This collection of 13 short stories, prefaced by Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem, was commissioned by Stripes to celebrate their ten years of publishing; and while they were doing so, to support the charity Crisis, which works to help people out of homelessness and is perhaps best known for its work at Christmas, ‘offering warmth, comfort and companionship for more than 4,000 homeless people’. Stripes plan to donate at least £10,000 to Crisis, with £1 coming from the sale of each copy. So, given this context, you’d not expect too much conventional festive merriment as the writers explore the idea of home – literal and emotional – at the Christmas season. And you’d be right.
There are, however, reasons to be cheerful about the world of YA fiction. The number of titles published for Young Adults is at an all-time high in the UK; there is now a YA Literature Convention as well as much information and opinion about the field via social media and blogs. The review pages of BfK in recent years have welcomed new writers in a field which can claim to be as exploratory and exciting as any area in publishing. The cast list here includes relative newcomers such as Non Pratt, Lisa Williamson, Holly Bourne and Sita Brahmachari, alongside the well-established Melvin Burgess, Kevin Brooks and Marcus Sedgwick. Stripes have also included a story from Tracy Darnton, the winner in their YA Book Prize Competition, run in collaboration with The Bookseller.
Inevitably, given the Crisis connection, many of the contributors focus upon those who feel excluded or ill at ease among the celebrations of families and friends, secure in their homes. Though loneliness and alienation recur in the collection, the settings vary widely. In Marcus Sedgwick’s spaceship, three astronauts share a Christmas nightmare about the fate of Earth – the home they have left behind. A student takes the train home from Uni in Juno Dawson’s ‘Homo for Christmas’, dreading coming out to his mum. Kevin Brooks offers a glimpse of two worn-out men drifting through a December day in a weary town, squatting in a crumbling mansion with little money or food – yet at home with each other.
A couple of stories seem exceptional. Sita Brahmachari’s narrator Amir has been selected to appear in the finals of the George Orwell National Writing and Public Speaking Competition, at a school somewhere in the North of England. He stands to speak – he’s going to tell his own story, which he’s practised so many times – and dries up. Humiliated, he escapes to a dressing room, where he suddenly notices the figure of Orwell behind him in the mirror; Amir’s seen his painting elsewhere in the building. He tells the attentive ‘George’ his history: his family crushed beneath a wall, the long march from Iraq, the desperate boat journey, his adoption by caring adults originally from his home village, their wait in the Jungle. It’s a powerful account of a quest freed from the constraints of TV news clips and here made acutely fresh through its detail and Amir’s voice.
In Lisa Williamson’s ‘Routes and Wings’, Lauren is working all the shifts she can grab at Sandwich City in the days before Christmas, but she’s still short of cash for a bed for the night. How to pass the long, cold hours? Avoid the office party (nothing to wear, can’t afford it), drift round the stores to keep warm, watch others with homes to go to, imagine loved ones waiting to care for them. Then ride the night buses, along with all the others with nowhere to go. There is a sort-of happy ending as she discovers friendship where she least expects it. Before she wrote, Lisa Williamson ran some creative writing workshops for Crisis members and listened to their stories. This is what a night of homelessness tastes like.