From Tracy Beaker to The Illustrated Mum, Jacqueline Wilson has long written about difficult childhoods. In Baby Love (Penguin, £12.99), her first novel aimed at teenage readers for several years, she tackles the thorny topic of teen pregnancy. Laura is a painfully naive 14-year-old in suburban 1960 when, flattered by the attentions of a French exchange student, a fateful walk home changes her life for ever. Fearful of societal shame, her parents send her to a mother-and-baby home to have the child and give it up for adoption. Wilson, who writes about the lives of girls with such compassion, is particularly perceptive on the complexities of friendships and the realities of the British class system. Heartbreaking, yet full of warmth and hope.
Also tackling big themes with a light touch is Christine Pillainayagam, a new voice in teenage fiction with her debut, Ellie Pillai Is Brown (Faber, £8.99, May). Fifteen-year-old Ellie describes herself as “somewhere between invisible and not very cool”, stumbling through the classic teen tribulations of first love, friendships, school and parental expectations, underpinned by the challenges of being brown in a very white town. An aspiring songwriter, Ellie’s favourite song lyrics are peppered throughout the book as she strives to find her own voice.
There’s more school drama in Simon James Green’s Gay Club! (Scholastic, £7.99, May), which sees the election for LGBTQ+ club president spark backstabbing and politics. A memorable cast shines in this smart, comedic novel that takes an astute but affectionate look at the gay community. Green is one of the UK’s funniest writers for young people, often focusing on gay teenagers in his work; I hope this is the book to earn him a wider audience.
In Erik J Brown’s debut, All That’s Left in the World (Hodder, £7.99), a super-flu significantly more deadly than Covid-19 has decimated the population. Two lonely, displaced boys make a treacherous journey down the eastern seaboard through a society in ruins, punctuated by escaped zoo animals and, most treacherous of all, other survivors. A slow-burning, heartfelt love story plays out against this post-apocalyptic backdrop, bringing hope and nuance to familiar survivalist themes.
Aneesa Marufu’s debut, The Balloon Thief (Chicken House, £7.99), sees Khadija escape her destiny of arranged marriage and boredom by fleeing in a hot-air balloon, along with unlikely accomplice Jacob, one of the oppressed hari people. As they race across a vividly realised desert kingdom, the duo are swept into an exhilarating adventure of black magic, djinns and revolution, with powerful themes of racism and oppression woven into the action.
A major award winner in the US for middle-grade novels including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill brings her exquisite writing to older readers in When Women Were Dragons (Hot Key, £14.99, May). It’s set in an alternative 1950s America, where thousands of women and girls spontaneously transform into dragons, an event so shocking that it is forbidden to even acknowledge it. In this soaring coming-of-age novel, Alex brings up her younger cousin Beatrice, awakening to independence, feminism and identity as she navigates Bea’s urge to “dragon”. Fans of modern feminist classics such as The Power will find much to admire here; for teenage readers and beyond.
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