Eliza Henry Jones is an author who knows how to delve deep into the human condition and explore those confronting, emotional issues that shadow every family in a different way. In her new YA novel How to Grow A Family Tree (Angus and Robertson 2020), she once again gives us a heart-wrenching and poignant story about love, loss, friendship, betrayal, loyalty and the YA tradition of examining self-identity (Who am I? How did I get here? Why am I the way I am? Do I deserve this life? What if things were different? How am I supposed to be in the world?), whilst also traversing wider themes such as poverty, socio-economic class privilege, adoption and addiction.
Stella is 17 and has read every self-help book she could get her hands on. She is a likeable protagonist who means well and is always trying to help others, even if sometimes her methods are a bit misguided. But her world is tipped upside down when her father’s gambling addiction leads to her family having to leave their home and move to the rather grungy (and optimistically named) Fairyland Caravan Park. Stella is horrified at her reduced circumstances and hides her move from even her closest friends. Then another bombshell of a secret: a letter from her birth mother; a letter which could open the Pandora’s Box of her past; a letter which she refuses to discuss with her parents or her sister, Taylor. Stella’s relationships with her girlfriends and especially with her male friends – Clem, Richard and Matthew – are compelling, and Henry Jones has captured the adolescent dialogue and language with pinpoint accuracy. And the book is full of the humour and sardonic wit of teenagers the world over.
With her family life in chaos, Stella realises that all the self-help books in the world can’t help her in this situation. But she finds refuge in her friends, whom she begins to appreciate in new ways, and refuge too from the individual members of her families – both her biological and her adoptive families – in ways unexpected and surprising. Amidst all of this, Stella realises that when she looks beneath her original opinion of the unappealing veneer and environment of Fairyland, she discovers a community of people who are generous, creative, inspiring and determined to make the best of a bad situation. And as she comes to terms with who she is, and how her past circumstances have shaped her, she understands that there is more to life than money and status, that true family is the people you have chosen, and those who have chosen you, and that love can be found in the most unexpected of places, sometimes hiding in plain sight.