Over the next ten weeks I will be reading and reviewing the shortlisted books for the inaugural YA Book Prize. I’m thrilled that the diverse and thriving UK YA scene is being celebrated. I’m also thrilled that libraries exist.
On paper, Finding A Voice sounds like a book about “issues” – finding their voices against some significant disadvantages are Jo, 13 year old daughter/carer to a mother struggling with mental illness, and Chris, a severely disabled teenage boy. Jo spends her days at school miserably isolated because the other students bully her about her mother, until a counsellor has a bright idea. What if Jo spent her lonely lunch hour helping out in the Special Needs wing? And so Jo meets Chris, and an unlikely friendship is formed.
This book has a small but strong voice. At 240 pages, it’s a short read, and is somewhat of an underdog in the competition. It’s one of two Irish-origin shortlisted titles, and the only one published by an Irish press. Jo is much younger than the main characters in the other books, and her story isn’t set in the UK at all. There is little in Finding A Voice about sex, or drinking, or other “typical” teen preoccupations. It stands out – which is good, because it is lovely and touching and important. Jo’s story – and Chris’ – is worth telling, and well told in this book, which deserves the wider readership it will gain by appearing on the shortlist.
Despite Jo’s relatively young age, this is often a tough read. It’s particularly unrelenting in its depiction of Jo’s mum’s illness. I appreciated the detail that she doesn’t have a diagnosis – fiction has a fondness for categorising mental illness into neat boxes of symptoms and syndromes, but it often doesn’t work that way in real life. Generally, the book is excellent at portraying mental illness as equally debilitating as more visible disabilities. It’s good at the importance of social care, and the therapist character is great too.
The real merit, however, is hinted at in the book’s subtitle, Friendship is a Two-Way Street. Jo’s friendship with Chris is the shining light of this novel, and the journey they go on together moved me to tears more than once. Chris is smart and sympathetic and helps Jo in so many ways, despite being non-verbal and supposedly incapable of communicating. Again, I commend this book for its realism – I noted that Jo, despite very much seeing Chris as a person, didn’t stop seeing him as person who needed her help. It’s difficult to shake off preconceptions around different levels of ability, and Jo evolves throughout the novel into someone who is actively doing that work. This all reads as though Finding A Voice is a book about “issues”, but mainly it’s about Jo and the kind of person she is. It never feels heavy, or preachy, because these aren’t really People With Problems, they’re just people. Disability is something lived with that makes you no less of a person.
Finding A Voice is a beautiful read, with a perfectly realised narrator character in Jo, whose aches and agonies are so much larger than many of us have to face in our own lives, but who faces the world with the bravest face she can. As a reader, you’re attached to her the moment you start following her down the two-way street.