They may think they’re too old for Christmas but thrust one of these great reads into their Christmas stockings this year and your tweens and teens will love your forever, or at least have something incredible to tie them over until the turkey is ready. Here are some recent must-read middle grade and young adult fiction titles that make ideal gifts this season. There are literally dozens more, some featured already as full reviews this year. Check them out, here. Alternatively, visit the Boomerang Books Christmas gift books list for more literary inspiration.
Historic, mysterious and crawling with supernatural scare. This is a consuming story within a story of love, embezzled fortunes and trust and old mysteries. Rodda enchants with her ability to knit the past with the present and overlay it all with a good old fashioned fairy-tale that lances kids’ hearts with imagination. Highly recommended late night reading for tweens and lovers of twisted fairy tales.
Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Meand Between Usare memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.
Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!
How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?
TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.
Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here. How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?
I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.
To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?
I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.
What is the significance of the cover?
The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.
How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?
I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.
How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?
Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.
You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?
How have you differentiated between their voices?
Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…
Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.
Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.
Which character would you like to write more about?
I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.
I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?
I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.
You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?
I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.
They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.
Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?
I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.
Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.
I want to frame this picture book and hang it on my wall. To label Teacup as having bucket-loads of appeal for audiences familiar with and sympathetic to displacement, migration, social disruption and family change strips away the myriad of other sophisticated, elegant qualities this book deserves to be described by. It is simply sublime.
Teacup by Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley is a timeless story of a boy fleeing his home to ‘find another’. We know not where from nor why but immediately warm to his story after learning that amongst the meagre possessions he takes with him is a teacup which holds some earth from where he used to play.
Unlike any other creature on earth, the need to retain ones past in order to make ones way better into the future is strongest in we mere humans, especially in times of dramatic change. Therefore, the boy sets off across seas sometimes kind and friendly, other times wild and testing. Along the way he has time to contemplate all that he has left behind; his home, his sense of place, his beloved family and the naivety of childhood. The clouds that swirl above him may not be permanent but his memories remain secure as does his hope, until one day that hope takes root in the form of a sapling apple tree.
This symbolic tree of life sustains him until the day his is able to build his life anew; older, wiser, a better receptacle for change, just like his teacup.
The beauty of this story is its incredible scope. It could be describing loss or the dislocation of refugees. Others will interpret it as a story of a search for love and belonging. Whatever journey Teacup takes you on, Young’s eloquent use of words and symbolic imagery massage your emotions to the point of quiet reverence. The narrative bobs gently upon these thematic eddies, always moving forward, into the unknown.
Even more arresting than the text are Ottley’s illustrations. More like a collection of fine art, they are jaw-drop beautiful, each a breathtaking portrait of the boy’s journey. Dense in texture and meaning, Ottley’s illustrations reflect sky and sea, at once both soothing and uplifting.
Teacup is a picture book to treasure for its undiluted beauty and the subtle way it transcends moralising on human rights and condition, thus making it an important and exquisite reading experience for youngsters aged four and above.
This is one of those books that immediately after you start reading you know you are in the hands of a wonderful writer. Atticus Lish has delivered a delicately savage critique on post-9/11 America and the so-called American Dream in a beautiful love story of an illegal immigrant and an American soldier recently returned from Iraq.
Zou Lei is a Chinese-Muslim who has escaped from northwest China and the wars in neighbouring Afghanistan. Alone, with barely any possessions or clothes Zou Lei is quickly set to work for long hours and small pay but is ostracized within the Chinese migrant community because of her Uighur-Chinese background. Despite this she embraces the small freedoms she now has and is determined to carve out a new life for herself despite the hardships.
Skinner is an army veteran of three tours in Iraq. Recently discharged he arrives in New York looking for a good time. Looking to find ways to forget. Skinner was “stop lost” as a soldier. Administratively lost in the system and sent back for two more tours of Iraq. When he does finally leave the Army, America itself “stop losses” him. Damaged and scarred, mentally and physically, from his service Skinner is abandoned by the country he has just served to find his own way, find himself and try to survive in the country he has returned to. Lost, confused, alone and haunted by what he has experienced the portrayal of Skinner is one of the best I have read in terms of PTSD, its effects on the individual and its affects on those around them.
Skinner and Zou Lei find each other and their relationship is unsentimental. Theirs is not a love story of passion nor is it one of forgiveness. It is certainly one of circumstance but they endure more than their situation. Skinner and Zou Lei both find in each other a glimmer of hope for a future. That together they might be able to overcome the situation they each find themselves in. Together maybe they can survive. They have found each other so therefore they might no longer be lost. But they must not lose each other or they could lose what little they have left.
Atticus Lish’s writing is sharp, exact and deliberate carrying you through the lives of these two tragic figures. You are absorbed into Skinner’s and Zou Lei’s lives and their surroundings and the sense of being lost and abandoned is beautifully evoked through disconnected dialogue and the divide that exists between both Skinner and Zou Lei’s relationship and the world around them. This is a novel that permeates through you, long after you finish it and is a truly exception debut.
You might as well know my weakness. It’s ice cream. Any flavour, most kinds, regardless of country of origin. I am extremely ice cream tolerant and I wonder if Bob Graham had similar thoughts when he penned his latest picture book masterpiece, Vanilla Icecream.
Vanilla Icecream is an eloquently articulated tale about a young curious sparrow whose world revolves around a dusty truck stop in the heart of India. He enjoys his existence and relishes his freedom with the blithe objectivity of all wild things until one day his pluck and appetite hook up with fate, which escorts him south across rough seas and through dark nights, eventually delivering him ‘into a bright new day’.
Unperturbed by his new environment in a different land, the truck stop sparrow chances upon a new eating hole and Edie Irvine, a toddler whose young life is inextricably changed forever because of him.
Graham’s dramatic narration of the little sparrow’s epic journey stuns you with its beautiful brevity and makes you want to follow the courageous new immigrant and know if Edie’s and his paths will ever cross again. This is a largely self-indulgent desire on my part as I get quite caught up in Graham’s snapshots of life, wanting them to never end. Nonetheless, end they must and this one’s delicious denouement is as immeasurably satisfying as a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
There are numerous wordless pages in this picture book as Graham shapes much of the narration visually with his splendid, slightly sassy, culturally sensitive illustrations. Graham has the unique, unaffected knack of suffusing modern day nuances with old-fashioned appeal into his pictures that draw the eye of young and old alike deep into the story in spite of the apparent simplicity on shown on the page.
This story allowed me to sift through memories, mostly glorious of my own ‘firsts’ and it reminded me of my daughter’s wonderment when discovering her first time, life-changing tastes, notions, and realisations. What Vanilla Icecream evokes in you depends entirely on your own memories and attitude towards new people and new experiences, and your fondness for ice cream of course. However, you will be hard pressed to find a better way to introduce the complex ideals of human rights, fate, and immigration to young ones where a lightness of touch is more readily comprehended than harsh dry facts. As Amnesty International UK proclaims through its endorsement of Vanilla Icecream;
‘…we should all enjoy life, freedom, and safety. These are some of our human rights.’
Vanilla Icecream is quite simply a stunning picture book. Quiet and unassuming in its appearance. Complex and multi-layered enough to warrant spirited discussion with 3 to 103 year olds.