Five books that reflect a challenging reality

Published on: 09 October 2023

Author Frances Moloney recommends five stories that reflect the sometimes tough reality of children’s lives.

Author Frances Moloney and the covers of some of her favourite booksAuthor Frances Moloney and the covers of some of her favourite books

When I was a child, the books I loved to read most were the ones that were set in the real world, that reflected the complex reality of growing up in some way, and dealt with interesting, and sometimes challenging, themes and ideas. Often, it is the world around me and current events that form a kernel for one of my own stories.

For City of Horses, we were beginning to emerge from a global pandemic and the use of foodbanks was on the rise, long before the ‘cost of living’ crisis was a term we’d come to know. With ever-rising costs, households were increasingly living pay cheque to pay cheque, month to month, and with zero-hour contracts becoming the norm, and a housing crisis in the wake of Grenfell, life felt even more precarious than ever.

I also adored ponies and pony stories when I was young and had always wanted to write one of my own. But I also wanted it to be set in a city, and to be about children from lower-income families who still lived and breathed horses as I had as a child. When these two ideas collided in my mind, City of Horses was born.

The story follows Misty, a thirteen-year-old girl who is forced to move to the Redbridge Estate when her father is made redundant, and they lose their family home. Here she meets local children, Dylan and Carin, and the horses who live there. Horses who live on the hillside of a council estate in an ex-industrial town. And when this common land comes under threat from developers who want to build ‘luxury apartments’ on it, it is up to Misty and her new friends to try and save the horses’ home.

City of Horses took inspiration from real-life urban horse communities in Dublin and Swansea among others. Here are some of the books that, whilst fiction, continue to inspire and inform my love of real-world-set stories that tackle big and important subjects that young readers might face in their own lives today.

1. Needle by Patrice Lawrence

I recently heard Patrice say that when she is angry about something that is happening in society, she writes it down. Set in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, Needle is an immediate, thought-provoking read that examines the effects of the social care and justice systems in the UK on young people, especially those from Black British backgrounds, today.

2. Being Billy by Phil Earle

Another novel that holds a light up to the care system in the UK. Phil Earle’s debut novel draws on his own experiences of working with kids in care and you can feel the protagonist, Billy’s, anger thrumming through the words of every page. A stark reflection of life in a residential home that will have you rooting for the main character to find a way out.

3. Thief by Malorie Blackman

Thief is the first novel I can remember reading as a class in primary school. The first book that made me realise the power of stories and how deeply they could make you think. As with all of Malorie’s books, there is an important moral dilemma running through this cautionary vision of the future.

4. Junk by Melvin Burgess

Another incredibly powerful novel that has stayed with me since I read it as a young teenager and an example of the importance of tackling topics like addiction in stories for adolescent readers. This book is now 25 years old and just as impactful as it was when I first read it over twenty years ago.

5. Jump to the Top by Patricia Leitch


I had to include a pony book in here somewhere, and if I had to pick just one favourite, this would be it! Another example of how a great story can transcend time. First published in 1973, I felt as if this book was speaking directly to me in the late 90s. Against all odds, Jacky, a normal teenage girl, ends up acquiring the pony of her dreams, but at what cost? Fun fact – Misty in City of Horses has red hair as an homage to Leach’s Jinny of Finmory series. Set in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, it is another firm favourite of mine.

City of Horses by Frances Moloney is out now.

Topics: Features


Bookbuzz is a reading programme from BookTrust that aims to help schools inspire a love of reading in 11 to 13-year-olds. Participating schools give their students the opportunity to choose their own book to take home and keep from a list of 16 titles.

Find out more