Like in 2017, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, due to a number of tedious, adult-ing reasons. So in the category of better late than never, here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2018. I mean, I could have dragged the list out to ten, but that would have taken away from the absolute awesomeness of these five, utterly top-notch books. Please note that there has been absolutely no attempt to balance this list by age, gender or genre. These are just my “from-the-gut” favorites of the books I read this year. Also, since I am lucky enough to get paid to review in publications other than this lovely blog, I reviewed some of my favorites elsewhere. In fact, I reviewed THE POET X, which was my hands down, favorite book of 2018 in every way, shape and form, for The Horn Book Magazine, a professional publication for librarians and other people who still dig kids and YA lit. Click on the title to go right to the review and happy New Year!
Way back in the day when Amazon was still just an online bookstore, I was hired to write freelance reviews of YA novels (which sadly, are now long gone from the site.) In one of my very first assignments, I was sent three ARCs: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Yeah. If you know YA literature at all, you know that those were the BIG THREE, the titles that ushered in the new golden age of YA lit by dealing frankly with issues of race, sexual identity and sexual assault while also being universally accessible and beautifully written. They broke the ground for Angie Thomas, John Green, Libba Bray,Jason Reynolds and basically every other modern YA author you know and love.
All of these books have continued to resonate with teens, but in particular, the popularity of Anderson’s Speak has grown exponentially. It won multiple awards, was made into a movie and is taught in high schools all over the country. And in 2018, twenty years after the publication of the original book, Laurie Halse Anderson and artist Emily Carrol have transformed it into a simply spectacular graphic novel.
Speak the Graphic Novel tells the now classic story of Melinda, a high school freshman who has stopped talking because she was raped at a party the summer before ninth grade. She is shunned by former friends and ignored by her busy parents. The only adult who shows her any positive attention is her art teacher, the goatee-ed Mr. Freeman, who instructs her to to take one subject (a tree) and “explore it in every way possible until you figure out how to make it say something, express an emotion.” Both Melinda and her tree evolve over the course of the school year until she finally finds her voice again and confronts the boy who assaulted her. Melinda’s voice is sardonic, self composed and darkly humorous in a way that felt revolutionary when Speak first came out, and continues to today.
Carroll has taken that voice and embellished it with her own ominous , shadowy style, full of close ups of mouths that smile, spit, snarl and snicker, all mocking Melinda’s own lips that rarely open and are dry and scabby from biting. Faces melt, eyes go black and panels flow like blood into each other, visually depicting the pain Melinda won’t voice. The pages lighten as spring approaches, except the two page spread where Melinda confronts her rapist and does everything she was too stunned to do before–screams, hits and says “NO!” in one long, savage word bubble that bursts into a dozens of sharp triangles. Like her tree, Melinda survives, grows, and renews herself, refusing to give up even when the pages go dark.
Fans of Speak will find their old friend freshly and inventively interpreted, while newcomers will fall under Carroll’s dark spell immediately, only resurfacing to go back to the beginning and read again before heading to their school library to check out the original. Do not miss this brilliant reimagining of one of the most celebrated books in YA history!
Sixteen year old Bri has a dream–to be as big as her legendary rapper dad, Lawless. He was shot and killed just as he was about to go nuclear, and Bri intends to finish what he started. She’s got her best friends Sonny and Malik cheering her on, and fierce Aunt Pooh lining up rap battles for her. But it can be hard to create lines and spit rhymes when she is constantly worried that her hard working mom Jay might slide back into drug addiction, or whether or not they have enough money to pay both the electric AND the grocery bills. When her big break finally happens, it comes at great personal cost. Bri is assaulted by a racist security guard at school, and she fights back the only way she knows how–through words. Her song “On the Come Up” goes viral, and soon Bri’s catchy chorus is being sung by every kid at school and she is being courted by the same manager who made her dad famous. But when her song is used a weapon against her and other black and brown kids, Bri has to make some hard choices about life, love, family and fame that threaten to silence her dream forever.
