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Best of 2020: YA Fiction

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)

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Best of 2018: YA Books

According to my very convenient reading stats spreadsheet, young adult books made up about a quarter of my reading this year. While I am now much older than a YA protagonist, there is still plenty for me to enjoy in these books. As your teen years are often a time of growth and change, they tend to be primarily character-focused, which I greatly prefer. They also feel like they are more likely to be socially conscious and inclusive, although that may be some amount of selection bias that goes into that perception. There’s a variety of genres within YA represented in this post and I hope you’ll find something new to enjoy!

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas This isn’t a book that needs any introduction. It was made into an acclaimed movie this year and when it was released, it spend 50 weeks on top of the New York Times YA bestseller list. If you read anything about books on the internet, you have heard how good it is and they are entirely correct. This was one of the first books I read this year and I knew instantly it would be on one of these lists. It is a story about demanding better. We shouldn’t be a society where Black parents need to talk to their kids about dealing with cops, not to respect their position but so they have a better chance of making it home alive, but we do. The ending, with Starr remembering and honoring real life victims of police brutality alongside Khalil and pledging to fight in their memory for a better future for her younger brothers, was simply stunning. It grounded the novel in a powerful way and ended the book on a message of perseverance. Because that’s what is needed to bring about change. This book is about fighting for a better future and Starr figuring out her role in that. This is going to be the type of book that represents this generation of teenagers and young adults who are loud and engaged in working toward the world they want and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish.

2. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan I love a genre-savvy protagonist and that is exactly what Elliot is as in this take on a portal fantasy. He’s grown up on Narnia and Alice in Wonderland and understands what it means to fall through into another world. Unlike some who find other worlds, he fits just as poorly in his new world as he did in his old one. He’d rather study than fight, a detriment in a warrior-based society, and he’s a giant, often condescending pain in the ass. But despite that, he settles into himself and finds the people he fits with. His best friends are everything you would want in an iconic trio, I love the way Sarah Rees Brennan flips typical fantasy gender stereotypes as a way to point out how ridiculous they are, and I love the subversion of a typical YA love triangle especially in combination with Elliot being the most oblivious person in the world. The romance is a delight and if you’re a fan of pining fanfictions and yelling at characters because they’re obviously into each other, you’ll have a lot of fun here. It’s an incredibly fun twist on a genre we’re familiar with and you really can’t go wrong with it.

3. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera This is the sort of book that I can’t imagine existing when I was a teenager. A book about finding your voice and feminism and intersectionality and queer identity doesn’t feel like something that would have been published 15 years ago and I am thrilled that it does now. At its core, this is a book about learning to trust yourself and opening yourself up to your own truth then embracing that truth. It’s about learning your idols are human and just as susceptible to flaws and blind spots as you are but also that they can still be an important part of your development. It’s about understanding your history and surrounding yourself with different types of people and becoming the amazing, unstoppable force you were meant to be. In Juliet’s closing letter to herself, she says to “read all the books that make you whole” which I adore as a reader in general but it is also a perfect description of what this book was for me.

4. Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson If you like murder mysteries with a great collection of characters that will make you yell at the cliffhanger ending (that I was completely unprepared for, I didn’t realize this book was the start of a trilogy), this is the book for you. The school setting is terrific and leaves plenty of room for teens being teens and falling in love and worrying about fitting into their new environment alongside the mystery and takes full advantage of Maureen Johnson’s talents. She knows how to write protagonists you’ll love and root for and Stevie is no exception. My former forensic science-loving teenage self adored her love of true crime and determination to solve the decades-old unsolved mystery surrounding her school. While she embraces the spirit of Ellington, she has a harder time with her new classmates and her growth and learning to find her place and her people was also very satisfying. I can’t wait for the continuation of the story next month.

Continue reading Best of 2018: YA Books