Before we get to the books themselves, can you tell me a bit about the Great Reads Awards?
The Great Reads Award is an annual Irish award for debut writers of fiction for teens and young adults. They can be debut writers, or writers who are new to the young adult genre. The Great Reads Award was inaugurated in 2016 and is currently organised by the School Library Group of the Library Association of Ireland. The idea is to highlight and recognise young adult fiction, and to diversify the reading of teenagers in Ireland. The Great Reads Award exposes teenagers to quality writing and gives them an opportunity to voice their enthusiasm for good fiction. The books are mostly written in English but they can be in Irish or originally in another language. This year on the shortlist we had Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins, translated from Brazilian Portuguese.
How does Ireland’s Great Reads Award work?
A committee of school librarians and teacher-librarians invites suggestions for books to be nominated and an extended reading panel goes through them. The shortlist is then given to schools in Ireland early in the school year, and international schools are also eligible to participate. Young readers in junior and senior categories read and vote for the books on the shortlist, so it’s teenagers who decide the winners. The overall question we ask is whether it is a good, well written story. The criteria that we use to determine whether a book is a good read are things like the storyline, the characters, the topics and the universal appeal. For the shortlist we also keep balance in mind, to have works that appeal to boys and works that appeal to girls. We go for variety and try to avoid duplicate themes. We look at the quality of the author’s style and to what degree it is engaging for the target readership. We give no guidelines at all to the teenagers reading the shortlisted books, we just ask them to vote for what they think is a good story. We get student feedback, and it is very typical of what what you look at as a reader; for some it’s a particular character and for others it’s a particular theme. Teen readers focus less on the style and more on the storyline and the action, and whether they enjoyed it and could relate to it.
Do you always have some Irish authors on the Great Reads Award shortlist?
Yes, we do aim for that, or novels with an Irish connection. It could be an Irish writer living and working anywhere in the world, or a novel set in Ireland by a writer from elsewhere, so that there will definitely be Irish elements.
Let’s move on to your first great read for teens, Wing Jones by Katherine Webber, which is set in Atlanta, USA, in 1995.
This novel was the winner of the Great Reads Award junior category in 2017. Wing is the main character. She looks up to her older brother Marcus, who is a very popular and successful football player with a beautiful girlfriend. Wing and Marcus live with their widowed mother and two grannies, their maternal and paternal grannies.
The two grandmothers are a fantastic part of the story.
They are. It’s a mixed race family, Wing’s father was Ghanaian and her mother is Chinese, so you have the Ghanaian and Chinese grannies in the household. Throughout the novel there is an extended metaphor of a dragon representing the Chinese granny and a lioness representing the Ghanaian granny, the duality in Wing’s heritage, and in those forms they support her inner mind. Among the important characters there’s also Aaron, Marcus’ best friend. Wing holds a secret attraction to him. She’s very conscious of her mixed race, of sticking out rather than standing out, so her self identity is very negative. She thinks herself as ugly, whereas Marcus seems to have all the handsomeness and the good physical traits from his mixed parentage. The complication to the narrative quickly unfolds when Marcus is at a party, gets into a car drunk, is involved in a collision which kills two people and ends up in a coma. From that Wing’s story of growth and self confidence begins. I could see myself in Wing. She’s shy, and I was painfully shy as a youngster. I was also drawn to the running motif and the confidence building side of sport, which helps Wing cope with what’s happening with her brother and with the bullying at school. Running becomes a way of coping with bullying, it gives her something she is good at and a network of friends on the track team and a sense of belonging. And it brings her closer to Aaron, who is a runner too. Wing is beginning to have a sense of being somebody other than Marcus’ little sister. She’s finding her own identity and when she comes face to face with her nemesis at school, Wing’s response is that the bully can’t get inside her head anymore. A very often overlooked measure for managing bullying is to build confidence in our young people through sport or any skill that brings a sense of belonging. We’ll always have adversity, we’ll always have difficult challenges in life, and we can’t always be protected from what’s going to happen. I think there should be a more conscious and proactive effort in education for young people to build the confidence and the skills to cope.
