Three Terrific Coming of Age Novels for Young Adults

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger
Images by Alicia Viarruel

Ask (almost) any adult: growing up doesn’t always come together as easily as a pot of simmering pelau over a riverside cookstove. The ingredients for a successful coming of age story often feature spicy seasonings — how better to map a young adventurer, discoverer or teen rebel’s growth than with tempestuous authenticity? Just like there’s no one way to cook a pelau, there’s no one-size-fits-all narrative for a compelling young adult story. Here are three that we recommend, for distinct and deep-rooted reasons.

The Old Songs, by Madeline Coopsammy (Inanna Publications)

Set in the dramatic advent of Trinidad & Tobago’s Independence, The Old Songs heralds a young girl’s self-discovery against the backdrop of a nation’s early steps towards self-determination. Written with explanatory italicizations for many local words, framed in a slightly Austenian structure, this novel holds much of T&T in sharp-eyed judgement as it does fond, nostalgic fascination. Tessa Joseph, the intrepid, curious heroine at the heart of the story, learns to question the allegedly superior worlds of both Church and Convent, striving to find her place in a system she swiftly realizes doesn’t always practice the country’s watchwords. Whether she triumphs or falls victim to racism, colourism and the sweeping scythe of class will keep you turning pages, in anticipation and an underdog’s hope. Pairs well with Brown Sugar and Spice, by Betty Peter, for slightly younger readers.

Girlcott, by Florenz Webbe Maxwell (Blouse & Skirt Books)

1959, Bermuda. Scholarship-intent Desma is poised on the brink of sixteen, and things are about to change forever — in ways she can’t possibly fathom until historic events sweep into motion. A boycott is in the air, one intent on stamping out the insidious racial and political lines dividing white and black Bermudian society. What will Desma decide, and where, ultimately, will her allegiances lie? Second place winner of the 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, Girlcott enlightens while educating, casting light on a crucial period on Bermudian history. Situating Desma’s political awakening and sense of responsibility to others’ safety is the hallmark of Maxwell’s writing here, which shines with simple, convincing style. The author lets the enormity of the Theatre Boycott, and the intensity of Desma’s emotional responses to its effects, carry the book’s strength, making for grounded, rewarding reading. Pair with the politically-powered YA powerhouse, The Art of White Roses, by Viviana Prado-Núñez.

The Dark of the Sea, by Imam Baksh (Blouse & Skirt Books)

Come for the sea monsters, stay for the supernatural suspense, learn lessons as timeless as the ocean itself. Winner of the 2018 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, The Dark of the Sea not only plummets us deep down to oceanic territories filled with self-governing aqueous warrior-dwellers, it centres numerous facets of the adolescent Guyanese experience. Danesh, our protagonist, faces down odds influenced by Lovecraftian epics, but he also deals with the acutely realistic burdens of teen suicide in his community, of fragmented family relationships, and the challenges of ‘fitting in’ into a world not designed for those who think and feel outside the mainstream. Once you sink your teeth into this epic adventure, you won’t want to leave the world Baksh has created: it’s as multifaceted and complex a portrait of Guyana as you can imagine, populated by supporting characters whose personalities and problems crackle with plausible intensity. Pairs perfectly with Baksh’s 2016 CODE Burt Award winner, Children of the Spider.

Which of these brave, inspiring bildungsromans have you read? What’s your favourite Caribbean Young Adult novel of all time?

The Beast of Kukuyo – Kevin Jared Hosein

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“In Trinidad, the dead are cursed. Nobody remember you after a week. Even if they mangle your body and stuff it in a hole, everybody would just nod their head and say, We hafta trust in God’s plan. I was done with that. I seen it already. I went through it myself.”

You don’t need to convince Rune Mathura, the teenage protagonist of The Beast of Kukuyo, that life is unfair. Though she’s had her fair share of hard knocks, Rune, a resident of rural Kukuyo village in the early 1990s, is as surprised as anyone else when her classmate Dumpling Heera is the victim of a brutal murder. Rune tries to hone the detective smarts she’s picked up in her regularly scheduled viewings of Murder, She Wrote: she’d like to solve the case of who took Dumpling down with such crude violence. 

