A fresh voice in YA fiction
Kim Hood shot to prominence last year when her debut YA (young adult) novel, Finding a Voice, was shortlisted for the YA Prize in the UK. It also won the Library Association of Ireland Award and was selected by the International Youth Library as a 'White Ravens' recommended title. Quite the accolades for a quiet first novel about a friendship between a teenage girl and a severely disabled boy.
Originally from British Columbia, Canada, Hood now lives in the West of Ireland and was taken aback by the book's reception.
"I was completely shocked that Finding a Voice got the attention it did - I still am, to be honest. Most of the time I still feel like a 'pretend author' beside so many great voices in YA," she says.
She found her second novel, Plain Jane, much harder to write.
"Jane's voice came to me right away," she says, "and that's why I wanted to write her story, but it was so much harder to trust myself to write it. It took me ages to move past the first half of the novel. In the end, I wrote it in mad sprints, where I would hole up in a friend's granny flat and do nothing but write for days at a time, which kind of fit Jane's head-space I suppose!"
The novel certainly has the all the intensity and manic energy of Hood's writing process. Plain Jane is the story of Jane, best known in the small Canadian village of Verwood (population 423) as Emma's sister. Emma is a talented 13-year-old dancer who has had cancer for three years and is known locally as the 'Living Angel'. Her face features on charity collection boxes in the local shops and she's currently in the hospital full-time, undergoing gruelling chemotherapy.
Unlike Emma, Jane is no angel. She's sharp, funny and, at times, brutal. She skips school, is cruel to her boyfriend, the hapless but harmless Dell, and tells her best friends exactly what she thinks of their small-town mentality. Of course, we can't leave Verwood, she tells them sarcastically. "Four years away at university and it will be someone else living in our dream bungalow, with our increasingly fat and lazy husbands who are slowly killing themselves working in a black hole (the mine)."
Jane loves her sister, but finds the effect her illness has had on the family devastating. Her mother has given up her law practice and spends every day in the hospital while her father works double shifts in the mine to try and make ends meet. She's struggling with her own problems but no one at home is paying any attention.
A talented artist, Jane meets a young musician from out of town, Farley, and begins to see her village through his eyes, as a place full of wonder and magic. But as her behaviour becomes more and more erratic, she starts to drive everyone away, including Farley.
This is immersive writing at its best. Jane's teen voice is utterly authentic and her descent into bipolar disorder is deftly handled. Hood writes with conviction and confidence. This is a book you don't just read, you live. You walk through every dark and devastating scene in Jane's shoes and come out the other side, wiser and more compassionate for the experience.
If you are interested in contemporary Irish writing that chronicles the teen experience, seek out Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan, Asking for It by Louise O'Neill and Plain Jane, an exceptional novel from one of Ireland's most exciting YA talents.
Sarah Webb writes for both adults and children. Her latest book for young readers is The Songbird Café: Aurora and the Popcorn Dolphin