What I Was by Meg Rosoff
Rosoff’s How I Live Now is a powerful war story and a great family tale. However, it is quite conventionally structured. What I Was, on the other hand, is a hazy, salty, painfully good exploration of human relationships. Set by the sea it flows in a loose, unstructured way, following a young man, for most of the novel unnamed, as he suffers quietly at boarding school. His one source of excitement is a local boy who he idolises for his bravery and athleticism. Lines between admiration, friendship and love are blurred and you come away from the book still slightly unsure about what was real and what wasn’t.
The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
Ibbotson was best known for gothic fantasies such as The Secret of Platform 13 and the Amazon-set Journey to the River Sea. The Dragonfly Pool is a surreal volume, which combines elements of many of her other stories to create a bizarre yet delightful world. Starting out as the exploits of kids at a progressive boarding school and morphing effortlessly into a tale of a lonely prince in a made-up Eastern European country, it then morphs again into a war epic, only to end up back at the school. Its strangeness is part of its appeal, as are the exotic locations and solid characters.
Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery
Don’t get me wrong, I love Anne of Green Gables—but Anne often strikes me as somewhat ethereal; too perfect and charismatic to be true. Montgomery’s lesser-known heroine, Emily, is far more flawed, cynical and realistic. She has the opposite journey to Anne; where Anne goes from a terrible childhood to a blissful life at Green Gables, Emily goes from a happy existence with her loving father to despairing times following his death. Her fight to be taken seriously as a female writer, and the amount of work she puts into this goal—such as spending all her weekends trekking around the countryside selling subscriptions to a magazine—is staggering. I realised recently that she is probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a literary heroine. I had characters that I liked, but never one I really looked up to until Emily.
Olga da Polga series by Michael Bond
Paddington Bear and Olga the guinea pig are the animal equivalents of Anne and Emily: Paddington is just too nice, whilst Olga is feisty and fun. She often behaves selfishly and can be a serious diva but that is her charm. I also like how Olga and her chums, unlike Paddington, cannot communicate with humans—animals that can talk to humans were a bit of a book-bugbear for me as a child. The banter between Olga and Noel the cat, however, is sparkling. Unlike many animal characters, Olga is allowed to grow up and have pups; the knowledge that she was based on a real guinea pig makes her exploits even more poignant.
Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
Creech is known for the multi-award-winning Walk Two Moons and the haunting Chasing Redbird. While both are excellent YA books, I prefer one of her earlier and lesser-known tomes. Absolutely Normal Chaos follows Mary-Lou, a minor character in Walk Two Moons, over the summer of her thirteenth year. In Walk Two Moons she plays the role of the class loudmouth, however Absolutely Normal Chaos reveals her to be a sensitive and kind girl, struggling to make herself heard in a huge family. The story balances precariously yet confidently on the border between comedy and tragedy, cemented by Mary-Lou’s smart, sassy, and quite sweet narrative that never falters.