“Brilliant… Witty, super-smart, heartbreakingly generous, it’s so good you almost want to keep it a secret.” Patrick Ness.

Life: An Exploded Diagram


  • East Anglian Book Award 2011 Winner
  • Coventry Inspiration Book Awards  2012
  • St Helens Young Peoples Book Award 2012 Shortlisted
  • The Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Year 2011


  •   Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award
  • LA Times Book Award Finalist
  • Junior Library Guild Selection
  • Booklist’s Editors’ Choice List 2011
  • Kirkus’s Best of 2011 List
  • Horn Book Fanfare 2011 – best books of the year
  • Book Page’s Best of the Year Picks
  • Battle of the Books SLJ Finalist


‘irresistible…it has indignation, passion, wisdom, humour and an exhilarating choice of words…Readers will love it and writers will wish they had written it.’
Sunday Times Book of the Year

This is an exceptional young adult novel, warm and poignant and entirely absorbing. As well as being a finely written, emotionally mature piece of work, it’s also an intelligent enquiry into cause and consequence, a study of class and its hidebound nature after the war (Clem is a labourer’s son whose father goes up in the world to work for the local squire; he falls in love, naturally, with the squire’s daughter.) The Cuban Missile crisis looms large in Clem’s imagination, and it also works as a metaphor, layered through the entire text. A sterling book from a well-established author, this should definitely win prizes.

A writer’s books of the year

Books of the Year 2011

And for adults, for teenagers, for anyone at all, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) must be sought out. Concerning the pursuit of virginity loss in 1960s Norfolk against the background of the Cuban missile crisis, it’s fresh, vital and with an ending that still stuns, 11 months after I read it.

The Guardian

For some time now Mal Peet has been the most elegant prose stylist in the world of young-adult fiction. Life An Exploded Diagram is his finest work to date, by turns hysterically funny, sad, poignant, bitter, and rude, but always with that unfakeable sense of deep truth. The eye he casts on his characters is both unblinking and yet sympathetic, their foibles understood and forgiven in the very moment of exposure. Although any intelligent teenager would gain much from reading this book, it deserves a wider readership, and confirms Peet’s position not just as a great writer of children’s fiction, but one of our best novelists, full stop.

Anthony McGowan

“Brilliant, especially in that it breaks pretty much every single alleged “rule” of writing for teenagers. Witty, super-smart, heartbreakingly generous, it’s so good you almost want to keep it a secret.”

Patrick Ness

How do I admire this breathtakingly intricate novel? Let me count the ways. There’s its beautiful, bittersweet evocation of rural adolescence in 1962, so sensually done that you can almost hear the fizzing hormones. There’s its sheer scope – Google Earth in a novel – as we zoom out from the North Norfolk strawberry fields to land in the testosterone-fuelled tensions of JFK’s cabinet room and the humid jungles of Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. There are its gloriously imagined characters: both the older ones who fold inside themselves the disappointments and deprivations of wartime; and the younger ones, starting to taste freedoms and opportunities of which their parents can scarcely conceive. And there’s the fact that the whole is utterly untainted by blinkering nostalgia. ‘Nostalgics want to cuddle the past like a puppy,’ says Clem. ‘But the past has bloody teeth and bad breath.’

Just one warning siren: the ending of this novel is one of those where you find yourself frantically turning the pages to check that it really is the end. And I’m not sure how much I liked being left like that.

But my admiration for this novel still soars. Above all for its spine-tingling, loin-buzzing, butterflies-in-the-stomach evocation of what it feels like to be young, that extraordinary time of having life, love, sex and the whole oyster of the world in front of you. And so then what a blow it is when you realise that world is also a dangerous one, run by stupid people who might just cause mass destruction to your plans.”