A 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature finalist, this novel by Kevin Jared Hosein brings gritty, uncompromising realism to the coming of age genre in YA fiction. There aren’t princes or deus ex machina subplots here: Rune often fends for herself in this swift-paced, unsparing narrative of seedy rumshops; a menacing Doberman named Mangeshkar the Castrator; cockfights in close quarters; the Kangal boys and their appetite for viciousness. You might ask: is this world too dark a setting for a capable young adult tale? The answer is that Hosein never shies away from darkness in his tellings, and his stories are the better for it, for readers of all ages. 

Human intimacy and tenderness are on full display in this brutal landscape: witness Rune’s guarded concern for her alcoholic brother Nick, or the gentle sternness with which their grandfather Sam strives to raise them. Rune’s relationship with her best friend, the stoic and even-tempered Tiki, is one of the novel’s best interpersonal character developments: it’s a tribute to the complexity and subtlety of emotional bonds forged between young people, even amid significant trauma and terror. 

How we wrangle with our own beast, and whether or not we succumb to the monstrous within us: this is one of the central motivations of Hosein’s grave, gripping tale. 

Home Home – Lisa Allen-Agostini

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“Most adults don’t believe children can get anxiety, but believe me, we do.” 

Lisa Allen-Agostini’s Home Home, 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature finalist, is a brief but stirring lesson in what it means to make a family, and how home can be anywhere with deep and devoted roots. Kayla, whose stern disciplinarian mother has sent her to Canada, isn’t so sure she can ever get used to the Edmonton cold, even on an average summer day. She bundles herself up in excessive layers, keeps herself company in her own room at her aunt’s house. Aunt Jillian and her partner Julie are the first lesbian couple that fourteen year-old Kayla has known; she loves them but isn’t so sure how to feel about ‘the LGBT thing’. Throw in a best friend thousands of miles away; a cute boy who gives Kayla serious butterflies, and Kayla’s battle with mental health: it all seems like too much for even a smart, resourceful girl to manage. How, in the midst of this maelstrom of sickness and uncertainty, can Kayla be sure of exactly who she is?

This isn’t a detached look into the life of a chronically depressed teenager. Allen-Agostini brings us into the complex, often chaotic inner world of Kayla, and shows us this protagonist as a living, breathing girl child. Kayla navigates her mostly-hermitic world using the contemporary technology anyone her age might. Her Skype calls with Akilah are a touchstone to a familiar life, which the writer brings into sharp auditory focus: we can hear the “burbling, bubbling” Skype ringtone every time Akilah calls; we can feel the importance of that sound, no matter how annoying Kayla finds it. We hear its reverberations in her everyday life. 

Allen-Agostini’s portrait of Kayla, a girl who both knows her own mind and fears it, makes Home Home indispensable reading for young people, and for older people who want to know their youth better. In her obsessive Buzzeed video watching; her love of old-school hip hop; her quest to find the place she belongs, Kayla is a young person worth rooting for, worth believing. It’s a convincingly-hewn message of this slender, strongly-mapped novella: every young person who struggles deserves not only awareness, but faith, and loving trust. 

The Art of White Roses – Viviana Prado-Núñez

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

To live in oppressive times is a kind of emotional suffocation, a constricting of freedom that applies both to the confines of your country, and the limitations of your hope. The Art of White Roses, winner of the 2017 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, explores what it means to feel like a prisoner in your own island, and what it means to grow hope in a seemingly barren place. 

The time is 1957. The place is Marianao, Cuba, and the US-backed Batista regime is a heavy boot on the populace: university students are disappearing; eyes are averted from terrible goings-on; corruption becomes synonymous with daily bread. Thirteen year old Adela Santiago witnesses it all: that which she understands, that which she doesn’t. She plays dominoes with her brother Pingüino, makes ropa vieja with her mother before sunrise on Sundays, writes about José Martí at her schooldesk: all of these seem like signposts of a normal life, but Adela knows better. She knows about los desaparecidos. She pays attention, and senses Cuba is on the brink of something explosive and dangerous: something that gleams with the fire of revolution. 

Prado-Núñez gives us a capsule of society in the Santiago clan: a supposedly conventional nuclear family made of hardworking parents; an eccentric grandfather; precocious yet dutiful offspring. So much of The Art of White Roses‘ storytelling strength lies in a series of subversions: the author’s treatment of family loyalty and complexity might be its crowning, subversive gem. In carefully-drawn, sensitive examinations of familial devotion, treachery and trauma, Prado-Núñez assembles for her reader a palette of human cynicism and optimism at its finest, and its most intense. 