Another reason I thought this is a great read for teens is the range of emotions in the book. There’s the guilt that the family carries in regard to the accident, the anger that they feel towards Marcus, and yet that they love him. There are very mixed emotions there. There’s a loneliness, and then there are those moments when somebody is kind to Wing and she realises that she should be kind to another character in the novel. There’s a desperate feeling of helplessness that the mother and the grannies experience, the fear about what’s going to happen with Marcus, how they are going to pay their medical bills. And then there’s the feeling of exhilaration that comes with Wing’s successes on the track, and the love between the youngsters as well. So there’s a whole range of human experiences there and I think they’re very realistically depicted, very valid. It’s a very honest portrayal of the range of human emotion that you can have in this kind of a storyline.
I also like the emotional contradiction for the reader that Wing is only able to discover her talent and blossom once she’s out of her brother’s shadow, but the price is too high.
Yes, Wing is a lovable character. You get into the way she feels and you want her to do well, you want her to get together with Aaron. But another thing that’s interesting is that as she gets involved with Aaron, she realises – and this is a mark of her maturity – that for her to focus on her running ambition she has to set her relationship with Aaron aside without pushing him away. So she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s not carried away by the romance of it all. She finds the words to explain how she feels and what she needs at that point in time, which is for him to be there for her and wait for her, so it’s a lovely development in her growth. This is just a really well written novel with no whistles or bells. It’s very simply written, but it’s very lyrical, and you’ve got lovely descriptions in it.
Let’s talk about your next great teen read, Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal.
This one was shortlisted for the 2020 Great Reads Award in the junior category. It’s the story of Dinah, age 17, who grew up in a commune. The novel opens very dramatically with a scene where Dinah is cutting off all of her hair, beautiful long curls that flow down her back. She’s running away from home in embarrassment and shame because she kissed her friend Queenie, who didn’t return her feelings. The narrative shape alternates between Dinah in her identity of who she was in the fellowship, and Ishmael, whom she wants to become when she cuts off her hair and runs away. Ishmael finds herself going on a journey with Ahab, her neighbour who has lost his leg in an accident. Ahab has offered her money to drive across the country in pursuit of his prosthetic leg that is in a stolen van. It’s a road trip novel in a sense, and it’s really a novel of self discovery. I like the odd relationship between Ishmael and Ahab, who is a grumpy old man. He’s rude, he seems to have no appreciation for any kindness, he insults people and is always complaining. Gradually Ishmael comes to a greater understanding of Ahab. She realises how much in pain he is, and when their journey takes them to Ahab’s sister, she comes to realise that there is a softer, more human side to Ahab beneath the gruffness.
Can you talk a bit about the very clear literary reference of this novel?
It’s drawing on Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s 19th century novel. Moby Dick involves sailors on a whaling ship called the Pequod, and Kit de Waal draws on the parallels of the names of the characters, the van, and the location of the commune where Dinah has grown up, in New Bedford. There’s a lovely phrase toward the end of the novel where they find Ahab’s van and Ishmael describes it as whale-white. Moby Dick is not likely to be read by youngsters nowadays, so Kit de Waal has an explanatory note at the back of the novel to bring that into the narrative, which I think is very good.
I’ve come across a retelling of Moby Dick for children which is very abridged but still gives readers a clear sense of Captain Ahab’s obsession. And I think there are many other children’s versions out there.
In Becoming Dinah, Ahab is obsessed with finding this van, which he thinks will go some way to restore his relationship with his former wife, but really it’s restoring his relationship with his son which is more important. I love works which have that sense of intertextuality. The way de Waal has drawn Moby Dick into the narrative is really well done.
There’s a major difference from Melville’s story, though. As you said, it’s a journey of self discovery, about a teenage protagonist who is able to become fully herself on the trip.
