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?

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.