Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best YA Books of 2015

Do you need gift suggestions for teens? Winter vacation is a good time to rekindle the joy of reading for fun. I've chosen a dozen of the best young adult books published in 2015. Impressively, four are debuts, including my top pick for teens, Under a Painted Sky by Stacy Lee. Follow the title links to full reviews posted earlier this year on my blog. If you have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.

YA Historical Fiction
What made these three books special was the perfect blend of literary writing, engaging characters and parsimonious historical detail. The first novel would be a good choice for tweens and younger teens. The latter two would be better for mature teens or adults.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. I don't usually like Westerns, but this historical novel reads like a racially diverse Little House on the Prairie. Following a tragic accident, a Chinese American musician and a slave girl disguise themselves as boys to run from the law in Missouri. They team up with three Texan cowboys who are heading to California to find gold. There's a touch of romance, but the most important relationship is the friendship between these resourceful girls. The writing is superb with well developed characters, a fast pace and a fine sense of place and period (1849). Despite dealing with tough issues like murder, slavery and racism, it still manages to be a feel good story, appropriate for tweens as well as teens. The girl protagonists are 15 and 16 and the boys are a bit older. This debut tops my list of best YA from 2015 that I've read to date.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez features a clandestine romance which dares to cross the racial divide of 1930's Texas. Inspired by the most deadly school disaster in American history, this provocative novel gives voice to those whose voices were silenced and whose histories were unjustly revised. The narration alternates among a Mexican American girl, her African American boyfriend, her biracial half-brother and her white stepfather. This gritty, dark novel would be best for mature teens or adults. It's one of the strongest and most disturbing YA novels I've ever read. Follow the title link to the full review, which includes a guest post from the author about her inspiration.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, one of my favorite authors. There are plenty of war books celebrating male valor and camaraderie, but girls and women usually play only supportive or romantic roles. In Wein's novels, the girls are literally in the pilot seat, calling the shots and sometimes firing them as well, but violence is never romanticized. Black Dove, White Raven follows a family of pilots in 1930s Ethiopia. The narration alternates between Italian American Em and Teo, her African American foster brother. Their pilot moms are fun characters too.

YA Fantasy/Surreal Fiction
I'm reading more fantasy because my 14-year-old niece loves it. I thought I was buying books for her, but my brother frequently steals them from her bookshelves. We're all enjoying bonding over good books.

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh is a retelling of 1001 Nights with a feminist twist: Shahrzad has volunteered for marriage to assassinate the boy-king, thus ending his chain of bridal murders. Using her skill at storytelling, 16-year-old Shahrzad entrances Khalid and survives to see another dawn. She hunts for his vulnerabilities and discovers that she is his weakness as he is hers. To her horror, she is falling in love with this handsome monster. Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is Khalid not really a monster? This first book of a new series has all the best elements of a young adult novel: a fantastic set up, complex characters, a swoon-worthy if disturbing romance, a pulse-raising pace and an exotic setting.
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is a strong sequel to the award winning Seraphina (2012, now paperback). In this literary fantasy, an unstable truce between humans and dragons is under siege. Seraphina, a half human/dragon music mistress, hides her secret parentage while trying to prevent war.  I loved Seraphina (my niece's favorite book) so much that I bought the sequel the day I finished reading the first book, and I don't usually like high fantasy. I bought a second copy for my niece's birthday, which she enjoyed even more. Although Seraphina is a teenager, most characters are adults so it would crossover well to an adult audience. The excellent world-building and philosophical themes reminded me of The Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and the Dune saga by Frank Herbert (my brother introduced me to those series when we were teens).

I Crawl Through It by A. S. King satirizes education in the USA. Everyday is a new bomb threat with police dogs sniffing the halls. The principal is literally buried to her neck in paperwork. Teaching is geared only to standardized tests, and a naked man in the bushes is selling letter answers. Seeking to escape the chaos/boredom of school, Gustav is building an invisible helicopter to fly to a colony of geniuses. Stanzi, a biology prodigy, can only see the helicopter on Tuesdays (ha!), but she agrees to run away with her secret crush. The reader must suspend disbelief to take this book for a spin. Challenging novels like this one aren't usually written for teens, but it's wonderful to find an author who is willing to trust the intelligence and the imagination of younger readers.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby is set in small town Illinois and in alternate worlds. The two narrators are a missing woman and her boyfriend's younger brother, Finn, who believes her abduction was his fault. There's also an omniscient horse, a goat who says "Meh!" and a magical forest. Most enchanting of all is Finn's romance with a beekeeper. This modern fairytale also contains the real world problems of bullying, abandonment, sexual harassment and college applications. I'm only halfway through, but the writing is so captivating, I'm including it on my list. Thanks to Charlotte Agell, my crit partner, for the recommendation.

