In the spirit of Summer I recently re-watched Disney’s Moana, one of my favourite Disney movies to date, and it got me thinking about books that centre on strong adolescent or young adult characters who love their island home, embracing the place where they are meant to be and the person they want to become. After some perusing of my bookshelf I have gathered the following list of works that (more or less) fit this premise:
Nation, by Terry Pratchett
One of my favourite Terry Pratchett books of all time, and, surprisingly, not set in his Discworld universe. This is one of Pratchett’s few works set entirely in our world, and it combines so many brilliant themes, characters, ideas and relationships – like every Terry Pratchett book! – that I can barely begin to describe it. Mau is an islander boy who sails home from the Boys’ Island expecting to be welcomed as a man only to find something he never expected. Daphne had been minding her own business on a sailing ship with her father, in skirts and a petticoat, when her ship was thrown into the middle of Mau’s island during an enormous storm. Hilarious cross-cultural misunderstandings ensue between the two teenagers, and together they find Daphne’s father and begin to rebuild Mau’s home, with the help of some ancestors along the way. I became absolutely absorbed in this book, and I think any reader who enjoys a combination of history and mythology would!
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
This work is told through a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, a newspaper columnist in England, and Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey Island in the English Channel, plus correspondence among their various friends and family. Set just after World War II, Dawsey and his community of islanders are recovering from German occupation and severe rationing, from which sprung forth the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Dawsey’s initial letter to Juliet is regarding a book she once owned and it’s not long before all the members of the Society are writing to her about literature and their lives during and after the war. Juliet falls in love with the community of Guernsey, and in the end embraces island life and the post-war enthusiasm that inspires the people of Guernsey to rebuild their lives and continue pursuing their love of books.
Gracie and the Emperor, by Errol Broome
Eleven year old Gracie lives on the island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. The year is 1815, and Gracie’s daily life is already grinding with hardship when the dreaded Emperor Napolean Bonaparte, whom she has heard terrifying stories of her whole life, is exiled to her island after losing the war. But what happens when she comes to know the person behind the rumours?
Abarat, by Clive Barker
The most fantastical work on this list, Abarat is the first in a series about sixteen year old Candy Quackenbush, and girl growing up in the most boring place in the world: Chickentown, USA. Her life changes when a wave comes out of nowhere and sweeps her away to the Abarat, a vast archipelago where every island is a different hour of the day. Candy journeys from one place to the next, led by a man named John Mischief, whose brothers live on the horns on his head. Together they visit the strange twilight waters of Eight in the Evening, the sunlit warmth of Three in the Afternoon, and the terrifying island of Midnight, also known as Gorgossium, ruled over by the Prince of Midnight: Christopher Carrion. Candy slowly begins to realise that she has been to the Abarat before, and this time she is here to save it.
The Folk-Keeper, by Franny Billingsley
This may be stretching my premise a bit, but I absolutely love this YA short story as it is a combination of mythology, coming-of-age, and dark mystery centring on a strong, vengeful, independent protagonist. Corinna Stonewall is a fifteen year old orphan and Keeper of the Folk, a spiteful and vicious magical presence who must be placated in order for the crops to grow and the peace of a house to be kept. Corinna has a gift for keeping the Folk pacified and, disguised as a boy, she is employed by Lord Merton to be the Folk Keeper of Cliffsend, a vast seaside estate. Although loving an island home is not a strong theme in this work, Corinna only discovers her true self when she falls into the ocean surrounding Cliffsend, and it is then that the mystery of her identity – her longing for the sweet taste of fish, her hair growing two inches at night, her constant yearning for the ocean – is slowly unravelled.
The Violins of Saint-Jacques, by Patreick Leigh Fermor
Like The Folk-Keeper, I picked this slim story from a pile of books at a sale, and was soon immersed in a world of wealthy French colonists in the early twentieth century, their home an island in the Caribbean named Saint-Jacques. The story is framed beautifully as it is told by an elderly Frenchwoman to a young English traveller on another island in the Aegean sea many years after the events of her story. As an adolescent, Berthe de Rennes was sent to live with a wealthy French family on Saint-Jacques. Tin the end, the affluent lives and minor dramas of the family are nothing compared to the reality of Mother Nature, and thanks to the framing of the story it is not a sad ending; it is abrupt and unexpected and it rounds this work off perfectly.
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
Many people have heard of Gerald Durrell and his animal stories. This is the first of his many books and is mainly set on the Greek island of Corfu, where his English family settles from 1935-1939 when the author is ten through to fifteen years old. It seems that living in the Mediterranean suited the author; Durrell fell deeply in love with Corfu in the five years that he and his eccentric family lived there and he became fascinated with every degree of wildlife, from insects to large mammals, and the rest of his life was spent collecting creatures and curating zoos. This book is a fabulous and hilarious memoir that everyone can enjoy.
Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique
I first heard of Tiphanie Yanique when she was being compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez; her work Land of Love and Drowning was compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, and while it’s difficult to compare any book to Marquez’s magic realist masterpiece, it is indeed a worthy comparison. Yanique’s work spans generations, combining history with magical lineages, disappearances, love affairs, children, ghosts, war, death, loss, and sibling rivalry. It is a dense work, full of so many stories and side stories and histories and herstories that it is absolutely a worthy comparison to Marquez’s iconic work, but it is entirely its own flavour of story; where Marquez sets his generations in the rainforest village of Macondo, Yanique sets her family saga in the Virgin Islands, one sister born before American rule, the other after, and it is as much a juxtaposition of the two states of rule over the island as it is about the characters and their lives.
They Came on Viking Ships, by Jackie French
Ok so this one is really pushing the boundaries of my premise. They Came on Viking Ships begins when Vikings attack Hekja’s small coastal village and she and her dog, Snarf, are captured and taken to Greenland. Although she doesn’t stay in Greenland long, Hekja’s fierce determination, speed at running, and accuracy in carrying messages earns her the respect of her mistress, Freydis Eriksdottir, daughter of the infamous Viking Erik the Red. Freydis values Hekja’s skill so much that she takes her on a voyage to Vinland to establish a new settlement where strangers and dangers await…
Have any books that you think could go on this list? We’d love to hear them!