That Asian Kid by Savita Kalhan

This is a brand new YA novel, hot off the press in September 2019 and highly recommendedfor its realism, the moral dilemmas explored and its humour. Kalhan skilfully interweaves serious issues like adult weakness, bias, exam pressure and online bullying, with the authentic representation of day to day teenage and family life across a close knitgroup of friends in Y11 at grammar school, voiced by Jeevan, ‘that Asian kid’ of the title.It’s a twisty, dramatic tale, but the suspense comes from the characters and the decisions they make. It’s remarkable how much narrative tension can be centred around whether or not to upload a video on YouTube!

Nevertheless, much of the book’s enjoyment overall comes from the observations of the more humdrum aspects of teenage life which are often very funny and astutely captured. Kalhan is particularly successful at capturing male friendship but her representation of intergenerational relationships and different incarnations of family/family life is equally deft.

The author confronts issues like racism head on but her approach is to present Jeevan and his friends/family as engaging, complex characters who don’t tell a ‘single story’ about their experiences and views in terms of their individual identities and family backgrounds. Jeevan himself is a very human, rounded character who makes plenty of mistakes but there is never a consensus amongst his peers as to what he should do next. As an adult teacher-reader I kept changing my own mind too. This certainly gives plenty to think about and discuss if the book is being shared in a group.

That Asian Kid is probably most suitable for KS3/KS4 readers but I can imagine many UKS2 readers enjoying it too. However there is one example of strong swearing (noted and not really approved of by Jeevan) and the themes might need some mediation with younger readers so it would be safest to read before recommending.

Kalhan’s other YA novels are also excellent. The Long Weekend is a thriller, also centred on boys friendship but with younger protagonists than That Asian Kid but do be aware that The Girl in The Broken Mirror deals, very sensitively, with rape and is definitely for older readers only.

The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson is rightly described as the ‘doyenne’ of children’s literature. She has been writing stellar historical novels for some time with very little recognition until 2019 when she deservedly won the Little Rebels Award for Freedom. Freedom is also an excellent novel but I want to remind everyone about an earlier novel, The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, which is set in the early 19C, and is a particular favourite of mine.

I really enjoyed the representation of the mysterious Lady Caraboo and the way she ‘plays’ on the perceptions of both the reader and the society she lives in. There are interesting discussions to be had about the way the protagonist struggles to express her own identity in the society she is born into, the reasons for that and possible parallels with the experiences of young WoC in contemporary Britain. It’s particularly intriguing at the endto discover that fiction and fact are so closely intertwined in this tale of aristocratic impersonation and is she/isn’t she drama.

Johnson has a gift for evoking both period detail and character with economic but telling description - but this is a character driven narrative and Caraboo’s story is full of tension and suspense. Johnson wears her knowledge and scholarship lightly so they inform the story without overloading it. Nevertheless, the reader learns a great deal about the mores and manners of Regency Britain in the novel and it subtly/not so subtly signposts ways in which the slave trade impacted on everyday life at the time, at all levels of society.

This novel is an engaging and accessible bridge to the context of 19C writers such as Jane Austen but it will hopefully also encourage readers to ask probing questions about the visibility/invisibility of PoC in 19C canon texts and British history as a whole. It’s also a cracking good read, probably most suitable for UKS2 to KS3. I hope all readers are inspired to seek out Cat Johnson’s extensive back catalogue as a result of reading The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, with a particular heads up for her short story Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances! in the A Change Is Gonna Come anthology, which you really shouldn’t miss.

What Is Race? By Claire Heuchan & Nikesh Shukla, What is Masculinity? By Jeffrey Boakye & Darren Chetty

I’m cheekily combining two great non fiction books from the same excellent series for this recommendation. Both address important concepts and issues in age appropriate and engaging ways, using a magazine style format to include a wide range of voices and first person accounts and experiences, along with detailed factual content and a helpful glossary and index. Each book is great to dip into or to read chronologically, and there are also lots of signposts to wider reading. Many of those sharing the first person accounts in the text are also writers and creatives, and there is a supportive bridging context for young readers, who hopefully might next be tempted to go to the library to try out Nikesh Shukla’s YA fiction like Run Riot, or The Boxer, or sample a play by Inua Elams, like The Barbershop Chronicles.

The text is designed to help young readers think critically about the issues and consider both continuities anddistinctiveness in the perspectives presented. There is no ‘single story’ or homogeneity presented in either book and taken together there is a great opportunity for even very young readers to begin to explore intersectionality and the complexity of individual identity in society.

What I also really like about these books is that the approach is very accessible but there is no compromise on the challenge of the information, ideas and theory shared. As a result, they are suitable for UKS2 and KS3 but equally interesting for adults and older students, with much food for reflection and discussion.

I’m confident that anyone reading these books, but particularly older readers, will feel inspired to move on to other non fiction books which connect thematically, such as The Good Immigrant (ed. Shukla), Safe (ed. Owusu), Natives by Akala, Mother Country : Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, My Name is Why : Lemn Sissay, Hold Tight and Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye, Slay in Your Lane by Adegoke and Uviebinené and Mask Off by JJ Bola. This is a great opportunity to build cultural capital.

About this month's reviewer

Di Leedham is currently an independent teacher and consultant, specialising in subject English, Literacy and EAL and multilingualism, with 35 years of experience in teaching, teacher development/training and subject/school leadership, EYFS to KS5. She has been an avid reader since she was 5 but working with EAL learners and becoming involved in both HipHopEd and a local Black History Group signposted serious limitations in her knowledge of books. Her quest to address this and advocate for #reflectingrealities representation and our wonderful UK BAME children’s writers, has been supported by accessible scholarship such as Chetty/Sands O’Connor in Books For Keeps and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas :The Dark Fantastic. It has been true ‘reading for pleasure’. You can follow Di and get additional reading recommendations on Twitter @dileed and via online booklists like this one