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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...
September 2021 Debut of the Month | A Julia Eccleshare Pick of the Month August 2021 | This gripping thriller with a high octane plot and full-on characters takes its readers on an amazing journey across two time frames and in and out of real science and maths while also vividly capturing contemporary teenage life. Esso and Rhia, from different times and, in reality, from different generations, are brought together by chance and, from then on, must work out how best to understand the Upper World and all its secrets. Femi Fadugba’s debut novel will delight and challenge readers.
At once a page-turning adventure set in the Californian wilderness, and an inspiring call to action for young environmentalists, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Paradise on Fire teems with real-life issues (grief, racism, climate change and social inequalities) and emotional wisdom. Following the death of her parents in a fire, the novel’s endearing heroine, Addy, is being raised in the Bronx by her beloved Nigerian grandmother. From the outset, Addy’s grief is tangibly evoked - “Being an orphan is like being a crusted-over scab. Leave me alone. Don’t touch.” Similarly, though we never meet her directly, Addy’s grandmother feels ever-present, like a firm and loving hug that inspires confidence. “To know yourself, you need to journey, Adaugo. Remember what’s forgotten” - such advice echoes through the novel, spurring Addy to handle the most perilous of circumstances. This summer, Addy’s grandma has enrolled her on a wilderness program, which she joins with five other kids of colour for a few weeks of camping, climbing and hiking in the Californian wilderness. Usually insular, Addy flourishes at camp - her sharp mind, spatial awareness and keen cartographer’s eye come into their own here. Then, when fire strikes the forest, it falls to Addy to not only face her greatest fear, but to save her fellow campers from certain death. Gripping to the end, and underpinned by potent messages about climate change and the joys of connecting with nature, Paradise on Fire explores literal and metaphoric survival with heartfelt gusto and a mythological vibe courtesy of Addy’s name (which means “of the air. Far-seeing. Watchful”) and connection to eagles.
Hard-hitting and, ultimately, infused with hope, Shappi Khorsandi’s Kissing Emma tackles big issues (poverty, class divisions, toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, and male coercion of women) with incredible honesty and authenticity. Inventively riffing on the true story of Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson's mistress, this tells the gripping story of a young women’s journey to self-determination in a society obsessed with looks and economic status. Emma and her mum have long lived with her father’s abusive, controlling ways: “Sometimes he said to Mum, ‘Put some slap on, you look half-dead,’ so she’d do her face. But if she put on some lipstick and a bit of mascara without him telling her to, he’d scream, ‘You look like a tart!’ till she cried and took it off. No way of predicting it”. When he’s suddenly gone from their lives in extreme circumstances, Emma and Mum are forced to move into her grandmother’s small flat. There’s never enough money, and her mother hopes that attractive Emma will find a nice rich man to rescue them both, while Nan advises her to “Put less on show, love. Men can’t help themselves around a bit of flesh. You can’t dangle a lamb chop in front of a lion and expect it not to bite”. Amidst such poor advice, Emma discovers she has a talent for acting and resolves to up her aspirations, deciding, “I had to kill the girl from the estate. It was time to reinvent myself.” As a result, when Emma meets a couple of apparent nice guys from a modelling agency, she’s quickly coerced into an abusive situation while hoping to find Instagram influencer fame and fortune. Emma’s story is utterly gripping - readers will come to really care for her, and find themselves urging her to make different decisions, to find a different path in life. Being an authentic kind of novel, there’s no simplistic happily ever-after-ending here, but there is a glorious sense of triumph and transformation as Emma feels a surge of enough-is-enough self-pride and vows to live a life free from male coercion; a life in which she’s in control and happy, as she deserves to be.
