It is almost a year since my novel Ways of the Doomed was published and I am astonished at the mixed readership it has attracted. When the marketing was first planned it was agreed to pitch mostly to the Young Adult market. I have been visiting schools all year and it’s true, the kids are enthralled. When I wrote the novel I had no audience in mind, I just wrote the book I wanted to write, so I am delighted that adults are also loving reading the harrowing adventure of my young protagonist Sorlie Mayben. This got me thinking about other books narrated by children that have an overwhelming adult appeal, often because the subject is bigger than the narrator’s story. I trolled through my book journals and began listing and as the list grew I realised, if I was going to highlight the best, I’d need to separate them into two posts: boy narrators and girl narrators. Boys first for a change.
1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The charismatic Huckleberry Finn must be the original teen on the edge. He is boy of about thirteen years old who lives with his drunk father in the deep south of the United States of America. His schooling is neglected and he is placed into the care of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson who try to civilise him with religion. Huck feels trapped and escapes with his friend Jim, the black slave of respectable Miss Watson, to go adventuring. The treatment of racial issues can be shocking for today’s reader despite the fact that the main protagonist is anti-racist. This is a fun adventure story with a rock hard moral attached.
2. A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines first published 1968
Many fictional edgy teens are poorly treated at school and Billy Casper is no exception. Brought up by a wayward mother alongside a brutal half-brother, in a Yorkshire mining village, Billy has few choices in life. His world is turned around when he finds a kestrel to train. The story is told over the course of one day with flashback sequences which lay out the hopelessness of Billy’s life. The reader has no option but to hold their breath and hope for a happy ending.
3. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The story of a friendship between young vampire Eli and a twelve year old bullied boy Oskar is perfect for a youth reading project. The story is an easy read and gruesome enough to keep young boys interested but it also has sociological merit.
The story takes place in a deprived area, in 1980’s Sweden, and shows a different Sweden to the one we are used to. The sense of place is probably the best aspect of the book. I have worked in a Stockholm suburb in summer and that was depressing enough. This novel is set in winter and there is a chill that lasts from page one until the end.
4. Maggott Moon by Sally Gardner
This novel takes place in 1956 in an occupied Britain. The narrator is an imaginative fifteen year old boy Standish Treadwell. He lives in in Zone Seven where the Motherland keeps everyone under surveillance. His ball ends up on the wrong side of a wall and when he goes over the top to retrieve it he finds a moon mission mock up and a heap of propaganda. This subversive fable is told in one a unique voice that rings through your head for days. Another story you can’t pin a reading age too. A story of what ifs and an excellent read for any age.
5. Butter by Erin Lange
Butter is a morbidly obese teenage boy with a passion for the saxophone and a girl in his class who he contacts anonymously on line. This is a tale of all the loves in Butter’s life; his mother’s suffocating love that is killing him, his father’s love that Butter is denied, his love of music and his love for this on-line girl.
It is at times funny and is often very sad. I found the character of Butter believable – he could be pretty tough and very funny but also obnoxious and sarcastic. At no time did this novel fall into sentimentality but retained its focus to the end. A good well rounded tale.
6. The Wall by William Sutcliffe
William Sutcliffe chose a fictional, almost dystopian setting to tell a story set in a situation similar to the Palestine/Israel divide.
Thirteen year old Joshua loses his football, discovers a tunnel and finds himself on the other side of The Wall. There he befriends a young girl and her family and agrees to look after their olive grove which is on the wrong side of the wall from them. He faces many obstacles not least his violent stepfather. This is a story about fear, and how that fear controls the lives and the choices made by the characters on both sides of the wall. It is well balanced and does not try to answer any of the questions raised in this very complex situation. A great novel for everyone young and old to learn about this Middle East conflict.
7. Shipwrecks by Akura Yoshimura
This is a simple yet heartbreaking story of nine year old Isaku and his family. They live in a poor village by the sea. While Isaku’s father has gone into bondage for three years to allow the family to have some money to stay alive Isaku finds himself head of the household and main breadwinner.
The cyclical style of prose emphasizes the monotony of trying to stay alive year in year out and poetic descriptions of the element are always in connection to that struggle. The pace is gentle, in keeping with the changes in the seasons and the paradox between Isaku’s childlike thoughts and his strength give the story a sad tone which is sustained throughout.
8. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
A coming of age horror story that Stephen King didn’t write! Middle America is visited in October by a carnival with a difference. The carousel can rejuvenate or age depending on the direction it turns, a maze of mirrors shows your nightmares and Mr Dark is hovering in the side lines. Two boys and a dad take on the evil owner and try to save themselves and the town from a wicked end. A horror masterpiece.
9. Chronicle In Stone by Ismail Kadare
Albania’s leading literary figure and Booker prize winner, Ismail Kadare is one of my favourite authors. Chronicle in Stone is set in his home town Gjirokaster, which is also the home town of the communist partisan leader and eventual dictator Enver Hoxha. The story is narrated by a child and at first shows normal family life in an ordinary Albanian town during WWII. The town is occupied and changes hands and allegiance several times. This situation makes for a fascinating and often cruel tale of gossip, superstition and injustice.
10. The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy
All the Pretty Horses #1; The Crossing #2; Cities of the Plain #3
The Border Trilogy is, in my opinion, the best of McCarthy. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, two young cowboys travel over the border into Mexico to begin their own adventures and a passage into adulthood that is far from pretty. The cowboy story brought up to date using all the elements, McCarthy excels in; tight, often witty dialogue, magnificent desert descriptions and a cruel sense of inevitability.