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Two Worlds Apart - Two Strong Female Characters - Two novels for Mature Teens

cover 9780525479994

Two worlds apart – Two strong female characters - Two novels for mature teens

It is always a challenge to choose really well-written and satisfying novels for teens, books with strong characters that will appeal to contemporary teens. Children and teenagers are bombarded with media of all sorts, and in my opinion a lot of it is simply quite awful. I feel a responsibility, when I am choosing to recommend a book, that I should do so with the assurance that it has superior content and quality. To do this I read the books I recommend and select the ones I would want my own teens to read (although, thank goodness, my teens are now adults!)

Two books that I read recently and have no hesitation to recommend are The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli and How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

Thank you to the customer who introduced me to the writer Meg Rosoff, and the novel How We Live Now. Our heroine is Daisy, 15 years old, an only child, who has grown up in New York City. We meet Daisy as she arrives in England to visit her cousins – a big family of independent children. We are not sure in the first few pages when the story is taking place – but we soon discover that it is sometime in the not too distant future and there is a sense of uncertainty about the future. It does not take Daisy long to become part of things, although it is a very different world in the British countryside than it was on the Upper West Side. Daisy relishes being part of a family – so different from her own home. Daisy’s mother died when Daisy was born, and now her father has a new wife who is expecting a baby. Daisy has struggled with this, and we realize as the story develops that she is anorexic, and that this may be why she has come to England – to her mother’s sister and her large family. All of this unfolds naturally, bit by bit Daisy’s story is revealed as we read.

And war comes – the children, ranging in age from 17 to 9 years old, are alone. They manage quite well for some time – their home is in the country, there are farm animals and gardens, and at the beginning, money for provisions from the shop in the village. As the situation becomes more dangerous the children are forced to separate – Daisy and the youngest, the only girl, Piper, are sent to one family, and the boys to another. Daisy and her cousin Edmond, closest in age, have developed a very close relationship and are distressed at being forced apart. They believe it will be temporary – not expecting this war, which no one understands, will last long. But it does – and it is a destructive war. This is not a gentle story, and Daisy and Piper experience horror and hardship. In the confusion of an invasion they make an effort to get home – setting off through fields bountiful with the late summer blackberry bushes. In spite of this there is a food shortage, and has been for a long time. Daisy at some point realizes that “somewhere along the line I’d lost the will not to eat.”

At the height of the crisis Daisy is somehow returned to New York City, and reconciled with her father and his new family when we meet her again. Then after the war has ended – five years later – Daisy comes to England once again to be with her cousins, and we discover the story of the boys.

The second novel for readers of the same age is The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli. This is more than a world away – Florence in the late 1400’s. We meet Elisabetta when she is 13 and leave her at the end of the novel when she is 23 years old. During these ten years we experience, with Elisabetta, life in the countryside on a silk farm and in the city of Florence during the years of opulence and wealth, peopled with the de’ Medici family, the artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli – and then the destruction of the arts and the “bonfire of the vanities” when books and paintings are burned in the streets.

We are with Elisabetta when her mother dies, and her father re-marries. We are with her when she falls in love – and when she is forced to marry against her will. We are with her when she models for Leonardo da Vinci – for a painting that will live forever as Mona Lisa.

This novel is a fascinating picture of a time long past – but the story of the girl at the centre is one that any girl today can easily relate to. The emotions and desires are the same even now. I found it interesting to read about someone growing up during a time of excess – and economic collapse – and the anxiety of a looming war – in the 15th century – and it sounded so much the same as our own uncertain time.

These are mature novels – but there is nothing here that is not real, and a lot, I believe, that will encourage thought about serious issues – and comfort. They are also very well written novels, and I believe that reading good writing develops discerning taste. There are a lot of quite awful books out there for teenage girls – it disturbs me to see girls reading books that do nothing to encourage self-esteem, and many that I believe contribute to the difficulties that so many girls experience in their teenage years. These a couple of books that girls will feel good about reading – and you will feel good about giving to them.

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