Yes, Dinah takes some control of the journey and I think that’s a nice aspect to this modern retelling. Another aspect of this novel that I really like is the richness of the raven metaphor. The raven has various symbolic significance but here I think de Waal is drawing on it as a creature of wisdom and insight, with certain healing powers, which feeds into Dinah’s story. The raven is associated with protecting us and helping to awaken our wider vision. Dinah is immersed in her own despair but on the journey she acquires a wider view, helped along by the characters who are associated with the raven. Bird imagery is commonplace in literature, think of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Robert C. O’Brien, for example. When Rabindranath Tagore writes that “faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark” I think he gives us the idea that the people who are going to change your life, they sing to us before we even realise it. The character Jude does that in this story. The raven in the novel doesn’t speak but it points the way for Dinah to return to her family and deal with the challenges that she has. The journey of self discovery is tied in with Dinah’s confusion around her sexual identity. She has feelings for Queenie initially, and then she feels something similar for Pip when she meets him and realises that she also likes boys. The writer gives her the freedom to not be pushed in a particular direction. Exploring one’s sexual identity in teenage life is often a part of growing up. To find your way through all of this is challenging, and I like the approach in this novel.
Let’s talk about your next great read for teens, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, the first in a bestselling trilogy by Holly Jackson.
This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Great Reads Award in the senior category. This is the story of Pippa Fitz-Amobi, or Pip, in a small town in England. For her final year project at school she’s decided to work on the role media plays in police investigations. That’s really just a cover because she wants to investigate the circumstances around the disappearance of a student a few years previous. Sal Singh, the student’s boyfriend, committed suicide and is generally seen as the person responsible for the disappearance of his girlfriend. Pip feels that there’s some kind of injustice and that he wasn’t guilty, that there was something missing in the police investigation. She wants to study journalism at university, and being an investigative journalist is a career that’s very much of interest to her. So she is the lead investigator in this crime novel, and then you have her sidekick, Ravi Singh who is the brother of the young man who committed suicide.
I like crime novels and thrillers, and I found this one particularly well written. It sets up the intrigue, and then through a series of very well constructed episodes, anticlimaxes, threatening messages and just-in-time moments, the author brings Pip to success in the investigation of the crime. Pip very carefully and methodically considers her suspects, follows the clues and puts together a very comprehensive investigation into the whole thing. I like the narrative shape, which alternates between her lived reality and reproductions of the various documents and paperwork of her project, which is a very well used device on the part of the author. The novel also records Pip’s interactions with the various suspects and with Ravi as well, and their growing friendship and eventually romantic relationship. Another impressive thing is the way this novel shows how ubiquitous social media and technology are in our lives now. I also like that Pip is what you call a good girl. She goes out to a drink and drugs fuelled party to go undercover for her investigation, and her parents are teasing her that she should be just a little bit irresponsible. Pip is intelligent, she’s ambitious, she has a mind of her own, she’s persuasive, she’s very organised, she’s filled with a sense of justice and fairness, she’s sensitive and kind and she’s a good friend. She does sometimes act outside of the rules to get what she wants, and at one point she’s wondering whether she has lost her moral compass, which I think is a really good discussion to have. In her investigation she gets into people’s Facebook pages by false means, for example, and she wonders how far she will actually go. That whole exploration of the good girl idea in the title is really well done.
Let’s move on to A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, another great read for teens, and tweens as well – it has a younger protagonist than your other picks.
This one was shortlisted for the 2021 Great Reads Award in the junior category. The central character is Addie, an 11 year old girl who is autistic. The theme of autism has come up in the Great Reads Award before. In 2020 there was a title called The Space We’re In by Katya Balen and in 2018 we had Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig. In her schoolwork Addie gets involved with a project on witches and witchcraft and the treatment of witches in historical Scotland. The story is set in a small town outside Edinburgh. Historically there is a lot of literature that draws on this particular theme. On the 2019 Great Reads Award shortlist we had a title called The Burning by Laura Bates, which was about the witch hunt and sexual shaming and revenge porn. What drew me to this novel is the way it was an eye opener for me in terms of the lived experience of somebody who is autistic. The opening scenes depict Addie in the classroom and she’s having a really hard time from her teacher. I supposed maybe the teacher is a caricature in a sense, but then this is not Roald Dahl, it’s meant to be read as reality fiction. It really got to me, that the teacher would be so hurtful.
