from him, and it turns out that he’s struggling with secret troubles of his own. The juxtaposition of Alice’s bed-bound incapacitation and her best friend Cecelia’s effervescence is deeply poignant, especially when Alice feels she has to downplay her condition when Cecelia visits (Alice’s other friends have long since dropped by the wayside in the wake of her illness). The same goes for the price Alice pays each time she does a little of what she wants (and needs) to do - doing anything costs her dearly. Then there’s the guilt she feels about her parents who “gave up everything” for her. But through their connection, Alice and Rowan both learn to assuage their guilt, and to live, as affirmed by the unexpected, breath-taking ending, which is really only the beginning. Find more books with Positive Images of Disability.
March 2021 Book of the Month | Co-written by Brendan Kiely and the always-exceptional Jason Reynolds, All American Boys is an immensely powerful, timely novel about police brutality against young Black men. Shining a stark light on white privilege and the racism implicit in not speaking out, it’s a punch-packing wake-up call for us all to stand up and plant ourselves on the right side of history. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong colour. It all goes wrong for Black sixteen-year-old Rashad when a cop jumps to the unfounded conclusion that he’s shoplifted a bag of chips. Rashad’s arrest is brutal and the cop, Paul, leaves him with internal bleeding and broken bones. There were witnesses though, among them Quinn, a rising basketball star from Rashad’s school who also happens to know Paul. In fact, Paul has been like a father to Quinn since his dad died on service in Afghanistan, which puts him in a tricky situation - speaking out against Paul would sever his friendship and support ties. But Quinn’s decision to keep quiet unravels when footage of the incident is picked up by the media, with everyone in town taking a side. As a powerful “Rashad is absent” school campaign gains momentum along with plans for a big protest march, Quinn realises that not speaking up is a form of racism, that as an “All-American” white boy he can walk away from anything. “Well, I was sick of it,” he decides. “I was sick of being a dick”. Aware that his dad had inspired Paul to become a cop to “make a difference in the world”, Quinn resolves to be like his dad too, but not in the sense of being loyal to his country and family, which is how people always frame his father’s heroism. Quinn means in the sense of standing up for what he believes in; being “someone who believed a better world was possible - someone who stood up for it.” Packed with plenty of moments that will make you melt and tear up (such as Rashad’s relationship with the hospital shop volunteer, and the bonds between him and his buddies and big brother), this is a smart, incisive, rousing read for our times.
Neal Shusterman’s incisive, inventive Game Changer raises the bar for speculative YA fiction as it confronts privilege, racism, sexism, homophobia and the devastating consequences of not speaking out head-on. It’s also an absolute page-turner, alive with relatable characters and authentic young adult voices. “There are choices we make, choices that are made for us, and things we ignore long enough until all choices have fallen away. I’ve been plenty guilty of ignoring stuff I don’t want to deal with.” This quote from protagonist Ash sums up the dominant sentiment underpinning this powerful novel. He’s a High Schooler with a diverse friendship group, which, at one time, he believed “checked my box of social responsibility. Like there was nothing more for me to do than have some brown at the table.” In Ash’s case that’s his Black best friend and team-mate Leo. A talented American footballer, Ash loves “the way it felt to smash through an offensive line”. Then, after one such smash, he finds himself knocked into a changed reality. At first, the shift in Ash’s universe is barely perceptible, but with each game, with each smash, he’s knocked into increasingly changed parallel worlds that provide jaw-dropping perspectives on our own. At one point he’s shifted into a shocking segregated reality in which all his teammates are white. Shusterman also shines a glaring light on coercively controlling relationships, homophobia and how “we vilify the difference in others” and “glorify the differences in ourselves.” Tension builds brilliantly as Ash works to return to his world with renewed insights, with the parallel world set-up serving as a smart allegory for us all to do better - to make choices that will make the world a fairer place. Through Ash readers are called to question their own actions - and inaction - such as when he admits that “Sometimes I would rationalize the intolerance of friends and look the other way. You know how a friend says a joke that maybe shouldn’t have been said? Rather than calling them out on it, you let it go. Pretend it doesn’t matter.” This gripping ground-breaker exposes the inexcusable upshots of looking the other way.
March 2021 Book of the Month | Forna has taken her own experiences of sexism and racism that she experienced as a woman from Sierra Leone living in the US on which to base this novel. This has created a powerful depiction of the oppression and cruelty meted out to women who are different from a society’s accepted roles. Set in the patriarchal fantasy world of Otera, this is based in an ancient kingdom, where a woman’s worth is only as good as her proven purity. This purity is proven by the woman being made to bleed – in a brutal ceremony when they reach the age of 16. When Deka bleeds gold this is deemed the colour of impurity, and she is declared a demon. Not only is she thrust out of the home and society she has known since birth, but she is also subjected to unspeakable acts of brutality and violence by the ruling priesthood. The fact Deka does not die from all the brutality gives one hope she is different and may have some role in the future of Otera. This proves so – Deka is rescued and taken to a training ground for women where she finds a friendship and sisterhood amongst others also found to be impure. As they train the ‘impure’ girls are paired with soldiers from the Imperial jatu fighting force – and some form deep and lasting friendships with their partners. The characters here are hugely diverse with Black, Asian and Brown main, and minor characters, with a recognition of diverse sexuality too. The power of this novel is in the strong, horrifying but ultimately hopeful end of this story. There is much violence – in both punitive killing and re-killings of demons by the priests, but also in the violent backstories of some of the girls (including an instance of rape.) The book explores themes of feminist possibility whilst being based in a fantasy world taking inspiration from ancient West African culture. A powerful read, not for the faint-hearted but very definitely giving hope for the future, showing that there is a place to be whatever you wish to be – homemaker or fighter. This is a strong start to what promises to be a trilogy. Read more about The Gilded Ones in a Q&A with Namina Forna.
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