At the centre of this domestic diorama stands Adela, a protagonist who summons empathy and affinity, a weather vane of conscience in troubled times, an archivist whose love for her Cuba provides some of the book’s most memorable lines: 

“It came to me so vividly, the Havana of my mind. I could taste the salt of the popcorn burning my tongue, could smell the heavy sweat-scent of the ocean. That Havana was mine, and it would always be mine, except it wasn’t.” 

What a narrative triumph Prado-Núñez presents for us, this fragmented, faithful ode to a place caught in the crossfires of toxic rule and feverish change, a suburb of Havana where a girl dreams in a blue house, feeling the world shift beneath her feet, feeling herself change, in unavoidably bittersweet response. 

Dreams Beyond the Shore by Tamika Gibson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Dreams Beyond the Shore is the first place winner of the 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s challenging to find #YALit that has its finger on the pulse of contemporary teen life in T&T, but Tamika Gibson’s debut novel serves up a true-to-reality coming of age tale in the 868.

Focusing on precocious yet dutiful Chelsea Marchand, and her nascent romance with star football schoolboy Kyron Grant, Dreams Beyond the Shore examines the grey space between first crushes and family obligations, in prose that’s clever, crisp and on the mark. You can hear the saucy picong fresh from the football field, as Kyron sidles up to greet Chelsea, just like you can taste the sweet-hand flavouring the meals made in Chelsea’s grandmother’s perpetually-bubbling pot. Gibson doesn’t train her sights on an easy emulation of American tropes in YA writing. Instead, she shoots – and scores – in her depiction of the red, white and black: whether she’s talking about food, fetes, or funny business in high office. 

Chelsea and Kyron are relatable protagonists, both as individuals and as a couple coming under fire from authority figures. Their fathers — an aspiring Prime Ministerial candidate, and a shadily prosperous businessman — aren’t spared their children’s scrutiny, with the trajectory of the novel making judicious statements on the price of blind obedience and generational discord. Gibson illustrates this in lucid, compelling streams of consciousnesses that pepper and peer into the storytelling: 

“But even as I practiced in front the mirror, got into character and finessed my cadence and pauses, I promised myself that this was the last time. I would do my father’s bidding this one last time. Then I would no longer be used as a pawn. As for tonight though, I’d give them the best show they’d ever seen, issuing the clarion call on behalf of this bloody impostor.”

Breaths of fresh air in publishing are elusive, but that’s just what Dreams Beyond the Shore is: vibrant, energetic fiction for young adults that’s realistic and romantic, funny and fresh, full of promise, playfulness and perception. I can’t wait to see what Tamika Gibson writes next. 

Musical Youth by Joanne C. Hillhouse

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Sixteen’s selection is a love story between young people that isn’t fixated on Romeo and Juliet-esque raging hormones, instead infusing a passion for melodies, lyrics and true connections between two teens deep in the first bloom of self-discovery: Joanne C. Hillhouse’s Musical Youth.

Second place winner of the inaugural CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, this budding romance wins points for not layering its developments waist-deep in uncontrollable pheromones and cloying body spray. While not negating the effects of blossoming attraction, Musical Youth sets its conductor’s baton higher — focusing on true musicianship and motivation in the lives of its young protagonists: shy, self-conscious Zahara and street-smart yet similarly introspective Shaka.

The bonds that develop between this fledgling duo are also rooted in the traditional concerns of their Antiguan society. Stern grandmothers and admonishing grandfathers are present here, as are the persistent skin-colour biases which shape one troubling arm of our regional interactions. This novel’s strength proclaims itself in never shying away from the truth about our problems, while simultaneously celebrating the hard-won historical joys of our freedom — as citizens and music makers alike.

Zahara and Shaka’s affinity is chorded and constructed in the sweet rhythms of soca, of soul, rhythm & blues and Bob Marley’s reggae itself. Hillhouse writes some of her most luminous passages in describing the musical nature of the young virtuosos’ ardour:

“She thought he was magnificent, and it had nothing to do with his colour. It was his eyes that always seemed to have a smile in them and the way his features were arranged in a uniquely impish way so that he always seemed like he was pulling her leg. It was the way he moved his long, lean body, as if to the beat of an internal rhythm.”

Brimful with resonant notes on first-time courtships; adolescent discovery; tightly-knit friendships and the rewards of discipline, Musical Youth deserves multiple encores — this is one young adult pick you’ll want to savour several times over.

