Happy holidays, teen peeps! In the better late than never category, here is my top ten list, delivered like a present to your email, Twitter or Pinterest right on December 25th. 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. (While I love all my Top Ten books the same, I just might love I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN a tiny bit more:) Click on the title to go right to the review.
Carroll, Emily. Through the Woods.
Fleming, Candace. The Family Romanov.
King, A.S. Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.
Lockhart, E. We Were Liars.
Nelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun.
Nelson, Marilyn. How I Discovered Poetry.
Perkins, Stephanie. Isla and the Happily Ever After.
Tamaki, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. This One Summer.
Whaley, John Corey. Noggin.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming.
Jude and Noah are fraternal twins, and so close that they can practically read each other’s minds. Both are artists (Noah draws, Jude sews and sculpts) and in his mind, Noah knows exactly what their joined spirit looks like: “Jude and me have one soul between us that we have to share: a tree with its leaves on fire.” They know each other’s thoughts, they keep each other safe. “We were keeping each other company when we didn’t have any eyes or hands. Before our soul even got delivered.” They even facetiously divide up the world between them, trading sun, flowers and trees back and forth for favors like they are the only two people on the planet. And then the unthinkable happens. Their beautiful, kind mother, a friend and mentor to both, dies in a car accident. And just like that, according to Jude, “our twin-telepathy is long gone. When Mom died, he hung up on me. And now, because of everything that’s happened, we avoid each other–worse, repel each other.” Now gentle, oddball Noah has become shiny, brittle and popular while bright and sunny Jude has become gray and withdrawn. Then Jude finds an artist mentor with a mysterious connection to her family that just might allow her to finally truly grieve her mother’s death and find her way back to her brother.
Oh, friends, this book! This book! I’ll Give You the Sun is the most delicious, word-juicy tome I have ever read. I underlined so many gorgeous sentences and passages that the pages of my copy are practically phosphorescent with highlighter. You’ll want to squeeze it like an orange in order to get every golden effervescent drop into your brain. The paragraphs sing with marvelous descriptions of the joy of making art and the disappointment of missed connections. Jandy Nelson hasn’t just given lucky readers the sun, but an ENTIRE UNIVERSE in 300+ pages. Read it, weep, and then read it again. A simply spectacular book that you absolutely must not miss for all the sun, stars, oceans and trees in the world!
“Reeve was the most special thing that every happened to me. Now I’m just an apathetic, long-haired girl who doesn’t care about anything but my own grief.” Jam Gallahue loved a boy named Reeve. Now he’s gone and Jam can’t figure out how to live her life without him. So her parents have sent her to the Wooden Barn in Vermont, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers,” in hopes that a new environment will shake Jam out of her depression. But Jam isn’t very optimistic. “…supposedly a combination of the Vermont air, maple syrup, no psychiatric medication, and no Internet will cure me. But I’m not curable.” Then Jam attends her first Special Topics in English class, an exclusive elective with only five members taught by the mysterious Mrs. Quenell. She learns they are going to study Sylvia Plath, another long haired girl who suffered from depression and wrote a now classic book about her experience called The Bell Jar. She learns that each student is required to keep a special journal that the must turn in to Mrs. Q by the end of the semester. The last thing Jam wants to do is record her misery. But when she opens the pages and begins to write, she finds the process to be transformative…in more ways than one. She discovers her classmates are having the same experience, that the journals have become portals to another world where they can fix the issue that brought them to the Wooden Barn and in that moment, forget their current problems. But one by one, they each painfully come to understand that it is impossible to live in the past if they ever want to move forward. Jam is the last one to learn this lesson, and when she finally faces her fear and loss, the results are both devastating and enlightening. Critically acclaimed adult author Meg Wolitizer has penned a strong, spare, magically real YA novel about the power words and books can have over despair that will no doubt inspire a wave of new interest in the prose and poetry of Sylvia Plath.
