Short books for teens

I thought I would start a new list for short, readable, intelligent books with the hope that they appeal to teens. I regularly fly to the UK which takes less then two hours. As I cannot bear to be without a book I often carry a ‘backup’ just in case I finish my main read. In the first two instances, A Day No Pigs Would Die and A Kestrel for a Knave, I was not only impressed with my packing skills but so impressed by these two brilliant novels. Why use over 300 pages when less than 200 will do?

A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck.
Cover art by Richard Hess.

A farmer’s heart is rabbit soft,
And farmer eyes are blue.
But farmers’ eyes are eagle fierce
And look a man right through.

Oh! A banned book – only in America can a book about farming (animals mate!) and working in a slaughter house raise such objection. This is apparently a semi-autobiographical story of the author who grew up in a poor, Shaker household where his father worked in a pig abattoir. The love, honesty and dignity of the father is throughout the book and credit must be given to good men who have to do brutal jobs to support their family. The boy, Robert, who is almost 13 years old, is gifted a piglet, Pinky, after saving the life of a cow in labour. Raising the piglet like a puppy, there is no doubt how much the boy loves the pig. He cares for her and tells her

“And I’m going to keep right on taking proper care of you proper. Because do you know what you aim to be? You ain’t going to be pork. No, missy. You’re going to be a brood sow, and have a very long life” (67).

Unfortunately, the pig is barren and after two brutal encounters with a boar it is clear she will not produce any piglets. The book has been criticised because of this.  Pinky “squealed like crying, and wouldn’t stop…Her rump was bruised and there was blood running down her hind leg. She was shaking like she couldn’t stand, her whole body quivering” (128). The boy wants to comfort her but is stopped by the farmer who tells him that next time Pinky will know what to do, she’ll  “even ram herself through barbed wire to be with him and get bred by him” (129).

The incident between a dog and a weasel is equally brutal and the father says “I swear by the Book of Shaker and all that’s holy, I will never again weasel a dog. Even if I lose every chicken I own” (111).  I was impressed by the Shaker way of living, their no frills, modest, honest way of life. 

There are other issues that also need discussion such as his father who was not allowed to vote even though he is almost 60 years old. When asked why he replies “It’s account of I can’t read or write. When men cannot do those things, people think his head is weak. Even when he’s proved his back is strong” (36).

The father in the story is a true hero. He takes pride in his work, despite hating it, and the passage were he slaughters Pinky will truly touch you. I read this book in less than two hours but two months later I am still thinking about it and the empathy it provoked for the poor, honest man ‘whose work was killing pigs’.

A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines. Cover art by Kyler Martz.

If only Billy Casper had such a good dad. His dad has run off, due to his promiscuous mother, and has left Billy in a household were everyone is out for themselves. A Kestrel for a Knave is for anyone seeking a short, classic novel that has a lot to say about the British working class and of course, the inspiring British country side.

Billy Casper is 15 and by his own admittance is always getting into trouble or ‘bother for nowt’. He gets picked on a lot, particularly by his elder brother Jud who between punches taunts Billy that he will soon be old enough to join him down the coal mine. Set in 1960s Barnsley, going down the mine is a bleak life sentence for nature loving Billy. When Billy goes to find a kestrels nest he glances down at a blade of grass bent to the ground by a dew drop, ‘a tuft of silver fire’ (31). Billy notices details and seems to come alive when he is amongst the ‘fields and fences and hedgerows.’ There are several touching passages in the book, most when Billy has the sympathetic ear of teacher Mr Farthing. He tells Farthing about how he trains the Kestrel and flies it everyday, how he feeds her and earns her trust. There is hope that Mr Farthing will rescue Billy from his predicted future and encourage him to get a job outdoors but Jud stands firmly in the way. When Billy uses Jud’s betting money to buy fish and chips and some meat for the bird, Jud goes on the rampage. The wait for his revenge is excruciating as Billy is forced to succumb to the bullying of his PE teacher who forces him to stand in a cold shower as revenge from throwing a football game. When Billy finally makes it home he finds Jud has killed the bird.

I first came to know this book by the film, Kes, directed by Ken Loach in the early seventies. The scene, that stuck in my mind was of course, when Billy finds his the bird dead in a bin. It was hard to shake that image when I started the book. This edition with cover art by tattooist Kyler Martz, includes an afterward by Barry Hines who writes about its harsh reality and the determination not to turn it into a ‘Walt Disney boy and his pet’ type of story when filmed. You can trust Ken Loach not to Disney-fi anything but it does lead me to think about alternate endings for this book. What if Billy had fought Jud to protect the bird? What if Jud had gone to kill the bird only to be found entranced and awestruck by its beauty and majesty? I feel for Billy, trapped in his own cage and only wish Hines had given him the key so he could have been the one to fly. 

The Ghost’s Child by Sonya Hartnett. Illustrated by Jon McNaught.

“Matilda had lived for seventy-five years, and she wasn’t afraid of bad news. She had heard it before, and she had always survived it, and she’s learned that bad news is part of being alive, and thus should not be resented” (15).  A visitation from a boy prompts Matilda to reflect on her life, her love and regrets. With big questions throughout the story, this philosophical, whimsical tale may just have enough magic and romance to enchant a teen. The writing is beautiful. Matilda falls in love but her partner, Feather, seems too wild for her domestic life. She compares Feather to  animals in the zoo.

“He walked around the garden as if the pickets were a row of steel bars. He dug the soil and cleaned the birdbath and swept leaves from the door. The sight of him dutifully fulfilling his days made Maddy feel sunken and hollow. She remembered the zoos she had visited on her hunt for beauty – the wolves pacing stone, the waxen starfish behind glass. The animals had been netted from the jungles and plains, the sea creature scooped from the waves. Somehow they had all been corned and trapped. Maddy had her own beautiful thing now, something she had cornered and trapped” (100).

“He might have had a proper name, but she always called him Feather” (61).

“…The world changes when something in it is loved” (66).

This is a book I would definitely read again. I imagine you see can see yourself within the story at different points of Matilda’s life from her childhood when she thought an adult had all the answers to her hopes and dreams in her youth, disappointing her parents and the devastating loss of her own child and her relinquishment of her soul mate who she couldn’t bare to see unhappy. It packs a lot into its 192 pages and with beautiful illustrations from Jon McNaught (who worked with Hartnett in The Midnight Zoo) this gentle book is a gem.





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