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.
“If [my father] hadn’t belted Professor Cartland that night in the Academy of Natural Sciences, I wouldn’t have had the chance to see Rachel’s eyes up close.” The first time Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland meet, it’s over their fathers’ flying fists. Professors Bolt and Cartland are battling paleontologists, each determined to be the best at wresting centuries old dinosaur bones from the unforgiving rock of the American West. So when Professor Cartland challenges Professor Bolt’s latest find in front of a fascinated audience, the gloves come off and Rachel and Samuel are forced to wade in and pull their fathers apart. That’s their first memorable meeting, but it isn’t their last. Soon they are each on an expedition with their fathers that end up being only a few miles apart in the badlands of Wyoming. Against all odds, and unbeknownst to their mad dads, the two intrepid teens not only share information about their respective digs but soon fall in love. Adamant about being together, the lovers hatch a daring plan to discover and cash in on the greatest dinosaur find of all time–the Tyrannosaurus Rex–and leave their fathers behind in the desert dust. Meanwhile, their expeditions are being closely watched by a Sioux party who are none too happy about the fact that Rachel’s father desecrated one of their burial pyres. Can Rachel and Samuel find the fabled T-Rex bones before their fathers or the Sioux hunting party find them? More romance than adventure, this story moves a bit slower than some of Oppel’s other intriguing works, which range from a Frankenstein origin story to a steampunk pirate escapade. But what Oppel lacks in pacing, he more than makes up for in characterization, especially when it comes to headstrong Rachel. During a time period when women’s opinions were hardly considered, let alone valued, she is a brilliant, unrepentant scholar, determined to be acknowledged as a fossil hunter in her own right and unafraid to challenge the male authority around her (including Samuel’s) that threatens to stifle her dreams. Both she and Samuel are full of doubts and contradictions, still trying to understand who they are as individuals even as they try to define themselves as a couple separate from their greedy fathers. If you ever even just had a passing interest in fossil hunting, paleontology, American Indian culture or the Old West, you’ll fall hard for this super hip hist. fic. Coming to library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2016.
Mike is a quiet guy. Minds his own business, keeps his nose clean, doesn’t rock the boat. When his dad announces that they are moving from Wisconsin to Virginia for his job, Mike just goes with the flow. His new high school in Somerdale is fine. His friends Ronald, Jared and Terry are fine. Grace Fellowship, the church his family starts attending, is fine. His art teacher is a jerk and this one bully Victor always gives him some grief. But it’s nothing he can’t handle. And then one day Mike is assigned to work on a French project with new guy Sean. Which should also be fine. But it’s not. Instead, it’s amazing. With Sean, Mike feels like he can finally be himself. The version of himself that he has pushed down for so long he had practically forgotten it existed. But when Mike and Sean dare to be themselves for just one night, the world hits back in a big way and Mike has to decide if he wants to live a “just fine” life or a messy, real life with the all the joy and pain that comes with it. This quietly powerful book, by newcomer Rafi Mittlefehldt, moved me to tears with its’ spare, poignant prose and nuanced message of self love and acceptance. Set in a conventional suburban world that we all recognize, this compelling novel is both a love story and a brutal indictment of families and communities that still don’t affirm or recognize the individuality and strength of LGBTQ teens. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2016.
What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.
This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Welcome to the club. Luckily for those of us not in the know, National Book Award finalist Patty McCormick has penned a fascinating biography of the little known German Lutheran minister who was a big part of an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a traditionally trained and educated theologian, philosopher and pastor who came of age just as Germany was gearing up for WWII. After his beloved brother was killed during WWI, Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to God and the pursuit of peace. He traveled around the world, including the United States, where his beliefs were challenged and influenced by other religious cultural practices. He read and was inspired by the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and soon become convinced that “the church wasn’t a historical institution; it was a living community that could transcend national, ethnic, class and even religious boundaries. The ‘church’ was not a building or an organization; it was a force for good, alive all around the world.” As Hitler rose to power in Bonhoeffer’s native Germany, and Bonhoeffer’s Jewish friends began to suffer, Bonhoeffer knew that despite his avowed pacifism, he had to do everything in his power to bring about the end of this evil man. So he joined together with his brother-in-laws in a secret conspiracy to rid Germany of the Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer’s part was to sneak damning evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Germany to other European nations to convince them to overthrow the dictator. In fact, Bonhoeffer was the first person to send documented proof from Germany to Geneva, Switzerland about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the German Jews. How successful was Bonhoeffer in his efforts and how close did the men come to realizing Hitler’s murder? That is the compelling, page turning true story McCormick tells in this slim volume that you could probably finish in a weekend (like I did!).
