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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...
November 2020 Debut of the Month | Nimbly navigating a fine thread between real-world tragedy and elemental inner demons, Richard Lambert’s The Wolf Road is a stunning coming-of-age thriller about a boy’s battle with bereavement, and the wolf that holds the key to his healing. It’s un-put-down-able and emotionally haunting in perfectly balanced measures. Fifteen-year-old Lucas’s life unravels when he discovers his parents were killed in a car crash caused by a dog. In an instant “the world didn’t make sense”, and now he must live with his nan, an “odd woman in purple DMs” (and socially-conscious solicitor) he’s only met twice in his life. Despite his angry protests, Lucas has no choice but to move to Nan’s cottage in the Lake District, certain the offending dog was, in fact, a wolf. It’s not long before wolves infiltrate all aspects of his life - at school he reads The Call of the Wild (a book “about a dog that really wants to be a wolf”). Local TV news reports on a local farmer who believes his livestock is being killed by a wild wolf. And then lupine menace encroaches on Lucas’s reality when he hears and glimpses what must be the wolf. As he wonders whether it’s coming for him, to “finish off the family after Mum and Dad,” he confronts his wildest pains in the wilds of the mountains. While the theme of loss - and Lambert’s inventive handling of it - will chime with readers who loved Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, this also has great appeal for fans of emotion-driven adventures, such as Piers Torday’s nature-rich novels. Other plot strands skilfully untangle the complex relationship between Lucas and his Nan. The faltering understandings reached between grandmother and grandson are a joy to witness, as is the bond Lucas forms with Debs, a Sylvia Plath-reading goth-punk.
November 2020 Debut of the Month | Sami is a very ordinary 13-year-old boy, attending school, playing football, PlayStation and has his own iPad – the only thing different about Sami is that he lives in Damascus. As the war in Syria creeps closer, until a bombing of a local mall affects his family, everything has been good. Now Sami and his family have to leave their home, their friends and their beloved Jadda (grandmother) – not just to move to another town but to start a long and perilous journey to the safety of the other side of the world – to England. The journey, and therefore the story, are not for the fainthearted – Dassau tells the story of the journey, the fear and the privations authentically and we vividly share Sami’s upset, anger and fear throughout every page. The portrait drawn of the family in such a stressed and frightening situation has the reader on the edge of their seat and pulling at our hearts all the way through. Written with a deep understanding and meticulous research into similar journeys this is a book that will not leave you for a very long time. The switches from adversity to hope to despair in Sami keep your heart in your mouth and is so realistic I was raging at the government for its inhuman treatment of desperate refugees. Read this book – it’s needs to be in classrooms and on bookshelves everywhere – it will change you and stay with you.
As Tough Women’s subtitle declares, these are “stories of grit, courage and determination”. True tales from twenty-two tough women who undertake awe-inspiring adventures across the globe, from canoeing the Canadian wilderness, to hiking Pakistan, to cycling South America. Its editor is the intrepid Jenny Tough, a Canadian mountaineering expert who notes in her introduction that “the outdoor industry is actually fully of women, but when it comes to the highest level of media…the demographic dwindles to one”. Fortunately, this sexist state of affairs could be on the verge of changing - through giving voice to the “badass outdoorswomen” who here tell their extraordinary stories, this book might just change that narrow narrative and inspire new generations of female adventuresses. Each account enthrals like the best kind of travel writing. There are dazzling evocations of, for example, rugged Himalayan mountain-scapes, lush South American jungles, and howling Norwegian glacial valleys. Many of the women’s stories reveal monumental physical and emotional challenges - challenges tackled and overcome with super-human strength and resilience - and all of them underpinned by a joyously life-affirming spirit of curiosity. For more books with a strong, feminist theme, visit our Girl Power feature.
Longlisted for the UKLA Book Awards 2021 | Malcolm Duffy’s acclaimed, award winning debut, Me Mam. Me Dad. Me, showed us a writer with a totally authentic voice and the ability to portray the direst of circumstances with honesty, humour and heart. Here, young adult readers will be confronted with the terrifying reality of how easily young people can slip under the radar and lose the safety net of a home to go to. Our hero Tyler is a recognisably grumpy 15-year-old uprooted against his will and relocated in Yorkshire. Still to make any friends and with only his dog for company, he stumbles upon a lanky, fellow outsider called Spyder, at the local pool. She wants him to teach her to swim. Given a purpose at last he has no idea what a tangled web of lies he will end up creating as he gradually realises her homeless predicament and wants to help. Unflinching in its examination of a society which would very much prefer not to ‘see’ the problem- just like Tyler’s parents when they discover what he has been concealing. Tyler makes genuine moral mistakes, but we must admire his tenacity and determination to help at whatever cost to himself. Spyder is utterly convincing too- not wanting pity and justifiably scared of dubious ‘charity ’help, she deserves everyone’s respect. This is a book which sadly is all too pertinent to the lives of young people today and in the foreseeable political future. A crusading novel that more than lives up to the promise of that powerful debut. Highly recommended.
