I have gone for a different take on diversity this year. Last year I focused on representation of ethnicity, this year I have broadened the scope. There are many different marginalised voices that are being heard more often and more loudly. Of course, it’s a good thing.
I have always loved the inclusive elements of Maria V Synder’s fantasy novels and Dawn Study (January) is no exception. People can have power regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation, and while magic can represent any of those minorities, it isn’t forced or heavy-handed here. Evil exists and our heroes want to ensure freedoms aren’t impinged. It might seem straight-forward, but it’s far from that. Politics and loyalty are entwined and the stories are exciting and entertaining.
Three books I reviewed for RSO also make it on to this list. Optimists Die First and Phantom Limbs both have an amputee, and Piglettes has a secondary character in a wheelchair, but it’s Mireille and her two friends, as girls trying to affirm their identity and build self-esteem as plus size characters, that are the embodiment of positive representation here. My short reviews are added below.
Optimists Die First by Susin Neilsen (April) Random House
No one does quirky, anxious teen quite like this author. While Petula is paranoid and aggressively antisocial, readers still cheer her on because it’s clear she’s suffering much pain and sorrow. Jacob comes across as the complete opposite – charming, loquacious and extraverted—yet he’s hiding secrets, and is damaged too. Together, they journey towards finding ways to live with their guilt, and the consequences of their actions.
There are significant minor characters, particularly those who are part of the art therapy classes Petula is forced to attend, and hates. Each of these teens must also face their fears. Nielsen presents serious topics here, including alcohol addiction, parental neglect, and grief. The YART classes are often hilarious and sobering both at the same time, which will challenge readers, and let them know that often healing happens when problems are shared. These teens mock the rhetoric of their somewhat inept therapist, but ultimately they bond and blossom despite (or because of?) her inadequacies. Optimists Die First is aimed at older teens, and is insightful and life-affirming.
Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner (June) Walker Books
This intensely intimate portrayal of grief is authentic and honest. Three young people’s lives are traumatised due to death and disaster, and teenagers will welcome its gritty realism. Otis thinks about sex often, Dara is aggressive and unapproachable, and Meg is the missing cog. Because Otis narrates, we don’t truly know what’s going on with the two girls, but secrets and pain have a way of working their way out, and it’s unflinching and uncomfortable.
Amputees are more visible in YA fiction, and Dara’s portrayal is extremely aggressive. She demands much from the mellow Otis. While he’s thankful for his physique and fitness, he isn’t sure he’s all that interested in being a champion swimmer, but he’s too much of a softie to tell Dara (plus she’s scary). Otis is turned inside out when Meg comes back, and there are lessons to be learned by all three teenagers. It concludes most satisfactorily, allowing readers to believe it is possible to survive the worst that life can throw at you.
Piglettes by Simone Beauvais (August) Pushkin Books
Piglettes has been translated from French, and has a very distinct style and feel. Protagonist Mireille survives severe teasing and humiliation about her looks and weight with humour and sarcasm. Readers will take a few chapters to adjust to Mireille’s narrative voice. It’s light! It’s irreverent, and the way she elects to name people with pseudonyms that are almost like real people is confusing and wickedly funny. For example, she refers to the President of France as Barack Obamette, who just happens to be married to Mireille’s (absent) father, who she calls Klaus Von Strudel because he is half-German. She has no filter, no fear, and no expectations that anyone will ever treat her right.
Astrid and Mireille find second place winner, Hakima, and together, they plan a road-trip to Paris to overcome their demons. Hakima’s older brother, Kader, a amputee soldier accompanies them, and along they way they sell sausages, and develop a social media following as they make their way through villages and towns. Not everything goes to plan, thank goodness, because often it’s in the unexpected that we learn, we laugh and we live.
This is a joyous celebration of girl power, and a challenge to people who are judgemental and intolerant of others. We are swayed here by laughter and friendship. Mireille is generous, kind-hearted, and trying to live her best authentic life. Young people could do worse than spend time with her on this ridiculous and inspiring journey.
Defy the Stars by Claudia Grey (April) Hot Key Books
I didn’t write anything about this book, and yet its balance of big issues and thrilling adventure has stayed with me. Its diversity comes in several ways–the development of Abel from AI to real ‘person’, the clear representation of female heroes, and the exploration of refugees and the way they are treated and primarily discarded. It’s a different type of inclusiveness, but no less important or interesting.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (April) Walker Books
Another one I wished I had taken the time to write a lengthy review. This has the unfortunate honour of being touted as ‘important’, and ‘mandatory reading’ which might have the reverse effect of turning people off. However, it is actually and thankfully very readable, and a really terrific story. Starr is an excellent narrator and her character arc of safely ignorant to ‘woke’ is plotted really well, and never comes across as heavy or dark. An African-American teenager witnessing the shooting of a friend by a police officer is a strong narrative, and it only gets stronger when we are introduced to Starr’s family, and the complications of race politics and inequality. It is important, but happily, it’s more than that. It’s a great story.
I have one more list to go before Christmas – the #voices best of list.