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Alice Oseman's Favourite Reads of 2020

Posted on 3rd December 2020 by Anna Orhanen

Alice Oseman, the bestselling author of Solitaire, Nick and Charlie and the Heartstopper graphic novels, is known and loved by readers for her ability to nimbly capture the experience of twenty-first century adolescence. In this exclusive piece, Oseman shares her favourite young adult reads from the past year. 

I’ll be frank – I’m terrible at choosing favourites. I’ve never been able to pick a favourite book or show or movie and having to narrow down my favourite books of this year to only five was a near-impossible task. But while reading has felt like a struggle at times in this very stressful year, I’ve been introduced to some incredible authors and books that made me think, smile, laugh, and maybe cry a little. Here are just a few of them:

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando

Danielle Jawando’s debut novel is a powerful story about mental health, grief, and bullying, with a splash of mystery-solving too. It explores the aftermath of the death by suicide of a boy named Al, and is narrated by Nathan, Al’s brother, and Megan, one of Al’s only friends. While Nathan becomes consumed with uncovering the circumstances surrounding Al’s death, Megan is overcome with guilt at not doing more to help Al. Each teen processes their grief in a very different way, but in the process, they grow closer and find hope in their new friendship with each other. Jawando’s writing is incredibly raw and real; I felt completely immersed in Nathan and Megan’s grief. It’s a tragic story, but also full of hope.

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Mapping 15-year-old Nathan’s quest for answers in the aftermath of his brother’s suicide, All the Stars Were Burning Brightly is a powerful and arresting debut about loss and courage to speak out.
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Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air is a collaboration between author Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five about a Black teenage boy, Amal, who is wrongfully incarcerated. I flew through this book in the space of a day. It explores the racism and discrimination faced by Black boys in the American judicial system and prison system. Amal loves painting and poetry, but in the eyes of the system, he is seen as a ‘thug’ and a criminal, resulting in him being convicted for a crime he did not commit. I’ve been loving verse novels more and more this year, and the poetry in Punching the Air is beautiful, raw, and vibrant, and wholly captures the bright, creative spirit of Amal. Zoboi and Salaam show how Amal rises and finds his voice, even amidst so much suffering and injustice.

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Following a Black teenager who is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, this deeply affecting verse novel explores systemic racism in today’s America and the power of art to transform lives.
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The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker by Lauren James

We all need a bit of escapism this year, and The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker is the perfect book for that. It tells the story of a teenage girl named Harriet Stoker who dies in an accident while exploring an abandoned university dorm, only to wake up as a ghost, surrounded by the ghosts of other students who died in the dorm decades ago – who all have powers, by the way. While the other ghosts are just excited to make a new friend, Harriet starts to become obsessed with finding her power… and other people’s powers. Lauren James is a genius of shock twists, creepy villains, and protagonists you love to hate. This book was a wild ride from start to finish, so if you need something to take you out of this world for a little while, this is it.

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After falling off a balcony, Harriet finds herself in another universe and must learn to follow its strange rules, as well as try to navigate a ghostly romance.
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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen 

The Magic Fish is a beautiful graphic novel that explores and interweaves identity, history, and magical stories, and shows how stories can act as a language for things that are often difficult to express. It focuses on a thirteen-year-old boy named Tien and his relationship with his mother, Helen. Tien and Helen bond by reading fairy tales to each other, but otherwise struggle to communicate with each other because Helen speaks mostly in Vietnamese while Tien speaks mostly in English. Because of this, Tien is struggling to come out to her as gay, and Helen similarly struggles to share her feelings about her past in post-war Vietnam and her experience coming to America. Ultimately, mother and son are able to express their feelings through the stories that they read to each other. This book made me think about the power of art and stories, and how they can say so much without having to say much at all. An incredibly poignant, beautiful expression of identity and familial love.

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Woven intricately around fairy-tales and questions of identity, Nguyen’s beautiful graphic novel explores a young Vietnamese American boy’s quest to share with his mother truths she might not understand.
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Given, Volume 1 by Natsuki Kizu

As someone who grew up reading manga and who fell in love with comics through manga, I had to include my favourite manga series of this year, Given. Given follows Uenoyama, a young guitarist who is bored with school and his life generally until he discovers another boy, Mafuyu, sleeping in his usual napping spot with a guitar in his arms. Mafuyu persuades Uenoyama to teach him the guitar, and eventually, the two boys end up joining a band together. Super-quiet Mafuyu has secrets about his past that he finds difficult to share until he finds the courage to express himself through music, while Uenoyama is faced with romantic feelings for the other boy that he doesn’t quite understand. The story is a long slow-burn over many volumes (which are fortunately being released quite fast in English) exploring first love, new love, and grief. What I love about manga generally is how deeply emotive and character-led the artwork is, but this is particularly true in Natsuki Kizu’s works – so much is said through artwork alone, with little need for words.

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Four boys, each with their own secrets, are brought together by their love of music in this brilliantly plotted and emotionally stirring manga masterpiece.

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