Books For Keeps *****

“Previously the winner of both the Carnegie and Guardian awards for his teenage fiction, here is a gifted novelist who deserves the widest audience. His autobiographical account of Clem’s schooldays at his ultra-patriotic grammar school where the National Anthem is played on every pretext, including the Duke of Kent’s birthday and the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile, is just one of the pleasures of this irreverent and compassionate novel.”

Read and enjoy.’

Independent On Sunday

“Since 2003, Mal Peet has been quietly (too quietly, it might be argued) producing many of the finest books in young adult literature. His excellent historical novel, Tamar, won the 2005 Carnegie medal, while Exposure, a brilliant riff on Othello transposed to the world of South American football, was awarded the 2009 Guardian children’s fiction prize. With Life: An Exploded Diagram, Peet has once more produced a winner: a subtle, minutely observed novel with a huge heart and a bold historical sweep. Somehow it all connects, thanks to Peet’s cool eye, generous sensibility and fierce intelligence. It doesn’t hurt that his storytelling prowess is more than a match for the lust of his young protagonists, the inner workings of JFK’s war cabinet, and the gruesome conditions inside a Russian submarine, which “tipped and slewed in the water like a drowned rocking-horse” (and also happens to be carrying an atomic bomb with America’s name on it). The question that will undoubtedly be raised in relation to this – and one that has been asked of Peet’s work before – is whether it really belongs in the young adult section. From the unpublished writer who told me “If all else fails, I’ll write a YA book”, to Martin Amis’s pronouncement that he’d have to be brain injured to write for children, the slight sneer that follows the category often suggests it’s a sub-valid form of literature, OK for those not intelligent or mature enough for real books. Life: An Exploded Diagram is a real book, a rare treat for thoughtful readers of any age. Read it yourself. Then, if you can think of a young person with the wit to appreciate it, pass it along.”

The Guardian

For some time now Mal Peet has been the most elegant prose stylist in the world of young-adult fiction. Life An Exploded Diagram is his finest work to date, by turns hysterically funny, sad, poignant, bitter, and rude, but always with that unfakeable sense of deep truth. The eye he casts on his characters is both unblinking and yet sympathetic, their foibles understood and forgiven in the very moment of exposure. Although any intelligent teenager would gain much from reading this book, it deserves a wider readership, and confirms Peet’s position not just as a great writer of children’s fiction, but one of our best novelists, full stop.

Anthony McGowan

‘World history and small moments of exquisite tenderness pulled together in an enthralling narrative – Mal Peet is a genius.’


“Surely the finest young-adult book of the year is Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram, of which it is hard to identify any feature that makes it specifically for younger readers. A fitting contender for adult  prizes, this is a coming-of-age story set in Norfolk, interspersed with a behind-the-scenes account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Working class Clem Ackroyd  is born early when a hurricane startles his mother by shooting her chimney pot to bits (‘’ ‘I was expectun,’ she’d often say, over the years. ‘But I wunt expectun that,’  ‘’). As a sixth former, Clem falls in love with Frankie, the local landowner’s daughter, and their compelling and compulsive relationship gives this story its focus. In fact, though, every detailof Clem’s family history, of the mad machinations of American warmongers, and of the Norfolk way of life is riviting. This story has indignation, passion and humour, always expressed with an exhilarating choice of words.’

The Sunday Times

“Clem, the narrator of Mal Peet’s extraordinary Life: an Exploded Diagram (Walker, £7.99), was born when a suicidal German bomber nearly knocked his mother’s chimney off. Explosions continue to be a theme, appearing at moments of significance, highlighting the random nature of existence.

While being a moving Bildungsroman about Clem’s forbidden love for the squire’s daughter, this is also an examination of broader societal changes, and an elegant history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Peet’s novel ought to win prizes: it will suit any teen with even the slightest interest in history and human nature. “

The Daily Telegraph

Life: An Exploded Diagram is much more than a love story set against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mal Peet is like a master couturier – he stitches words together into exquisitely cut sentences. A man in a loveless marriage drinks beer in a silent pub and feels “the absence of joy pierce him like a bayonet”. A father loves his daughter in “a prowling, anxious sort of a way”. A Soviet missile carries a nuclear bomb in its underbelly “like a gross and ugly pregnancy”. Peet’s unpicking of first love and sex is tender, realistic and funny. And that he can move from fumblings in a barn to machinations in the Pentagon without losing the reader is testament to his genius.”

