Five Books that surprised me in 2013

I’ve written elsewhere about my favourite children’s and young adult books of 2013, a task that can feel as controversial as picking a favourite child because of the wide variety of books in our department (i.e. not impossible but liable to change on any given day). But there’s also a list of books I could categorise as ‘surprises’ – books I didn’t think I’d love, that I read out of duty but ended up enjoying.


The first of these is John Marsden’s The Year My Life Broke. The big cricket ball on the front cover might as well have been a stop sign for me, but I was hopeful of offering it to parents who are worried that their late-primary school boys aren’t reading enough. The book is slim and has a sporting theme: Perfect, I thought. And then I actually read it, and found that I was enjoying it as a reader and not just as a bookseller.

I must admit that during some of the cricket match scenes my mind started to wander (the children are quiet upstairs, I wonder what they’re doing…) but this is mostly a story about a Grade 6 boy trying to fit in at a new school, or more to the point, doing a fantastic job of not fitting in because he’s sulking about having his life upturned. It’s not just for boys, but I think those who are looking for a quick summer read to stop their parents from nagging them about spending too much time in front of the computer will be as pleasantly surprised as I was.


Another slim volume, but this time for slightly older readers who like a narrative challenge, is Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught. I was glued from the first page. It’s a mystery told from the point-of-view of Jason.

Jason is schizophrenic and describes himself and his friends at the SED (severely emotionally disturbed) school as ‘alphabets’ because they are defined by society according to their various syndromes (his best friend Drip has ADHD and their mutual friend Sunshine is selectively mute). His voice – or rather the voices in his head – proved to be an intense read. The sense you get of how relentless and terrifying it would be to live with schizophrenia makes a huge impact. When Sunshine goes missing, Jason feels sure that he wouldn’t have had anything to do with it but the fact is that he doesn’t actually know. Imagine that. He is not only the prime suspect in the investigation but in his own head, too. I found it very moving and unusual.


The book that made me cry the most (with the exception of Wildlife by Fiona Wood) is The Girl Who Brought Mischief by Katrina Nannestad. We sell classics like Milly-Molly-Mandy, Heidi and Anne of Green Gables so regularly that it was a lovely surprise to find something new that fits that bill.

Set in Denmark in 1911, it’s the story of an orphan who goes to live with her grandmother on a tiny island, and charms the birds out of the trees even though she is always in trouble. The story is a real heart-breaker and I think adults who love reading classic stories with their children should give this one a try.


It’s possible that I was the last bookseller on earth to read The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. And I’ll be honest… I didn’t want to. A story about teens with terminal cancer? That sounded too depressing and I read to escape depression, not encourage it. I’m also slightly averse to the John Green fever that has been sweeping the nation so I stubbornly held out. And then a few months ago, when it became clear that The Fault In Our Stars was the bread-and-butter of the young adult section, I curled up one Sunday afternoon with a copy. And didn’t move for several hours.

Okay John Green, you win. What surprised me most was that the book wasn’t horribly depressing. It was depressing sure, how could teens dying not be, but it was also strangely uplifting and very well done indeed.


When a friend suggested enthusiastically that she could get me a ticket to Tavi Gevinson’s keynote speech at the Melbourne Writers festival, I only said yes to be polite. Tavi who? That trendy one who started a fashion blog in her playpen while the other kids were sticking crayons up their nose? What a snooze-fest, I thought. I know nothing about fashion so assumed I was going to be bored stiff. Then, we arrived at the venue and I saw the queue was packed full of young girls with flowers in their hair. Goody, I thought, I get to feel old and bored at the same time. And then Tavi started speaking and within thirty seconds I realised how very, very wrong I had been.

What a delight she is! She was clever, funny, elegant, interesting – I was duly wowed. And she didn’t talk about fashion at all as turns out I was wrong about that. Her magazine, Rookie Yearbook, is an anthology that covers many subjects and has loads of great contributors. Teenagers will love it.

On the theme of nice surprises, special mentions also go to:

  • Hilary T. Smith’s young adult début Wild Awake delivers much more than its blurb suggests. You can read a conversation between myself and other lovers of this book here.

  • Tasmanian Julie Hunt’s fantasy novel for good readers of 8+ Song For A Scarlet Runner completely won me over even though fantasy isn’t often my first choice.

  • I’d assumed Melbourne writer Jo Case’s memoir Boomer and Me was going to be an interesting book about Asperger syndrome and it turned out to that and more – an absorbing and warmly-written story that many people could relate to.

Emily Gale is a Children’s & YA Specialist at Readings Carlton, and a Children’s & YA writer the rest of the time.