“A little more of me, leaking on the floor, on bedsheets, on this table, till I am vacant as an empty house. My roof is caving in.” Michelle is only fourteen years old but she’s losing herself bit by bit as the newest member of Devon’s “family.” After running away from a drug addicted mother who accused her of seducing her boyfriend, Michelle is picked up by Devon, a good looking well-dressed young man who promises her food, clothing and a place to stay–for a price. Michelle, now known as “Peach,” must join Baby and Kat in selling her body for sex in exchange for Devon’s dubious “protection.” At first Michelle is just thankful to be off the street. But soon she sees that what Devon is asking them to do is slowly killing them from the inside out. Baby sleeps all the time to avoid reality, while Kat uses anger to hide her fear. She tells Michelle to give up thinking that anyone cares about them:”‘You only missin’ if somebody looking for you…Understand? We ain’t missin’, Peach. We just gone.'” Does Michelle dare to go outside the “family” for help, or will she become like one of the skinny, addicted women who wander the Coney Island boardwalk just like her mother? According to author Peggy Kern‘s note at the book’s end, “the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen years old. In the New York City area, an estimated two thousand young girls are being sold for sex.” This frightening statistic comes to heartbreaking life through Michelle, who is by turns confused, sad, angry and hopeful. In other words, a real teen. Her voice is unforgettable, her story a call to action. This devastating read reminded me of the work of one of my all-time favorite writers, E.R. Frank, and I can’t wait to see what Peggy Kern does next. For more stories of teens in crisis, check out E.R Frank’s Life is Funny and America. To read more about teen sex trafficking and what you can do to help (or get help), check out LOVE146 and WomensLaw.org Little Peach is coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you March 2015.
Katie should be loving her life. She’s a hotshot young chef with her own restaurant (Seconds) and about to open a new one called Lucknow. There’s only one problem: her success has made her miserable. Lucknow is having construction issues. She doesn’t like the way the cutting edge chef she hired at Seconds is running her kitchen. (She also thinks it might have been a mistake to start “canoodling” with him.) But worst of all is when her hot ex-boyfriend Max shows up for dinner with a gorgeous girl on his arm. Suddenly Katie just wants to go back in time so she can make different choices: about Max, about Lucknow, about her life. That’s when a blond haired house sprite shows up in the middle of the night and leaves three things in Katie’s top dresser drawer: a notebook labeled “My Mistakes,” a red-capped mushroom and a instruction card that reads, “1. Write your mistake. 2. Ingest one mushroom. 3. Go to sleep. 4. Wake anew.” Katie follows the directions and to her delight, they work. And when she finds more mushrooms under the floorboards of her restaurant, she is thrilled. Now she can correct every mistake she’s ever made! It’s easy! When the house sprite returns and warns her that she is only entitled to one mushroom and one mushroom only, Katie refuses to listen. Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it. And Katie gets it until she can’t even remember why she wanted to change things in the first place. Maybe her life wasn’t so bad after all. But how can she ever get back to the way things were? This magically real stand alone graphic novel by the author of Scott Pilgrim reads like charming modern take on the Fisherman’s Wife. Both teens and twenty somethings will find many of Katie’s situations funny and familiar, especially when it comes to first loves, first jobs and first-time-out-on-your-own. A perfect gift for grads, first job seekers and anyone who’s ever wished they could change the past (which, let’s be frank, is ALL OF US.)
Sib is sweet, funny and completely under the thumb of her best frenemy, Holly. Lou is smart, sarcastic and so sad over the loss of her beloved boyfriend Fred she’s gone mostly silent. The two of them have been thrown together in a dorm with four other girls at a wilderness education program in the Australian outback. There they will hike, learn basic survival skills, gossip, sneak off with boys and try not to kill each other over who’s going to clean the hair out of the shower drain. At first, Sib is too busy managing her crush on hottie Ben and Holly’s subsequent jealousy to notice Lou. And Lou is too busy managing her grief and ignoring everyone and everything else to notice Sib. But as Sib begins to finally understand that Holly isn’t just a mean girl, she’s cruel and Lou begins to pull out of her depression, they discover that friendships can bloom anywhere–even in the middle of the wilderness. Author Fiona Wood tackles first kisses, first loves and THE First Time with a confidence and finesse that reminds me of one of my all time favorite reads, Saving Francesca. And since Fiona Wood thanks Francesca author Melina Marchetta in the acknowledgements, I think it has something to do with their shared Aussie author awesomeness. The dialogue is sparkly, the characterizations spot-on and the relationships complicated and real. You’re going to want to hike on over to your nearest library or bookstore and pack up a copy for yourself.
High school junior Lara Jean Song doesn’t know who is more surprised when the secret love letters she wrote to all her old crushes suddenly show up in their mailboxes: her or all the boys she’d loved before. Now Lara Jean is in the uncomfortable position of having to admit to old friend Peter and her sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh that in the past she nursed mad crushes on them both. It’s so awkward that Lara Jean proposes to Peter that they launch a “fake” romantic relationship so that Josh doesn’t find out the real truth: that she’s STILL nursing a mad crush on him even though he just broke up with her older sister Margot, who is convientely attending college in Scotland. Lara Jean thinks she’s salvaged the situation until the inevitable happens–she starts having feelings for Peter, and she suspects he might be having them for her, too. But she also still likes Josh. And with Margot coming home from college in just a few short weeks, Lara Jean knows she needs to make a decision before circumstances make the decision for her. While this sister love triangle may look and sound like a romance, it’s also a smart coming of age story about a girl not only figuring out who she LOVES but also who she IS. What does it mean to be the middle sister in a family where her Korean mother died too young and her white father is raising Lara and her two sisters on his own? Who do you talk to about your love life when your mother is gone and your oldest sister and dearest confidante is a million miles away? Funny, tender and true, this romantic family drama mash-up will be cherished by fans of Judy Blume, Gayle Forman and Sarah Dessen.