Sunday Telegraph

“Strikingly ambitious in scope Life: An Exploded Diagram lingers longest during the summer of 1962. Clem’s 16, he’s in love, conducting a deliciously illicit affair with the local landowner’s daughter while the rest of the world holds its breath over the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a dangerous time to consider the future. Peet’s warmth, humour and fierce intelligence are soaked into every page as he moves effortlessly between first-time fumblings in the strawberry fields of rural Norfolk and the wrangling for power at the heart of the Oval Office. Is it a cliché for a reviewer to label a book unmissable? Tough. Like me you’ll probably read it twice, just because you can.”

The Scotsman

‘ “In 1962, the world suddenly seemed to be on the brink of all-out nuclear war. I was extremely annoyed about it.” This remark by Mal Peet, from the press release, sums up the tone of this outstanding coming-of-age novel.’

‘There are explosions, but not the ones the world has been dreading, and Peet manages another difficult feat – moving his story into fast-forward to show what happens to the characters after that summer of heightened consciousness. However, he has more surprises up his sleeve to keep attention tightly focused right up to the final sentence.

With so much current teenage fiction appearing wearily formulaic, aimed at crowd-pleasing, it’s a relief and an enormous pleasure to come across writing like this – intelligent, moving, compelling, evoking place, period and character with a sureness that transports the reader. Like Mal Peet’s Carnegie-winning Tamar, this exceptional new novel will appeal to adults just as much as to discerning teenagers.’

Armadillo Magazine

Mal Peet’s strikingly ambitious new novel Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker £7.99) follows Clem from the day he’s born, with Spitfire guns still ringing in his mother’s ears, through to his witnessing the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, but lingers longest during that fateful summer. Alongside Clem’s narrative, Peet also gives us front row seats in JFK’s war office and a desperate bunk inside a Russian submarine carrying a rather large missile with America’s name on it. The storytelling skill alone is enviable, but this big, generous book is all wrapped up with great warmth and humour. Perhaps it’s a cliché to label a book “unmissable”? Tough

The Scotsman

“Even for an author of Peet’s calibre this is an ambitious project: a three generational story that spans World War II, the Cuban missile crisis and 9/11, set against a rich, rural Norfolk background and the intense political tension of the Cold War – with rites-of-passage sexual experimentation along the way.”

“But Peet handles this complex narrative with such confidence and skill that the journey is almost seamless, and the darkness of the subject matter is offset by a dry and clever wit.”

The Daily Mail

‘Separated by a Berlin Wall of class differences, without the benefit of mobile phones, this Romeo and Juliet of rural Norfolk win hearts and minds. They are only part of Peet’s sweeping narrative of a half-century of social change, in which the superpowers are revealed as just as inept and vulnerable as the rest of us. Particularly touching is the progress of Clem’s parents’ relationship from first love to disappointment, as tortuous and draining as their son’s love for Frankie is short and sweet.’

The Observer

Award-winning Mal Peet is a wonderful writer and his latest book, LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM, is one of his best to date.

A coming of age story, set in 1962 against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it relates the love affair between two Norfolk teenagers and the fall-out that ensues.

Beautifully written and with characters you really care about, this is a novel that adults as well as teenagers will enjoy.

Daily Express

‘In the afterword to his novel Life: An Exploded Diagram Mal Peet says: ‘Many of the events, characters and settings are – or were – real; but they have been passed through the twisted lens of fiction. As a result, I like to think that they have become true.’’

