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!