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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Top 10 greatest underdogs

Stanley Yelnats in holes Stanley Yelnats (played by Shia LaBeouf in Disney's movie version) in Louis Sachar's Holes; the ultimate rise-of-the-underdog story. Photograph: Buena Vista

If I've learnt anything in the process of writing four books for young adults, it's this: I LOVE writing about underdogs, and readers love them too.

You know the characters I'm talking about: we see them every day of our lives. The skinny kid, the kid in glasses, the kid who has a "free lunch" at school and so can't bunk off to the chippy with the rest of the lads.

In short, it's the kid you think is going to amount to nothing in their lives. And that's what makes them so brilliant to write about: that you can surprise readers by squeezing every bit of glory from a character that at first sight, everyone would write off.

I can't imagine writing a book that didn't have an underdog at its heart, and here (in no particular order) are ten of my favourites from magnificent stories for children and young adults.

Young Master Lampchop doesn't let being squashed flat stand in the way of a great adventure. I loved the way his folks folded him inside an envelope and posted him to America for a holiday. Never has being one-dimensional been so cool.

Another magnificent Stanley. Has there even been a more perfect book than 'Holes'?
How can a book about digging holes in the desert become the most breathtaking example of storytelling at its best?
Stanley is at the heart of it. The biggest loser in a long line of Yelnats losers, but with a heart the size of a lion.
The kid is a legend. So much so, we named our son after him.

There are many great outsiders in this brilliant trilogy, but Ludmilla is my favourite, as whether physically or intellectually, she seems to have nothing whatsoever going for her. Even her name screams underdog.
People talk about the brilliance of Wimpy Kid, but for me, Donut Diaries is the real deal.

I love books where every bit of emotion is squeezed from its story, and you won't find a finer example than this. Hannah is 15, pregnant and written off. Aaron isn't the father but is prepared to say he is. What follows is a magnificent debut novel.

Siobhan left an incredible legacy. Four almost perfect books, and I love Solace for her bravery and imagination. I was lucky enough to work with many girls like Solace, growing up in care. Siobhan captured their uncompromising, gutsy voice beautifully.

I find it hard to articulate how much I love both this book, and the crusty, broken-winged being that hides behind the cobwebs in the garage. How Skellig manages to bring change to a family in crisis never fails to destroy me.

It takes guts for any teenager to trek halfway around the world in search of a missing father, but to do it with your little brother in tow, and when you're blind? How could you not root for Laurel? Marcus is a magnificent writer and this book proves just how versatile and skilful he is.

The greatest premise of any book, ever. Full stop. Tom becomes a twenty-first century superhero, when an iphone, dropped from the top of a tower block, becomes embedded in his brain. Genius. Kevin Brooks is YA's rock star. Never afraid to take risks or to write the story he wants to write.
Do I wish I'd written iBoy? Every single day.

Three boys on the unlikeliest road trip, from Cleethorpes to the Highlands of Scotland. Their journey is one of the realest and most emotional books in print. I didn't read much as a kid. I didn't feel there were books out there that spoke to me. It would've been different if Keith had been writing then. A truly great storyteller.

These boys have nothing in their lives. No jobs, no qualifications, no prospects, but they have each other, and an unbreakable bond of brotherhood that makes you root for each and every one of them. The one book I read every year to remind me what great writing looks like.

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