A small letter to YALC…

This year I was lucky enough to be working at YALC, the Young Adult Literature Conference held as part of London Film & Comic-Con. I know, I’m showing off more than I little bit. Victoria Schwab gave me a cookie (it was delicious) and I fan-girled meeting Malorie Blackman. It’s a far cry now from the first YALC I went to – the very first one in fact, crammed somewhere in the back of Earl’s Court, besieged on either side by the usual LFCC crowd. It earned its nickname that year as the literal hell on earth, so warm and overwhelmingly stuffy, with no boundaries to help keep things in one place. I had fun, but it was still a bit of a sensory explosion that left me a little fractured. The shift to Olympia has made all the difference. Us YA lot now have our very own floor, and the atmosphere change that comes with it is so very welcome.

Oh, the atmosphere of YALC… It’s so wonderful to be in a place surrounded by other book lovers. Everyone there loves books, and so the empathy in the room is palpable – a sense of joy and understanding that you can taste on your tongue. When I was a teenager, I’d have longed for the chance to chat to other bookish teens, to sit and watch talks by my favourite authors, and to get an insight into the publishing industry, so for I felt so honoured to be a tiny part of this year. To talk to others in the book world and to engage with the passionate young readers and talk to them about their favourite books, it’s why I fell in love with this whole wonderful YA community in the UK in the first place. The open-hearted love is real, and it’s wonderful to behold.

I do hope publishers, literary agents and authors where watching and listening to those fans this weekend. I hope they saw the joy the books they make can create. I hope they saw the amount of teenagers there in head scarves who aren’t seeing themselves in the books they read – yet. I hope the UKYA community continues to strive towards full representation of our wonderful multicultural world. I’ve always believed books create empathy, and it the light of all the stuff 2016 has flung at us so far, we need all the empathy towards one another we can get.

Girl With A White Dog by Anne Booth

A heart warming tale of family, an examination of racism and inclusivity, and a stark warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past – All these powerful themes in just over two-hundred pages makes Girl With A White Dog a brilliant one-sitting read that lingers in your brain for weeks to come.

The UK Jacket for the book.

The UK Jacket for the book.

Jess has seen her family steadily struggle with the changing world of Britain – Her Dad is forced to seek employment in France when his job is outsourced overseas, and her cousin Fran has to be pulled out of private school when her father’s business starts to struggle. Everything has gotten worse since the foreign workers started coming to their town and taking away the jobs. The one thing Jess has always wanted is a puppy of her own – She feels like a puppy would help her be happy, and change her family. So when her elderly grandmother adopts a beautiful, energetic white Alsatian puppy, Jess is naturally over the moon! It’s everything she wanted, so surely her fairytale ending must be close by – her father will return to them, and her cousin Fran will stop being so mean and aloof at school, and the two will be best friends again. But Jess is about to learn a hard lesson about the differences between real life and fairytales, and when her gran starts to become confused between the past and the present, life starts to look bleak. There’s a mystery in gran’s past, one she’s never talked about, and Jess is determined to learn the truth and help her gran become the peaceful, loving woman she once knew.  As her and her friend Kate start to learn about Nazi Germany and the atrocities committed there in their lessons, Jess starts to take a more grown up view of the world around her, and piece together the dark past that haunts her family.

Girl With A White Dog is easily a single sitting sort of read – short, but uniquely gripping and emotionally articulate. Through the innocence of the young characters, we get to see the power of ignorance in the older characters, as well as their shift in perspective as they learn and grow. Jess, especially, has a beautiful character arc, as she goes from fear and hatred towards the strange foreign workers that she sees around her town, to compassion and understanding towards the differences she sees in the others around her. The development in her cousin Fran is similarly brilliantly written, with her starting out as a stuck-up, entitled and entirely selfish young girl who really tugs on the reader’s emotions and anger. Finally Kate – Jess’ wheelchair bound best friend – is the glue that holds the story together, as she’s passionate and determined to do the best thing for her friends, as well as allowing her emotions to cloud her judgement at times, which is important for a well rounded and believable character.