Translated by Rachel Ward | With an illuminating contextualising foreword by Michael Rosen, Dirk Reinhardt’s The Edelweiss Pirates is a tremendously-told story of astonishing courage as a group of young people living under the brutal Nazi regime launch risky rebellions. The graceful, pacey story begins when sixteen-year-old Daniel encounters an old man, Josef, at a cemetery. Josef is there visiting the grave of his brother, who was murdered during the war. “It’s a long story,” he explains. “But it might interest you. You especially!” Intrigued, Daniel discovers where Josef lives and visits him, whereupon he shares his diary, which reveals how Josef and a band of fellow brave teenagers rebelled against Nazi atrocities. As a teenager, Josef left the Hitler Youth for The Edelweiss Pirates - a group of compellingly cool youngsters. In his words, “they’ve got style: checked shirts and bright neck scarves, leather jackets and belts with huge buckles. Some have straps on their wrists and kind of fancy hats on their heads”. Driven by a motto of freedom, the Pirates initially hang out together to enjoy themselves and let loose but, as Nazi atrocities escalate, they plot and implement perilous missions to undermine the regime. Reeling with details of real-life struggles and feats, and a riveting sense of drama, this is an extraordinary novel about an extraordinary group of youngsters whose lesser-known story reveals the capacity of the human spirit to stand up and risk all to confront barbarism and injustices. It’s a poignant page-turner to the nth degree.
Friendship and family in all their complicated forms, domestic abuse, bullying, finding the strength to confront the truth - Yasmin Rahman’s This is My Truth packs a whole lot of big themes into its compassionate pages. The harrowingly authentic scenes of an abusive marriage show how male bullies operate in the domestic sphere - the control, the pathetic physical intimidation and harm they conceal from family and friends. This is powerfully important stuff, powerfully and honestly portrayed by the author of the acclaimed All the Things We Never Said. As Amani faces the stresses of her impending GCSEs (exacerbated by the pressure to become a vet like her abusive, controlling father), she finds an outlet in doing what she really loves - making films, “practically the only thing that brings me joy.” But alongside making playful pastiche movies with her little brother Ismail (their relationship is a thing of beauty), she documents the Bad Nights by filming her face while listening to her father abuse her mother. Meanwhile, Amani’s best friend – super-smart, super-confident Huda - stands up to bullies, but hides secret struggles of her own. Huda lives with loving foster parents, but with their own baby on the way, she’s scared she’ll be pushed out. As a result of their secrecy, Amani and Huda are envious of each other’s home lives, until Huda witnesses an abusive outburst. Though it (rightfully) doesn’t shirk from the brutal reality of bullying and abuse, This is My Truth is ultimately a story of hope and survival as the seeds of future flourishing are sown.
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!
Spey is from a broken home – but happy, settled and doing well at school - living with his Mum and getting on with life. That is, until he gets two surprises one on top of the other. His father, an ex-convict who he has never met before turns up on his sofa for Christmas Day and his Mum gives him a letter that has been stuck in the post for some time… This is the start of an edgy relationship developing with his long-lost Dad as they search for the sender of the letter – a playgroup friend of Spey’s who has become involved with county lines drug organisers. Spey is driven throughout all of the novel by the authentic emotions of a teen trying to come to terms with family, broken promises and broken friendships. Told in the voices of Spey and Dee (the county lines member) throughout their lives provide a stark contrast but with both expressing longing for the friend they think they have lost. The novel is set over three to four days one Christmas as Spey sets out on his quest to find his almost impossibly lost friend. Lawrence’s writing is always compelling and packed with empathy for her fully imagined characters – this is no different. The sense of place and of alienation is realised in full and the sense of urgency in finding Dee keeps you reading long after you should have closed the book! A sure hand guides this odyssey as Spey searches for his friend whilst full of his own conflicting emotions about his father. An excellent read.
