Book reviews: The best of teen fiction

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Where can you find two Children’s Laureates, two Carnegie Medalists, five Scottish Children’s Book Award winners, a Roald Dahl Funny Prize winner and the bloke who wrote the Olympics opening ceremony?

In Elsewhere: Everywhere (Cargo Publishing/McSweeneys £7.99) a collection of original short stories commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Everywhere is only a quarter of the whole Elsewhere project but has been specifically compiled for teenage readers. All the writers were given as their brief was the word “elsewhere” and it’s a joy to see how this seemingly simple word has inspired authors such as David Almond, Michael Morpurgo and Julia Donaldson. There’s fun to be had with aliens and genies, the bizarre lingo of Andy Stanton’s Flaxland to be learned and the chilly horror of the Marcus Sedgwick’s Archipelago to be discovered. It’s a shiny gem of a collection – wonderfully imagined, superbly produced.

In Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon (Hot Key £10.99) the Motherland feel destined to be the first nation to the moon. They’ll get there by fair means or foul – even by falsehood. Gardner imagines an alternate history and although a faked moon landing sounds absurd, the Motherland is a disturbingly brutal state.

Standish is our hero, searching for his missing friend, Hector. Along the way he’s going to confront the oppressive regime that already disappeared his parents and are now closing in on his grandfather. Unfortunately Standish isn’t bright, so he tells us. He can’t read or write because he’s dyslexic. But he can talk, and his use of language because of (not despite of) his dyslexia is idiosyncratic poetry, full of fizzing wordplay and deadpan humour. Gardner’s novels have always been thought-provoking but she flexes her writing muscles here and Standish is an utterly unique creation, impossible not to love.

Daniel Handler is better known as Lemony Snickett, the bestselling author of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. His new novel, under his real name and for older readers, is Why We Broke Up (Electric Monkey £8.99), a love story in flashback. The novel takes the form of a long (very long) letter from Min to Ed. It’s delivered with a box of anecdotal objects that stitch together Min and Ed’s relationship and their eventual break-up. It’s a very “literary” set-up but on the whole works well – the idea of sentimental trinkets and nonsense keepsakes is one that resonates while the thought of having them returned is more than enough to tug at the heartstrings. There is, however, something a little too knowing about the premise and those heartstring tugs are a little too well signposted. But I can imagine freshly heartbroken teens relishing every tear-stained page with exquisite martyrdom.

Aidan Chambers’ love story has an equally literary set-up, but none of the histrionics and is all the more moving for it. In Dying To now You (Bodley Head £12.99) shy Karl is passionately in love with aspirant Fiorella. At 18, Karl is working as a plumber; Fiorella is still at school and is a young woman who’s perhaps read Daniel Handler’s novel one too many times. She insists Karl answers her soulful questions about himself and their relationship in writing. Karl is severely dyslexic and feels unable to transcribe his true thoughts, so, in a Cyrano De Bergerac-style move, he approaches Fiorella’s favourite author and persuades him to write the answers. Unusual for teen fiction, the 75-year-old author is our narrator, meaning that we see the young relationship’s inevitable breakdown with an experienced but never patronising eye. What emerges is a quiet yet dark story of finding (and re-finding) reasons to live.

It’s rare for a memoir to be published for teenagers, but Never Fall Down (Doubleday £9.99) is an intensely important book about coming-of-age under the most horrific circumstances. Patricia McCormick relates the story as told to her by Arn Chorn-Pond. He was 11 when soldiers of the Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated his village in Cambodia. Families were marched for miles and miles, several dying along the way, until they reached the labour camps – the Killing Fields. Told in first person there’s a powerful intimacy in Arn’s dialect that compels the reader forward and eventually beyond the genuinely mind-boggling atrocities he faces. But Arn never allows us to pity him, he’ll do anything to stay on his feet, to survive. This is a book that demands attention and its publication should be lauded.