I may not read a lot of YA these days but some of things that moved me the most this year fell into that classification and I was thrilled to find that I at least read enough to do a Top 10 list celebrating the wonderful work these authors are doing. Some of these books were enthusiastically recommended on Twitter (a truly wonderful side effect of following a lot of authors), some were nominated or have the potential to be nominated for Lodestar awards, and some have been on my TBR list for a while but all brought me joy this year and excited me for what they could mean to teens today. Even as an adult, these books can still teach and reinforce messages that we need to internalize and there is value to be found in continuing to read them.
1. I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn I was just expecting a cute romance and teen girl discovering herself, which would have honestly been enough for me, but what I ended up getting was even better. I got a portrayal of a terrific grandparent-granddaughter relationship that reminded me of my own (and made me cry as a result) and a line that resonated so deeply that I can add it to the list of things I’m grateful to Kuhn for giving me, not just in this book but in her Heroine Complex series as well. One thing she does really well is capture the particular experience that comes with being full or partly Japanese American whose family has been in the US for multiple generations. In this book, Kimi reflects on her lack of knowledge about her family’s history, particularly as it relates to the internment camps during World War II. No one offered and she never pushed until this trip. It’s a realization I came to in my own life over the past few years but there’s no one who was alive at the time to answer my questions. My grandparents lived around 15 miles from Pearl Harbor in 1941, they would have been in their late teens, and I don’t know what that was like for them. It’s not something they would have wanted to talk about at all but it’s also knowledge that has been lost that I regret not considering while they were alive. It’s such a specific reflection but it hit home for me in a way that will undoubtedly stick with me. (Add to Goodreads)
2. Each of Us A Desert by Mark Oshiro This book is STUNNING. I have been a fan of Oshiro’s media thoughts and reviews on Mark Reads and Mark Watches for a very long time and it’s been exciting to see them become an acclaimed author. I took advantage of the fact that book tours and publicity were virtual in this disaster of a year and got to listen to them talk about it with Sarah Gailey and hearing this book’s journey to a finished product only made it more rewarding to read. It’s beautifully and lyrically written with original poems (in both English and Spanish) throughout and I love the way they play with the overall form by framing the book as a prayer. It was incredibly clever and well done but on top of that, it’s the kind of story I love as a reader. It is all about questioning the stories you’ve been told all your life and what they mean for your destiny. It’s a story of self-discovery and self-definition and learning to trust others to help hold your stories. Xochitl is achingly relatable in her desire to be more than the service she provides to others and to be free to discover who she is divorced from her role as the village cuentista and the journey she undertakes is so incredibly rewarding. (Add to Goodreads)
3. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo This was the first book I had read by Acevedo and I have read another one since then, which is always a good indication that I really enjoyed an author. This is a book I had always wanted to read but was a little bit intimidated by because it is a novel-in-verse and that’s not a style I feel particularly comfortable reading. So I chose to listen to the audiobook instead, read by the author, and it let me focus on the words and the story instead of being concerned that I was somehow reading it wrong. And wow, what a good story it is. I loved Xiomara’s self-discovery and finding her passion and her voice. Her questioning and pushing back against restrictive gender roles and religious practices she isn’t sure she believes in is captured so well in this format and it does really feel like a young girl using poetry to get out complicated emotions that would have been hard to access in any other form. I fully understand why this book is so acclaimed and loved and if you try it, I highly recommend the audiobook to fully inhabit the story. (Add to Goodreads)
4. You Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson This book was everything I wanted in a teen romantic and coming of age story and I don’t understand how it hasn’t already been optioned for a movie or show. I loved the setting of this very intense high school prom culture with a competition and scholarship money. It was exactly the correct level of heightened stakes for me and within it, I love the relationships that grew from it. I really loved Liz and Mack from the moment they met and the tension they had with Liz wanting to stay closeted because being queer and Black in this midwest school didn’t really feel like a possibility if she wanted to be prom queen and get the much needed scholarship money. But she was proven wrong (and a little right but mostly wrong) in the best possible way. I also really loved the way Liz and Jordan came back together to repair their friendship and the past miscommunications and outside interference they had to work though. Childhood friends know those quirks about you in a way new friends can’t and the ease with which they fell back into something supportive and real was everything to me. So I am going to need 2021 to get on with an adaptation of some sort and until then, I’ll settle for encouraging everyone I know to read this book. (Add to Goodreads)