Teen peeps, however much you loved Starr in The Hate U Give (and I know, we all loved her A LOT) you are going to be blown away by Bri. Hats off to Angie Thomas, who defied the sophomore slump with this classic, yet totally fresh story of a talented neighborhood girl who makes good by staying true to herself. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels forced, as Thomas effortlessly weaves issues of racial profiling, gang violence, feminism, implicit bias and LGBTQ acceptance into Bri’s compulsive, page-turning story. The cast of complex secondary characters defy stereotypes at every turn (tough Aunt Pooh, loving mom Jay, wise brother Trey, goofy friend Sonny, serious friend Malik, Grandma and Granddaddy in their matching outfits) and are so well drawn that they could all star in their own spin-offs. And the music! Rap mavens and hiphop newbies alike will delight in reading about and then going to listen to Bri’s top five “goats” (greatest of all time): Biggie, Tupac, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill and Rakim. Bri’s own original lyrics are so tight, you’ll just wish you could hear the actual beats. Really, the only thing this missing is a soundtrack. Which I’m sure will be addressed in the movie–as there is no way in heck this awesome-in-every-way novel (set in the same universe as The Hate U Give) isn’t going to follow its wildly popular predecessor to the big screen. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2019.
A full FIFTEEN YEARS (!) after the publication of her romantic fantasy EAST, author Edith Pattou has written a swoony sequel (aptly entitled WEST, natch) in which Rose hits the road again looking for her lost love. (Spoiler alert: this is a true sequel. If you haven’t read EAST, head over here or your nearest library and check it out before reading further.) Three years have passed since Rose married her enchanted white bear, now a handsome gent named Charles. They have a tiny, smart baby named Winn, and are entirely, deliriously happy. Cue the storm clouds. Happiness never made a good story better, so Rose’s old nemesis, the Troll Queen (who was supposed to be dead, but as we know from every Bond movie EVER, villains always get one more life) has pulled herself together and is orchestrating the end of the world from her newly formed ice castle. But first she must assuage her broken heart by busting Rose’s. In short order, Charles is lost at sea and Winn is kidnapped, both acts the result of the Troll Queen’s black magic. Once again, Rose must travel to the four corners of the earth to rescue her baby, retrieve her lost love and also save the world from Aagnorak (Trollish for “apocalypse,” and probably a creative take on this word.) CAN SHE DO IT? All signs point towards yes, as this sequel is just as comforting, approachable and gently told as it’s predecessor. If this old world is getting you down and you need a soft pillow of escapism, you could do much worse than curl up with EAST and WEST and have yourself a nice little fantasy-fest. For all those white bears out there and the girls who love them, this one’s for you. 😉
Jane McKeene, daughter of a white woman and a black man, is learning the fine art of zombie killing at Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls in Baltimore County. Ever since the dead rose up at the Battle of Gettysburg, the States quit fighting each other and began fighting the revenants. The government then created “combat schools,” where black and brown-skinned teens are taught etiquette and sword play in order to become dutiful “Attendants” for wealthy white families and protect them from zombie attacks. Jane is thisclose to graduating with honors and returning to her beloved home in Kentucky, when she and her arch frenemy Kate Deveraux are forced to take on a “special assignment” in the wild, uncivilized western frontier. There they learn that the fragile national peace wrought by the bloody efforts of their peers and comrades is in serious jeopardy, and that zombies are actually the last things they should be afraid of. With all of this going on, Jane has absolutely no business falling for two boys who couldn’t be more different. But the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say, and if Jane survives the rapidly amassing zombie herd, she’ll have decide which boy (if any) gets her still-beating ticker. If I sound cagey or mysterious, that’s because it’s almost impossible to write about this compulsively readable alternate history series opener without giving away the secrets at its core. Ireland spins a page turning tale, while also weaving in lots of subtle and not so subtle allusions to our country’s past and present problems with race, power and corruption. Wielding her fictional pen like a critical sword, Ireland scrutinizes and excoriates the real fake science intended to dehumanize black people, the real boarding schools that were set up to “civilize” Native American children, and how Reconstruction morphed into Jim Crow after the Civil War. Readers who come for the zombies will stay for the sharp social commentary and gleeful skewering of stereotypes. Dread Nation is KILLER.