A book about finding hope in the darkest of times | An extraordinary, powerful, and important book, based on the true story of how Liz Kessler’s father escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe thanks to a British couple his family had met once. But what elevates this book about three friends and their different fates in World War Two is the story of Max, the nice, ordinary boy who gradually becomes seduced into hatred and prejudice. The ringing question, ‘What would I do under these circumstances?’ echoes on every page. ~ Francesca Simon
Reading Age 8 Interest Age Teen | The Barrington Stoke list is proof that a story’s power and impact have nothing to do with length or stylistic flourishes. Like his fellow Barrington Stoke author Carnegie Medal winner Anthony McGowan, Keith Gray writes contemporary teen dramas and does so with similar directness and perception. Sully’s understanding of himself rests to a large extent on his reputation as the best, most fearless tree-climber in his village. That is shaken by the arrival of Nottingham, a boy with equal skills and nerve, maybe even greater. A rivalry develops immediately and comes to a head with a race to the top of a huge Yew tree, the greatest of the ‘Big Five’ in the village. Both boys are afraid to carry on to the top, but unable to back down. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, in just one hundred pages giving readers extraordinary insight into these two young men and the experiences that have shaped them. Readers will recognise themselves or their classmates in Sully and Nottingham and the story is as natural, tangled and deep rooted as the trees they climb. Superb.
August 2021 Debut of the Month | 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.
The thrilling third book in Robert Muchamore’s Robin Hood series, Robin Hood Jet Skis, Swamps and Smugglers is shot-through with a strong sense of taking down the bad guys, and reels with rip-roaring adventure and perils aplenty. This is Robin Hood reimagined for our times, replete with a people-smuggling plot that takes in the plight of refugees and issues around modern-day slavery as Robin and Marion pursue their quest to quash corruption. With a squad of former special forces soldiers set on handing him over to gangster Guy Gisborne, thirteen-year-old Robin is hiding out (and working out to grime music) in the swampy Eastern Delta with Marion (whatever you do, don’t say they’re in love - don’t even joke about it). But hiding out doesn’t mean hiding away from helping people in need, and soon Marion and Robin are in the thick of finding out who’s behind an abusive people-smuggling operation. With whip-smart one-liners, short sparky chapters and razor-sharp plotting, this comes especially recommended for reluctant readers.
Natalia Gomes’s dual-narrative story of survival, survivor’s guilt, friendship and rebuilding one’s life and identity is a potent, authentic feat of YA fiction. US-born Alice is a dedicated bookworm who believes “there’s nothing like the smell of a library”, and considers running to be a form of “voluntary torture.” In contrast, Jack lives to run - it’s freeing, exhilarating, a means of “creating your own music.” Unsurprisingly then, despite attending the same school, Alice and Jack’s paths have barely crossed, until their chance encounter on Leicester Square at the precise moment a bomb explodes. A bomb that kills 22 people, and leaves them forever changed. Their initial floods of thought and feelings are powerfully evoked in all their heart-stopping intensity, especially as Jack runs through all the imminent athletic adventures he had planned and realises, “My legs are gone. There’s nothing from my thighs. It’s all gone.” As his “thoughts are heavy and they hurt. My memories hurt. My past hurts”, Alice is gripped by anger and also feels driven to find Jack, while he dreams of her, “the girl with the yellow polka dot umbrella.” The ebbs and flows of their struggles and friendship are stirringly evoked. As Jack begins to feel hope when he’s fitted with prostheses (“I’m finally starting to feel like the old Jack. Maybe it’s time to start putting my old life back together again”), Alice struggles with PTSD, with survivor’s guilt, and with debilitating panic attacks. Then they switch roles again, with Jack slipping into depression as Alice finds solace in a therapy group. He realises he was being overly optimistic about his road to recovery - it’s a marathon, not a sprint, which hits him hard given that’s he’s already set himself on taking up his London marathon place. But Alice is there for Jack, every step of the way, and he for her, and therein lies the heart of this novel - the power of friendship to heal and keep a person going when all feels lost.
