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December’s YA picks: Teenagers go up against the government, the mob and an evil witch

Reviews: Monochrome; Five Survive; Seasparrow; Wearing My Mother’s Heart; Good Enough To Eat; The Heartstopper Yearbook

“Where are all the colours?” 16-year-old Grace asks her mother one too-hot July day. She’s woken up to a world where everything is grey, and while the doctors diagnose her with achromatopsia (a real-life genetic condition affecting the ability to distinguish colour), the problem quickly becomes known as the “greyout”. Because it’s not just Grace who’s impacted – over the weeks that follow, the whole human population – and the avian population – succumb to this strange condition.

Transport grinds to a halt after a series of car, train and plane crashes, with the British prime minister (“a scarecrow with too much stuffing”) declaring that driving must be kept for emergencies only and that everyone is in this crisis together. Shortly after this, we learn in a brief aside, the home secretary is caught breaking the rules while on holidays with his married girlfriend.

For all that it depicts a grim and colourless world, Jamie Costello’s Monochrome (Atom, £8.99) is full of these pleasing, near-satirical touches. The online speculation about the possible sources of this “greyout” is just as one would expect; meanwhile, sales of eyeliner shoot up because the dramatic goth look is one of the few fashion statements that can still be made.

Costello – a pen name for crime writer and reviewer Laura Wilson – moves the plot swiftly along, with Grace recruited for a government study after flashes of colour return to her. The reader may hear the alarm bells slightly before Grace does, but only slightly; the desire to help fix a global problem is a powerful and persuasive motivator.


The environmental angle here, addressing the prevalence of microplastics and its danger to humans, is never heavy-handed; there’s too much action for that to be the case. Thought-provoking and engaging.

“One of you knows something. A secret. You know who you are and you know what it is.” This is the message that crackles over the walkie-talkie as 18-year-old Red and her friends cower in an RV, terrified. Having made a wrong turn on their spring break road trip, they’re now trapped, their tyres shot out by a sniper. There are six pals in total: the title already advises us that Five Survive (Electric Monkey, £14.99).

Holly Jackson follows up her Good Girl’s Guide To Murder trilogy with this stand-alone thriller that initially strains credibility – isn’t it a little convenient, a bit showy, even, that the killer is playing with them like this? But several of those in their 31-foot “hot tin can” are linked to a court case about to begin: one that involves the local mafia and more than a little corruption within the government.

The series of dramatic reveals is handled well, with twists and turns aplenty leading to a satisfying conclusion. This page-turner feels made for the big screen.

“In my childhood, only one person knew I existed. And the only thing she ever taught me to do was disappear.” Kristin Cashore’s latest novel, Seasparrow (Gollancz, £20), is narrated by Hava, a young woman with the gift of hiding herself, a skill she has learned to hone in order to survive, and more recently to function as spy for her secret half-sister, the queen.

What this has done to Hava is the real focus of the book’s 600 pages. Yes, there is a sea voyage and shipwreck, and some impossibly endearing telepathic blue foxes, and a series of pages about a weapon of mass destruction to translate. But throughout all of this is Hava’s trauma and grief; she carries too many secrets from her childhood within the royal palace, ruled by a man who traded in lies and abuse.

Cashore has previously noted that her “villains and their evil were inspired by [her] own experience of a Catholic upbringing and education”, and reading this novel amid reports of child abuse in yet another Catholic-run institution felt particularly apt. Here is what happens when those in power cannot be questioned or challenged, she says over and over again in her books. People get hurt, and that hurt lasts, and shapes them in ways that cannot be undone. Fantasy worlds let us explore these hard truths at a tilt, and Cashore’s smooth-as-silk writing pulls the reader in.

“You have been in a civil war / With your skin, for how long? / Trying to convince how much of the world / That you deserve rights / And you belong?” Among the many topics spoken-word artist Sophia Thakur explores in her second poetry collection, Wearing My Mother’s Heart (Walker Books, £7.99), is self-belief and what it means for young women of colour.

The stories of her foremothers are woven into the work; she celebrates their strength and bravery. “Till you have stood in the storm / and pulled from it a Nile, / spun water from a desert / and turned bricks to a home / you cannot question the power / that a woman, a mother, holds.” She is conscious that she will not always agree with her elders, but respecting their experience matters – a curiously old-fashioned notion in today’s hypercritical world.

Thakur’s deftness with language and sound is not always immediately visible on the page. Like much poetry, but particularly work designed for performance, this is best appreciated when read aloud.

The tale of Hansel and Gretel is revisited in Gina Blaxill’s dark thriller Good Enough To Eat (Scholastic, £8.99), where the strange witch who lives in the forest curses the village where she once lived, bringing down famine and hardship upon its inhabitants. Gretel, so often described as “headstrong or difficult”, returns with her brother and a visiting nobleman to announce that the witch is dead. The truth of what happened in the cottage, and the fondness that Gretel sometimes feels and then buries, has yet to be revealed to the reader, but we know more has gone on than meets the eye.

This is a feminist retelling of an old story, exploring what it means to want more in a world that insists women know their place. “All the clever women Gretel knew ended up being taunted or shunned or made to feel small.” Fortunately, it’s not quite as simple as the witch being revealed as the ultimate Empowered Woman – she is very much still a villain, but so too is Gretel, in her own way. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Finally, for those not living under a rock, Heartstopper – the webcomic turned graphic novel turned Netflix series – is something of a big deal right now. The Christmas treat for those who’ve fallen for the heart-warming, feel-good story of a diverse group of best friends finding love and tackling sexual identity, mental illness, bullying and more is The Heartstopper Yearbook (Hodder Children’s Books, £14.99).

Creator Alice Oseman offers some insights into the origin of the comics, providing some short mini-stories and early sketches alongside more mundane character profiles giving basic facts about individuals we already know. This seems designed for hard-core fans, but it’s unlikely they will find much new material here, although it does most certainly feel churlish to note anything negative about Nick, Charlie and their wholesome little universe.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature