Alone by Megan E. Freeman

I love both survival stories and verse novels, so any story that combines both is a winner with me. Dusti Bowling’s The Canyon’s Edge was my top book of 2020 because of this combination of survival story told in verse. If you’re a lover of verse novels too then you need to read Megan E. Freeman’s latest book, Alone. It’s a story of a girl trying to survive on her own after everyone else in her town disappears.

Maddie is just your average 12 year old. She wants to hang out with her friends and is frustrated at having to spend her weeks between two separate houses. Maddie organises a sleepover with two of her friends at her grandparent’s vacant house. She gives her mum and dad two separate stories so that they won’t suspect anything. However, an unexpected event occurs that leaves Maddie abandoned and alone. Her whole town has been evacuated, leaving houses empty and personal belongings strewn across roads and footpaths. The bits of information that Maddie can gather make no sense, and there is no one around to ask what happened. Maddie’s only companion is George, her neighbour’s Rottweiler. They explore as far as they are able to, finding food, water and other essential supplies. What they don’t find are other humans. Without power for heating and cooking, Maddie must rely on other means to help her survive. The library becomes vital for helping her learn new skills and for keeping her sane. Maddie holds on to the hope that someone will come for her, but as the months go by, Maddie has to cope with changing seasons and wild weather that make survival hard.

Alone is an absolutely amazing read! It is a tense, gripping and, at times, terrifying story of survival against the odds. I was really torn reading this book, because the pace races along which kept me turning the pages, but Megan’s writing is just so stunning that I wanted to savour her words. There were quite a few times when I was holding my breath while I was turning pages, because I was generally concerned for the life of this fictional character. There were also parts where I wanted to throw the book across the room because something didn’t seem fair.

Maddie is the kind of character we all wish we could be. You hope that, if you were put in her shoes, you could find ways to survive. She is incredibly resilient, even when faced with terrifying circumstances, including a tornado. Maddie is used to relying on technology to answer her questions, but when the power goes out, she has to rely on information in books. She raids her local library to find stories to read as an escape, but also nonfiction books to teach her how to light a fires. Those who have control over the funding of libraries should be given this book to prove how vital physical libraries are. Maddie has grown and matured so much by the end of the story that I wonder how she would cope returning to normal society. Maddie’s relationship with George is adorable. They have each other’s back and keep each other warm when the weather changes.

The main reason I love verse novels is because they so perfectly capture the raw emotion of the characters. This is what makes Alone so stunning. In just a handful of words, Megan captures Maddie’s despair, loneliness or horror. We know how she feels, what she’s thinking and what she fears. Alone is an emotional- rollercoaster that leaves you feeling exhausted but satisfied.

Alone is one of my top reads of 2021. I will be recommending it to both the kids and teachers at my school. It’s a book that will spread like wildfire between the kids and is perfect for those teachers who ‘don’t have much time for reading.’ It would be a great read aloud or class set for Years 7-9.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

That’s what the best books do./ They make you think/ And rethink/ how you see/ yourself,/ others,/ and the world./ Most of all/ they make you feel./ Feelings toward people/ who aren’t like you./ Feelings you didn’t know/ you had.

This is just one of the quotes that I loved from Lisa Fipps debut middle grade verse novel, Starfish, and it perfectly describes this book. Starfish is a book that I guarantee will make any reader feel some strong emotions. I don’t think anybody can be unmoved reading Lisa’s story. I have read many verse novels for middle grade and YA but Starfish is my absolute favourite.

Ever since she wore a whale swimsuit to her fifth birthday pool party, Ellie has been bullied about her weight. At school the bullies call her Splash and are constantly making fat jokes, and at home her mum is always on at her about her weight. Her mum has made her try different diets and puts articles on the fridge about weight-loss. The only one in her family who seems to accept her and show her any love is her dad. Her best friend, Viv, has always been there for her, but now she’s moving away. At first, Ellie doesn’t trust the new girl who has moved in next door. As she gets to know Catalina, Ellie discovers she may have a new best friend. Ellie’s parents make her see a therapist, which Ellie is not keen on. However, Ellie warms to Doc and the more they talk, the more Ellie is able to process how she feels. With the support of Doc, her dad and her friends, Ellie learns to love herself and the body she’s in.

I love Starfish so much! It is such a powerful, emotional story that is perfectly suited to the free verse format. Ellie is a character who you feel an immediate connection to and empathise with. Ellie’s story takes you on a roller-coaster of emotion, laughing one minute and then in tears the next. The bullying that Ellie faces at school is pretty horrible, but it’s the words and actions of her own mother that really make you angry and so sad for Ellie. Even a couple of days after reading the book I still can’t believe some of the things that Ellie’s mum did and said to her. I didn’t want to be a bystander and say nothing, but instead confront Ellie’s mum and tell her what she was doing was not OK.

Lisa Fipps’ writing is just so beautiful and lyrical. She captures emotions perfectly in just a few words. I found myself stopping and writing down quotes from the book so many times. I wanted to take my time with the book and savour Lisa’s words but I also needed to get to the end to find out how Ellie confronted her bullies.

There were so many passages that struck a chord with me, but this one was quite poignant, as it is Ellie talking about her school librarian, Mrs. Pochon:

She’s the first person to smile at me today/ The first to make me feel wanted./ Understood./ I blink back tears./ It’s unknown how many students’ lives librarians have saved by welcoming loners at lunch.

Starfish is now one of my favourite books and I’ll be telling everyone about it. It would be an amazing read aloud or class novel for Year 7/8. Thank you Lisa for giving us your wonderful story!

Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling

Dusti Bowling just gets better and better. Each of her books have been totally different but they’re all completely gripping. 24 Hours in Nowhere used to be my favourite of hers but Dusti’s new book, The Canyon’s Edge, has blown the others out of the water. You will need to have a spare few hours to read this in one go because you won’t want to put it down!

Eleanor and her father are emotionally scarred from a shooting that occurred a year ago, taking her mother’s life. Eleanor and her father have been hiding away from the world and have not been able to move on. As a family they spent a lot of time in the desert and were experienced climbers. A year after the incident Eleanor and her father leave civilisation to trek a canyon in the middle of the desert. Things start fine but a flash flood in the canyon leaves Eleanor scrambling to escape the waters and her father washed away. Scraped, bruised and with no supplies Eleanor must brave the heat, the plants and wildlife of the canyon to try and find her father and get out alive.

I read an early copy of Canyon’s Edge back in lockdown (thanks to Edelweiss+) but it’s a story that I keep coming back to. I know this will be one of my top books of 2020. This is Dusti’s first novel in verse (although it does start and finish as a traditional novel) and she absolutely nails it. I love verse novels because of the emotional power of this storytelling and Dusti’s story is perfectly suited for verse. The story is raw, gut-wrenching but ultimately full of hope. I devoured this book because I needed to know that Eleanor was going to be alright. Like Eleanor dying for water I was dying to get back to the story when I had to put it down. It is the kind of story that will grab all kids and I know it will make a fantastic read aloud for Years 7-9 (11-13 year olds). Eleanor faces so many challenges, and just when you think things can’t get any worse they do.

If you haven’t discovered Dusti Bowling you need to read all of her other books before this releases in September.

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew

Lucy Cuthew’s new book, Blood Moon, is an amazing verse novel for teens that focuses on periods, sex and online shaming.

During Frankie’s first sexual experience with Benjamin (he of the meaty thighs) she gets her period. They both agree that it is just blood, there is no shame and that they both had fun. However, Frankie starts to doubt Benjamin’s honesty when details of their experience are spread around school. What should have been something private is now very much public. Then a graphic meme about her goes viral and Frankie starts to wonder if she is dirty and should be ashamed. Frankie’s life really gets turned upside down when the online shaming becomes vicious and terrifying. With the help of her friends, Frankie will need to stand up and show those around her that she has nothing to be ashamed of.

Blood Moon is an empowering read with real emotional punch. It’s a story about periods but it’s also about friendships, family, first sexual encounters, bullying, and social media. Lucy has written the story in verse, which I always think adds impact to the story. It feels like a more personal form of storytelling and it really works with this story. A story told in verse makes you slow down and savour the author’s words. Take this section for example:

Lucy vividly portrays the impact that period shaming, both in person and online, has on Frankie. She faces nasty comments and images at school but these also spread online when a meme is made about her. She starts to feel physically ill and becomes afraid to leave her house.

The blood moon of the title also refers to Frankie’s love of astronomy. She works at the local observatory, along with her best friend Harriet, and is hoping to get a summer internship there. Frankie and Harriet have a telescope in their treehouse and it’s their shared history and interests that help to heal their relationship.

This is a must read for teenagers and adults alike.

Worse Things by Sally Murphy

The thing I love about verse novels is that they pack so much emotion and imagery in to so few words. Each chapter or poem is like a snapshot of the character’s life. Worse Things is Sally Murphy’s fourth illustrated verse novel and this story is proof of her mastery of this form of storytelling. Sally takes us inside the lives and minds of three very different kids whose stories intertwine.

