Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

928 Miles From Home – Kim Slater

“Daydreaming is cool because you don’t have to work out a fool proof plan of how you’re going to do stuff or wrestle with the problems that might come up. You can just flash-forward to the good bits.”

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Blurb: “Fourteen year old Calum Brooks has big dreams. One day, he’ll escape this boring life and write movies, proper ones, with massive budgets and A-list stars. For now though, he’s stuck coping alone while his dad works away, writing scripts in his head and trying to stay ‘in’ with his gang of mates at school, who don’t like new kids, especially foreign ones. But when his father invites his new Polish girlfriend and her son, Sergei, to move in, Calum’s life is turned upside down. He’s actually sharing a room with ‘the enemy’! How’s he going to explain that to his mates?”

Calum Brooks loves writing screenplays but he never puts them down on paper. He lives on a tiny estate in Nottingham where nothing interesting every happens so thinks his dreams of becoming a screenwriter for those big blockbuster movies are a waste of time. At school, he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd and while he doesn’t actively take part in the bullying, he still stands back and watches. The common recipient of the taunts from his friends is a polish boy called Sergi. But when Sergi and his mother move into Calum’s home, things are about to take a turn.

Calum is a character I think anyone can relate to at some point in their lives. We’ve all been brought up knowing what is right and wrong, that bullying is unacceptable and what to do if we see if happening. In theory, that seems obvious and easy to do. But in reality, it can be a lot harder to find your voice. Calums friends are the school bullies and, while he claims he doesn’t actively bully anyone, he stands back and watches while the group dish out unwanted attention to unsuspecting students. While he acknowledges that he knows this behaviour isn’t right, he’s afraid of speaking up in case that attention falls on him.

Kim Slater has always made an effort to slip important topics into the narratives of her stories: her previous book A Seven Letter Word features the protagonist’s friend being the victim of islamophobia. 928 Miles From Home takes into account our current political climate which at first I thought might be too heavy for a children’s book but quickly realised it makes perfect sense to include. The popular victim of choice is a boy called Sergi who is polish. He receives all manner of stereotypical hate that can be expected and with experiencing this and listening to stories from his own father, believes that people like Sergi are here sponging off society. It can get very intense to read at times but that’s the point of it: it needs to make an impact.

A character I didn’t expect to see play as much of a role as she did is Amelia who lives on a narrowboat. She and her family move around a lot on her boat and settle in places for a period of time before they are moved on. As Calum starts to build an unwilling friendship with her, his racial biases start to merge when he makes comments about Sergi that are interchangeable with her life and doesn’t understand why she takes some of them to heart as she’s “different to Sergi.”

It is the range of the characters that really are what make this story so amazing to read, mainly because a lot of them exist today and I can even identify some of them in my own life. It highlights the importance of educating yourself, not taking things at face value, and that not saying anything can be just as harmful as being the one doing it.

The narrative flits between prose and short screenplays with the latter being used to showcase hypothetical situations or events in the way Calum believe they took place. This shows hi creativity and adds the undertone of him not believing he’s good enough.

There are so many different elements to this story in addition to the ones I’ve focused on and it just leaves me in awe with every book Kim slater writes.

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Posted in contemporary, review, young adult

A Seven Letter Word – Kim Slater

“There’s no chit-chat or messing about, we just get on with playing the game. The other players don’t know anything about me at all. They haven’t got a clue that I can’t even say my own name or string a sentence together. I’d like to be that boy in real life.”

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Blurb: “Finlay’s mother vanished two year ago. And ever since then his stutter has become almost unbearable. Bullied at school and ignored by his father, the only way to get out the words which are bouncing around in his head is by writing long letters to his ma which he knows she will never read, and by playing Scrabble online. But when Finlay is befriended by an online Scrabble player called Alex, everything changes. Could it be his mother secretly trying to contact him? Or is there something more sinister going on?”

This story follows a teenage boy names Finlay who has a really bad stutter. When his mum left one day without a single word, let alone a reason why, that stutter gets worse.  Finlay seeks solace in the word board game Scrabble which he used to play with his mother, but also acts as a way for him to understand the importance and value of words. He frequently plays the game online where one day he meets a boy called Alex but this new person doesn’t just want someone to play the game, this person wants to get to know him. At school, Finlay is roped into the school’s scrabble club which leads to him being put forward for a championship and this kind of competition means newspaper reports. It’s the kind of coverage Finlay believes will bring his mother back.

There are so many things I loved about this book. For a start, it tackles a common issue that I haven’t seen really represented in books which is having a stutter. The book features a lot of scenes where adults allow Finlay a moment to get his words out but then cut him off and finish his sentences for him which I found very frustrating and gave me an insight into what it felt like to be in that position. The narrative switches between prose explaining the events of the story and letters Finlay writes to his mother but never sends.