July 2021 Debut of the Month | Opening with the arresting scene of a body being discovered, the third in a month, Chris Whitaker’s The Forevers is a thought-provoking page-turner founded on a killer concept - if you could get away with anything without consequence, if the world was about to end, what would you do? “The dead girl lay face down, ashen hair fanned out like she’d been posed. Some kind of terrible masterpiece Mae knew she’d never forget”. This is the grim reality of Mae’s present. At seventeen, she thinks back to ten years earlier, when news of the asteroid first broke - a ticking timebomb that’s set to explode. There’s no avoiding the terrible truth - “She was seventeen years old. She would die in one month”, for the Earth was “so broken not a thing would survive.” Amidst increasing rumbles and tremors, amidst people’s preparations for death, the discovery of the body of Mae’s popular peer Abi provokes questions - Did she jump? Was she pushed? The sense of time running out, and the brutal psychological impact of knowing that the end is nigh, is masterfully evoked in all its heart-stopping starkness, while the dynamics between the young adult characters are authentically realised. All in all, this near-dystopian thriller has thought-provoking bite.
Bold and brutally, brilliantly honest, Melvin Burgess’s multi-award-winning (and multi-layered) Junk presents the definitively frank account of why young people might head down a drug-taking path - and remain there. A love triangle, of sorts, between its two main characters and their addiction to heroin, once read Junk is never forgotten. It strikes deep with unflinching power, never shirking from truths that need to be told, which it does from multiple compelling viewpoints, and with incredible empathy. Smart and thoughtful Tar has been blighted by abuse at the hands of his parents. In contrast, middle class Gemma has attentive parents, which has driven them to strictness, and drives her to leave home. Both on the streets of Bristol, Tar and Gemma fall in together, and fall in love, though it’s not long before they tumble into a spiral of drug-related devastation. In a novel packed with agonising episodes, perhaps most poignant of all is witnessing Tar and Lily convince themselves they’re in control of their heroin addiction, but since it’s exactly that - an addiction - they are not, and their story will cut to your soul.
Published in partnership with Barrington Stoke, which makes it ideal for less-confident readers, Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak tells a gripping, mysterious tale of two children who go missing during a school trip to a church in the heart of the Peak District. With a remarkable diversity of novels to his name - from gleefully gothic series for younger readers, to legend-driven Middle Grade fiction, to hugely-acclaimed, richly-layered YA novels - Marcus Sedgwick is an unswervingly elegant storyteller, and that’s certainly true of this highly-readable short novel - it chimes with bell-clear lucidity as it teems with tension. Set during the scorching summer of 1976, our compelling narrator, Porter Fox, becomes embroiled in a creepy mystery when two children go missing during his school trip to Lud's Church. The question is, “how do thirty-four people walk into one end of a tunnel but only thirty-two walk out of the other end? Because that is what happened”. Stranger still, when one of the vanished is found, the search for still-missing Stephen is called off, and no one speaks of the event: “it was as if a spell had been cast over the whole school, like in a fairy tale.” When Porter and his friend Sam take it upon themselves to dig deeper, they discover the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other reports that seem to show how “Lud’s Church was a magnet for weirdness”. In addition to presenting a thoroughly enthralling, edge-on-your-seat thriller, the book includes fascinating background information, suggestions for further reading, topics for discussion, and a quiz.
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.
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.
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.
Solidarity through struggling to survive. Community through catastrophe. Hope through heartache, and life after loss. Sera Milano’s searingly stirring This Can Never Not Be Real shows how the human spirit can endure the most horrific experiences, in this case a brutal terrorist act that turns a quiet community’s annual festival into a bloodbath. Written from the viewpoints of five young characters in bursts of arresting first-person narratives (often just a single paragraph; at most a page or two), this is edge-of-your-seat-stuff with the power to grip even the most distracted of readers. Though written as the characters recount the horrifying events at an inquest, those events unfold before readers’ eyes with unflinching descriptions of the atrocious attack and its aftermath, and with tremendous tension - we don’t know how this will end, or who ends up surviving. Threaded through with the characters’ overriding desire to support each other, and their will to survive, the novel makes important points about the incomprehensibility of such attacks - the “Why us?” question. As is often the case, such attacks could have happened someplace else, to other people. The message of this book is that what really matters is how we come through such events, how we emerge in a spirit of love, with a greater appreciation of life. As such, This Can Never Not Be Real is as much a valuable tool for dealing with traumatic events as it is a brutally gripping, thought-provoking page-turner.
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