Young Adult fiction was once a rather grey area between what we commonly refer to as ‘middle grade’ (9 – 12) and adult fiction. It has been an area where books that fell slightly outside the mainstream (fantasy/ sci-fi/ dystopia) found themselves sitting alongside stalwarts of the category like Judy Blume, and classics like The Catcher in the Rye. Within the last decade things have changed. Writers have confidently produced books for Young Adults with a wide range of theme and plot, and many have tackled tricky and controversial subject matter with a skill and sensitivity often unseen in fiction for adults. Critics have either loved or hated the gritty realism portrayed in Young Adult books. It’s certainly been a Marmite topic – you either love the obsession with all things dark or you yearn for lighter, friendlier topics.
Jessica’s Ghost falls into the younger age range of Young Adult and could be read by anyone from 10 upwards. In terms of writing style and voice, this reminded me of Wynne Jones at her best. A gentle humour guides the narrative, and the tale of supernatural friendship deals with horrible topics but in such a friendly and hopeful fashion that the true awfulness of the subject matter (suicide) is removed and the motivation leading up to the act can be examined and stripped bare of despair. All of the characters here are different. None of them fit society’s ideas of normality and as a result they get bullied and their difference becomes blown out of all proportion and becomes their main defining characteristic, which is what happens in schools, especially when children are not educated to accept diversity and difference. Characters here are bullied for having non-gender related interests (a boy who likes sewing and fashion, a girl who isn’t girly, an obese boy and Jessica herself who unites all the characters and who, we discover, committed suicide due to stress caused by dealing with loss and grief).
Issues affecting children and teenagers are explored here – death, grief, divorce, moving house, being bullied because you don’t fit in with whatever ideas of normal are currently prevailing. The importance of talking and of looking for support are suggested, and there is always hope and lightness at the end of everything. Sadness and despair are shown to be temporary states.
The writing style is fantastic, the plot is moving and yet funny, light-hearted and sombre at the same time, something which takes a masterly touch. I think this should be compulsory reading for every 12 year old. It’s quite simply a wonderful book. It shows diversity without it being all about diversity and it tackles a taboo subject in such a way that younger readers will know that it is ok to feel different and stressed or depressed and that it is equally ok to seek help for it, and that nobody has the right to make you feel badly about yourself because you are different. I’m full of praise for this book and I will be recommending it to everyone for a long time to come.