On the island of Guernsey in 1994, Renee and Flo may go to the same school, but their paths rarely cross. Flo’s family has fallen apart after her parents’ divorce and she lives in misery under the thumb of mean girl Sally. Renee plays pranks and gets in trouble to distract herself from the fact that her sister seems to have stopped eating solid food since their mother’s death and her grandparents refuse to do anything about it. Then Flo’s father dies suddenly, and Renee is the only one who truly understands what she’s going through. Their shared tragedy quickly makes them fast friends. But the world still keeps keeping on after the worst has happened, and even as their friendship blossoms, Flo still has to deal with nasty Sally and Renee still has to manage her awkward attraction to Flo’s hot brother Julian. The difference is, now they have each other. This warm, humorous ode to female friendship back in the good old days before Facebook will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt true love for a best bud. Despite the drop of some fast and furious revelations at the end that seemed a bit hasty to me, I was drawn in by British author Dawn O’Porter‘s breezy dialogue and spot-on depictions of teenage girl relationship woes. You’ll want to download this UK import pronto or just nab a 1994 nostalgia print copy from your local library or bookstore.
Three sisters left alone for three days in a wintery cabin, each visited by a mysterious stranger who lures them into the snow. A beautiful young bride who makes a grisly discovery in the walls of her new husband’s grand house. A jealous man who commits murder in the dark of the forest and then is visited by the victim of his crime. These are a few of the deliciously creepy, folklore-gone-wrong stories written and illustrated by the incredibly talented Emily Carroll. Mostly inked in red, black and a chilly cobalt blue, these graphic vignettes about love, death and revenge ooze with tension until they quietly detonate, usually in a silent moment of terrifying realization or a shocking splatter of crimson blood. Though I have read through the collection over half a dozen times by now, I just can’t stop poring over the gorgeously gory pages in fear and fascination. This assemblage of gothic-themed dread is a boon to my YA horror peeps who are always looking for a good literary scare, and to any nervous reader who’s ever been convinced that they just missed being snatched on the way back to bed by the something that lives under it. Because as the fanged shadow warns Red Riding Hood at the end of her journey through the forest, “You must travel through these woods again & again…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…but the wolf only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.” Here’s hoping that the wolf never gets lucky and you relish these darkly delightful tales as much as I did. Want a taste of Emily Carroll’s disturbing visions? Read this interactive horror story and try not to shiver uncontrollably at the end.
Most of us have heard of or read the story of the last royal family to rule Russia, about their immense wealth, sheltered lives and horrific end. But Candace Fleming tells the familiar history in a compulsively readable way, by including parallel narratives of real peasants and revolutionaries whose brutally poor lives provide a stark contrast to the opulence of the royal Romanovs. While the difference between the imperial family and the people they ruled seems cruel and extreme to us today, Fleming does an thorough job of showing that the Romanovs were products of their time period, who truly believed that the peasants were happy farmers who lived robust country lives. But this convenient belief couldn’t be “…further from the truth. Most peasants had never slept in a proper bed, owned a pair of leather shoes, eaten off of a china plate, or been examined by a doctor.” In fact, Fleming notes, “Many peasants were so poor, even the cockroaches abandoned their huts.” But Nicholas Romanov was willfully ignorant of the fate of his people because he had been raised to understand that his family had been divinely chosen to rule, an understanding that eventually led to the fall of czar-ruled Russia. I was surprisingly riveted by a story where the end is never in doubt. But Fleming’s detailed descriptions of the royal children (son Alexie was a holy terror in the school room, daughter Anastasia was nicknamed “dumpling”) and their luxurious surroundings juxtaposed against the rise of the disenfranchised revolutionaries made for obsessive reading. You also won’t want to miss the fascinating portrait of one of the most radical rock stars of history, the famous charlatan Rasputin, who wormed his way into the royal family and almost refused to die. I finished the entire book in two days, and I bet you will too when you nab your own copy from the nearest library, bookstore or e-reader.