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up…What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love.” So begins Ibi Zoboi’s inventive, wildly entertaining “remix” of Jane Austen‘s classic Pride and Prejudice. In this contemporary take on the British Regency classic comedy of manners, the five Haitian-Dominican, working class Benitez sisters (Janae, Zuri, Marisol, Layla and Kayla) are crazy curious when their new, rich black neighbors, the Darcy brothers (Darius and Ainsley) move into the renovated brownstone across the street. Second eldest sister Zuri is especially suspicious, since she considers any and all changes to her beloved Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood as nefarious attempts at gentrification. While Zuri initially manages to resist the prickly charms of Darius, her romantic older sister Janae falls head over heels for Ainsley. But when Ainsley breaks Janae’s heart, Zuri unleashes the full force of her righteous sister rage on the Darcys, freezing them out of her family and neighborhood. It’s only when Zuri accidentally runs into Darius while on a campus tour of Howard University that she begins to see a different side of the youngest Darcy brother. Maybe a “bougie” black boy and a self-proclaimed “hood rat” can find some common ground after all. Maybe they can even fall in love…
Zuri and Darius’s heated discussions over being “bougie,” “ghetto” or “not black enough” are reflective of conversations being had all over this country by black and brown teens trying to define their identity instead of having it defined for them by a prevailing white, Western culture. The streets of Bushwick come alive through the sounds and smells of Mama Benitez’s cooking, the colorful cast of neighbors who live on the block, and the lyrical lines from Zuri’s poetry journal. Zoboi’s newfangled version of an old fashioned story of love and class and race is stunningly unique and utterly timeless, all at once. Don’t miss it! (And for more Ibi Zoboi awesomeness, read her debut, American Street, which was one of my top 5 YA books of 2017)
After recently becoming completely enamored of Penelope Bagieu‘s Brazen, I was delighted to discover the author had also written this longer form, graphic biography of the indomitable Cass Elliot. Elliot was best known for her role in the Mamas and the Papas, a folk rock band that was famous in the 1960’s. Much has been written about her and the band, especially their dramatic arguments and Cass’s tragic death at age 32. But Bagieu focuses here on the early life of the ground breaking singer, back when she was just Ellen Cohen from Baltimore who was her father’s favorite and loved to sing. With small panels that can barely hold Cass’s big expressive eyes, Bagieu traces her path to fame, from leaving home at nineteen to falling in love with men who didn’t always appreciate her talent, but somehow ended up leading her to new and better singing opportunities. Each chapter is narrated by a person from Cass’s life, from her little sister and her vocal coach, to her father and first (brief) husband. And pretty much everyone in between, including the other members of the Mamas and the Papas. It’s like getting a meet and greet with all the major musicians of that time! While this is some ways a classic music bio, it’s also a terrific story of a woman refusing to squeeze herself into the mold society expected her to fit. Bigger than life and twice as bold, Cass Elliot made her own rules, and this graphic bio will inspire anyone looking for the courage to buck the system and forge their own path.
David Small’s graphic memoir, Stitches, absolutely gutted me when it came out in 2009. Now he has published an equally wrenching graphic novel of small-town, 1950’s boyhood that utterly destroys, in the most cinematic and moving way possible, any nostalgic, rose-colored views of that turbulent time. Russell’s mom dumps his dad for another man, so Russell and his uncommunicative, alcoholic father leave Ohio for California, where his father hopes to bunk with his rich sister until he can get back on his feet. But Aunt June isn’t interested in her male relatives invading her clean, quiet mid-century modern home, and sends them packing pretty quick. After finally finding and renting a room from a kind Chinese couple, Russell’s father finds work at the local prison. Russell starts school and falls in with Kurt and Willie, brutal, bullying teens who smoke, drink and ogle waitresses at the town diner. As he slowly becomes accustomed to his new life, Russell finds himself confronted with a wide array of conflicting male role models. Should he be more like his drunk dad and Kurt: loud, rude and arrogant? Or is he more like like Mr. Mah, his gentle landlord who practices tai chi in the backyard or Warren, the quiet neighbor boy who lives with his grandma and loves all animals? Over the course of one long, savage summer, Russell finds himself mentally and physically tested by all these different versions of manhood as he tries to discover which one fits him best. Small’s evocative panels, full of frowning, sneering faces, dead pets and interior shots of dim, empty rooms grimly foreshadow Russell’s long, tragic journey to self acceptance. Deeply sad, but never despairing, Small’s work luminously captures the dark side of adolescence in a way that still manages to be forgiving. Coming to a library or bookstore near you September 2018.
Ballers Nasir and Bunny have always been tight, as close as brothers. They play basketball together at Whitman High, and even the fact that Bunny is a far better player doesn’t break their bond. But then Bunny (so nicknamed “Because I got hops,”) is recruited by snooty private school St. Sebastian’s, and just like that, their connection is broken. Now on opposing teams, Nasir and Bunny have stopped speaking to each other. Then Nasir’s troubled cousin Wallace steps into the middle of this silent feud and makes it even worse. Turns out Wallace has some serious gambling debts that need to be paid, debts so big he and his grandma are about to get thrown out of their apartment because of the money he lost. So Wallace starts pressuring Nasir to get some dirt on his ex-friend Bunny that Wallace can use to influence his high school basketball bets. Nasir knows it’s wrong, but shouldn’t Bunny pay for leaving him and Whitman behind? Told in alternating chapters between Nasir and Bunny, this timely, tragic tale of love and basketball is chock full of riveting game and relationship drama that perfectly illustrates and underscores the racial, class and community struggles that are playing out across urban high schools all over America. You won’t be able to stop turning pages until the final buzzer sounds!
