Sixteen year old Starr Carter has to navigate two different worlds that couldn’t be further apart: Garden Heights, the poor, mostly black neighborhood where she and her family live, and Williamson, the pricey, mostly white prep school she attends. She is pulled in one direction by her loving but strict family and culture, and the opposite direction by her wealthy school friends and white boyfriend Chris. “…I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a ‘sassy black girl.’ I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound ‘white.’ Shit is exhausting.” Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air character and Tupac Shakur‘s music are her touchstones as she tries to make peace between her two selves, but she often feels totally overwhelmed with the burden of keeping them separate. When her unarmed childhood friend is Khalil is gunned down right in front of her by a white police officer, Starr’s worlds collide in the worst possible way. Suddenly she is in the spotlight, fighting to defend Khalil’s memory and reputation at home and in front of a grand jury, while feeling angry and exposed at school when her clueless classmates stereotype Khalil as a “a drug dealer and a gangbanger” who “was probably gonna end up dead anyway.” The simmering conflict spirals out of control when the police institute a curfew, tanks roll past Starr’s front door, and Garden Heights becomes a battle zone. Tired of trying to unite her double life, Starr finds her true north when she confronts the police who are trying to block her and her friends from protesting with the strongest weapon of all: her voice. “Everybody wants to talk about how Khalil died…But this isn’t about how Khalil died. It’s about the fact that he lived. His life mattered. Khalil lived! You hear me? Khalil lived!” Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas‘s debut novel is a searingly honest, painfully real examination of racism, police violence, code switching, and the importance of love and family in the face of crisis. Some readers will come away with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what it means to grow up African American in this divided country, while others will find comfort and validation in seeing themselves on the page and being authentically seen. A vital read for all that is coming to a library or bookstore near you February 2017.
Tourist. Traitor. Psychopath. Spy. Who is Jule West Williams? A steely-eyed orphan who fought her way into the Ivy League with nothing but grit and determination? A heartbroken teen who just wants to be loved and accepted? Or a master manipulator with no conscience who will stop at nothing to secure her future? Only YOU can decide in E. Lockhart‘s brand new, topsy turvy tale of love, murder and betrayal.
As soon as Jule met Imogene, they were instant BFFs. Jule admired Imogene’s refusal to accept labels, and Imogen adored Jule’s stories of her hard-luck past. Imogene had money, and Jule had none, but that didn’t matter because benevolent Imogene always paid. But then Imogene asked one too many questions, Jule lied one too many times and suddenly, their fairy tale friendship was through. How will Jule survive without Imogene, or more specifically, Imogene’s generosity? With a lot of planning and a little luck, maybe she won’t have to…
This innovative thriller that starts at the end, and ends at the beginning, is exquisitely executed. Each meticulously plotted detail leads the reader deeper and deeper into a dizzying labyrinth of truth, lies and shocking consequences. As one of the fortuitous few who got to lay my eyeballs on this super advance copy, I was giddy with anticipation and fear at each turn of the page, and finished the whole stunning thing in one long, delirious sick day home in bed. “Fraud” may be in the title, but this provocative puzzler is destined to be a bona fide hit! Mark your calendars for September 2017 so you can be among the first to read one of the most remarkable YA novels of the year. Too long to wait? Then try these other satisfying stories of slippery secrets and delicious lies.
Che’s sister ten-year-old Rosa isn’t like other little girls. She’s not afraid of anything, not heights or strangers or big dogs. She thinks it’s funny when someone gets hurt. She doesn’t make friends, she uses them. She wonders what it would feel like to kill something bigger than a bug. Che knows this because he is the only one Rosa confides in. Che is tired of listening to Rosa’s constant lies. He’s tired of trying to anticipate what terrible thing she might do next. But mostly he’s tired of his parents pretending nothing’s wrong. Because something is very wrong with Rosa. And now that their family has moved to New York City, Rosa has a whole new world to explore, new friends to exploit, new lies to tell. Che just wants to focus on boxing and getting a girlfriend, but he’s afraid to leave Rosa alone. Che tries again to tell his parents that Rosa isn’t right. But they just don’t want to hear anything bad about their darling, blue-eyed daughter. Now Che can only watch helplessly as Rosa’s deadly new plans unfold, and pray that she doesn’t target him next! Justine Larbalestier’s chilling modern take on The Bad Seed is utterly unputdownable. I downed this intense characterization of psychopathy in a little under 24 hours, and I have no doubt you’ll do the same when you snatch up this suspenseful tome about the terrifying toxicity of family secrets at your local library or bookstore!