“It must be complicated, being a person with a conscience.” Fifteen year old Morgan is “cold.” She doesn’t know what it’s like to put herself in someone else’s shoes, because the only feet she’s ever cared about are her own! That’s why when her parents finally get fed up with her self serving ways and decide to send her to a boarding school for “troubled teens,” Morgan makes a break for it. She meets a girl named Janelle at the airport who looks a lot like her, give or take a few pounds. She convinces lovelorn Janelle, who’s being sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle in order to separate her from her bad news boyfriend, to switch identities. With Janelle off in a love nest, Morgan is free to skip boarding school and take her place. Then the games really begin, as Morgan successfully convinces Janelle’s family that she is their niece, while running scam after scam that soon line her pockets with rolls of cash. But nothing good lasts forever. Morgan knows that sooner or later her parents or the real Janelle are going to show up feeling pretty angry and looking for answers. Does she have what it takes to pull off one last big con and head off in the sunset for fresh hunting grounds? You may not like Morgan, but you’re sure to be rooting for her by the surprising end of this snappy thriller. The plot is preposterous, but that’s precisely what makes it so much fun. Think Harriet the Spy meets The Grifters (I know I’m dating myself here, but trust me, they’re CLASSICS.) Coming your way this August, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered to get you through the dog days of summer.
Three tweens walk into a tavern: a Christian, a Jew and an African. Too young to drink, they instead make miracles and take on the King of France with their devoted dog, a resurrected greyhound named Gwenforte. What sounds like the beginning of a classic joke or a superhero origin story is actually a fresh, irreverent all-ages take on the Middle Ages by A Tale Dark and Grimm author Adam Gidwitz. Jeanne, William and Jacob meet unexpectedly at a tavern in France when each has been expelled from their respective communities. Peasant Jeanne is arrested by mercenary knights who suspect she has raised her dog from the dead, monk-in-training William is forced to leave his monastery after losing his temper and splitting a solid stone bench many times his weight, and Jacob, a young Jewish boy with healing in his hands, is on the run after vengeful Christians burn his family’s village to the ground. Their talents are recognized by a giant red headed monk named Michelangelo di Bologna, who convinces the three miracle workers to join him on a secret quest to save thousands of copies of Talmuds, a Jewish holy book, that have been ordered to be burned by the Christian King of France. Can they do it? Three kids, a dog and a crazy monk? The only people who know the answer to that question are the folks gathered at the tavern bar who are taking turns telling the parts of the tale that they know or have witnessed. Lean in, pull up a ginger beer and listen close as they share the story of Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. This Canterbury Tales meets X-Men is a raucous, incredibly well-researched story that includes everything from flatulent dragons to meaningful and enlightening discussions about history and religion. With a detailed author’s note and gorgeous illustrations from artist Hatem Aly, you couldn’t find a better action/adventure intro to medieval religion than this book! (Except maybe this one🙂 Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2016.
Carson already knows it’s going to be a bummer summer. His aloof therapist mom has moved them from the not so mean streets of Manhattan to the boring wilds of small town Montana, where they are tasked with taking care of Carson’s dying alcoholic dad who abandoned them years ago. Carson’s feelings about his father have been on lockdown for so long that they only way he knows how to deal is by making bad puns and staying far away from anyone or anything that might make him open up. Enter Aisha, a smart, pretty African American lesbian who’s just been tossed out of her house for being gay and is looking for a couch to surf. Aisha makes Carson feel feelings that he’d forgotten he even had, and even though she’s so not interested in being his girlfriend, she just might be his first real friend. They bond over their lack of family ties and the Porcupine of Truth, a prickly craft project that represents their shared skepticism of spirituality. Their new friendship is tested when Carson discovers a box in the basement of his dad’s house that provides clues to the roots of his dad’s alcoholism and why he hit the road so long ago. Turns out Carson’s grandfather had the same case of itchy feet and Carson is determined to find out why. Armed with his grandfather’s journal, the Porcupine of Truth and $100, Carson and Aisha set out in Aisha’s Dodge Neon on a cross country journey of personal discovery that delights, saddens and surprises them both. This sweet, funny road trip of a novel is perfect for warm weather reading. If family drama, highway hijinks and realistic relationships are your thang, than throw this lime green lovely in your beach bag.