school events with Juno Dawson and we were having dinner one night and just kind of batting ideas around. We were talking about what the mum character in Paper Avalanche could hoard and Juno just said “Babies!” This spurred the question, “what if a teenager stole a baby?” And then I just kept coming back to that idea’. Lots of ‘what ifs?’ later led Lisa to the novel’s ingenious set-up of Jojo going on the run with her own baby.

Without spoiling the experience for those who’ve yet to read it, First Day of My Life is shot-through with Jojo and Frankie’s all- consuming, soul-searing friendship − a theme that runs through all Lisa’s work. In The Art of Being Normal, we see it between David, Felix and Essie, and later between David and Leo. We see it when Mia’s friends forgive her and welcome her back into their fold in All About Mia. We see it between Ro and Tanvi in Paper Avalanche. And, linked to the theme of friendship, Lisa is also outstanding at conveying its abject opposite − loneliness − with heartrending honesty, such as when David in The Art of Being Normal says, ‘I’m so lonely it physically hurts.’ It’s this sense of isolation and loneliness that drives Mia to career out of control in All About Mia. Realising that ‘people only seem to notice if I do something bad,’ what else can Mia do but behave badly? Which takes us back to that all-important, all-pervasive theme of the need to be seen.

‘Not enough people stand up for the underdog,’ Alicia, The Art of Being Normal

Another strong theme threaded through Lisa’s work is that of fairness and giving voice to the underdog. Recalling her own experiences, Lisa notes that ‘as a teenager you’re not a kid anymore and you’re not an adult, and there can be a lot of mixed messages. It felt dramatically unfair, and I want to explore that. I want to provide readers with a journey that’s satisfying but also realistic.’

Related to this, Lisa is also passionate about representing a range of backgrounds. ‘I grew up in an area where there was a lot of disparity between kids. I come from a working-class background, and generally I try and represent my school experience. I want to show that not everybody is rolling in it, and to show that there’s a spectrum of working-class experience.’

‘I try to let readers know that it’s OK to not have a clue’

Similarly, through her novels and school events, Lisa strives to show young people that everyone is different, that there’s no right way to grow up, that it’s fine to not know what your calling is, to paraphrase Mia, who’s under constant pressure to decide what she wants to do with her life (“If I had a calling, wouldn’t I know what it was by now?”). In her events, Lisa tries to ‘drive home that you may have several careers in your life. I try to let readers know that it’s OK not to have a clue. I do feel in YA fiction the characters are quite driven and determined and have a passion, and that’s brilliant, but I always felt that there wasn’t much space for kids who don’t have a clue and have pressures on them that are slightly different. I feel like I’ve read the story about the really academic, really talented people, but what about the people who have pressure on them and don’t “have a thing”?’

This gets to the heart of what makes Lisa’s novels so relatable − her characters and set-ups transcend well-worn YA tropes, typically centring the underdog to truly represent lived experiences. This approach extends to her adult characters too. Alongside inspiring mentor characters (‘I love a wise older person!’), she never shirks from showing that life can be confusing no matter what your age. ‘I think it’s really important to be reminded that adults don’t always have the answer even though they might pretend that they do. I think it’s important to show adults messing up and making mistakes acknowledging them.’

That’s certainly true of the adults in First Day of My Life, whose journey to enlightenment is smartly entwined with that of the teenage characters at its heart − three unforgettable young adults who are pummelled by turmoil, but emerge wiser, stronger and elementally altered. What’s more, this exceptional novel more than delivers Lisa’s overriding desire to write authentic, entertaining novels. It’s a punch-packing page-turner of the highest order.

Books mentioned, all by Lisa Williamson and published by David Fickling Books

First Day of My Life, 978-1788451536, £12.99 hbk All About Mia, 978-1788451321, £7.99 pbk Paper Avalanche, 978-1910989975, £7.99 pbk The Art of Being Normal, 978-1788451338, £7.99 pbk

Joanne Owen is a writer, reviewer and workshop presenter. Recent books include the Martha Mayhem series, published by Piccadilly Press, and You Can Write Awesome Stories, a how-to-book for children, published by HarperCollins.

Books for Keeps No.246 January 2021 11

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