Happy New Year, teen peeps! Here is my top ten list, delivered like a baby 2016 to your email, Twitter or Pinterest right on January 1. 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 DIME a tiny bit more:) Click on the title to go right to the review.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Dime by E.R. Frank
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schmitz
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
What do a brother and sister in 1935 Nazi Germany, two homeless boys in 1935 Philadelphia and a young Latino girl in 1942 California have in common? A magical harmonica and the hope that lives within it. In Pam Munoz Ryan’s epic, all-ages novel, the power of music unites these young people across time and space as they each awaken the sleeping enchantment that is embedded in the deceptively simple instrument.
Twelve-year-old music prodigy Frederick and eighteen-year-old nursing student Elisabeth were once the closest of siblings, but they have grown apart due to Elisabeth’s new found fascination with the German chancellor Adolf Hitler. Elisabeth believes in Hitler’s propaganda about about a “pure” race with no physical or mental flaws and Frederich, who was born with a large purple birthmark on his face, wonders how his sister can accept an idea that essentially brands him as an outsider in his own country. When their father is picked up by Nazi soldiers while Elisabeth is away, Frederich must embark on dangerous journey to save him, his only comfort the strange and beautiful harmonica he found in an abandoned warehouse.
Mike and Frankie have been living at The Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children since their Granny couldn’t take care of them anymore. Their only solace is each other and the old piano that Mile knows how to play from Granny’s many lessons. When a rich stranger arrives and offers to adopt them both because of Mike’s musical talent, the boys think their ship has come in. But when the situation turns out to be more complicated than Mike thought, he decides to sacrifice his own happiness in order to save his brother by auditioning for Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, a traveling harmonica band that takes in young musicians and pays for their keep. Maybe the family will love Frankie more if Mike leaves. But before his final audition, Mike learns a secret that threatens to destroy the plan riding on his skill with the beautiful harmonica he found in an old music shop.
Ivy is devastated when she learns that her family is leaving Fresno for a new home outside of Los Angeles. She was supposed to play her beloved harmonica in a radio show with her class, but now she must leave all her friends and start over at a farm that her father is taking care of for a family that has been sent to a Japanese internment camp. When she is pulled into a frightening situation where she must come to the aid of the Japanese family who provided her family with their new home, the only thing that soothes her fear is the music she plays on her harmonica.
The three stories converge on one night in 1951. How do Frederick, Mike and Ivy find each other and what brings them together? I wouldn’t dream of denying you the incredible satisfaction of finding that answer out for yourself. A hopeful, lyrically written story about the magic of the everyday and how one person, no matter how young, can make a difference. Whether you are six, sixteen or sixty, everyone should read Echo.
Ruth would do anything to get out of Gran’s “old person smelling” house, but the results are disastrous when cute Ray Stevens offers a sleepover with benefits. Dora wishes she had a place she could call home because no matter how kind Dumping’s parents are, she can never forget that she is a guest in their house due to her father’s inability to stay away from the bottle. Dumpling always wears a red ribbon on the end of her braid for luck, but it doesn’t save her from what fate has in store. Alyce is torn between the two worlds of professional ballet and commercial fishing, and making a choice means disappointing one of her divorced parents. Hank is forced to take his two younger brothers on the run in order to find out where he truly belongs. This group of disenfranchised Alaskan teens living on the edges of their white, Athabaskan and Inupiat communities in the 1970’s end up coming together in complicated and unexpected ways that will delight and surprise readers. Based on the debut author’s own experiences growing up in Alaska, this character-rich, poetically-written, all-ages read will be available at a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.
Rashad is African American, an aspiring artist, the son of a police officer and a member of the ROTC. Quinn is white, a loving big brother, the son of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, and a member of a winning basketball team. Both boys find their understanding of the world challenged when Rashad is brutally beaten by a cop for a crime he didn’t commit outside a neighborhood store, and Quinn witnesses it from the sidewalk. Quinn is shocked and devastated to realize that the cop who beat Rashad is actually the older brother of his best friend. Rashad is shocked and devastated to realize that the beating has brought up a painful incident in his father’s past that paints him a new and disappointing light. In the week following the incident, Rashad and Quinn begin questioning the safety and fairness of the society they thought they knew.
Rashad: “I wasn’t sure what to do about any of it, or if I even wanted anyone else to do anything on my behalf. The looks on my friends’ and family’s faces–it hurt me to see them that way. Especially knowing that it hurt them to see me this way. I didn’t deserve this. None of us did. None of us.”
Quinn: “I wasn’t going to stand there and and pretend I knew what life was like for Rashad. There was no way. We lived in the same goddamn city, went to the same goddamn school, and our lives were so very goddamn different…Nobody wants to think he’s being a racist, but maybe it was a bigger problem, like everyone was just ignoring it, like it was invisible.”