Through the school’s Scrabble club, Finlay meets a muslin girl called Maryam who quickly became my favourite character. She faces a lot of prejudice within the story because of her religion which brings attention to a horrible problem that exists in society but also while facing a different kind of prejudice, Finlay and Maryam were able to connect with each other on some sort of level because of that.

Another thing that’s great about Kim’s books is you can never take things at face value. There is always an entirely different storyline under the surface that you just never see coming and that is the art of a fantastic writer.

The only thing I really found fault with is that the conversations between Alex and Finlay are bold text in the same font and at times it was hard to tell which characters were speaking.

Other than that, another brilliant book from Kim Slater.
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Posted in discussion, young adult

Strong Female Characters in Young Adult Fiction – What Are They and Why Do We Need Them?

“Screw writing ‘strong’ women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write women who kick ass. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anyone thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all these thing could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.”

I stumbled across this quote two years ago in the depths of Tumblr. Sadly, the origin is unknown. Ever since I discovered this quote it has stuck with me. As a Young Adult writer whose protagonists are primarily female, I’ve found myself sat in the planning stages of writing thinking “how can I make this character a strong woman?” But why is having a strong female character important? And why is there such a high demand for them?

You’re probably already thinking about some “strong” women in YA books you’ve read and due to the movie adaptations, I’m sure that Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Beatrice Prior from Divergent are among them. But what makes them strong? Is it Tris’ rebellion against the faction system? Katniss volunteering in place of her sister who is chosen for the games? I think everyone can agree that they are strong and when I posed this idea to fellow book blogger Bookbitchreviews he said that he thinks most people’s opinions would fall to “badass” female protagonists like Katniss and Tris. However, they’re not his idea of a strong character. He likes his female characters to be relatable:

“We constantly say that characters from the Fantasy of Dystopian genres are strong, and some of them are, but you can also get strong female characters in contemporary. Mia Hill from ‘If I Stay’ and ‘Where She Went’ is a great example. She’s lost the most important people in her life and may not survive herself, but while in her ‘out of body’ state, she’s there for the ones she loves. She’s fighting to come back. And the reason they’re so important to YA fiction is so that we can see ourselves in them. Most people I know who read and blog are shy in person, but while reading that book they’re not. They are fierce, they are powerful, they are independent.”

Kieran makes a fantastic point.
With the success of dystopian movie adaptations being the forefront of the Young Adult market, it’s just too easy to forget that women in YA contemporary can be “strong” too.

Tragedy

This links quite nicely onto Hazel Grace Lancaster from The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. One thing I hate in YA fiction (and fiction in general for that matter) is that some kind of tragedy must have happened in order to make a woman strong. In this case, terminal cancer. Hazel is sixteen, living with stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastasis and uses a phalanxifor to breathe. Does this automatically put her on the list of strong female characters? If she wasn’t fictitious I’m sure that those around her would use “strong” to describe her. But what makes her strong beside that? Is it how willingly she sticks by Issac when he goes blind? Or how she drives to a gas station in the middle of the night when she gets that horrific emotional phone call from Gus? Or is it simply her acceptance of the life she has been dealt? In the book’s narrative she is so matter of fact about her condition. She knows she’s going to die and she knows it will probably be soon and that her “parents won’t be parents” anymore.

Straying slightly from the path of YA fiction, another common character device used is the inability to have children. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are subjected to some of Black Widow’s backstory. She is trained to be an assassin and at the “graduation ceremony” she is sterilized so that children won’t “interfere with future missions.” Black Widow then tells Bruce Banner that she’s a monster too. But why does this type of device make women strong when surely giving birth is strong too?

Another prime example is Tauriel in The Hobbit trilogy. I recently found out that she doesn’t exist in the books. So why make this addition? I personally felt like it was a breath of fresh air to have a woman, taking part in battles, in a male dominated film. However, the excitement this brought was quickly lost when it became clear that her main contribution to the plot was a love triangle between Legolas and Kili. Kili inevitably dies trying to save her, in that action she loses someone she loved. BOOM tragedy.

Relationships

Relationships are a part of life that most of us will experience. But when I put forward the question to several people if Bella Swan from the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer was a strong female character, most of them were unable to contain their laughter. When I posed this question to a close friend she said that she doesn’t think Bella is strong because everything she does is about Edward and her life seems to revolve around him: she’s constantly talking or thinking about him. Also, she’s so desperate to have sex with him that she even accepts his offer of “getting married and then trying.” However, my friend says that the only time she sees Bella as strong is when she becomes a vampire. But why is this? Is it because she’s no longer a fragile human? Or because she has an ability to control her hunger when Jasper doesn’t?