Remember those good old days of summer before you got roped into horrific high school summer projects/jobs/chores? It was just you, your best friend, a couple of bikes and two months of do-nothing stretching out to the horizon.That’s how it always was for Bina. She couldn’t wait until June so she and her best friend Austin could hang at the pool and add points to their Summer Fun Index (scientifically based on number of video games played, movies watched and stray cats petted, of course). But the summer after seventh grade, Austin has traded the Summer Fun Index for soccer camp, and Bina is convinced that her summer is gonna suck–hard. When her parents lock her out of their Netflix account because she’s “watched a summer’s worth of TV in a week,” Bina is forced to hunt down entertainment elsewhere. Oddly enough, without Austin around, Bina discovers that there’s a whole other world out there of cool older girls, indie music and her own untapped inner talents. This utterly endearing, oh-so-true graphic novel about one rising eighth grader’s summer adventures in babysitting, mean-girl-taming and indie-band-watching will make you feel so nostalgic for middle school that I bet you go dig up your Muji Pen Set and find an old notebook to doodle in. A terrifically un-taxing summer read that you’ll finish in an afternoon and think about the rest of the week!
This luscious collection of short stories that chronicles the dramatic, sometimes abbreviated lives of the famous medieval English king’s doomed brides is a delicious feast of sex, gossip and politics. Authored by some of the most celebrated of YA hist. fic writers, each Queen tells her story in turn (1. Catherine of Aragon=Candace Fleming 2. Anne Boleyn=Stephanie Hemphill 3. Jane Seymour=Lisa Ann Sandell 4. Anna of Cleves=Jennifer Donnelly 5. Catherine Howard=Linda Sue Park 6. Kateryn Parr=Deborah Hopkinson) followed by a short, often arrogant or peevish epitaph penned by Henry himself, as imagined by M.T. Anderson. While the whole royal assemblage is universally strong, the two standouts for me were Donnelly’s smart, blunt Anna of Cleves and Park’s saucy, sexy Catherine Howard. (This probably had as much to do with their exceptional characterizations as it did with the fact that I knew the least about these two cursed queens going in.) Each fascinating story will inform today’s young feminists about medieval Europe’s strict patriarchal society that forced women to scheme, flatter, manipulate and flat-out lie their way into having a say in their own lives. By turns naughty, bawdy and downright tragic, there’s not a story here that won’t capture the imagination or fire up the blood of any curious reader who turns the pages. And the most satisfying part of all? That despite all his cruel, violent machinations to secure a male heir, Henry’s throne still ends up passing to one of the most successful rulers of all time–his brilliant daughter Elizabeth I. Because this book is bound to lead you to many more about Henry and his wives, this is a perfect rabbit hole of a novel to throw yourself down this summer!
Near the end of Beatrice’s senior year at posh boarding school Darrow-Harker, her talented, funny boyfriend Jim was found floating facedown in the local reservoir. Ultimately ruled a suicide, the tragic death and devastating aftermath busted up Beatrice and her tribe of besties: cunning Whitley, brainy Martha, cavalier Kipling and master hacker Cannon. Without Jim, they all drifted apart freshman year of college. Now, over a year later, Whitley has called them all back for a birthday bash at her family’s posh mansion. Against her better judgement, Beatrice decides to go, even though she knows it’s bound to stir up old memories and open new wounds. But she can’t help herself. Maybe together they can finally figure out what really happened to Jim that last night. EXCEPT…(and no spoilers here, this all happens in the first 50 pages and is mentioned on the back cover) they drink too much, get in a terrible car accident and die. THE END? Not quite. Turns out they have all landed in a bizarre time loop called the Neverworld Wake, stuck between life and death. Only one of them is allowed back into the land of the breathing, but how can they make that impossible decision? While they argue and flounder, living the same day over and over, Beatrice sees a chance to discover what really happened to Jim once and for all. But she just might have to die in order to finally know the truth. FRIENDS, this wild book is a offbeat, out-of-the-box mind bender that surprised and delighted me at every turn of the twisty plot. It’s both sci-fi and a mystery, a romantic tragedy and a tragic romance. Perhaps that’s to be expected from the author of the peculiar Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I couldn’t finish that book despite my best efforts, while this one=MIND BLOWN. If you are looking for something fresh to shake up your reading routine, YOU’RE WELCOME. (And if you’re so inclined, please come back and tell me what you thought about it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.)