October 2020 Book of the Month | In this brilliant and emotionally gripping sequel to her best-selling debut novel, Dear Martin, the author’s focus shifts to a minor character: Vernell LaQuan Banks Jnr. Unlike Justyce, the hero of the first book who is now a law student at Yale, Quan is incarcerated and charged with the murder of a policeman. In Dear Martin, Justyce wrote letters in his journal to his hero Martin Luther King Jnr to work through his thoughts and vent his frustrations about life as a Black American. Here Quan actually does write to Justyce, inspired by reading that self-same journal and through these and a series of flashbacks his painful story is revealed. From the trauma of witnessing his dad’s brutal arrest and the domestic abuse his mother experiences from her new partner, to taking responsibility for protecting his small step-siblings to the extent of stealing food to feed them, Quan had none of the love and support that helped Justyce overcome the tragedies in the first book. In fact it is the need for a ‘family’ that embroils Quan into joining the Black Jihad and then loyalty to them which keeps his mouth shut about the fact that it was not his gun, left at the scene, which fired the fatal bullet. Through these letters we can really see Quan developing as a character and benefiting from studying with the tutor Justyce sent him. Evaluating himself and how he got there as well as the obvious racial disparities in the criminal justice system and how hopeless the future seems for black youths like him. Eventually the truth about his mental state, his coerced confession and the police procedural failure to gather ballistics evidence is revealed and Justyce launches a legal challenge to get the charges against Quan dropped and, just as importantly, find a way to reconcile him with his family and to be released from obligations to the other ‘family’. This is an unforgettable insight into lives where options and choices are so limited by systemic and institutional racism that despite every effort to the contrary the pathway to prison seems inevitable. In the afterword the author reveals just how many true stories are so authentically reflected here. Dear Justyce is an absolute must read, giving a voice to those who need it the most.
This inventive page-turner opens with a superb sense of peril as sixteen-year-old Alfie moves from Bristol to spend summer in a small village in the north of England. There’s menace from the moment he chances upon a stone in a churchyard and local girl Mia explains the superstitions around it - if a person walks around the stone three times uttering the words “I don‘t believe in witches” Meg Shelton will come for you! Keen to show he doesn’t believe such nonsense, Alfie does exactly that - with immediate menacing effects, and it’s not long before he realises that he’s become a conduit for Meg, a woman murdered for being a witch way back in 1705. Defying convention and expectation, not only is this a gripping page-turner, but it’s brilliantly funny too, with comedy springing forth the moment Meg springs into Alfie’s life (and shower…). What’s more, it’s also edge-of-your-seat pacey as Alfie and Mia - with the help of Mia’s witch-expert aunt - race against time to help Meg make peace with her past, with the stakes high, and their feelings running pretty high too.
Longlisted for the UKLA Book Awards 2021 | Highly Commended in the Branford Boase Award 2020 | Ten-year-old Frank loves code and numbers; they’re a way to make sense of the world, as well as providing secret languages to share with his friends and his mum. Frank’s five-year-old brother Max is autistic and for him the world is often a scary place, when anything unexpected, too loud or too bright can cause him to have a meltdown. The story is narrated by Frank and every reader will understand his frustration at the unfairness of life. We know that he loves Max, but we know too how hard Max makes life for all the family. Frank is then faced with something even more terrible when tragedy strikes. With the help of those around him we watch Frank find a way to make sense of what has happened and the bravery to cope with the different world. Katya Balen has worked with neuro-divergent children and there’s a powerful sense of truth and understanding in her beautifully told story. If they like Wonder by R. J. Palacio they'll love The Space We're In.