Rebellion

Naturally, we see the return of Katniss and Tris here. In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers for the games in place of her sister who is chosen from the reeping. When she makes it down to the last two alive, she plans to eat poisonous berries with Peeta so no one wins, sparking a rebellion in the districts. Katniss becomes the face of the movement. Her progress throughout the trilogy seems to undoubtedly earn her a place on the list of “strong women” because she demands change in an unfair world.

A similar situation is that of Beatrice in Divergent. The world is split into factions: Amity (valuing peace), Erudite (valuing Knowledge), Candor (valuing honesty), Dauntless (valuing bravery) and Abnegation (valuing selflessness). At sixteen, teenagers have to choose either to stay in their current faction or leave their family behind and change faction. They take an aptitude test which reveals the best faction choice for the,. Beatrice’s results reveal that she belongs to more than one faction making her “divergent” , a danger to society and the Erudite want them dead.. Much like in The Hunger Games  there is rebellion and and all out war. But is she strong because she carries on after she sees the death of her parents? Or is she strong for staying focused after discovering her brother’s betrayal? Or because she stands up against a broken system?

Flaws

When I asked Victoria Aveyard, author of Red Queen what she thinks makes a female protagonist strong, she said:

“Not necessarily good decisions, but decisions that are their own.”

I think we can all agree that the best characters are flawed. A flawed YA character that comes to mind for me is Tally Youngblood from Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. In this post-apocalyptic future society, teenagers upon reaching their sixteenth birthday undergo a surgery to make them “pretty.”
When Tally’s friend runs away to live in a refuge called The Smoke, the Doctor in charge of the surgery tells Tally she won’t have the operation until she finds the location of The Smoke and turns in the rebels. So Tally begins her adventure. But does making this flawed decision make her strong by sacrificing her only friend? Or does it make her selfish?

Change: Handling New Situations

Something any fictional character goes through at some point in their story is change. Author Kim Slater said that a strong women for her is “someone who ploughs through other people’s opinions to follow her heart and the path she had chosen.” She also told me that she believes strong female characters are important because “young readers can vicariously experience a tough journey and see that is it possible to survive it and come through it.”

Similarly, when I posed the question to Cait Reynolds, author of Downcast, she had this to say:

“I think that strong YA female characters are determined by how they deal with change – either when it is happening to them or whether they have had to make the change happen for themselves. Take Stephanie, for example, she is not a typically or traditionally strong character in the beginning of Downcast. But by the end of the book, because of all the changes that have happened to her and the changes she put in motion, she is stronger and better all around.”

Going back to Keiran’s point, I think flawed characters are the strongest because they’re not perfect. They mess up just like pople in the real world, and they have to deal with change just like us, and seeing that they can come out the other side, gives the reader hope.

Let me know your thoughts!

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Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

Smart – Kim Slater

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Blurb: “I found Jean’s friend dead in the river. His name was Colin Kirk. He was a homeless man, but he still wanted to live.
There’s been a murder, but the police don’t care. It was only a homeless old man after all. Kieran cares. He’s made a promise, and when you say something out loud, that means you’re going to do it for real. He’s going to find out what really happened. To Colin. And to his grandma, who just stopped coming around one day. It’s a good job Kieran’s a master of observation, and knows all the detective tricks of the trade. But being a detective is difficult when you’re Kieran Woods. When you’re amazing at drawing but terrible at fitting in. And when there are dangerous secrets everywhere, not just outside, but under your own roof.”

I end up reading books for a variety of reasons: I like the cover, the blurb draws me in, I’ve read other works by the author, I saw it on a “highly anticipated YA” list or it was recommended. In this case., my boyfriend read this book and really enjoyed it. He also managed to read it in two weeks, which is rare for him so I knew it had to be good. So I picked it up myself.

There is no simple way to say this… I ADORED this book. Kieran, the protagonist, has Downs Syndrome and at first I expected this to overtake everything else in the book and I was really surprised when it was more of a side note. There were some chapters and sections where characters noted he was “different”. Sometimes in awful ways but Kieran never saw himself as a burden.

The story focuses more on Kieran trying to solve the mystery of who murdered the homeless man, Colin, who was found in the river after the police refused to investigate. Alongside this was the theme of family, with a heavy focus on his family situation. (Trigger warning: There are scenes of domestic violence/abuse)

The character development was beautiful. Kieran seemed to blossom more and more with every chapter and no matter what crossed his path, he just became more determined to solve the crime.

The writing style was different to anything I’ve come across before. It was very conversational. For example, when Kieran explained the meaning of certain words I felt like he was actually in front of me talking to me and as a result I felt very attached to his character. I cared so much that whenever he faced adversity from his peers, I wanted to crawl into the book and defend him.

A while ago I had the opportunity to attend the announcement of the East Midlands Book Award shortlist in which Kim Slater made an appearance as this book is one of the nominees.

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The winner will be announced in June and I have a good feeling Kim Slater will be walking away with that award.

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