With quiet lyricism and unexpected poetry, co-authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely help readers make sense of “the problem we all live with” with empathy and a serious appreciation for just how deep our biases run and how much we are trying–as a community, as a people, as a nation–to overcome them. This wise, timely book is thought-provoking, philosophical, and a call to action that anyone who reads it will have a hard time ignoring.
It’s not easy being a sixteen year old orphan in 1964 Ontario. But it’s even harder when you’re a brown-skinned girl who’s just lost the only home you’ve ever known. When the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls goes up in smoke one terrifying night, Malou is thrust out into the wide world with just $138, a shopping bag full of used clothing and a hospital bracelet with the words, “Baby Fox.” With her only clue being the hospital address, Malou boards a bus to the tiny town of Parry Sound, where she hopes to solve the mystery of her birth. She quickly finds a room to rent and a cleaning job to pay for it, but it’s rough being on her own for the first time in her life. “Alone is a hard thing to be. There is not enough inside my own head to fill all the hours it would take to live alone. Especially without books.” As she starts investigating her background, Malou begins noticing and meeting other teenagers in town who look an awfully lot like her. Soon Malou finds herself entangled in an local secret that is far more complicated than she ever could have imagined. I tore through this fast paced and plotty novel in about twenty four hours, completely engaged by Malou’s singular voice and the riddle she is trying to solve. If you find yourself in a reading slump, this captivating historical identity mystery is the perfect antidote!
Almost seventeen-year-old-wanna-be-screenwriter Quinn Roberts has become very anti-social–“..which is what happens when your big sister gets killed in a car wreck, right outside the school on the day before Christmas break.” So, yeah. Now it’s summer, and things have just gotten worse. Quinn and his mom are subsisting on a steady diet of sorrow and Healthy Choice frozen dinners. Finally driven out of his house by a broken air conditioner and his concerned friend Geoff, Quinn shrugs off his grief long enough to take a shower and attend a college party where he meets a sexy older college guy named Amir who makes his heart go pitter pat. Did I mention Quinn is gay? He is, even though “I’m still not out. It just seems like a hassle to come out. I want to just be out.” Amir is a great distraction to what’s really going on with Quinn, which is a) once again, his sister and best friend Annabeth died b) the last text he sent to Annabeth was something he wishes he never had to think about again c) he is terrified to complete his application to a prestigious film program without her sarcastic but loving support. Without Annabeth’s direction, will the screenplay of Quinn’s life just die in development? This raucous dark comedy is full of author Tim Federle‘s trademark witticisms–I couldn’t stop chuckling and underlining such gems as these while I read:
“I became enamored of the idea of having my own little pool. I was going to make it in the shape of a Q, and the slash at the bottom of the Q was going to be the hot tub.”
“If you don’t know what hangover feels like, congrats. You’re smarter than I am. It’s like a sledgehammer eloped with a swing set and they honeymooned in your head.”
Sometimes Quinn’s voice is a little too frenetic as the wisecracks just keep coming hard and fast page after page with no rest in between. But what the reader quickly realizes is that Quinn has to keep quipping in order to maintain his sanity. Because once he really looks at what has happened to family and asks himself some hard questions about his part in it, there’s no going back. And there’s nothing really funny about that. While you sadly have to wait until March 2016 to experience the witty stylings of Federle’s YA debut, there’s no time like the present to check out his equally diverting Better Nate Than Ever books!
I plucked this delightfully disgusting collection off my shelf to read just in time for Halloween. But before I even launch into the ominous awesomeness of these stories, can we just talk about this amazeballs dedication?
I know! Pretty fantastic, right? I have a feeling that dedication is true for far too many of us. Anyhoo, this is straight up HORROR, so for those of you who just dabble, STOP READING NOW. It just gets bloody after this point. Nova Ren Suma starts us off with a BIRDS inspired tale about a creepy next door neighbor who knows way too much about the neighborhood girls, but soon gets his just desserts in the form of a feathered babe WHO DOESN’T PLAY. Woo. Serious shivers. Then there’s a nice grouping of giant serial killer rabbit (?! don’t ask, just read. Probably the most terrifying & inventive monster of the bunch), sweet but deadly ghost, insane asylum teen sensation singer, backwoods folklore trickster and son of Satan, by the uber talented Carrie Ryan, Cat Winters, Leigh Bardugo, Megan Shepard & Danielle Paige, respectively. More sleepless nights will no doubt be inspired by editor April Genevieve Tucholke‘s I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER’s car accident yarn, Jonathan Maberry‘s outsider zombie fable (winner of best story title=FAT GIRL WITH A KNIFE), Jay Kristoff‘s online predator tale, and Stefan Bachmann‘s DOWNTON ABBY-type murder mystery. I could continue to curdle your bedtime milk with diabolical descriptions of the equally eerie stories by Marie Lu, McCormick Templeman, A.G. Howard and Kendare Blake (author of the super scary Anna Dressed in Blood books) But why should I when all of you who love blood, gore and creaky doors are already headed to the nearest library, bookstore or e-reader to secure a copy? Horror fans won’t be disappointed, especially when you discover that each story includes the author’s movie, book or song inspiration in tiny upside down print at the end. SO, MORE CREEPY THINGS TO WATCH, READ OR LISTEN TO! Happy Halloween, you’re WELCOME.
