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Kiran Millwood Hargrave Recommends Her Top 5 Young Adult Books of 2019

Posted on 18th November 2019 by Mark Skinner

Kiran Millwood Hargrave has gone from strength to strength since scooping the Waterstones Children's Book Prize in 2017 for The Girl of Ink and Stars. This year, she treated readers to The Deathless Girls, a bold, gothic reimagining of the Dracula narrative, ingeniously told from the point of view of his undead brides. Below are the Young Adult books that have held Kiran enraptured in 2019.   

Recently it seems like every year is head-spinningly good for YA, and I’ve only scratched the surface with my top five picks. Despite my TBR pile approaching monolithic heights, I have a number of YA books on my Christmas wishlist, including The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla, Toffee by Sarah Crossan, and All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle. But here are five I have read, and adored, in 2019.

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

A virtuoso debut, I received this in manuscript form in 2018 and was blown sideways. When I claim that YA is the boldest literary genre, this is the sort of book I’ll hold up as evidence. Dark and thrilling, it follows Newt as they navigate the mines of Bearmouth, slaving under a doctrine that promises rewards in the next life. But then a new boy arrives and brings with him questions that shake the foundations of everything Newt believes to be true. An astonishing feat of world building and imagination, it reminded me of The Wasp Factory, but is its own thing entirely.

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In a subterranean society, a young labourer begins to question the system in this invigorating dystopia from debut novelist Liz Hyder. Claustrophobic, oppressive and pulsating with tension, Bearmouth’s character-driven narrative bears comparison with the greatest dark fantasy that YA has to offer.
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Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence

This is Lawrence’s third novel, and possibly my favourite. Rose and Rudder escape a religious sect with their mum and plunge into inner city life. We follow the siblings as they negotiate the freedoms and pitfalls of their new existence and eventually stumble into a very contemporary and prescient concern. All of Lawrence’s novels are characterised by their ability to capture the complexity and intensity of teenagers’ inner lives and the way they collide with their lived experiences in society. This is no exception.

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From Waterstones Children Book Prize-winning Patrice Lawrence comes a hard-edged but tender-hearted tale about the difficulties of leaving your old life behind and the uncertainties that you face embarking upon a new one. From religious cult to an amoral modern society, how are Rose and her younger brother Rudder supposed to navigate their way through the world safely?
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The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Is it a YA novel? Pullman has been claimed as much by adult readers, and I certainly found this book disturbing in ways that made me question whether I’d give it to a teenager – but then I caught myself and remembered that the best books do not patronise their audiences. None of the books on this list are easy reads, but they are all worthwhile and I think The Secret Commonwealth, with its growing-up Lyra, its compelling mystery, and its deep empathy is a hugely rewarding read for any teenager. I’ll admit to admiring anything Pullman writes, but The Book of Dust series is proving he made the right decision to return to Lyra’s world. Superlative.

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The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two, intertwines the stories of Lyra Silvertongue and Malcom Polstead as they face new and dangerous secrets. A powerful story about the truths that underpin our world, the divisions that lie between love and responsibility and what it truly means to grow up.
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Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Since winning many new fans with The Lie Tree, myself among them, Hardinge has continued to forge new paths with each book. I read her entire backlist, and her follow-up to the Costa Award winner, A Skinful of Shadows, was deeply ornate and deeply weird. I was so excited for what would come next, and Deeplight is my favourite of all these wondrous novels. Submerging us into an entirely new fantasy world where the old gods have died and the world is finding a new order, we follow Hark, a boy in love with his home and drawn to the deep. This is storytelling at its most rich and pleasurable, with enough twists and turns to keep any teenager gripped – and make sure parents don’t miss out, either!

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A magisterial maritime fantasy from the Costa Award-winning Frances Hardinge, Deeplight probes the treacherous undertow of obsession and greed. Wrapped tight in evocative prose and sinuous, slithering atmosphere, this is a marvel of construction and technique.
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Other Words For Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Some storytellers make you feel like they’re telling their tales only for you, like they’re sitting across from you, and whispering this perfect story directly into your ear. Griffin’s first novel, Spare and Found Parts, had this quality for me, and her second cemented my obsession with everything she writes. Imbued with tenderness, queerness, and a beauty so absolute it made me catch my breath, this encompasses family, power, history and numerous other weighty themes, lightened by magic and a revelling in language. Another YA novel that speaks absolutely to its intended audience, and far beyond.

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Exquisitely written and thematically complex, Other Words for Smoke weaves a sinuous tale of sinister magic and repressed desire, focusing on a burned-down house where the uncanny thrived. Ineffably creepy yet also poignant and affecting, Griffin’s masterly narrative is one of the finest YA novels of the year.
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