Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis (Andersen)
‘Everybody jam’ is not a general invitation to boogie. Apparently it’s how the Australian aborigines describe apricot jam because everybody likes it. But there’s nothing jammy about Ali Lewis’s debut novel as it tackles death, race, teenage pregnancy, culture and survival. The tale offers a few holds-barred account of growing-up in another world: the Australian outback.
Lewis doesn’t pull her punches (the book carries the warning ‘Not suitable for younger readers’). Young people like protagonist, 13 year-old Danny Dawson, live in an environment where children routinely do chores, tame camels, are home-tutored, drive cars, kill for meat and pelt their younger sisters with bulls’ testicles. It’s a world where the ‘Blackfellas’ are a fact of life and ‘Pommies’ have to prove their worth. Against this background and alongside his growing friendship with the gap-year ‘house girl’, Liz, Danny has to prove he’s man enough to take his late brother’s place on the annual cattle muster.
Maybe our over-sanitised, politically-correct society restricts young people’s thinking – so many young-adult authors still favour hiding reality behind fantasy titles. Everybody Jam is a blast of fresh air. Perhaps a tad over-long but generally well written, this book deserves prizes.
Review by Julia Pirie
Judges’ comment: A hugely engaging and enjoyable novel that conveys a terrific sense of place
Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday)
Stuart is a ten-year-old boy who moves to the town of Beeton at the start of the summer holiday. Expecting to be bored and friendless, he finds himself set on a magical quest after coming across a cache of old threepenny bits and a series of clues left by his Great Uncle Tony, an illusionist who disappeared during an air raid in World War II. Stuart is aided in his quest by April, May and June; his triplet neighbours and budding journalists. Adults in the story are there to help and hinder Stuart, either inadvertently or intentionally, in equal measures.
I was gripped by this book and am confident that the ten-year-old me would have also enjoyed the story, the pace and the style of writing. Evans manages to include all the key elements of a hero-against-the-world quest story without resorting to either cliché or one dimensional characterisation. The author also refuses to pander to the idea that children need to be spoken down to and indeed very cleverly introduces a wide vocabulary, including Latin through the characters of Stuart’s parents.
Does Stuart succeed? I’d recommend reading and finding out, it would be worth it.
Review by Robert Hill
Judges’ comment: A story that is terrific fun, perfectly paced and exquisitely written
A Monster Calls A novel by Patrick Ness From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd (Walker)
Siobhan Dowd was the prize-winning author of four books. It was her original idea for A Monster Calls which has been fully developed into a sensitively-written novel by Patrick Ness following her death from cancer in 2007. From the book’s sleeve to the final page, this is a beautifully illustrated novel which complements the dark atmosphere created by Ness from the beginning of the story.
At just 13, Conor has many dark issues to deal with – his mum’s serious illness, being bullied at school and a growing sense of loneliness. When the monster shows up at 12.07pm, he’s surprised to find that he isn’t the monster he was expecting. But the monster has a mission. He has come to share three stories with Conor but when he has finished, Conor must share his own ‘truth’, something which he does not want to do.
Despite the dark elements, this is a wonderful read for children – particularly the dark humour in the exchanges between Conor and the monster, the contrast between reality and the surreal (which is scarier?) and the themes explored: illness, isolation, coping with hardship … A Monster Calls is highly recommended as a wonderfully imaginative read right through to the powerful ending.
Review by Aliss Langridge
Judges’ comment: An exquisite piece of writing of great depth
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Orion)
Before you even open this debut novel, you are whacked between the eyes by the title: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. Annabel Pitcher takes the news story of our time – the War on Terror – and turns this into a real exploration of its effect on family life.
Jamie’s sister Rose is killed in a bomb attack in London; as a result, his parents split up and separate in a bid to ‘start again’ but nothing seems to be healed. Jamie suffers in silence – at home, dealing with his drunken dad, wishing for contact with his mother; and at school, where he is ostracised. ‘Dad would go mental if he knew’ and in that simple sentence the clever, knotty theme of racism is introduced as Jamie is made to sit next to Sunya. His struggles against the chaotic culture at home and his need for friendship are explored in a heart-breaking but ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Pitcher writes well, eloquently and tackles the tough themes with confidence and clarity. Jamie is a realistic narrator who will be recognised by readers. This adult reader wanted to scoop him up and make him safe! An accomplished work.