Here is a WHITE ALSATIAN PUPPY. You are very welcome.

Here is a WHITE ALSATIAN PUPPY. You are very welcome.

The book deals with some complex themes of modern day racism, as well as the historical atrocities of the Holocaust, but through the eyes of its young characters. It shows an important, and delicately handled example of not letting the mistakes of the past happen again, and in doing so, the story promotes the importance of diversity in our modern world. It shows how vital it is that the next generation in our country learn to accept the differences that they’ll come across in their lives, and that those differences aren’t something to be feared, but something to be embraced. As well as this beautiful inclusive embrace, though, Girl With A White Dog possesses a dark, historical mystery which shook me pretty heavily, and the passages dealing with Concentration Camps are harrowing to say the least, but so very important and evocative. It also deals with Jess’ Gran’s deteriorating mental state in a touching, powerful and melancholy sort of way, and the whole story uses fairy tale analogies to a brilliant effect, driving the underlying sadness of the story home subtly, but also allowing for an uplifting feel. The sadness comes from the mistakes of the past, but the book is hopeful and optimistic in tone – So long as we learn from the lessons it teaches us.

A vitally important read, and one that will stay with you, Girl With A White Dog is a triumph of diversity and should be in schools everywhere.

Thanks for Reading,

D

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This book is already creating a superb hum in the online blogging and bookselling universe. The passion and drive that Phil Earle and the rest of the team at David Fickling Books are drumming up right now has created a sense of excitement and anticipation which rarely accompanies a debut release. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of the novel, and let me tell you – This is going to be big. The love this book is already gaining is entirely justified, and it better break the YA world open when it comes out next year.

AOBN_Spine_on

It’s Finally Here! The final jacket for the book is beautiful.

The Proof Jacket for the book!

The Proof Jacket for the book!

The Art of Being Normal tells the story of fourteen year old David Piper, a boy who for as long as he can remember, has known that he was supposed to be born a girl. Unable to tell his parents or his sister, he keeps his secret ambitions hidden in a scrapbook under his bed, dreaming of one day being able to get the help he needs to become the person he knows he’s supposed to be. The only people who know are David’s only friends, Essie and Felix, his classmates in the agonising world of Eden Park School. It also tells the story of the angry sixteen year old loner Leo Denton, who is doing his GCSE year at Eden Park, after being expelled from the local estate school Cloverdale. David becomes fascinated with the mysterious, potentially dangerous if the rumours are to be believed, stranger, though he can’t put his finger on why. He’s fairly certain it’s not a romantic connection; he just finds Leo Denton an enigma to be unravelled. Leo, on the other hand, is content to keep his head down, finish his exams unscathed and get the chance to go to a half decent college somewhere far away from his mum and her constant string of scummy boyfriends. The two outcasts worlds are about to collide though, and Leo is forced to interact more than he ever planned to, especially when his attractive classmate Alicia Baker starts to take an interest in him – An interest he definitely returns. Eventually, Leo goes overboard, and when he sees the shy David being bullied by Year 9 hot-stuff Harry, he snaps, punching him in the face. His valiant act saves David from almost being outed as Transgender, and lands him with a permanent sidekick, no matter what he wants. School life isn’t going quite how Leo Denton had planned, but his inability to control his anger is nothing new. It isn’t going how David planned either, living a life that’s a lie is starting to take its toll on him as he cries himself to sleep at night. The poor and troubled Leo and David’s lives an inseparably linked now, though. More than either of them realise.

Lisa beaming over a stack of her debut novel.

Lisa beaming over a stack of her debut novel.

I honestly don’t know where to start with this book – probably the most profound and important YA Novels written in recent years, and a brilliant sign of the YA market’s evolution in response to the outpouring of demand for more diversity in our books. If The Art Of Being Normal is a sign of things to come, along with UKYA authors like James Dawson, Non Pratt and Malorie Blackman flying the flag for inclusion in teen fiction, then we are on the edge of a golden age of superbly emotional contemporary stories, which I fully hope will spill out of the teen sections and into all books.