5. When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey Anyone who has ever read anything on this blog before knows that I am all about incredible groups of friends and this book delivers that in spades. There is so much to love about this book. The opening sentences are such a good hook, there’s a very sweet love story, and the magic system genuinely feels mysterious yet also full of life. And yet, those aren’t my top reasons for loving this book, as well done as it is. Above all, this is a story about the friends you call to bury a body (or in this case, magic it away), the ones who are there for you no matter what and who will do anything in their power to support you. It’s a story about learning to trust in that kind of friendship and accept that you’re worthy of it. It’s a scary arc to tackle, especially in first person, because admitting that vulnerability to yourself and carrying that fear of everyone getting tired of you and leaving can be a lot. But Gailey does it so well with Alexis. I love her growth and her making the choice to believe her friend’s affections and accept the help they want to give her because they love her. It was so touching and beautiful and made it my favorite work of theirs (and there is quite a lot of competition, they are consistently great). (Add to Goodreads)
6. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray I truly am not in the target market for the Star Wars EU and yet I absolutely love the three books in it that I have read (probably because this is what happens when someone who knows your tastes is the one to recommend them). My knowledge of this universe isn’t great and I keep having to look up who people are and what exactly is going on in the timeline of these stories but a story, no matter how well known, can only be as good as the characters who populate it and that is what Grey excels at. It is undoubtedly a Star Wars story, a not insubstantial portion takes place on the Death Star. But in book form, it really gets to dive into understanding how people find what they believe in and what they’re willing to fight for and what it looks like to turn away from what you thought you knew and understood about the world in favor of something new. And it does so while telling a beautiful friends-to-enemies-to-lovers story where we get to see both points of view and get the wonder that is Thane and Ciera eventually coming back together. It’s emotional and smart in its observations of what this universe looks like to people who don’t know the Skywalker family and I would highly recommend it to even the most casual of Star Wars fans. (Add to Goodreads)
7. Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer It feels like there has been a surge of sci-fi and fantasy books lately with kindness and empathy at their core and this book absolutely fits in that market segment. It’s based around a chatroom on the social media platform CatNet and a truly lovely exploration of how deep friendships that start online can be and what a lifeline they can be for people who don’t have many offline connections because of frequent moves or just not quite fitting in. The actual plot comes from a dangerous father and the need to run from him, which provides the thriller part of the description but it’s mostly about acceptance and finding your people (even if one of those people is secretly an AI). I read this one very quickly as I couldn’t get enough of it and am anxiously waiting for book 2 in 2021. (Add to Goodreads)
8. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas This was such a cool setting for a book. I absolutely loved the brujx mythology and its culmination on Dia de los Muertos and the way Thomas used it to explore gender and the power in being fully recognized and accepted as who you are. There is a kindness and gentleness to his treatment of both Yadriel and Julian, both of whom have trauma and pain that shape their behavior throughout the book and how that helps draw them together after the rockiest of initial meetings. It’s a story about being unapologetic in who you are while also recognizing the importance of affirmation and validation from those around you. There is power and magic that comes from being truly seen and accepted and this book captures that so beautifully. (Add to Goodreads)
9. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender Sometimes our self-discovery isn’t clear cut. We may have aspects of ourselves that we know and are sure in but it doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. Especially as teenagers. We’re all a little messy and make mistakes and hurt people we really care about in the process of learning what we need and this book leans into that in a way I don’t think we get to see a lot. After Felix gets publicly deadnamed, he swears revenge on the person he thinks was responsible but in the process of doing so, finds someone he genuinely connects with. But while he’s pulled toward that , it pushes him further away from the people who have always known and seen him and that tension is confusing and hard. Nothing about it is straightforward but through it all, Felix is learning and growing into himself and finding community in his identity. It’s a queer, genderfluid coming of age story that isn’t always easy to read but is still full of joy and Callender does a terrific job balancing the two. (Add to Goodreads)
10. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher First of all, Mona’s ability to bake and control bread is probably one of my favorite magical powers ever and I love the joy she takes in it. It’s not a glamorous power but it’s hers and I love her exploration of her abilities and what she’s ultimately able to do. Second, this book had so many good things to say about heroism and what that means in fantasy books (and the real world). The heroes are the good guys, the ones who ride and save the day, often at great personal cost. But we don’t talk about the systems that set them up to be heroes or what they may need when their heroism is complete. We don’t usually get hero mentorship and support from people who know what characters are going through. So Kingfisher made a book entirely about that and made a 14-year-old baker the star. It’s clever and fun and the perfect sort of book that is engaging for a younger audience but deepens with age. (Add to Goodreads)
For more Best of 2020 fun, don’t forget to check out Marvelous Geeks’s lists and keep an eye out for some end-of-the-year wrap-up posts from Nerdy Girl Notes coming next week (and check out Mary’s Year in Books post!) And for TV thoughts, listen to our joint podcast episodes where we talk about our favorite characters, relationships, and more.