“I’m told I check the time too often. It annoys teachers, makes me appear rude, like I’m bored or waiting for the conversation to end. But I need to know what time it is, and that it’s still running at the right pace, that it’s running at all.” Sora, a recent high school graduate, inhabits a magical-realist world where such attention to time is not just a symptom of coming-of-age anxiety but entirely logical.
Since “the Shake”, an earthquake that left both her family life and time itself shattered and fragmented, Japan has been divided into zones. In some, time moves more quickly; in others, more slowly. “You can step into a different patch of time the same way you can cross the border between countries, the way you stumble when you’re walking downstairs and miss a step.” Sora, already sensitive to edges and in-between spaces due to her mixed heritage, has a gift for spotting the places where time shifts; it lets her earn money as a tour guide for visitors exploring the more distant zones and it will prove essential when searching for a lost family member.
Clara Kumagai’s exquisite debut, Catfish Rolling (Zephyr, £14.99), moves effortlessly between lyrical reflections and contemporary teenage concerns. At one point, Sora receives a message from her sort-of boyfriend and thinks: “I’ll leave him on read. A power move.” It’s infused with Japanese myth (the earthquakes are explained with reference to a giant catfish living beneath the ground) as well as echoing the thoughtful, big-question-asking works of YA writers like Madeleine L’Engle and AS King. Fiendishly good.
Nick Brooks offers up a more straightforward premise with his murder mystery, Promise Boys (Macmillan, £8.99). At Urban Promise Prep, an all-boys’ charter school renowned for “perfection, excellence and discipline”, the principal has just been found dead – and the three boys who were in detention that day are the prime suspects. Each is already perceived as a troublemaker due to racial prejudice. One of them quite rightly notes: “There’s no one here to protect us, only police us.”
With the clock ticking, the boys team up to try to find the real murderer, though there is still – authentically – unease and uncertainty. (In other words, they do not become the Hardy Boys.) Snippets from the perspectives of others in the community offer insights into assumptions made about the boys and the genuine, if sometimes clumsy, desire to keep them safe in a world that does not give them second chances. This is a satisfying, fast-paced read.
Books about censorship for young people are (alas) always timely. The latest Patrick Ness novella, Different For Boys (Walker Books, £12.99), illustrated by Tea Bendix, is a slightly updated version of a 2010 short story exploring what a “first time” means outside of the traditional hetero-centric framework. Ant wonders about these things – and about his friendships at school with Charlie (“If the world were better, Charlie would be better,” Ant tells us, aware that Charlie will not come out of this story well), Jack (more than a little camp and hassled for it) and Freddie (mainly concerned with sports).
Even as he wonders, , he becomes conscious of the black boxes popping up within the text – covering up anything like swearing or sexual references (but not, tellingly, homophobic slurs). “It’s that kind of story,” Ant explains. “Certain words are necessary because this is real life but you can’t actually show ‘em because we’re too young to read about the stuff we actually do, yeah?”
It’s a clever device that allows for an exploration of sex – and the often-fraught gap between physical and emotional intimacy – while side-stepping the specific details. Ant’s relationship with Charlie is not quite a love story: “We spend most of our time trying to pretend that we aren’t taking it seriously at all. Except for those few minutes when it’s the most serious thing on earth.” There is sex but no kissing: “Because that would make us gay.”
There is a lazy assumption that featuring sexual content in work for young people and critiquing a tendency towards censorship of same means that anything goes. Ness is extremely clear – even veering towards heavy-handed at times – about the difference between sexual relations with peers versus adults. Authors do not have the same duty of care to their readers as the adults in those young people’s lives have. It is simply not possible to act in loco parentis to anyone who might pick up a book. The often-wobbly tightrope that is walked by YA writers is on display here, : how do you write authentically about the real issues, with all their messiness, for an audience at (dare I say) an impressionable age? Is it even possible to do this “responsibly”? I think Ness gets it right here. This is not a book I would necessarily hand directly to a young person – not least because it is mortifying for a teenager to be reminded that adults know that sex exists – but it is absolutely “suitable” for them just the same.
Neurodiversity is the focus of several new titles this month with a standout being Méabh Collins’s debut, Freya Harte Is Not A Puzzle (O’Brien Press, €9.99). Collins has a background in both education and children’s literature and blends these skills beautifully in an account of being a newly diagnosed autistic teenage girl who very firmly does not want “special treatment in school. I don’t want to be singled out for being different. If I could just figure out how to be normal, then I wouldn’t have to worry about this stuff.”
Although the protagonist, Freya, has a supportive adult in school, there is also an utter wagon of a teacher who gets cranky when her errors are pointed out and says things like: “Sure, half of them are diagnosed with something these days. You’d be hard pressed to keep up.” Freya is also conscious that despite the oft-trotted-out reminder that everyone is more concerned with themselves than anyone else, “the beady eyes of bored schoolgirls” are utterly terrifying. The hopeful ending is an earned one with a shrewd eye on the unspoken “rules” of female friendships.
Nic Stone also explores what it’s like “to live with a brain that works like mine”, though in the case of Shelbi, it is bipolar disorder that makes her different from others. Chaos Theory (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) sees this girl befriend a boy who has substance-abuse problems, in a realistically messy version of a meet-cute scenario. Their blossoming attraction is not a cure for any of their issues, though it does prompt help-seeking for both. Often, being a responsible adult writing about tough situations simply means being honest.
Josh Silver’s HappyHead (Rock The Boat, £8.99) won me over in the first chapter when narrator Sebastian declares, “I’ve never felt the need to explain my appreciation of Mr Bowie”, and continued to impress in its portrayal of a well-intentioned gone-horribly-wrong programme for teenagers struggling with their mental health. Silver deftly weaves in the familiar platitudes – and the genuinely good, evidence-based advice – alongside more sinister elements. This debut is both fun and thought-provoking.