Like many YA novels, this one starts with a protagonist whose mother dies. But what makes this title stand apart is the way it lingers and sinks into the grief that actually accompanies such a monstrous loss. Grief is not an aspect of the plot line in Glasgow’s How to Make Friends with the Dark; rather, it is the plot line… the horrible, inescapable plot line that all of us must follow at one time or another. As such, it’s a painful read, but also a revelatory and important one. I applaud Glasgow for having the bravery to go here, in such a realistic and three-dimensional way. This book is about death and the aftermath–no sugared-over love story among the rubble, just the truth.
I was not prepared for everything that I got out of Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake. It’s a genre-defying YA title, mostly realistic but somehow also mostly fantasy, a little sci-fi, a lot mystery, and just an extremely interesting ride. Pessl takes the concept of a time loop anomaly and applies it to a group of wealthy, privileged college kids who all have something to hide. When they get trapped together in a recurring day inside a kind of half-alive limbo with a ticking clock, all manner of possibilities provide themselves. It’s a thrilling and satisfyingly fun read. The plot is admirably complex, and will delight fans of unpredictable stories with larger than life characters. In other words, this book is like the hippest game of Clue ever played.
After the Fall is a gossipy YA read with a real beating heart behind it. The way that the narration plays with our perceptions of the characters ultimately reveals a criticism of stereotypes, a reminder that people are rarely what we think we know about them. I appreciate the way Hart refuses to shy away from edgier content–her treatment of sexual assault from multiple perspectives has important and strong messages for her young adult readers. This book could be the difference that makes a kid speak up about something important.
The best YA books capture what it really feels like to be young, and The Poet X does that with a hand so light you didn’t even know it touched you until you close the back cover. The book verges on metafiction, as it’s written in verse, essentially representing the notebook full of poems that the main character Xiomara carries with her everywhere as she comes into her artistic identity. Acevedo is so good at capturing the overwhelming crescendo of adolescence–suddenly we have to figure out about God and love and who our parents really are as people and what to do with an adult body and terror and pride and what we’re willing to risk ourselves for. Xiomara has all of that chaos right in front of her, and we get to ride along as she figures it all out, full of doubt but also full of power. A resounding celebration of the solace and strength that comes from writing.
A snackable YA read that serves up quirky characters and romantic chemistry with a side of complicated parental relationships. I appreciate the way that Choi represented the flow of modern relationships from digital to physical and back again. Wish we could have seen Penny confront her own insecurities and evasiveness a little but more without the romantic interest as the vehicle for it, but hey, it’s true to the genre. The thing I respect most about this book is the encouragement to be honest with another person about the big things that define yourself, to share, admit, disclose, and acknowledge rather than hiding it away.
I Am Still Alive is an incredible YA pick for the reader who loves tense action and adventure. The novel fits in the tradition of other classic survival writers like Jack London and Gary Paulsen, but with a whole new, fiercer twist. The 16-year-old heroine–who becomes stranded in the far northern Canadian wilderness on her own–is complicated and realistic, both naive and badass in believable ways. The things she has to learn and push through to try to survive evoke very visceral reactions. I was gasping! Marshall is absolutely brutal when it comes to envisioning the scenarios that can and do happen when humans are pitted against the physical and emotional trauma of survival situations. My heart was both broken and strengthened by the end. If you’re looking for a riveting read to tear through in a couple days, this is it.
Emily X.R. Pan’s debut is a lovely, complex addition to modern young adult fiction. It’s rare and special in so many ways–in the fact that it’s magical realism, in its honest and multifaceted sorrow, in its brave statements on family, blame, and the realities of depression. This book changed the way I saw the world while I was reading it. The main character’s visions are immersive to that extent, and her way of understanding emotions through color is cool. The novel is a love song to Leigh’s mother, and all mothers who have left the earth to take a different form.
To Be Honest is a charming, of-the-moment young adult read. Martin creates a narrative voice around her main character, Savannah, that is realistic and lovably imperfect. It is refreshing to find a teenage heroine who is body positive and romantically confident in her larger figure. Savannah very much owns her own story. Just seeing the cover–with that big, gorgeous girl on the front–is going to mean so much to so many readers who have been waiting forever for a fictional leading lady to identify with. Her body, while such an important aspect of the book from a representation perspective, really isn’t the main focus–we see her struggle through relationships, form her identity, and cope with family tension and dysfunction. I was cheering Savannah on the whole time. As is typical in YA, there are definitely moments where characters or aspects of plot are oversimplified, but the romantic tension and family toxicity feels real and will please young readers. Candy-sweet in a good way.
Trouble is an edgy, gossipy, twisting and turning young adult read. There a real beating heart here, especially in Pratt’s beautiful and frustrating female protagonist, Hannah. I enjoyed the novel’s play on the expectations we hold others to based on reputation and appearance, much of which can be so wrong. There’s also a unique element in this book exploring how teenagers and the elderly have things in common and can be good company for each other; I LOVED the characterization of old, crotchety Neville. While the drama in this novel is notched up to ten and the believability of the plot is probably pushing it, the emotion isn’t overdone. Rather, it feels awfully real. Set in England, the story has some British slang that’s confusing at first for an American reader, but it’s nothing too hard to figure out. Some parents may be uncomfortable with how explicit the text is for a young adult book–reader be warned–but I found its portrayal of the teenage being to be honest and compassionate.
Mosquitoland is one of the most solid, playful, surprising young adult novels I’ve read in a long time. David Arnold creates a Holden Caulfield for the 2010’s in the capricious Mim Malone, a narrator whose voice reminded me acutely of my own high school journals. As Mim rides a Greyhound Bus nearly a thousand miles north, she encounters oddball characters and situations that help her piece together her view of the world, and–allowing for the wholly unbelievable mostly because I’ve ridden a Greyhound bus and know what it’s like AND because romance deserves a shot–this book pretty close to perfect. This is such a new, refreshing story and will make you laugh and cheer for Mim Malone, who defines herself as “not okay,” but ends up being so much more.