A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month September 2020 | Cleverly blending an upbeat story of a girl who loves Superman comics and is determined to be a super sleuth in the style of Lois Lane and a contemporary story of a child being trafficked and held in slavery, The Invisible Boy is a fast-paced read with a strong message. When Nadia’s dog is rescued by a boy she has never seen in the neighbourhood before, she immediately labels him ‘The Invisible Boy’ and is determined to find out who he is. Influenced by the comics she reads Nadia is used to making up dramas, often jumping to the wrong conclusions! How Nadia pieces together the real story of her new friend is a well-crafted drama. Nadia’s shock and horror is powerfully conveyed.
‘Every story is the sound of a storyteller begging to stay alive’, says Khosrou – or Daniel as he’s known to his new classmates in Oklahoma - the narrator of the many wonderful stories that make up this book. Central of course is his own story, how with his mother and sister he had to flee his home in Iran, leaving his father behind, but there are also the stories of his grandparents and great-grandparents, plus the myths that he’s grown up with. Horribly picked on at school and tormented at home by his new step-father, he shares his stories Scheherazade-like with his class and with us, the lucky readers, and because of that we know that one day he will be whole again. Poignant, touching, funny and heart-breaking, this is a book in a million, a story that will connect with every person who reads it and become part of their own.
September 2020 Book of the Month | Co-written by award-winning novelist Ibi Zoboi and Dr Yusef Salaam, a prison reform activist, poet and one of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air is a timely, heartachingly powerful free verse novel. Through its shatteringly succinct lyricism, Amal’s story is a mighty call to action that rouses readers to question the deep-rooted and damaging consequences of racially biased societal systems, while radiating the light and hope of art and Amal himself. Sixteen-year-old Amal is a talented poet and artist, but even at his liberal arts college, he’s victimised by destructive preconceptions, deemed disruptive by people who “made themselves a whole other boy in their minds and replaced me with him.” Amal’s budding life careers off-course when he’s wrongfully convicted of a crime in a gentrified area. Even in the courtroom it feels to him “like everything that I am, that I’ve ever been, counts as being guilty”. Standing before judgemental eyes in his specially chosen grey suit, he’s aware that “no matter how many marches or Twitter hashtags or Justice for So-and-So our mind’s eyes and our eyes’ minds see the world as they want to/Everything already illustrated in black and white.” In the detention centre, Amal considers his African ancestry: “I am shackled again,” he says. “Maybe these are the same chains that bind me to my ancestors. Maybe these are the same chains that bind me to my father and my father’s father and all the men that came before.” He expresses society’s double standards with searing clarity too - Black boys are “a mob/a gang ghetto/a pack of wolves animals/thugs hoodlums men” while white boys “were kids having fun home loved supported protected full of potential boys.” But through the beatings and despair, through anger and frustration, Amal finds solace in the supportive letters he receives from a girl in his school, and his “poet, educator and activist” teacher. By turns soul-stirring and inspiring, this sharp exposure of injustice and testament to the transformative power of art comes highly recommended for readers who love the work of Jason Reynolds and Elizabeth Acevedo. Find a selection of recommended books that celebrate difference in our blog, Diverse Voices.
Patrick Neate’s Small Town Hero melds a sensitive handling of real-life loss with alternate world weirdness to create a surprising, unique novel. There’s grief and gaming, family secrets and football, and the interwoven themes of loss and science will appeal to readers who liked Christopher Edge’s The Many Worlds of Albie Bright and are now a little older. Everything changed for thirteen-year-old Gabe when his dad died in a car accident. First there’s his grief, which has created a “black hole inside me.” Then there’s his unsettling new ability: “the stories I imagine become real.” Reeling with grief and confusion, Gabe finds he’s not entirely alone when he spends more time with his estranged Uncle Jesse, writer of an online game called Small Town Hero, which - to make matters even weirder – appears to echo Gabe’s life. Jesse believes “there aren’t just a few realities, but a countless number” and explains that when Gabe shifts realities and sees alternate versions of his present and future life, he’s crossing something called an “event horizon”. As Gabe’s reality-shifting plays out, he also falls out with his best friend. Still, he has Soccer School to look forward to, and here Gabe takes on pertinent football wisdom from one his Watford icons: “Football’s a game of moments. You get the ball, you choose a pass and, whether you chose right or wrong and did it well or badly, the moment’s gone and you gotta move on…the game makes you live in the here and now – you can’t change what’s gone and you can’t see what’s coming.” For similar books you can find an exciting and varied selection in our new Gritty Reads section
August 2020 Debut of the Month | Will Levine has two passions in his life, the local wildlife reserve behind his school and the turtles he has found there. The rest of his life is a bit of a disaster in his eyes – he is given an unkind nickname at school, due to a facial difference, he has to cope with an upcoming Bar Mitzvah, and he has a community service he needs to fulfil for a boy who is confined to a hospital room. Then, to make matters worse, the county plans to sell off the nature reserve. Plus, there is a looming surgical procedure for Will – who hates having blood tests, never mind anything else. How can he make these things work for him – how can he survive it all, when all he really wants to do is look after his turtles and hide away. Slowly Will responds to the needs of RJ who is stuck in the hospital, and they build a strong and wildly adventurous friendship that takes Will away from his comfort zone and helps RJ experience things he would never have chance to do himself. As well as the obvious empathy the book elicits from its readers there is a wonderful amount of humour, and some passing knowledge gained about turtles too! A wonderful story for all of life’s outsiders – offering hope and new perspectives.