‘Mal Peet won the Carnegie medal for his excellent novel Tamar and he’s written several other vastly entertaining and interesting novels since then. There are some writers – and he’s one of them – who achieve their effects in such a natural way, so unfussily and elegantly, that it becomes hard to point to exactly what it is that makes the prose so good. Peet has got a terrific ear for dialogue, and the depiction of his family and the Norfolk neighbours and schoolfriends is so vivid that we can hear them and see them, as though we ourselves have stepped into the pages of the novel and are overhearing what they say. It’s a very easy book in which to lose yourself.’

Adele Geras

Concerning the explosive forbidden love between the narrator, Clem, a labourer’s son, and the upper-class Frankie, this is a superbly poignant examination of adolescence set against the menacing backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which acts brilliantly as a metaphor for the uncertainties of teenage life. Elegantly written, heartfelt and convincing, it stands as one of the best novels of the year – and not just for teenagers.

The Telegraph


‘Sometimes hilariously comic, sometimes desperately sad, this totally engrossing novel exhibits ambition and confronts challenge to equally telling effect.’

Irish Times

“This is an ambitious and cleverly constructed novel that demonstrates how people’s lives can hang on seemingly random events and decisions. War, and its consequences for all, is a central theme and Peet interlinks history and world events with the narratives of seemingly unimportant individuals.”



‘A coming-of-age story framed by some of the most terrifying events of the last 60 years, from World War II to 9/11.

Peet achieves what few writers for young adults have: a bold venture that spans generations against a backdrop of war and global politics and their effect on individual lives, while describing minute facets of those lives in intimate, cinematic detail.’

‘In delicious and often humorous meanderings through time and place, the author adroitly intertwines the brinkmanship of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis with the teenagers’ secret romance. His narrative glides easily from Clem’s first-person retrospective to third-person storytelling from several points of view, including Kennedy’s and Krushchev’s.

Sophisticated teens and adults will appreciate this subtle yet powerful exposition of the far-reaching implications of war.’

Kirkus Review (starred)  *

In this fictional memoir, which spans the years 1945 to the present, Clem Ackroyd tells the story of his working-class origins and postwar Norfolk upbringing and, especially, his clandestine relationship with Frankie Mortimer, upper-class daughter of the local landowner. While in 1962 Clem and Frankie move ever deeper into love and lust, the Americans and Russians are facing off over Castro, Cuba, and nuclear missiles—a backdrop, metaphor, and historical event that charges the plot and themes of Peet’s story. This is mesmerizing through the sheer force and liveliness of its prose, as well as its unpredictable, inexorable plot. Peet’s gift for imagery (“the morning rain had wandered off like a gray cat bored with a kill” or “[he had a] smile like a bad set of dentures shoved into a steamed pudding”) makes the novel fizz with the intensity of an adolescent’s heightened perceptions—in which everything is alive, and even boredom is an all-engrossing activity. Place, period, and adolescent passion all come through with exuberant feeling and humor (“Chapter 25. You Learn Nothing about Sex from Books, Especially If They’re by D. H. Lawrence”); Peet’s subtle, literary play with narrative voice, style, and chronology make this a satisfyingly sophisticated teen novel. Outstanding.”

Horn Book Reviews (starred) *

Peet’s brilliant, ambitious novel bridges the years between World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City, but at its heart is a star-crossed affair set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The titular life is that of 17-year-old Clem Ackroyd, a working-class boy living in British government-assisted housing. The object of his lust, 16-year-old Frankie Mortimer, resides in ritzy Bratton Manor. Despite their class differences, Clem and Frankie launch a torrid (and top secret) romance, engaging in some eyeball-melting make-out/groping sessions wherever and whenever possible. As the threat of nuclear annihilation grows, Peet effectively juxtaposes the tension surrounding Cuba with the increasingly sexual relationship between the lovers: “I absolutely refuse to die a virgin,” bemoans Frankie at one point. Peet’s immediate writing style brims with fine detail, from the “cigarette and strawberry juice” tastes of the couple’s first kiss to Frankie’s train compartment that “smelled of fart and smoke.” While much of the narrative consists of Clem’s point of view, an omniscient narrator occasionally takes readers into the minds of Frankie and several villagers, and into the respective war rooms of the U.S. and Russia. The horrific ramifications of war are implicitly stated, but not in a heavy-handed way. Recommend this memorable novel to mature teen readers, and if you can wrest away a copy, read it yourself.”