We recommend it for: teen readers seeking an antidote to Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight movement; fans of Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful YA catalogue; adults who appreciate colourful, credible storytelling that lilts with sonic appreciation.

Caliebirri by Luis Blanco

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Origin stories — those tales that tell us the fascinating and legendary sources of our history — have long illuminated the world of children’s literature. There are scores of picture books devoted to the making of the world by a Creator’s hand, and it would not be inaccurate to add Caliebirri to the ranks of such imaginative folklore. However, what makes this simple, spellbinding narrative doubly effective is that it suits both young and adult palates. This enchanting, whimsical myth sheds light on a creation parable sacred to the Hivi/Guahibo peoples of Colombia and Venezuela. It is in Venezuela that this story is set — in the village of Cuideido (now called Santa Rita), in a time when “all the people were animals, because in the beginning, people were animals and the animals behaved like human beings.”

Using unornamented yet vivid text from Luis Blanco (translated by Bunty O’Connor), and incorporating black and white illustrations by Alfredo Almeida, Caliebirri is equal parts captivating and educational. It’s easy to see why Caribbean lifestyle blog, Designer Island Life, signalled this handbound gem as one of their 2013 Christmas List picks: they heralded it as nothing less than “a labour of love.”

Each book comes with a gorgeous, unique macaw feather-bookmark (painlessly donated by their avian owners!)

We at Paper Based agree: there’s something undeniably special about going on this adventure, about holding this string-bound marvel of a story in one’s hands while reading it aloud to wide-eyed toddlers, or savouring it privately. As you share in the wonder of discovering the remarkable, multiple-fruit bearing Caliebirri tree, alongside these intrepid forest creatures, you will be reminded of the power, and permanence, of so many ancestral fables. This is why we’re especially glad it’s our first book spotlight of 2014!

Three Picks from our Children’s Lit Treasure Chest!

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

With the long vacation more than halfway done, little readers are already anticipating their return to classrooms, chalkboards and copybook assignments – some with pleasure, some with dread. Take heart: there are still a handful of weeks left to be filled with lazy, sunny days of reading! We’ve selected three titles to enchant junior bibliophiles, while simultaneously charming the adults who are narrating these adventures in words and pictures to their toddlers.

Birthday Suit by Olive Senior (Annick Press, 2012)

Birthday SuitJohnny, an energetic tyke, dislikes constraints of all types – particularly those including buttons, zippers and all fabric! His parents are hard-pressed to keep him dressed, and none of their defenses of attire seem to register with Johnny’s perpetually nude frolicks: so what happens when Johnny’s mom comes home one day with a pair of overalls designed to snap on… and stay snapped shut? Young Johnny violently reacts to being trapped in his confining new threads, and it’s up to his father to suggest the possible merits of being clad.

Olive Senior adds this exuberant, joyously-infused tale for wee clothing anti-enthusiasts to her impressive writing repertoire. Her colourful, effervescent prose meets a perfect complement, in Eugenie Fernandes’ vivid illustrations. Ideally suited to children between the ages of three to six, Birthday Suit can doubtless be enjoyed by young readers out of toddlerdom, as well as anyone who still secretly chafes at the thought of donning a business suit!

Kafiyah Meets the Moon (Mascot Books, 2012)

KafiyaMoonIntrepid young Kafiya dreams of a closer bond with her favourite figure of fascination in the night skies: she wants to talk to the moon. When her Grandma Etta divulges that the moon has a face just like Kafiya’s, the young girl is determined to see this for herself. She goes in search of this moon with a face, and is delighted when her late night conversations with the moon confirm all their similarities.

Janet Campbell’s debut book hearkens to the nascent fascination of so many children, portraying the moon as a friendly, compassionate being, Anais Lee’s illustrations render the dreamy, thoughtful exchanges between Kafiya and the moon with graceful lines and a series of gentle pastel tones. A sweetly affirmative invitation to engage with the world around us, Kafiya Meets the Moon makes for ideal before-bed reading: it’s the perfect precursor to a little girl’s nocturnal rambles with certain, captivating heavenly bodies.

The Miss Meow Pageant by Richardo Keens-Douglas (Annick Press, 1998)

MissMeowSparrow, Henrietta’s cat, might be considered one of the neighbourhood’s least attractive cats, but his owner doesn’t love him less, despite his apparent lack of comely appeal. Henrietta and her friend Len decide to enter Sparrow into the Miss Meow Pageant, a feline contest which boasts some coveted prizes. Training Sparrow up for the contest isn’t an easy road, but after a few trials, the calico is finally ready — will the Miss Meow judges favour him with the winning sash, or will Sparrow continue his reign as the least handsome kitty to ever saunter onto a pageant stage?

