Six of the Best … Young Adult novels


SONG OF BE by Lesley Beake (Maskew Miller Longman)

The moving story of Be, a modern Bushman/San girl. Its opening sentence: “I have just killed myself” catches both the drama of the Bushman girl’s situation and the threat of extinction to her people – or at the very least, of their traditional way of life. A story of love, courage and dignity, Song of Be is one of the most significant youth novels to come out of South Africa. It is written with polished, poetic style and deep insight of the genuine people who live in this part of Africa. The poignancy of the struggle is captured with compassion: “The scent of sweetness on the air and the soft, grey dust before our footsteps were blown out.”

THE JOINING by Peter Slingsby (Tafelberg / in African languages from Baardskeerder cc)

Set in the Cederberg mountains where, in a time-jump, a group of modern children find themselves alongside a clan of /Xam people (part of those often called Bushmen or San). They experience the simplicity of living in harmony with the natural world, as well as learning much about the significance of rock art. The reader is joined to the past by storytelling. It is excellently written, profound, exciting. More intelligent readers will also understand how differing peoples can be peacefully joined. We – all of us here in South Africa – need to make a Joining.

POPS & THE NEARLY DEAD by Edyth Bulbring (Penguin)

Going to stay with your grandfather in a retirement village sounds deadly for a teenager whose nickname is Randy. It could be a deadly subject for a story as well – but not this story and certainly not this grandfather. Pops is the most unexpected character – and his neighbours can be even more weird. Funny and worrying at the same time, this is gloriously entertaining.

THIS BOOK BETRAYS MY BROTHER by Kagiso Lesego Molope (Oxford)

This youth novel is driven by character and situation. It is the real rural Africa of the 1990s, set in a village near Rustenberg, full of accurate observation and genuine people. The girl storyteller grows up, learns about life and more about her beloved brother than she ever wanted. Fine, compelling writing which pulls the reader inside, wanting to know more. The tension builds and breaks and then shatters. Love – sex? – decisions. Strong biting writing, mostly on aspects of liking and loving.

SHARP EDGES by S A Partridge (Human & Rousseau)

This is a story of teenage turmoil. Something has happened in the Cederberg – something that all were involved in and all are ashamed of. The story jumps around impulsively as the teens ignore advice, defy parents, send SMSs that say only half of what was intended, risk entanglements. Above all they hope – stupidly, wildly, even dangerously. Most of the book is set around such reassuring places as Rondebosch Common, though we know that somewhere in the mountains something awaits and attracts. Poetically and horribly, we follow the effects of drug over-dosing. It’s a hammer-headed, heart-buster of a novel.


As the title indicates, this teenage novel has two themes. Two girls from two very different South African families: one Christian, one Muslim. The girls become “very best friends”, that vital element in so many girls’ lives. While their friendship grows and becomes more aware, in from the outside world come two shattering (genuine) events which prevent further friendship between the families. For the adults, the religious barrier cannot now be crossed: for the girls, it was crossed ages ago. Will the children be more sensible than their parents? This is one of Jenny Robson’s most compelling youth novels.

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