School Library Journal  (starred)*

‘Peet creates an explosive world where love is frowned upon and the past has bloody teeth and bad breath. It’s a world that demands deep examination and thought, and Peet has done a splendid job of creating it.’

Booklist (starred) *

‘Cold War literature seems to be on a strong trend, and Peet’s provocative offering should prove an important contribution to the theme.’

BCCB Reviews

“This remarkable work of historical fiction begins during the last days of World War II, when a heartbroken Nazi pilot goes on a last, suicidal mission over the English countryside, inadvertently bringing Clem Ackroyd into the world a little bit earlier than expected.”

“Peet plays with chronology, taking us back and forth from past to present. He does the same with point of view, switching at will from first- to third-person and back again. An omniscient narrator lifts us from the immediate narrative thread and drops us down for a fly-on-the-wall look at iconic scenes from the atomic age—like the Kennedy White House during the Cuban missile crisis. Somehow, it all comes together at the end, with an older Clem fretting that he may miss an 8:45 a.m. appointment in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This title would be an ideal choice for a multi-generational book discussion, and will very likely have adult crossover appeal.”


“The story is beautifully told and Peet is masterful in his ability to combine history with a family’s story, a bold move on his part, but his writing, combined with the stories of this family, make it difficult to put down.” Highly Recommended

Library Media Connections Review (starred)

Life: An Exploded Diagram, the new novel from award-winning British author Mal Peet, is a reminder that labeling a work as “YA” (young adult) is often, well, arbitrary. Peet may put young people at the center of his fiction, but his work is so spectacular that it can— and should—be savored by readers of all ages. This far-reaching, ambitious historical novel begins toward the close of World War II on the day Clem Ackroyd is born, after a German pilot flies a plane low over his mother’s house on March 9, 1945. By the time Clem, a good student who wants to go to art school, is a teenager, his father has gone to work for Gerard Mortimer, whose family owns Bratton Manor. Picking strawberries on the Mortimer farm one summer, Clem finds himself attracted to the Mortimer daughter, Frankie, even though, as Clem’s friend Goz puts it, “She Mortimer You Ackroyd.” Clem and Frankie begin meeting secretly. But just as readers might be expecting a traditional Romeo and Juliet crisis to unfold, Peet steps back from his canvas to paint a compelling picture of the historical landscape that envelops the young lovers—in this

case, the Cuban missile crisis. The random violence of war and terrorism threads through this compelling novel; but Peet weaves it in so seamlessly and relentlessly that when the crisis does come for Clem and Frankie, it is unexpected and devastating. It is not until decades later, when chance and violence once again play a part in their lives, that we fully begin to understand the depth of their connection. If you’d like to give a young person this novel, do yourself a favor:

Read it first!


‘We can all name them. Books we never want to end. Books that we hope possess the magical ability to sit on our bedside table each night and grow more chapters for us to read the following morning. Well, here is a Please-Don’t-Ever-End book. Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet is an exhilarating read, intellectually, creatively, aesthetically. It is wild and bold and filled with extraordinary and lovely writing. It is like no other young adult book I have ever read. It is one of the best books I have read in years. It is masterful.’


This is a book that is tender and terrifying, that whispers sweetly and shouts in anguished anger.  Life and death, love and war – we humans are inescapably formed by the impact of both forces – and Mal Peet explores this theme with as explosive a power as I have ever encountered.  Is it conventional YA?  No, but thoughtful teens will connect with the passion and the honesty in these pages.”