Monday Charles and Claudia Coleman are the best of besties. They dress alike, dance alike, and since their names alphabetically come one right after the other on class lists, even always sit together in classes at their Washington D.C. middle school. Monday helps Claudia conceal her dyslexia, while Claudia’s home is a quiet place for Monday to hang out when her own house full of siblings feels too chaotic. They talk about every thing from boys and sex to Go-Go music and dance moves. So when Monday doesn’t show up to the first day of eighth grade, Claudia knows something’s wrong. Monday never misses school. Claudia calls her phone, but it’s disconnected. She drops by Monday’s house, but Monday’s mom just yells at her and slams the door. She tries reporting Monday’s absence to her parents, police and teachers, all to no avail. The only person who seems to know something is April, Monday’s older sister. But she refuses to admit that anything is wrong, saying only that Monday is visiting their aunt or father. Where is Monday? What has happened to her? Why won’t anyone help Claudia find her? As the days and then months pass and Claudia tries desperately get anyone to care about her best friend, she begins to uncover disturbing clues that Monday may have been hiding secrets darker than Claudia can even imagine. This harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story was inspired by #missingDCgirls and the media’s apparent lack of concern for black and Latino teenage girls who go missing. Tiffany D. Jackson seamlessly weaves timely themes about the damaging effects of gentrification on traditionally black neighborhoods and the dangers of overlooking the signs of mental illness throughout this ominously enigmatic page turner. Read it, weep, then become inspired to learn more about these critical issues.
Oh my gosh, do I love a good survival story! I mean, real life-and-death kind of stakes where scrappy, puny humans fight against a totally uncaring landscape full of sharp, cold, wet or poisonous obstacles that are either passively or actively trying to kill them. But let’s be clear–I have no desire to start a fire with sticks and moss or skin a squirrel myself. I just want to read about it from the warm coziness of my couch while drinking tea and munching Cheetos. And it’s totally possible I chomped my way through an entire bag of toxic orange goodness while breathlessly turning the pages of Kate Marshall‘s terrifying tale of endurance and retribution.
Sixteen year old Jess Cooper’s single mom is dead–killed in the same car accident that screwed up Jess’s leg and mangled her face. Jess has no choice but to join her absentee dad, a man whose been off the grid for most of his life and all of hers, in the deep Canadian wilderness. She’s determined to take the first plane she can wave down back to civilization. But that’s before the bad men show up looking for their buried loot. And, you know, murder her dad. (No spoilers–this is all revealed relatively quickly in the first few chapters!) Now all Jess had to do is stay alive long enough to plot her revenge when the men return. But it won’t be easy. Her bum leg makes getting around nearly impossible, she knows next to nothing about living wild, and before they left, the bad men burned her dad’s cabin, along with all his food and supplies, to the ground. Armed with just a few tools she rescued from the ashes and her father’s trusty dog Bo, does Jess have any chance of surviving the brutal Canadian winter? Like a bloodier, more emotionally wrenching version of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, I Am Still Alive marries unrelenting suspense with surprisingly compelling tips on ice-fishing and bad-man-trap setting. I was completely hooked, and you will be too when Alive comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you July 2018.
Jules, a smart and savvy senior at the exclusive and expensive Fullbrook boarding school, has had it up to here with the rampant sexism that is allowed to flourish on campus. This year, she’s on a mission. She’s going to make “Fullbrook Academy women-first for once,” and forget all about last year. Last year when Ethan Hackett cheated on her. Bax, a bewildered, Midwestern transfer student who just wants to play hockey, is really disturbed by the macho bro-culture at Fullbrook. But he hopes if he just keeps his head down and his eyes shut, he can make it through the season and forget all about last year. Last year when he ruined someone’s life forever. Jules and Bax both need a friend and ally, and they find one in each other. After a raucous, drunken secret party in the woods near the school where Jules and Bax each separately come face to face with sexual assault, they decide that enough is enough. It’s time to confront and dismiss the traditions that Fullbrook has held dear for far too long. Traditions that hurt. Traditions that scar. Together with Jule’s best friend Javi and Bax’s crush Aileen, they plot a way to send everyone at school a message they can’t ignore. What they didn’t count on was not being believed. Not being heard. Tradition may be strong. But they are stronger…
This searing, imperative tale of speaking truth to power by Brendan Kiely, co-author of All American Boys conscientiously tackles issues of classism, homophobia, racism and sexism in a way that feels immediate, raw and sadly all too true. Tradition will challenge all readers to think more deeply about the circumstances and situations they accept as “normal,” and question the sanctioned status quo. A significant #timesup title for our turbulent age.