YA Contemporary Fiction
I read mostly contemporary, realistic YA fiction because that is what I write. It was hard picking only four from so many good books. The ones I chose presented fresh perspectives, meaningful issues and an easy to read style designed for a wide audience of teenaged readers.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven would appeal to fans of John Green. For a book about depression, it's quite funny at times. Two troubled teens meet on the ledge of the school's bell tower. Instead of jumping to their death, they leap into an unlikely romance. The setup sounds gimmicky, but this book explores depression with brutal honesty as well as gallow humor. Popular Violet feels guilty about surviving the car accident that killed her sister. She is drawn to charming Finch who struggles with a bipolar disorder and his outcast status at school. Narration alternates between them. There is a list of resources for suicidal teens at the end and a personal note from the author that brought me to tears. This book won the Goodreads Choice Award for Realistic YA Fiction.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli: what makes this debut special is the authentic voice. The straight female author used her experience as a child psychologist to tell a typical coming out story. Simon's secret gay romance is threatened when another boy finds their flirty emails and blackmails him. Simon struggles to protect the privacy of the other closeted boy, whose identity is unknown even to him. The story is set in the suburbs of Atlanta with racially diverse secondary characters. I raced through this book in one day, laughing at Simon's witty observations and eager to uncover the identity of his mystery love. The parents were hilarious. This author knows how to laugh at herself.
None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio is being marketed as Middlesex meets Mean Girls, but this underplays the educational content of this groundbreaking young adult novel. The original premise was designed to hook teens: a homecoming queen discovers that she is intersex when sex with her boyfriend is excruciatingly painful. At her first gynecological exam, Kristin learns that her chromosomes are XY. When her secret is leaked at school, Kristin becomes a target of bullies and fears she might lose her athletic scholarship to college. The writing is strong for a debut, but None of the Above is not a literary novel nor does it try to be one. The plot is well paced and easy to follow, clearly geared for reluctant readers. By making Kristin so normal and likable, the surgeon author reinforces the message that intersex people are not freaks.

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy. From the blurb, I feared this would be yet another fat-girl-loses-weight-to-win-the-beauty-pageant-and-the-hot-guy book, but it wasn't like that at all. This heart-warming story, set in small town Texas, embraces love at any size. It makes you understand what it feels like to live inside someone else's skin and to be judged unfairly by appearances. Dolly Parton fans and feminists will love it too. Thanks to Kelly Jensen for the recommendation via Goodreads.

YA Nonfiction

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda. This debut memoir advocates for compassion and respect for children in developing countries. For a seventh grade pen pal assignment, Caitlin chose to correspond with Martin in Zimbabwe because she'd never heard of that African country. Over the course of six years, they formed a close friendship. Their story is told in alternating chapters, dating from 1997. This book would work well as a classroom supplement to a pen pal assignment. Follow the title link for my full review. Thanks to Cathy Fiebach at Main Point Books for the recommendation.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received free galleys of Out of DarknessI Crawl Through It and Black Dove, White Raven from their publishers in exchange for honest reviews. I'm friends with Elizabeth Wein's current editor, but I became a fan of Wein's books years before they connected. I purchased Under a Painted Sky, Dumplin' and All the Bright Places as ebooks from Amazon. The other six books (plus a few extra copies for my niece) I bought at independent bookstores.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Life gets crazy busy during the holidays, halfway through Hanukkah with Christmas looming in an endless to do list. The newspaper reads like a dystopian YA novel. What can we do? Take a moment to enjoy life right now: walk by the sea before sunset, drink wine with a loved one or read a good book by the fire. Remember to breathe. Shalom means peace in Hebrew.

Happy Hanukkah! 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

My father's nickname for me was Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights was a (creepy) bedtime story from my childhood. How could I resist this new retelling (May 2015)? The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh adds a feminist twist: Shahrzad has volunteered for marriage to assassinate the boy-king, thus ending his chain of bridal murders.

After one night of betrothal, Khalid usually kills his latest queen, including Shahrzad's best friend. Using her skill at storytelling, sixteen-year-old Shahrzad entrances Khalid and survives to see another dawn and another. She hunts for his vulnerabilities and discovers that she is his weakness as he is hers. To her horror, she is falling in love with this handsome monster.

Author Renée Ahdieh, from her website
Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is Khalid not really a monster? Shahrzad searches for the hidden truth as she plots her revenge. Meanwhile, her childhood sweetheart is raising an army to depose their king and to rescue her. Conflicted Shahrzad is not sure she needs saving. She is no damsel in distress and prefers to fight her own battles with wit or a bow and arrow. Only Khalid truly respects her strength. He tells her, "I see my soul equal in you."

Add a touch of magic and The Wrath & The Dawn is more than a retelling. It has all the best elements of a young adult novel: a fantastic set up, complex characters, a swoon-worthy if disturbing romance, a pulse-raising pace and an exotic setting. The evocative writing transports the reader to the deserts of Persia. The only weakness was the narration and dialogue sometimes sounded too contemporary for the ancient time period, but that probably makes the book all the more accessible to teen readers. I've bought a second copy for my 14-year-old niece for Christmas and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, The Rose & The Dagger. This series would crossover well to adult readers too.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the hardcover book at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.

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@Barrie Summy