Keens-Douglas’ fifth title for young readers packs as much gaiety and superb storytelling mirth as his previous four offerings. His stalwart aficionados will be thrilled with the briskly paced plot, the several moments that give rise to peals of laughter, and the valiant progression of Sparrow himself, a most unlikely protagonist of many stripes and shades. Marie Lafrance’s drawings are boldly outlined, and possess an infectious off-kilter spirit that weds itself seamlessly to the uniqueness of this irrepressible slice of Keens-Douglas storytelling.

We particularly loved these three children’s literature gems, and we’re looking forward to delving into our substantial treasure trove of featured titles at Paper Based, to serve you up another merry assemblage soon!

Littletown Secrets by K. Jared Hosein

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

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Published by Potbake Productions in 2013, K. Jared Hosein’s debut novella, Littletown Secrets, explores ideas of loneliness, peer pressure and persecution: decidedly adult themes, distilled through the perspective of young people who know what it means to be marginalized. These children take the stories of their dark, sometimes death-defying encounters to the only person who can be depended upon to keep these fantastical confessions safe: Littletown’s sole secret-keeper. The unnamed narrator listens to these terrifying and mettle-testing tales of revelation, and the more he learns, the more the reader learns about him: but will the reader ever unearth the private motivations that reside in the heart of the secret-keeper himself?

A pair of the author's illustrations depicting crucial moments in two of Littletown Secrets' stories.

A pair of the author’s illustrations depicting crucial moments in two of Littletown Secrets‘ stories.

In many ways, Littletown Secrets recommends itself as an unconventional, emotionally satisfying series of stories. It is sure to appeal to each young reader who enjoys tales that aren’t afraid to swerve off the beaten track. The collection benefits from a blend of magical realism, mild to moderate horror, and no small dose of levity, Adults and younger bibliophiles alike will find resonances with the work on multiple levels: older readers can glimpse shades and hues of the juvenile adventurers they once might have been; children can delight in reading well-rounded characters who perform starring roles in their stories – they rule the narratives, and aren’t subjected to the sideline silences they often endure in adult fiction.

An endearing, morally complex debut publication from a writer of young adult fiction worth monitoring, Littletown Secrets may well spark conversation concerning the natures of good and evil; the difficult process of growing up, and the liberating happiness of slaying one’s personal demons.

The Adventures of Manti and Andy by Gregory Thompson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

A Water Cycle Story, the first title in The Adventures of Manti and Andy

A Water Cycle Story, the first title in The Adventures of Manti and Andy

Andy, an inquisitive ant, meets Manti, a knowledgeable praying mantis, and the conversations between the two span educational topics in fun, informative ways, in this, Gregory Thompson’s series of environmentally-aware picture books for children. Vividly and colourfully illustrated by Rachael Frank, each primer investigates one major natural occurrence. In Book One, A Water Cycle Story, Manti explains the inner workings of the water cycle to Andy, showing him how each step that leads up to precipitation is important for the precious drops of water that fall from the sky.

In Book Three, A Food Chain Story, Andy’s nerve-wracking brush with danger in the silky clutches of a spider’s web prompts a chat with Manti on the unforgiving, fascinating nature of the structure of the food chain. Book Four, The Festival of Pollination, sees a reversal of roles, as Andy, usually the appreciative student, enlightens Manti on the importance of pollination. Andy emphasizes why it’s important for Manti not to greedily consume a busy honey bee in the midst of its important pollen transfer onto a passion fruit flower’s stigma. By the story’s end, both creatures have a renewed sense of admiration for the natural wonders of pollination’s crucial role in the plant life cycle.

Books Three and Four in the series, A Food Chain Story and The Festival of Pollination

Books Three and Four in the series, A Food Chain Story and The Festival of Pollination

The dialogue between this unlikely yet appealing duo is always wise and engaging, mixing scientific data with a storytelling style that’s exciting and readable. The books lend themselves wonderfully to being read aloud, each installation in the series deepening the friendship between Andy and Manti, while revealing useful, engaging facts about the environment and its inhabitants.

For more information on the series, visit Manti and Andy’s official website!