Audrey is missing out on her life. Ever since her ex-friends Tasha, Natalie and Izzy launched a bullying campaign that gave her an acute case of Social Anxiety Disorder with a side order of Depressive Episodes, Audrey has been wearing dark glasses and rarely leaving the house. Dr. Sarah has assured Audrey that her “condition is fully treatable,” but Audrey isn’t so sure. The only time Audrey feels safe is when she is alone in a darkened room watching sitcoms. If she wasn’t being so entertained by her mother’s crazy crusade against her brother Frank’s video gaming habits, she’d probably forget how to laugh. Then Frank brings home his gaming partner, Linus, who’s sweet, cute and intrigued by Audrey’s dark glasses. They embark on the most adorable courtship ever, which mostly involves passing notes and touching the tips of their shoes together. Then Linus challenges Audrey to go out to Starbucks with him. Audrey is torn–should she stay home where no one can ever hurt her again? Or should she trust Linus and face the caffeinated crowd at Starbucks? Audrey thinks she can do anything as long as Linus is there to love and support her. But it’s only when she takes her anxiety into her own hands that the glasses come off and her life REALLY begins to turn around. This delightful oddball romance comes from the pink pen of British Confessions of a Shopaholic author Sophie Kinsella. I have always hugely enjoyed and recommended the Shopaholic series, so I was thrilled to see SK try the YA thing. The results are touching, funny and completely Kinsella. For another atypical romance, take a look at OCD Love Story or try some of these other British funnies.
In this raucous medieval-ish fantasy turned upside down and sideways, Nimona is a sassy shape shifter who offers her slick sidekick services to professional villain Ballister Blackheart. In turn, she wants nothing more than to take out a few good guys. But that’s not the kind of villain Blackheart is. In fact, he’s kind of…kind, more like a Robin Hood than Sheriff of Nottingham. So when Nimona’s unstoppable powers attract the attention of the deadly Director of the mysterious Institute, Blackheart does his best to keep things from getting too heated between Nimona and the Institute’s champion, Ambrosius Goldenloin. But for sad and terrible reasons of her own, Nimona is out for blood, and soon Blackheart finds himself trapped between his arch enemy and his closest ally, no longer able to tell which is which. This inventive graphic novel was originally a web comic that earned oodles of raves, all heartily well deserved. Stevenson’s small scale art and text is packed with big universal truths about corruption, morality and heroism while also delivering some hardcore giggles along the way. You’ll find yourself wanting a Nimona of your own after finishing this delightfully subversive tome.
“My disease is as rare as it is famous. It’s a form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency…basically I’m allergic to the world…I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years.” Biracial teen Maddie believed she had gotten used to her sanitary, white-walled world. She had learned to accept the limits of her sterile existence, her only friends being her mother, her nurse Carla, her books and the Internet. She could even forget sometimes that the tropical flowers and plants in the heated sunroom were all made of plastic. But then tall, acrobatic Olly moves across the street and opens up a whole new world to Maddie right outside her vacuum-sealed door. At first he just throws rocks at her window and holds up silly messages in his. But then they graduate to emails and share their deepest secrets: Maddie tells Olly about her disease and Olly confesses his own troubling situation–his father is abusive and his whole family suffers from his angry outbursts. Soon email is not enough, and Madde convinces Carla to help her sneak a throughly decontaminated Olly into the house when her mother isn’t home. Before long they are holding hands and even kissing like two normal teenagers in love. Maddie knows this blissful experience can’t last forever. What if her mother finds out? What if she gets sick? But how can she possibly go back to her life the antiseptic way it was before? Now that she realizes everything she is missing, everything she has is no longer enough. “I was happy before I met him. But I’m alive now, and those are not the same thing.” This modern day Romeo & Juliet story is already #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, which doesn’t surprise me one iota. Managing to strike both an unconventional and classic tone, this slow burning romance drops two shocking bombshells in a row, leaving readers lovesick one moment and stunned the next. ALL the things are in Everything, Everything and you won’t be able to stop turning the perfectly paced pages until you find out what fate has in store for these two star-crossed lovers. Enjoy–I envy anyone reading it for the first time!