Yes, it’s not just other kids, the teacher bullies the autistic protagonist.
What really struck me is that when I was teaching, I didn’t have any understanding of autism. The book explains autism as a way of living, different to the neurotypical way of living. I did on occasion have neurodivergent people in my classroom, and it now baffles me how little I understood of their lived experience in front of me. You mentioned about this novel being about an 11 year old and it being literature for tweens, but it is a novel for me, for adults. It’s a great read for anybody in the neurotypical community. It’s a novel for people in general, it isn’t particularly a novel for the neurodivergent reader.
Don’t you think it’s important for young autistic readers to see themselves reflected in fiction as the protagonist, as a character with agency?
Yes but for me, as a reader, what’s most important here is the way the lived experience is revealed, the sensitivity towards light, towards sound, the depth of the emotional senses as well as the physical senses, that all is new to me. Maybe it was a generational thing, but it was shocking to me that I went through the whole of my teaching career without having a sense of that. Perhaps mainstream teachers do nowadays. I had students with learning difficulties, dyslexia, ADHD and visual impairments and I sought out professional guidance in that, but I did not seek out professional development in terms of the experience of autistic students in the classroom. Obviously, I am not saying that young adult fiction is your guide to how you practice in the classroom. I’m talking about how this novel opened my mind to the realisation that I needed training and greater understanding as a professional working with youngsters who are autistic. C. S. Lewis said that no book is really worth reading at the age of ten, which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty. Literature for children and young adults shouldn’t be dismissed as just for youngsters, because it speaks so much to an adult readership as well. Reading enables us to experience things that we may not in real life. There is a widely accepted position that reading fiction builds empathy, understanding and tolerance. By experiencing Addie’s way of being we gain insights into life in her shoes and can begin to develop an understanding of it.
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I would also like to mention that for Addie the school library is a haven of peace, everything is organised, the librarian speaks quietly to her. It’s a place for her to be calm and reset herself. There’s a growing body of research around the idea of a school library as a safe haven. Of course, when you advocate for school libraries you don’t say it’s because you want a safe haven in school, but it’s an unexpected benefit.
Throughout this novel we see how Addie has a deeply felt sense that had she lived in the time of the Witchcraft Act she would have been persecuted and executed for being different. Those parallels that she draws with the witches of the past, and the intensity of the emotion that she feels in the story, I think that’s really nicely brought out.
There are real life parallels with her efforts. There’s Witches of Scotland campaigning for a legal pardon for people who were convicted under the Witchcraft Act, and a charity called Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland. There is also Edinburgh University’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft. On International Women’s Day this year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology to the people who were persecuted as witches in Scotland.
I don’t know if that activism prompted this particular treatment as a theme or not. From what I’ve read, the author was coming from the angle of a neurodivergent person and her own personal experience, and communicating that. I am aware of some Irish language documentaries about women who were executed or persecuted as witches in Ireland but I’m not aware of a campaign in Ireland similar to Witches of Scotland.
Another important theme in this story is sibling love.
Yes, that’s lovely. At first there seems to be tension between Addie’s twin sisters. Nina, the sister who isn’t autistic, lives her own life, pursues her own interests in her own way. And then that balance with Keedie, the sister who is autistic, whom Addie idolises. We see the relationships from Addie’s perspective, the younger character who doesn’t always see what’s going on in the grown up world of her older sisters. But when it comes down to it, the twin sisters are very close.
Let’s talk about your final pick of great teen reads, Guard Your Heart by Sue Divin.
