Unforgettable YA tales that stick

Live throws up some questionable situations at times, which, for young people especially can result in unforgettable experiences. I love young adult novels that encapsulate such experiences in stories with unreserved candour and humour. Here are some unforgettable examples.

Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell

Touchell’s ability to reach deep into the grey sticky bits of both adults and seven-year-old boys and extract meaning from them for us in ways both poetical and moving is awe-inspirForgetting Fostering. This is a powerful and intelligent fiction for young readers written with precision and heart. As Foster’s world of stories and thus reality recedes into a place he can’t identify, he is forced to farewell the other most important thing in his life, his father.

Foster may inhabit a seven-year-old’s body and possess a sweet naivety and omnipresent reverence for his father still, but when his father begins to forget everything including Foster, Foster’s outlook on life, school and relationships is sent akimbo. For the first time in his life, he is adrift in a place where his father can no longer accompany him. To make matters worse, his mother is barely able to cope with their unexpected and irreversible demise let alone Foster’s feelings.

Losing a parent to (early onset), Alzheimer’s disease is no straightforward matter as Foster discovers. How it affects his position in his family is the question Touchell throws at us again and again with poignant force. At times brutally honest and real and at others stoically proud and witty, Forgetting Foster focuses on surviving battles we were not meant to fight.

Forgetting Foster is a sort of grown up version of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice; it is no less intelligent and revealing however translates the angst and ludicrous frustrations and realties of Alzheimer’s from the carers’ point of view instead of the sufferer’s. How Foster comes to deal with these realisations is the resolution for a story that has no real happy ending.

Focusing on a younger character but with buckets of lower secondary school reader appeal.

Allen & Unwin June 2016

Another Night in Mullet Town by Steven Herrick

Poetic, raw and real, I savoured every syllable of this verse-coming-of-age novel by Herrick. Mullet Town is an intelligent narrative about surviving on the peripheral of lAnother Night in Mullet Townife, both emotionally and materialistically.

Mates Jonah and Manx exist in a one mullet town, content to throw a line in the lake every now and then and wade through the treacherous bog of teenage parties and relationships. For Manx, who may aspire to more but is also driven to defend his simple existence from the ‘wealthy blow-ins’ who want to sell the town out, life suddenly becomes more complicated. How he manages to keep his head about water and remain supportive for Jonah plays out in an emotional journey Herrick cleverly wallpapers with gentle, lyrical wit.

The end petered out a little too matter-of-factly for me but life is not always full of neat and tidy endings. As long as the mullet continue to swim, there remains a glimmer of hope for the residents of Mullet Town – this is the departing assurance, which is in itself enough.

Gritty and extremely readable, a highly recommended verse novel for older readers.

UQP June 2016

My Australian Story: Black Sunday by Evan McHugh

Black Sunday is riveting and tactful. I thoroughly enjoyed McHugh’s account of one of the most unexpected and largest mass (beach) rescues in Australia in the late 30s. Ironically, I had come across old newspaper reports about this day in February 1938 whilst researching another topic. I was astounded and shocked by what I uncovered. Black Sunday

McHugh’s use of simple diary entries by 12 year-old David McCutcheon aka Nipper to detail the events leading up to Black Sunday, entreats intimacy and candour whilst painting a vivid picture of Bondi and its surrounds on the eve of WW II. Even those who have never swam in Bondi’s ever changing waters or basked on her golden beaches will gain a strong sense of place and time thanks to McHugh’s thoughtful epistolic prose.

The actual event itself is not over dramatized rather occurring naturally after a nine-month relationship with Nipper whose life ambition is to be a surf lifesaver like his grandpa, his diary, and the colourful cast of characters that people his life. There is a beautiful balance of emotion, history, and humanity in this Australian Story, which pays homage to heroes in every guise not least of which those that serve Surf Lifesaving Australia. Respect in the highest. Well suited for primary and lower secondary readers, Black Sunday is a fitting and vivid unforgettable tribute to Australia’s not so distant past.

Omnibus Books August 2016

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Double Dipping – Picture book therapy

When medical conditions affect children or the people in their lives, one of the most daunting aspects of their situation is how to cope. The management of a disease or disability is one thing, the understanding why they have it and why others react the way they do is another.

Emily Eases her WheezesPicture books are marvellous non-invasive ways of presenting expositional information on a variety of tricky-to-handle topics in relatable formats for young readers. Here are two hot-off-the press releases that tackle two such ailments yet are still stories of substance and integrity.

Emily Eases her Wheezes by Katrina Roe and Leigh Hedstrom, is a delightful tale about a very energetic elephant, Emily. Always full of energy, Emily loves to scooter, leap, and twirl. Unfortunately, Emily suffers from asthma as approximately 1 in 10 Australian children do.

Being unable to play with her friends and live the active lifestyle she craves frustrates Emily to the point where she is willing to risk wheezes and coughs just to have fun. Such behaviour results in her relying on her puffer more and more until she is relegated to remaining quiet in her room. Her friends are slow to appreciate that ‘you can’t catch asthma’ but miss her friendship so much that they use their 21st century-Generation Z data-retrieving smarts and soon discover an activity they can all do…swimming.

Emily Wheezes illo spreadAs Emily’s lungs grow stronger so too does her chance to race with her team in the summer swimming carnival. Will this plucky little heroin keep her wheezes under control long enough to win the day?

Emily Eases her Wheezes is a delicately sobering tale about a condition with which many younger readers will resonnate. Roe’s crisp contemporary narrative couples easily with Hedstrom’s big bold illustrations. I found the epilogue-style overview of asthma in children at the end of the book interesting as well.

Asthma is a disease I’ve been aware of since childhood, however I can honestly say, this is one of the first books I’ve encountered that has presented its manifestation and control in children in such a clear, simple and entertaining fashion. Well done.

Wombat Books Rhiza Press June 2015

Newspaper Hats Newspaper Hats by Phil Cummings and Owen Swan is an incredibly intelligent and beautifully sensitive look at a family dealing with the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease.

Georgie visits her grandpa’s nursing home regularly with her father. But rather than it being an ominous outing to a place she is fearful of, Georgie looks forward to arriving at the sky-blue door because it is a room ‘full of sunshine’ with stacks of old newspapers as tall as city buildings; her grandpa’s world.

However, Grandpa is becoming more and more vague and forgetful. Georgie is desperate to know if her remembers her, but repeated enquires are met with far away recollections of his youth. With child-like innocence and gentle tenacity, she tries to connect with him through these memories and the photographs on his dresser until, by chance she discovers a simple act that unites not only the rest of the nursing home community but also, the relationship between she and Grandpa.

Cummings’ unrushed narrative pulses gently with visceral images, doors that slide open like curtains; thunderclouds that taste like dust; they leave your heart swooning with emotion until the very last word.

Through using the simple joy of making paper hats and the subtle historical connection to memory with noteworthy newspaper headlines of the 20th century, Newspaper Hats unfolds into a powerful yet immensely touching story of what binds a family together.

Swan’s watercolour and pencil on paper artwork is subdued and mindful of the weightiness of the subject matter lurking just below the surface of the text. It is neither grim nor foreboding, rather the illustrations float across the pages with infinite optimism like a paper hat carried away on the breeze.

Phil Cummings BooksA beautiful book on many levels from a potent teller of poignant tales and my pick for pre-schoolers as a catalyst for caring, sharing, and understanding.

Scholastic Press July 2015