October October by Katya Balen

So, spoiler alert: the winner of the Carnegie Prize was ‘October, October’ by Katya Balen. Now, unfortunately, I did not complete the shortlist before the winner was announced, so I have not yet picked my own winner, but I have read ‘October, October’, so can share some of my thoughts.

I did enjoy ‘October, October’, although, I have to admit that it is not my favourite so far, with one left to read. However, it is a beautiful book – with an even more beautiful cover – that really makes you think about the importance of our relationship with nature and how we need to work to protect the world around us. Not just taking from the natural world, but also making sure we give back, in whatever small way we can.

However, this is also a story about change and the impact that change can have on a young person. October loves her life with her father; they live in the woods, looking after and understanding the natural world. Just her and her father. Until her father has an accident and she is forced to stay with someone ‘new’ – although that someone is not ‘new’, she is her mother and October has to learn to adjust to change: life in a city, making new friends and building a relationship with her mother from the beginning. We follow October as she has to embark on this new adventure and, like many, she is resistant to change and this is not the world that she is used to – but she starts to make friends and discovers mudlarking, which allows her to find even more beauty in the natural world, even in a city. It is fair to say that October learns some important lessons as her life changes, but never loses her unique and special take on the world.

This would be a lovely novel for anyone to read who is having to experience a change that is out of their control. It is beautifully written and engaging, and is definitely one that I can see appealing to Middle Grade readers – but, like all books, it can be enjoyed by so many.

Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

I can not tell you why, but this was the book I was least excited about on the Carnegie Shortlist, I think possibly because I was judging the book by its cover (a bookworm’s crime, I know) and it did not seem to appeal to me in quite the same way as the others.

However, I was again wrong and had made an error of judgement; this book was a great read. I am not (as I have mentioned before) a fan of short stories as a rule, but I am always willing to give them a chance. And this collection of short stories was excellent, as to me it read just like the regular chapters of a book, as each of these stories linked together to give us the bigger narrative.

‘Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town’ tells the story of a group of young people in the aforementioned small town in America’s west. A town that holds secrets and was once hit by the tragedy of a young girl going missing, which appears to make no sense to the community, as everybody knows everybody and nobody ever seems to visit. However, as we read about each of the characters, the mystery is slowly solved and the community is shaken to the core.

Although some of the secrets make for uncomfortable reading, this is a story that needs telling. Especially thinking about the ease of abuse of power, and the blind respect that many have for those who are supposed to be pillars of the community. Also, alternatively, how easy it can be sometimes to misunderstand a situation without all of the information.

This is such a well-crafted novel that I think will stay with readers a long time after the final page has been read.

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

My fourth title from the Carnegie Shortlist was ‘Punching the Air’. Another brilliant piece of free verse for a YA audience, tackling yet again an important subject in our society.

I am not sure I have the skill to review this book in the way that it deserves. I am not sure I have the words for how wonderful it is, despite the fact that it tackles such a difficult subject – and one that we all wish was not able to happen.

Inspired by the tragic true story of one of its authors, Yusef Salaam, who was sent to prison at the age of 15 for a crime that he did not commit, Amal Shahid is falsely imprisoned – the victim of the crime is the only one who can save him, but he is not able to share his story. So, Amal, loses the world he knows, his loving family, the chance to practice his art and his poetry, and is forced to adapt to a life behind bars. This is a story that, although incredibly sad and emotional throughout, is also a one of hope and finding joy in the small things – when the joy is there to be found.

Beautifully written, this free verse novel becomes a real page-turner as you hope that true justice will be served, and that Amal will have the strength to learn and grow from his experience, and have the future that he truly deserves.

This is the sort of book that I hope all young people will read and take some important lessons from – especially about the difference a simple choice can make – and that the consequences can be much farther-reaching than you could ever imagine.

Guard Your Heart by Sue Divin

My third title from the Carnegie shortlist is ‘Guard Your Heart’ by Sue Divin.

This was, again, a fantastic read (I am not sure how a winner is ever supposed to be picked) – this time, based in Derry, Northern Ireland. Somewhere many of us would believe now is a place of peace – the troubles not something that the younger generation have to face or think about. However, ‘Guard Your Heart’ reminds us that, sadly, it is not all history, but there are still the scars and struggles influencing people every day.

This is a love story between Aidan and Iona, 18 years old; school is over and they have their whole lives ahead of them. However, Aidan is a Catholic, with a complex family past and potentially a difficult future ahead of him. Iona is a Protestant, with a father who had been in the police during the height of the troubles, and a brother who has recently followed the same path. These differences should not be something that could keep them apart in 2016, but sometimes old ideals and beliefs are hard to shake off – if not for Aidan and Iona, then for their families.

This is a book that makes you want to learn more and understand more about a history that, for many, is still so raw, but may not have the same coverage as other events of the past. This, just like ‘Cane Warriors‘ and ‘The Crossing‘, is a book that can teach so much about acceptance, and the willingness to learn about and understand the people and cultures around us.

The Crossing by Manjeet Mann

Second from The Yoto Carnegie Shortlist is ‘The Crossing’ by Manjeet Mann. This is a wonderful free verse novel told from dual viewpoints that are cleverly linked together throughout the book.

I am not sure I can do this book the real justice that it deserves. It is a truly inspirational and heartbreaking piece of literature.

Natalie and Sammy’s stories are cleverly entwined through the free verse narrative, as the story of one leads to the story of the other all the way through the book. Both of these young people are feeling lost – Natalie after the death of her mother and her brother becoming lost to the world of far-right gangs, and Sammy, as he has fled his home in Eritrea for a better life in Europe. But his journey is set to be incredibly dangerous. They both face ‘the crossing’ of the channel: Natalie to feel she can achieve something her mother had always wanted by swimming the channel, and Sammy desperate for a better life. A twist of fate brings them together, but will they both find a way to mend their broken world?

I read this book from cover to cover one Saturday morning, as I felt so incredibly invested in their stories. I needed to know how the story would end – rooting for them both – and hoping that everyone who reads this book will understand the need for a better world and education that helps us all understand each other.

If this and ‘Cane Warriors‘ are examples of the calibre of book on this year’s shortlist, I do not know how the judges will make any kind of decision, because both of these books have been special in their own way – and carry an important message for all readers.

Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle

This year, I seem to be really enjoying a shortlist challenge and, this time, it is the Yoto Carnegie Medal Shortlist.

Miss W sent me a copy of ‘Cane Warriors’, so I knew it had to be the first book that I chose to read from the shortlist. And, of course, with the day job being all about history, I guess it was an obvious place to start.

I absolutely devoured this book and hope that so many young adults will read it. There are so many lessons amongst its pages – and not just the history lessons.

Moa is fourteen years old, and all he has ever known is life on the plantation; a life that has consumed him, his mother, his father, his friends and, soon, his younger sister, too. However, he understands that this is not the only way that life has to be and, maybe, there is a way to fight for their freedom and their rights. This leads to Moa becoming a Cane Warrior, fighting for the freedom of the enslaved people on the island of Jamaica – however difficult the challenges he will face will be.

This novel follows the true story of Tacky’s War in Jamaica in 1760, and really brings the events to life for the reader. Especially from the point of view of a young adult character.

This is a book that I really hope so many people will pick up and read, because it’s a really significant story for all readers, and will certainly leave you with a desire to find out more about such significant events.