What We’re Reading: Balance the Books Edition

Stack of featured Balance the Books titles

Our Balance the Books project launched at the start of this year, and since then we have had amazing reviews from readers in our Young Writers’ groups and our partnered schools. The project encourages young people to read for pleasure by introducing them to a brilliant range of titles by writers from underrepresented backgrounds.

Now it’s time for the team at NWN to let you know what they’re reading from our Balance the Books shelf!

Ruth Dewhirst

The Black Flamingo’s gorgeous cover image pulled me in and as soon as I started reading I was hooked! This book is as creative and multi-faceted as its inspiring protagonist, Michael, following his life growing up mixed-heritage and gay in London. The first-person narration really helps you inhabit Michael’s world and live his coming-of-age story; the book is full of funny, tender and heart-breaking by moments, and the verse form and illustrations complement the writing beautifully. Highly recommend!


Emma Wallace

You’re Not Proper is a thought-provoking YA book covering the problems and fallout of Islamophobia, conversion, and class differences – all while being a teenager. The narrative switches between Karen, not quite fitting in anywhere and converting to Islam, and Shamshad, who thinks Karen picks up and puts down her religion on a whim. Their family feud feeds into the problems between the two girls, with the story tackling social injustice and class differences, as well as balancing family expectations, from a relatable teen perspective.

Tess Denman-Cleaver

David Olusoga’s Short Essential History is an accessible, abbreviated version of his 2016 book Black and British: AForgotten History,designed for younger readers. As someone who studied (and was mostly bored by) a turgid and incredibly biased GCSE history curriculum in the mid 90’s, Olusoga’s book fills in a lot of gaps, very succinctly. He gives easily digestible outlines of stories largely missing from mainstream historical narratives; of African’s living in Britain during the Roman occupation and how the story of the industrial revolution that so defines the North of England overlooks the reality of the slave trade that underpinned Britain’s status as a ‘world leader’ in technological innovation. I hope this book becomes a key text for young people studying British history today – as well as for adult readers whose education missed so much out when they were younger.

Grace Keane

There are so many brilliant books on the Balance the Books list, but a particular favourite of mine is Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. I’m a huge fan of Emezi’s adult titles and found this fantastical mystery just as clever and immersive. In Pet we follow Jam, a young trans girl who lives in the city of Lucille – a city that is supposedly free from monsters and ruled over by benevolent angels. But when Pet, a strange creature, turns up to hunt a monster, Jam and her best friend Redemption are forced to confront the realities of their ‘utopian’ society. Short and compulsive, with fresh and memorable characters, Pet is a novel which introduces thoughtful ideas about morality and truth.

Laura Fraine

After waiting for years for the Home Office to approve his visa, 16-year-old Bernardo is finally able to travel from the Philippines to be reunited with his mum and step-dad, who work as nurses in London. Half-sister Andi can’t wait to meet her older brother, but she’s in for a bit of a surprise when Bernardo arrives – he is eight feet tall!

Drawing on the Philippines myth of Bernardo Carpio, the giant who pushed two mountains apart to save the village in between, Tall Story is a sweet, moving and funny story of family life split seven thousand miles apart. I particularly enjoyed learning more about life in the Philippines and of the experience of Filipinos in the diaspora.

Kathryn Tann

I whizzed through Long Way Down. I’m unfamiliar with the book it’s adapted from, but honestly I couldn’t imagine it in any other format now. Danica Novgorodoff’s inky watercolour artwork is perfect for Jason Reynolds’ story – with lots of dark bleeding colours and rough edges, while also adding an elegant, almost poetic feel to the kind of story we think we know. Long Way Down bucks the trend, tugs on numerous strings, and feels really important, too.

Carys Vickers

I loved reading A Kind of Spark! This story is full of heart and courage as it recounts 11-year-old Addie’s campaign to get a memorial for the witch trials that took place in her small Scottish town. Elle McNicoll writes with such an honest and expressive voice, and vulnerably discusses the challenges of being autistic while emphasising that it is an important and valuable part of who Addie is. I flew through it in a couple of sittings as it was fun, engaging and full of wonderful characters who bravely stood up for what’s right, and it has left me thinking about how I can better understand and support my autistic friends and family.

Laura Lewis

Stay a Little Longer follows the story of Aman, a young girl dealing with the loss of her father. One day, a neighbour called Gurnam saves her from some local bullies, and they quickly become friends. But Aman soon realises that Gurnam is suffering with his own issues.

This was such an emotional read. The story explores difficult topics such as grief and homophobia but balances the tone with themes of love and acceptance. Aman was a fantastic protagonist. She was strong, opinionated and easy to relate to. A hopeful book that leaves you thinking about family, whether related or found, and a reminder to support those you care about.

Will Mackie

I’ve been reading The Dark Lady by Akala, a fast-paced, thought-provoking and affecting novel set in Elizabethan England. Henry is an orphan with mysterious powers navigating the squalid and perilous London streets where he gets by as a master pickpocket. This is an intriguing story exploring family bonds and race against a compelling and vividly created backdrop – you can see, feel and even smell the streets of London during this lively and formative period. The story is hard-hitting at times with some brutal and emotionally powerful moments and this book is one for the older end of the teen and YA market.