Booklist Online

Favorite 2011 Books

“Mal Peet is probably one of the best YA writers that hardly anyone has ever heard of, and his latest only solidifies his genius in my mind. Working class Clem was born during World War II in the midst of the German bombing of London, and we follow him through to adulthood and his meeting and falling in love with Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Meanwhile, huge events are happening in the outside world, from the Cuban Missile Crisis all the way to 9/11.”

Normal PL Blog:

Top Ten 2011

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet, a late comer to my 2011 reading, lands the number 3 slot.  Peet masterfully merges two stories, the first about England during WW II and and the second about the Cuban Missile Crisis into a book you can’t put down. His language, his sarcasm, his observations, his stories keep you reading way past bedtime.

‘How Peet masterfully intertwines these two stories is not something I want to reveal to you.You must read it for yourself. And, if you’re like me, you may be surprised, saddened and surprised, by Part Three: Picking Up the Pieces. I could not put Life: An Exploded Diagram down. I chuckled. I smiled. I frowned. My emotions ran the gamut. Do yourself a favor. If you’re looking for that great end of year book, pick up Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet.’


“I think Mal Peet might be the best YA — or any level — writer we never hear about. And that’s a damn shame, y’all. He’s that gem of an author, one who just writes a gorgeous story with gorgeous words and doesn’t write for a particular audience. Adults won’t realize this isn’t marketed as an adult book, and teens won’t care. The book is sprawling, rolling back and forth between World War II and the early 1960s, jumping here and there into the first World War and up to 2001, but there’s nothing extraneous.

Forever Young Adult

Life : an Exploded Diagram is transcendent. It is beyond. It is a book that should not be shelved under YA fiction, it is not a book that should be read solely by one demographic. In a very quiet way, this book is one of the best I’ve read this year.’

‘There’s a very lovely warmth in Peet’s writing all through this book. From the startling juxtapositions between massive world-shattering events and that moment where a boy meets a girl; it’s just so damn good. And he’s right. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world, the biggest of things may be happening, sometimes it doesn’t matter when you’re locked in a maelstrom of your own. I love his writing. I love how, on every page, there’s a fragment of the most beautiful images I’ve ever witnessed. The last pages in particular blew my mind more than a little. I howled. I’ll admit that right now, I howled.

This book took me from breath to breath, happiness to sadness and back again, and I was hook-caught every step of the way.’”


“A new novel by Mal Peet is always something to be eagerly anticipated: finely drawn characters, ambitious storytelling, a broad historical canvas, piercing social critique–and now, much more than in previous novels, a delightfully irreverent streak of humor.”

School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal Blog

“An astonishingly engaging, wonderful, un-put-downable book. By following the life of Clem which begins in World War II England and leaves him in 2001 New York, Mal Peet tells the story of family, duty, and the concept of home while elucidating important historical events. His gorgeous writing makes one re-read sentences over and over again for the pure joy of experiencing the language. Life: An Exploding Diagram begs to be read again and again.” –

Carol Stoltz, Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA

“I was riveted by Mal Peet’s extraordinary new novel Life: An Exploded Diagram. On one level it’s the often funny, painful, disastrous coming-of-age story of Clem Ackroyd in Norfolk, England in 1962. And on an entirely different level, it manages to encapsulate the coming-of-age and loss of innocence of an entire generation living through the terrors of the Cold War. Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, I hope it finds a wide and appreciative crossover audience.” –

Terry Schmitz, The Children’s Book Shop, Brookline, MA

REVIEWS (Australia/New Zealand)

‘Highly recommended. Whilst this novel provides an amazing reading experience, it is certainly unlike most YA fiction, in structure, in focus and in narrative voice.’


This a tender, funny and engrossing read which will make you think, laugh and remind you of how history really does have an impact on our lives.

About the Books