This is a really important novel and a really good book. It was the 2021 Great Reads Award winner in the senior category. The two principal characters are Aidan and Iona, who were both born on the day of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. They’ve lived their whole lives in peace time, outside of what was called the Troubles, and they represent the young people of Northern Ireland. Aidan is deeply entrenched in Republican culture, family history and heritage. Iona is from a Protestant family. Her father is a retired police officer and her brother is a young police officer. So you can see the culture clash right away. The novel has echoes of The Twelfth Day of July, a 1970 book for children in their early teens – a series actually – by Joan Lingard. Guard Your Heart is the modern version for young adults. The novel opens when Aidan who has finished his final exams, goes to a party, then finds himself visiting his mother’s grave before moving on to the Peace Bridge, a very iconic structure in Derry. There, he’s savagely attacked by a group of youngsters from the Protestant side of the city. The attack is interrupted by a girl who tells them that she’s filming the whole thing. Aidan and Iona are drawn together as a result of this episode and from that the story unfolds. The setting is very important here, because everything in the physical environment shouts political identity and heritage, and there is the interplay of that with the social and cultural environment. The Peace Bridge is symbolic of healing and reconciliation in the post Troubles era, but in the novel it’s a symbol of separation and division. At one point the story moves to Belfast, to City Hall and Queen’s University. While in Belfast, Aidan privately recalls that this is also the location of the former Crumlin Road Gaol, where Aidan’s father had done time as a political prisoner. It’s a memory he is not yet ready to share with Iona. I’m interested in how Divin’s setting is integral to her narrative. The symbolism of setting is sometimes actually the cause of the tension and the conflict.
I agree that the setting is very well done. There’s the conversation when Iona tells her mother about Aidan. His name, where he lives, that information tells the mother everything. The real conversation they are having is quite different from the words they are speaking. It’s like a code, with their thoughts in italics.
It is a local story rooted in Northern Ireland, but I think that it’s a novel for an international audience. With themes of prejudice and radicalisation it speaks to our time, wherever there is conflict and polarisation. Aidan and Iona live in peace time, but their whole world is overshadowed by the past. There are still tensions and there is still intolerance, bigotry and racism. This novel is about how teenagers can escape from that sort of inherited identity conflict.
At one point Iona asks her father what is the point of peace if you still think like we’re at war, and demands that they let her think for herself. I thought that was a powerful moment in the book.
Iona is open to understanding the other. For Aidan it’s tied up with his feelings for her. He struggles not only with cultural and political baggage, he also has the personal family baggage, the shadow of the abusive father. He is afraid that he is going to be like his father. Another thing I like about this novel is the exploration of where one is with one’s faith. Iona thinks that if we believe in God and forgiveness and reconciliation, where are we then with the bigoted prejudiced attitudes? She is trying to find herself in this, and so is Aidan in his own religious beliefs. I think that this novel has some really important messages for all of us, and one of them is the idea that we need to be open to the other. Aidan has been brought up in a society which is very narrow, his heritage seems to be very inward looking.
Yes, Aidan sees that very much in his own brother. For Aidan there is no point arguing with someone who has a closed mind, because the truth is not relevant to them. That’s what he really likes about Iona, she is searching for clarity.
She’s open but it’s scary to step outside your comfort zone, it’s not an easy process when the “we” becomes possible. Another message that comes through very well in the novel is that if we’re going to heal, if we’re going to move forward, then there needs to be a focus on our common humanity, our shared experiences, even if it is shared experience of pain. Aidan has grown up with the Republican perspective on history, the Bogside murals, the 1916 Easter Rising, the rebellion in Dublin, de Valera, that’s the prism that he would have viewed all that history through. But when he looks at the exhibits in City Hall they focus very much on the shared experience of Protestant and Catholic boys going off to war in World War One, of the Belfast people as workers, the International Brigades where Irish people went to fight in the Spanish civil war. That’s a perspective he had never thought of. He thinks about people born into famine, into “No Irish Need Apply” times in England, he thinks of being born into a Protestant or a Catholic family. I’ve often thought about what side I would have taken in the civil war in this country if I had lived in those times. I’m lucky in the time I was born in. The reflection Aidan has in looking at those displays resonates with me. And the idea of the shared experience, the idea that we need to focus on the common ground, not on our differences and division.