In years past, I have faithfully posted a Top Ten Books list. But this year, I haven’t read nearly as much YA as I wanted to/should have, due to number of tedious reasons, the main one being that I was was supes busy working on many other adult-ish writing/reviewing projects. (Adulting. So boring, yet so necessary. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.) So here is a leaner, meaner list of my top five best YA reads of 2016. 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, The Underground Railroad was not published as a YA book, but is a book that in my opinion, all YAs should read) Click on the title to go right to the review.
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Travis isn’t laughing much this summer. He lives in a trailer with his beloved grandma, who has terminal cancer. His grandpa is high all the time on his grandma’s medicinal marijuana. He searches the streets weekly for his mother, a homeless drug addict, and dreams of giving her all his saved landscaping money for a down payment on an apartment. When he’s not working, he’s performing endless basketball drills to prove to Coach that he’s not just a former juvie with an anger management problem, but a dedicated baller who deserves to be on the varsity team in the fall. Basketball and his best friend Creature are the only things that keep Travis going when everything else is falling apart. Then Travis meets Natalie. And for a moment, his life seems to be taking a turn for the better. But kids like Travis and Creature know that there’s no guarantees in a world where grandmas suffer, dads disappear, moms care more about drugs than their children, and Mr. Tyler down the street can get away with calling Creature, “a dirty coon.” But they’re going to do their best, not only to survive, but thrive. Even if that means shooting free throws eight hours a day, or pissing on Mr. Tyler’s porch when he’s not home. Because like Natalie, who ‘s fighting her own personal demons, says, “This is the part where you laugh. You just have to. When things are so shitty that there’s nothing you can do, there’s no other way to react.” It’s a pleasure to read a story about down-and-out teens that subverts stereotypes and provides an in-depth and heartbreaking look at how addiction fractures families. While this fresh novel will probably make you cry more than laugh, its a strong testimony to the power of hope and the resilience of the human spirit.
In the future, humans have managed to eliminate poverty, disease, war, crime and even death. Any physical pain or injury is healed through “nanites” in the blood, and all wants and needs are provided for through the Thunderhead, a god-like global cloud computer that benignly monitors life and keeps everyone safe and content. But since no one dies of natural causes and aging is a choice, there are a select group of humans called Scythes (like, you know, the Grim Reaper?) who must kill or “glean” a certain percentage of people in order to keep the population in check. Once gleaned, those unlucky souls stay dead–unlike the vast majority, for whom death is a reversible state that only requires a four day hospital stay and comes with a delicious ice cream sundae upon discharge. Citra and Rowan are two ordinary teens who are chosen to become apprentice Scythes, and both are understandably reluctant. But once they see the compassion, responsibility and intellect the job requires, they begin to grow and evolve in ways they never would imagined had they simply lived safe, quiet, eternal lives under the Thunderhead. But when the selfish whim of a power-hungry Scythe pits them against each other, they not only have to save themselves but all of humankind from a new breed of killer. This absorbing and utterly fascinating take on dystopian lit. is bound to resonate deeply not only Hunger Game and Giver readers, but any teen or adult who’s feeling adrift in American’s uncertain landscape post- election. I couldn’t help but see Scythe Goddard, a thin-skinned, flamboyantly dressed, limo-loving megalomaniac and Scythe Curie, a proud, wise, measured aesthete, as metaphors for certain presidential candidates! (But see what you think. It’s entirely possible I’m just still feeling really, really crabby.) If you’re looking for a captivating, end of year read that delivers both edge-of-your-seat action and philiosophical perspective, then add Scythe to your holiday reading list.
Ever since her older brother Noah disappeared, Molly feels like she doesn’t have a friend in the world except her service dog Pixel. So when Red, a fun-loving homeless teen and Christo, a super cute new guy, come into her life on the same day, she feels as though she’s hit the jackpot. There’s just two small problems: 1) Red suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which means she hears voices and sometimes sees things that aren’t there, 2) It’s nearly Christmas, and Christo has to leave the morning after their first date to fly to New York with his family for the holidays. Molly, whose parents have become zombies since her brother left, is determined to give Red the kind of holiday her family used to have before they fell apart. So while Christo is in New York, she tries desperately to worm Red’s real address or home phone number out of her in order to tell her mother that she’s okay. But when Red starts taking in earnest to the voices in her head, and Christo suddenly stops texting, Molly is forced to ask her checked-out parents for help and finally come to terms with what really happened to Noah. This heartfelt verse novel, full of bigger-than-life characters and surprising twists, is classic Sonya Sones. If you’re in the mood for a feel-good novel, complete with holiday cheer and sincere emotion, look no further. It’s the perfect gift to give or get any teen reader this holiday season.