Review by Lesley Finlay
Judges’ comment: A great central character and a sophisticated plot
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett (Walker)
‘Beautifully written’ is the first thing that comes to mind. From the opening I was enchanted and couldn’t put the book down. Andrej and Tomas are not described in any detail, yet they come alive in the mind as those archetypal innocents: bright flames of goodness in the darkness. The personification of night also builds a sense of something profound waiting to happen. It seems to when they find a small zoo. At first they are curious and frightened in equal measure, but when more bombs are dropped on the village, the stunned children discover they can understand the animals when they speak.
The setting is lightly sketched – an invasion, which appears to be, from a few clues, the Germans in WWII invading an independent Eastern European country which an adult reader knows is destined to end up in the Soviet Bloc.
In the zoo the back-stories are shared; what happened to the boys, to the village, to the animals. And they dream of what could happen next.
And this is where the tape stretches and the story comes unstuck; the enchantment withers into beguilement, sleight-of-hand. Hartnett uses brilliant writing to extricate herself, but the reader feels cheated by the puff of smoke into which it all disappears. What a pity!
Review by Edna Hobbs
Judges’ comments: A profoundly moving novel. Unbearably sad in places, but never depressing
Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys (Puffin)
Brace yourself before starting this novel based on survivor stories and harrowing research. Before we get a chance to familiarise ourselves with the main characters, we are plunged into the horror. The first words of the novel from 15-year-old narrator Lina are ‘They took me in my nightgown’. The reality of life for those Lithuanians considered enemies to the state by the Kremlin was brutal. Many were ripped from their homes and murdered or, like most of Lina’s family, transported to Siberia for a decade long period of enslavement.
Sepetys has poured her soul into this debut novel: although she says the book is about the power of love to change lives, what stays in the memory are the brutal scenes such as the death of a baby criminalised at birth. Yet there is a sense of defiant strength as the group resist dehumanisation by refusing to sign their own enslavement papers and by maintaining family and community bonds. For Lina, the ability to preserve a record of their experience through art, gives her the motivation to endure. The story is numbing but the ending is a testament to the power of human beings to survive and to remember.
Review by Afifa Tufail
Judges’ comments: A compelling, page-turning story about a hidden period of history
My name is Mina by David Almond (Hodder)
In a time when young people are constantly challenged by the material world, and how to forge an identity as they negotiate their way through it, David Almond’s extraordinary, beautiful novel, my Name is Mina, is an uplifting celebration of the expression of our spiritual lives.
Mina McKee is twelve years old, and struggles to conform to social conventions. she is home schooled by her Mother. The novel takes the form of Mina’s journal and Almond gives us an insight into her life story, her musings on the universe and her dreams. As she takes up her pen, Mina wonders if this is what God felt like, ‘when he started to fill the emptiness.’
This is also a book about bereavement, as we learn that Mina’s Father has died, and that her need to believe in the eternal nature of the human spirit has been inspired by this early experience of grief.
Mina’s journal includes suggestions for ‘Extraordinary activities, such as encouraging the reader to write a page of words for joy or sadness. It is a wonderful, potentially therapeutic book for young people, which reminds us all that the ability to look beyond the physical world is what it means to be human.
Review by Beth Tattershall
Judges’ comments: A wonderful celebration of words, language and creativity
Trash by Andy Mulligan (David Fickling)
Read the first page of Trash and I guarantee you will never forget it. You may think you know all about street children, eking out an existence on rubbish tips, like the Behala dumpsite in Manila. Andy Mulligan will make you feel, on your skin and in your nostrils, what it’s really like to live, as the ‘trash’ of society
Told from the multiple viewpoints of three boys from the dump, and their adult supporters, this fast-moving tale has many of the qualities of an action movie, crossed with a detective story. Yet, it is far more subtle than that. The story challenges many values which we accept as ‘given’. Are stealing, lying, fighting always wrong? What if the world in which you exist is riddled with corruption and dominated by brutality? Raphael, Gardo, and the wholly engaging Rat, set out on a quest which tests them to the limits. It culminates in a climax of extraordinary tension, as they are caught up in the celebrations to mark the ‘Day of the Dead’.
This is not an easy book for younger readers (the publishers suggest 12+) but you will remember it long after you have reached the last page.
Review by Heather Evernden
Judges’ comments: A vivid and emotionally powerful story
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