Characters! That’s where I normally start my reviews. Sorry, this book has addled my brain in the best way possible. I absolutely adore David, his melancholy personality tucked behind a flamboyant surface was a great way of presenting this character who is always performing, because he can never truly be who he wants to be. His personality immediately made me relate to him – I’m more than a bit camp myself, and he’s so grounded and so well explored both in front of others, and at home, that it’s impossible not to feel a tug at your heart every time he laments his man-sized feet or protruding Adam’s Apple. The later parts of the novel, when David experiments with being Kate, are absolutely beautiful, touching and emotive, and made me tear up – In the happy way! Leo is a complex, surly character, and his slow bloom outwards through his feelings towards Alicia and friendship with David is altogether brilliant and bright, as well as raw and angry. He perfectly encapsulates to the anger and confusion that laces the lives of many teenagers from troubled backgrounds – kids who have done nothing wrong and don’t understand why life keeps piling it on them. His flashbacks are some of the most harrowing passages in the book, and they quite often had me gasping and covering my mouth in horror, but his slow burning emotions are so powerful that no matter how cool and collected he tries to be, the reader gets to see just how dedicated and loving he is. Through flashes of his home life, and the gradual unfurling of his past, we start to understand his often over-boiling rage and frustration towards the injustices of his life. The support characters throughout the story are perfectly realised, equal parts flawed and flawless, with Essie and Felix being the sweetest couple, supporting their best friend in his struggles with his identity in a funny way – the way friends always should be. Alicia is a gorgeous character, so kind and fresh that I really wanted her to be my friend as I was reading. Although the book radiates acceptance and tolerance through many characters, there is still plenty of hurtful behaviour from the majority, and Lisa pulls no punches when writing the abuse from Harry and Becky, making the reader’s heart hurt and stomach churn. Even inherently loving characters (notably the adults in the story) have engrained prejudices that occasionally well up to their surfaces, re-enforcing the secrecy that David (and many other Transgender individuals) feel he has to keep.

My proof even got signed. What a special bunch of people.

My proof even got signed. What a special bunch of people.

On the surface of it, The Art of Being Normal has the chance to be a heartbreaking story of the downtrodden, and in a YA market so often saturated with tragedy and darkness, it’s refreshing to see such a powerful novel with such an uplifting voice behind it. Lisa writes with such bounce and brightness that her words lifted my spirits on many 7:30am train rides, but she also knows exactly how to punch to the throat, and the book has some upsettingly dark moments – but vitally so. These things happen, and sticking your head in the sand won’t make them go away. It’s a full spectrum of emotions, in the same way life is. Her voice permeates the book, creating life-like dialogue and believable teenaged characters, as opposed to John Green-esque poets, and that makes her book so much more accessible to readers.

Ultimately, this book demands your attention. It not only deserves to be read as a brilliantly piece of fiction (I did shout “OH MY GOD” out loud at one point), but as a step towards a more complete acceptance of the full diversity of the human species, and as a strike against this concept of normal. It should be on school reading lists and winning awards throughout 2015. I feel like this is the start of something very important, and I’m overjoyed to be here at the beginning.

How can you get involved? Join in the cover reveal FLASHMOB, that’s how! On the 21st of October, Lisa Williamson & the good people at David Fickling Books will be revealing the book’s official jacket, and they’re asking bloggers, reviewers and book lovers around the world to tweet and instagram it along with them using the hashtag #WhatisnormalFlashmob. More information can be found on the DFB Website Here.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. – All my thanks to the wonderful Phil Earle, once more, for sending me a proof of this book. He gets it.

P.P.S – The Art of Being Normal will be published in Hardback in January 2015.

P.P.P.S. – Yes, I am listening to Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues whilst I write this review – A very angry punk rock album that manages to be energetic and beautiful, fronted by Transgender woman Laura Grace. I urge you seek it out.