I get the sense that the fault lines are still there and that we can’t take peace for granted.
Yes, and the past is still in the present. It’s present in the lives of Aidan and his brother, and it’s present in Iona’s family, her brother in the police force, her father’s medications for pain and depression and stress. Aidan is proud that his father was involved at the time with the IRA, because there was so much injustice, so much brutality and prejudice. He’s proud that his father stood up and fought, but at the same time he can see what’s bad about it. He can see what’s holding him back and what he needs to do to make his own future. You can’t wipe out the past. I don’t agree with cancel culture. I think we should know what our past is. But we need to see it in perspective, in context. We need to understand it so as to learn from it and do better. I think that that’s really important. Divin focuses a lot on the healing process. It’s a slow process and you have to be patient with it, but it has its dividends. I think she’s captured that message very well. The young people are our future. I come back to the idea that this novel isn’t just for teens, this is for adults. It behoves us as adults to encourage and support young people on their journey through this process of moving forward, to respect their efforts and help to build a society that is more tolerant and less divided, more understanding no matter what the background is. I’m delighted that Guard Your Heart won the Great Reads Award because I think it really is for our time and should be widely read.
Is there anything else you would like to say in conclusion about these great reads for teens?
These novels feature very impressive female characters. Also, several of them deal with race. The race issue comes up in fiction for teens a lot, because young adult fiction is current and doesn’t brush the reality of daily life under the carpet. In A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, at one point Pip wants Ravi to break into a suspect’s home and he quickly points out that he would be in bad trouble if he – a brown boy – breaks into a white family home. Pip realises that she’s forgotten a promise she’s made to herself to always be aware of the lived experience that people have around race. Her stepfather is Black, and throughout her life she’s been aware of the difficulties he has had, the suspicious looks and the thoughts he sees on people’s faces when they see him with a white boy – his stepson – and the difficulties he has at work where he’s a partner in the business but is very often taken as security staff. It’s there also in Wing Jones, in an incident when they go to the hospital to see Marcus. They present themselves at the reception desk, and the the person behind the desk says “family only”. She has made an assumption, an unintentionally upsetting comment, because the mixed race family is totally outside of her experience. In Finding Dinah, Dinah’s father Tego is from Benin. At one point Dinah goes swimming, and she feels that she would just love to swim away to meet the women of her father’s generation, how she would learn from them and be healed and protected and comforted by them. Pip, whom she meets, is Sri Lankan, he’s Tamil. She gets annoyed because he calls her African. She says “Africa is a whole continent”.
I found it really difficult to pick just five books from Ireland’s Great Reads Award and I would like to mention a few more great titles for teens, very briefly. In 2016, we had on the shortlist in the senior category Weightless by the Irish author Sarah Bannan. It is a searing account of bullying in an American high school. The narrative voice is the first person plural, which is unusual. The novel is based around the real life story of Phoebe Prince. Another title I would like to mention is Dear Martin by Nic Stone, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Great Reads Award in the senior category. It is the story of a well educated, intelligent Black American teenager who tries to tease out the current racial issues and concerns through the lens of the writing of Martin Luther King. The author’s treatment gives a historical perspective on racism in the US setting, a wider social context. Most Likely by Sarah Watson was on the 2020 Great Reads Award shortlist in the senior category. This story follows four very strong female teenage characters in their final year in high school in Cleveland, we read about their characters and personalities with interest. One of them eventually becomes the first woman president of the United States but her identity isn’t revealed until the very last moment of the story. It’s a coming of age story and a political novel. Finally, on the 2020 shortlist we had Nóinín, an Irish language novel by Máire Zepf. It is written in free verse with a very fast paced narrative about the dark side of social media. In the name of the main character, Nóinín (meaning daisy) is a symbol of innocence and beauty and fragility. She becomes dragged into the dangers lurking behind her online interaction. It’s beautifully written and it was our most read title in 2020.
Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor
May 2, 2022
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