Jolene is the daughter of two doctors. Her mother is always busy but lives her life vicariously through her daughter. Her mum’s dreams of hockey stardom were shattered when she was younger and she just wants her daughter to excel in the sport. Jolene hates hockey. She also hates that her father is saving lives on the other side of the world rather than being at home with her. Blake is footy-mad but his season is over when he fractures his arm. He doesn’t feel included with his footy mates and doesn’t know who he is without footy. Amed is a refugee who has spent most of his life in a refugee camp. He now lives in Australia with his Aunty but he knows very little English. This leaves him feeling left out and struggling to make friends. There are always worse things than a nagging mum, missing out on footy or not having friends.

I loved each of the characters because they are all dealing with their own issues. My favourite character was Amed because he had been through a lot in his life and he was able to put things in to perspective more than Jolene and Blake. I especially loved this thought from Amed:

‘If I could talk to you
I might explain
just what it’s like
to be an outsider since birth
to be so outside
you wonder if you will ever be safe.

And then
when you finally are
to find yourself kept separate again
by the invisible fence of language.’

Sally’s writing is just so beautiful and her imagery so rich. This is a story that works so well in verse form, and like many stories told in verse, it probably wouldn’t have the same impact as a novel. Sarah Davis’ bright, graffiti-style cover will make the book jump off the shelf too.

Grab yourself a comfy spot and an hour or two to savour this wonderful book.

The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate

Th One and Only Bob is the stunning sequel to Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. Like The One and Only Ivan this is a beautifully written story in verse that will always have a place in your heart. Katherine Applegate makes you fall in love with her characters from the first page and you care about everything that happens to them.

In The One and Only Bob we get a story from Bob’s point of view (the feisty little dog that became Ivan’s friend at the Exit 8 Mall). We hear about Bob’s life before meeting Ivan and what life is like now that Ivan and Ruby have been rehomed with others like them. A storm is brewing, a hurricane that will change life for Bob and his friends and test Bob’s strength and courage.

I read this book in a couple of sittings because I just wanted to stay with these characters. Bob made me laugh and made my heart ache but his story left me smiling all day long. Whether you have read The One and Only Ivan or not, you will fall in love with Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Bob.

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan are two authors whose books have blown me away. They are also  both award-winning authors, with Sarah Crossan’s One winning the Carnegie Medal and Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together winning the Costa Award. When I first heard that they were joining forces to write a verse novel I knew it was going to be an amazing read. We Come Apart is everything I hoped it would be and more.

9781408878866Jess would never have looked twice at Nicu if her friends hadn’t left her in the lurch. Nicu is all big eyes and ill-fitting clothes, eager as a puppy, even when they’re picking up litter in the park for community service. He’s so not her type. Appearances matter to Jess. She’s got a lot to hide.

Nicu thinks Jess is beautiful. His dad brought Nicu and his mum here for a better life, but now all they talk about is going back home to find Nicu a wife. The last thing Nicu wants is to get married. He wants to get educated, do better, stay here in England. But his dad’s fists are the most powerful force in Nicu’s life, and in the end, he’ll have to do what his dad wants.
As Nicu and Jess get closer, their secrets come to the surface like bruises. The only safe place they have is with each other. But they can’t be together, forever, and stay safe – can they?

We Come Apart is an unforgettable read that tore me apart and put me back together again. The characters voices are so genuine that you really feel for them.  I loved that the story was told in verse because it just works so well with this story. The verse brings out the raw emotions of the characters.

Each of the authors writes from a different point of view. Sarah Crossan writes as Jess, a girl who is trying to protect herself from her physically abusive stepfather. She hates her so-called friends but does what she needs to fit in. She got caught shoplifting and gets sent to the reparation scheme where youth offenders have to pick up rubbish and learn how to be useful members of society. It’s in the reparation scheme that she meets Nicu, a Romanian guy who has come to England with his family to earn money for his marriage. His parents are going to marry him off to a Romanian bride but he wants nothing to do with it. When he meets Jess he falls for her and knows that he can’t ever marry someone he doesn’t know.

The thing I liked the most about We Come Apart is that it’s a very real story. There’s no happy ending, where Jess and Nicu fall madly in love and desperately in love. It’s really a story of how two people find each other at the right time and are there to help each other get through the rough patches. It takes quite some time for Jess to see the good guy beneath the surface of Nicu and she certainly needs some convincing.

I really loved the ending because it wasn’t forced. You know things aren’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows but they’ll be OK.

I will carry Jess and Nicu around in my head and hear for quite some time. Grab We Come Apart and fall in love with these amazing characters too.