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Why a book is still the perfect gift for 'teens'

From comedy to fantasy, darkness and death, Celia Keenan picks the best titles for young adults

Story-telling now comes in such a variety of electronic and interactive forms that we must ask ourselves, 'Why a book?' The unique value of a book is that it offers the opportunity for reflection. It is 'inter-thoughtful' as opposed to interactive. It seems to me that young people today need that quiet space for reflection more urgently than ever before. And Christmas time is the perfect time for that special relationship between reader and book.

The books selected here range from comedy, chick-lit, history, fantasy, and adventure to realistic portrayals of dark subjects such as violence and death. All of them offer teen and young adult readers the gift of reflection.

Fun can't come any funnier or more exciting for the 11-to-14 year age group than Eoin Colfer's final Artemis Fowl novel, Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian (Puffin, €15.99). Artemis's adventures draw to a dramatic and inventive close here but also take us back to our very first encounter with the boy-genius.

Che Golden's The Feral Child (Quercus, €8.99) is also an inventive and at times funny adventure based on Irish myth and legend. The attractive hero Maddy takes us into the dark regions of Bantry and Tir na nOg.

Anna Carey's second novel for this age group, Rebecca's Rules (The O'Brien Press, €7.99), offers genuine quality in the chick-lit genre, as does Pauline McLynn's funny and slightly more in-your-face Jenny Q Stitched Up (Puffin €8.99). Teen language, eg 'shagging', 'boobs' etc is realistically portrayed, but all of it is very relevant to the plot.

Felicity McCall's Large Mammals, Stick Insects and other Social Misfits (Little Island, €9.99) offers a very witty, urbane take on Irish cross-border inter-cultural and virtual exchanges seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Derry student Aimee McCourt. Sarah Crossan's The Weight of Water (Bloomsbury, €11.99) is a moving story of 12-year-old Kasienka who migrates from Poland to London. It conveys family pain, bullying and triumph. The beauty of swimming is superbly drawn. Written in verse in the form of Kasienka's own poems, the story has immediacy and freshness.

Many books for this age group this year seem to be of historical fiction. In Robert Swindells's Dan's War, (Barrington Stokes, €8.99) 15- year-old Dan helps support his widowed mother as a gardener's assistant. The year is 1941. Dan digs more than the landlord's garden when he unearths the worst kind of treachery. Not a word is wasted in this spare, exciting tale aimed at young adults with reading difficulties.

Mary Arrigan's The Rabbit Girl (Frances Lincoln, €10) is a skilfully constructed, exciting and mysterious story, which has the London blitz and the Lake District as its focus but moves back and forwards in time. Shirley Hughes, beloved by generations for her wonderful book Dogger, offers a beautiful moving story set in Italy, Hero on a Bicycle (Walker, €8.99).

Here, teenager Paolo and his sister, along with their heroic dog Guido, help in the resistance against fascism.

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Brian Gallagher, in Secrets and Shadows (The O'Brien Press, €7.99), tells a stirring story of courage and betrayal in Ireland during the same period, in the aftermath of the Luftwaffe bombings of North Dublin. Gerry Hunt's At War With the Empire (The O'Brien Press, €9.99), a graphic novel, tells a frank and accurate story of the Irish war of independence.

Rachel Van Kooij's Bartolme, The Infanta's Pet (Little Island, €8.99) is set in 17th- Century Madrid. The story is of disability, cruelty, courage and survival. The writing is evocative, the story gripping; fidelity to the harsh truths of history is unflinching. The reader is trusted.

Some historical works are particularly suited to the older 14-to-17 age group. Elizabeth Wein's superb Code Name Verity (Electric Monkey, €9.99) tells a story of espionage, capture, violence, love and loyalty in the Second World War. The love of flying informs the story. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick's Dark Warning (Orion €10.99) set in 18th-Century Dublin tells an intriguing and frightening story full of sexual menace.

Books that deal with the fatal illness of teenagers are a little too fashionable at the moment. One that transcends mere fashion is John Green's novel, The Fault in Our Stars (Puffin, €14.99). It tells a love story, as these books tend to do. It does not flinch from the more painful and even disgusting aspects of illness and at the same time it offers the consolation of love and hope and kindness.

Aidan Chambers' Dying to Know You (Bodley Head €14.99) also confronts death, loss and grief, in its two central characters, an elderly, recently widowed, narrator and the young and angst-ridden man he befriends. An unhappy and uneasy sexual relationship, realistically and unromantically portrayed, sends the young hero Karl to the brink of suicide. Friendship and art allow both men, young and old, to re-find their lives. Tim Wynne-Jones's Blink and Caution (Walker, €8.99) is a Canadian story of two teenagers living rough, on their wits. Their world is a tough, violent one. Survival is all. The story is taut, exciting and tough and superbly written.

Gregory Hughes's Summertime of the Dead (Quercus, €8.99), set in a dystopian and gang-driven Tokyo, breaks boundaries in what is acceptable in terms of violence and realism in YA fiction and invites us to consider the very meaning of that category.

Another book which challenges our categories is the late great Russell Hoban's final work, Soonchild, superbly illustrated in black and white by Alexis Deacon (Walker, €11.99). It depicts a suitably seasonal frozen north and ultimately the seasonal birth of a child. The hero, a shaman, is expecting his first child, Soonchild of the title. He must undergo many terrible trials before he can help to bring Soonchild to birth. This wonderfully strange story works on philosophical and allegorical levels. The relationship between the father and his unborn child is central; a particularly thought-inviting story at a time when we in Ireland are once again preoccupied about the relationship between mother and unborn child. It is ' pro-life' in the very best sense. It invites reflection.

Celia Keenan teaches on the MA and doctoral programmes in children's literature at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra


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