Twig (a boy) wakes in the afterlife with vague memories of his Da, here he meets a Raven, Kruuk, to help guide him into Heaven where he will be part of the great forgetting. But Twig wanders off the path and meets the Gatherer, who gives him the Lost Soul Atlas, a skeleton key and a bag of bones with which to open Crossings between the physical world and the hereafter. Can Twig open all the Crossings whilst being chased by the Officials? If he opens them will his memories drag him into the real world and keep him there, in which case he will fade before he finds out what happened to him before he died…. He will forget his close ‘blood family’ friend Flea – who is also a street child and a pick pocket. This is a thought-provoking look at life for street children, how they survive against the odds, the forces lined against them as they try to live, and the lack of choices they have when forced to thieve to keep themselves alive. It is an exploration of loyalty amongst friends and family. There are scares - and lots of caring - but ultimately it is a song to the strength of the human spirit. The author was once told “to shine a light in all the dark places” – and much as one might expect from knowledge of Fraillon’s previous prize-winning books – this book does exactly that, using a richness of language that both exhilarates and makes you cry. It is both timeless and ageless having a wide appeal. A powerful read I would highly recommend.
“How can a dog and a girl who can’t see solve a crime?” visually-impaired Libby asks herself partway through this pacey novel by the award-winning author of I Have No Secrets. But that’s exactly what Libby sets out to do. Fearing her missing classmate Charlie is in danger, Libby and Kyle make it their mission to find him. As the perilous mystery unfolds, Libby’s story gives valuable insights into living with visual impairment, including the tactless comments and “help” from strangers that hinder her day-to-day life. Her determination is nothing short of inspirational. The author’s unfussy style makes this novel particularly suitable for reluctant readers - the story is driven by snappy dialogue. The plot moves at pace. Timely insights into county line grooming are delivered in an impactful, easy-to-digest way. To add to the tension, the drama plays out against Libby’s complex family dynamics – an insensitive gran, an over-protective dad, and a high-achieving mum who wants her to be more independent. All in all, this is a strong springboard for discussing pertinent issues, and a gripping, romance-tinged thriller to boot.
“We are all family,” says Mo, the Indian-born RAF pilot who becomes irrevocably connected to thirteen-year-old Joelle when his plane crashes near her Nazi-occupied French village. “I believe that all of creation is one whole. We are bound together, each of us, by invisible links, and all are equally important.” This uplifting ethos of equality ripples through Mohinder’s War, a story of solidarity and survival against the odds; of friendship and hope through horror and loss. Joelle lived a “charmed life” in pre-war France, her English mother and French father kept busy by their family boulangerie. Following the outbreak of war and Nazi occupation they support the French Resistance. As a result, when Joelle happens upon Mohinder, they keep him safe in their home - but at huge risk, for the Germans know about Mo’s crashed plane and have placed a reward on his capture. Alongside the ever-present menace of discovery, the French Resistance want Mo as a bargaining chip. “The British left us to rot,” they say. “Now, in exchange for their pilot, they must pay too.” Then, when treachery leads to tragedy, Mo comes good on his promise to protect Joelle. Short, and driven by compelling characters, engaging dialogue and an onward-marching pace, this is perfect for reluctant readers who may struggle to keep focus. It’s also excellent for prompting discussions around WWII and broader ethical issues - betrayal, trust and what it is to do the right (and wrong) thing. Importantly, it also shows the vital role played by Indians in Britain’s WWII campaign, and shares information about Mo’s Sikh faith. Stirringly, the story is framed by a contemporary setting, with Joelle revealing this incredible - and hitherto unknown – story at Mo’s funeral.