Naeem has run out of choices. Failing out of school and picked up for shoplifting with a bag of weed in his backpack, the Muslim teen is forced to turn informant for a pair of detectives looking for terrorists nests in the vibrant, immigrant NYC borough of Queens: “I love Queens. I love its smells, its layout. Maybe because its so big and prairie flat, the wild moody sky overhead. The blocks start to spread, stretching to all these other neighborhoods–Corona, Woodside, Flushing, Bayside. On and on the borough stretches. Northern Boulevard, pas the frayed silver flags of the car dealers, the jagged skyline of Manhattan rises like some wrecked and far-off city, a jagged Kryptonite kingdom, comic-book surreal.”At first Naeem feels awkward, sure that everyone can see right through what he’s doing. But soon he is dipping in and out of internet cafes and neighborhood mosques like a pro, checking browser histories on public computers and making small talk with the imams who wonder where this new bright young volunteer suddenly came from. He discovers he has a talent for making himself seen, yet not seen: “The best thing about being a kid at the back of the room is you’re already a spy. You know how to fake it. The other guys who are…involved could never do what I can. I’ve got all the moves, the feints, the angles. I know how to rearrange my face, make it attentive…Half listen while a camera coolly spools inside my head.” He’s even making enough money from the dubious enterprise to enroll in summer school and boost GPA. But Naeem still feels guilty spying on his own community. Even though he tries to tell himself he’s one of the good guys, it gets harder and harder, especially when the detectives ask him to focus in on an old friend. No Naeem has to decide which side he’s on and who’s using who. Because nothing about this situation is what it seems. Author Marina Budhos has penned a richly atmospheric read full of vivid neighborhood descriptions and complicated character motivations that couldn’t be more relevant as this brutal xenophobic election season comes to a close. This nuanced depiction of surveillance and profiling is a timely must-read for anyone who’s ever felt targeted or anyone who’s ever considered themselves safe from become a target. In other words, all of us.
SPOILER ALERT! Before reading about the long awaited and eagerly anticipated conclusion to LHA’s wonderful, wrenching Seeds of America trilogy below, please make sure you have already experienced the awesomeness that is CHAINS and FORGE. Once you have read and fully absorbed Isabel and Curzon’s previous adventures, then by all means, READ ON.
Isabel is exhausted. She and Curzon have been searching for Isabel’s stolen sister Ruth for years now, and the endless journey has a taken a toll on them both. Even though Isabel has forged manumission papers for them, there is always the danger that they could be kidnapped and forced back into slavery. And their close friendship “lay in ashes,” after they fought bitterly over the justness of the Patriot cause. Now the only thing they share is a mutual resentment and desperate need to locate Ruth. Just when Isabel has given up all hope, she and Curzon stumble upon Ruth safe and sound on a farm in South Carolina. Helped by a slave couple who use the confusion of recent Patriot skirmishes to screen their escape, Isabel, Ruth and Curzon flee to Williamsburg, Virgina, where they hope to find food, rest and steady work. But soon they discover themselves on the doorstep of the war, and when Curzon again sides with the Patriots, Isabel is forced to choose a side as well. But which group of white men is she willing to gamble her and Ruth’s freedom on–the slave-owning Patriots or the promise-breaking British? And now that she’s found Ruth, is Isabel really prepared to lose Curzon, the only other person she’s ever trusted besides her family? Whether you love Hamilton or run screaming from the room when you hear the cast recording (I’m firmly in the former group) you will appreciate LHA’s as always meticulously researched milieu, spot-on period dialogue and detailed author’s note. Set during the exciting, unsettling days that lead up to the Battle of Yorktown, ASHES is a deeply satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary historical journey. NTBM! (Not To Be Missed)
This is a book about black holes and bright suns and multiverses. There are pink headphones, red neck ties and vinyl records. Someone has to stay and someone ends up leaving. There are no car chases, but there’s plenty of kissing and one fist fight. Poetry and physics are discussed, along with a smattering of philosophy. Kurt Cobain is mentioned and so is Eddie Vedder. Karaoke is performed, laws are broken and a grown man weeps. (You might, too. I know I did.)
This is a book about taking chances, stepping up and dreaming big: “We are capable of big lives. Why settle? Why choose the practical thing, the mundane thing? We are born to dream and make the things we dream about.” It is about coincidences and regret. It’s about being Korean and being from Jamaica and being all too human. It’s about practical Natasha and idealistic Daniel, and how they fell in love one NYC day despite being in the wrong place at the worst possible time. But mostly, happily, crazily, it’s a book about hope. This stunning new heartbreaker of a novel from the author of Everything, Everything brilliantly turns the tired old cliche of “love at first sight” upside down and asks the provocative question, can you scientifically make someone fall in love with you? Look for the surprising answer in a library, bookstore or e-reader near you November 2016.