Young Adult

DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt

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Malena didn’t want to go to school braless. Her abuela may think that large breasts is a blessing, but sometimes they are inconvenient and embarrassing. But the first degree burns on her back–the third disaster in a trifecta of tragedies, including the destruction of her home in Puerto Rico and the move to Florida–meant that wearing a bra was impossible. Unfortunately, the school administration didn’t see it that way, and they give Malena detention and force her to tape panty liners over her nipples.

Ruby hasn’t lived in Florida long but she already has a reputation as a feminist–the kind of girl who doesn’t mind announcing to her entire class that she needs a tampon. And why shouldn’t she? She has a body; she menstruates. She shouldn’t have to be ashamed of either of those facts. But when she sees another new girl in the bathroom being forced to wrap her breasts in surgical tape, Ruby knows it’s time to put her voice to better use–and she’s going to convince Malena to join her in this protest whether she wants to or not. As they take on the sexist, body-shaming administration, the girls quickly learn that activism has its price. The only thing costlier is inaction.

Unapologetically feminist with accessible voices and an inspiring storyline, DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? is a great pick for any fan of YA Contemporary fiction. The authors do not shy away from the realistic consequences of activism, especially for teenagers who are already bound by the rules and expectations of multiple authorities in school and their families. But the protagonists take courage in the knowledge that they are fighting for something important and morally just. Teen readers will be inspired by their story.

FROM A WHISPER TO A RALLYING CRY: THE KILLING OF VINCENT CHIN AND THE TRIAL THAT GALVANIZED THE ASIAN AMERICAN MOVEMENT by Paula Yoo

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In 1982, Vincent Chin and several friends went to an adult night club for his bachelor party. Hours later, two men chased Vincent down and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Over the course of five years and three trials, Vincent’s death garnered national attention. While friends and family hoped for some form of justice for his death, people around the country began to ask a question that became a political movement: would Vincent Chin be alive today if he had been white?

Through painstaking research and engrossing storytelling, Paula Yoo recreates this tragedy from the 1980s in a way that is accessible and tangible for modern audiences. She includes the wealth of facts and nuances that made the trials so complex and difficult for juries to decide, but she focuses on the humans involved in the story–from Vincent and his friends to the men who killed him to the lawyers on both sides of the case to the witnesses and activists involved in the trial. She ensures that each person’s voice is accurately and fairly represented, including the men who killed Vincent. Although the two jury in the second Civil Rights lawsuit did not feel that the prosecution proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the killing was motivated by race, the story of two white men pleading out of a murder charge for chasing down and killing a Person of Color is all-too-familiar, even three decades later, and anti-Asian hate has risen alarmingly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yoo’s recounting of the political movement that Vincent’s death inspired is a rousing call for awareness and action for readers today, highlighting the need for awareness of anti-Asian discrimination and also for reforms to the justice system that allowed men who were charged with murder to escape any jail time.

THE WORDS WE KEEP by Erin Stewart

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Lily is the one who found her sister bleeding on the bathroom floor, the razor still in her hand. But she didn’t go with her dad when he took Alice to the hospital. Or when he visited her in the treatment center. Instead, she stayed home and made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

Now, with Alice coming home, Lily will finally have to confront her sister’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. But how can she face Alice when she’s been working so hard to keep her life together–to keep her grades up, to stay at the top her game as a runner, and especially to hide the truth about Alice and the ways that Lily might be losing her mind, too? When her teacher pairs her with a new boy for a poetry project, Lily is horrified to learn that he was at the treatment center with Alice and knows Lily’s secret (or at least, one of them). When they stumble onto an idea for their project that involves anonymous poetry shared in public spaces throughout the school, however, she realizes he might actually be the key to helping her get through this–not just because their poetry is an instant success that sets them up for a top grade and the possibility of an elite summer program at UC Berkeley, but because through the poetry, Lily is finally able to anonymously express some of the darkness that she’s been hiding from the world. But as the time for revealing her identity as the mysterious “Guerrilla Poet” draws closer and Alice seems to be spiraling again, Lily begins to wonder whether her family can survive the revelation of her darkest thoughts when she’s the one they depend on to hold them all together.

This is both high praise and a warning: the depictions of an anxiety disorder, self-harm, and suicidal ideation in this novel are so real and raw that readers will feel them right along with the character. For some readers, this will be validating–a rare and powerful experience of seeing their own struggles reflected by another person, realizing they are not alone, seeing a path forward to hope and mental health care. For other readers, it may be triggering. Be aware before picking this book up and share trigger warnings with kids you recommend it to.

That praise/warning aside, I highly recommend this novel for YA Contemporary fiction fans and YA library collections. In addition to the realistic portrayal of mental illness, the novel features a strong, determined, witty narrator and a heart-warming romance, both of which buoy the reader up in the book’s darker passages. And the “guerrilla poetry” movement that the protagonist starts–and the way that poetry allows her and others in her community to anonymously express thoughts they fear to admit and forge unexpected connections–will warm the heart of any readers who have found themselves in the arts and literature (and of course every teacher and librarian!). It is a well-crafted and important story, and I highly recommend it.

THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

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Unlike her arch-nemesis, the vindictive and supremely self-absorbed Miss North Carolina, Teagan “Miss Virginia” Miller is not disgusted when she learns that the Miss Cosmic Teen USA Pageant will be sharing a hotel with a Sherlock Holmes fandom convention. She’s more petrified. It has taken a lot of work to keep her nerdiness–and her gayness–under wraps to placate the pageant bigots and give herself a real shot at winning that scholarship money. How is she supposed to maintain the illusion with hundreds of hot girls milling around, cosplaying as John Watson?

All hope of keeping her focus evaporates when she meets one of her favorite fanfic writers, Kay. While Teagan has been hoping to keep her queer identity secret for the weekend, Kay is doing the opposite, using the convention as a chance to escape her small town’s prejudices, experiment with using they/their pronouns, and (hopefully) kiss a girl for the first time. Unfortunately, the biggest bully from Kay’s hometown happens to be Miss North Carolina. It would be better for both Kay and Teagan if they avoided one another, just stuck to their own corners of the hotel, and not give Miss North Carolina a chance to destroy them. But love doesn’t always listen to logic, and once they share their authentic selves with one another, will they really be able to go back to keeping those identities hidden?

From the first page, I knew this book would be soaring to the top of my recommended YA RomComs list! The protagonists immediately hook readers with the authentic, heartfelt, and hilarious voices that England so excels at capturing–in their speculative works as well as this new contemporary novel. Through the escapist environment of a fandom convention, England provides a space for their characters to explore their identities, a common experience for all teens at Cons but especially powerful for queer teens who are infrequently surrounded by such an inclusive and accepting crowd. Yet this book is more than just the story of queer teens finding love and acceptance. England does not shy away from the thornier questions of identity and the blind spots and prejudices that their protagonists have toward one another and themselves. This is a book for the teen who isn’t sure whether it’s safe to come out in their community; the teen who isn’t sure whether they’re queer; the teen who isn’t sure what pronouns fit them best–and how on earth to communicate that to others. And this is a book for all readers, queer or straight, enby or cis, who are ready to laugh, fall in love with two incredible people, and be inspired to work a little harder on their own prejudices and accepting the people in their lives. I highly recommend this to all YA Contemporary readers. Though it is targeted at a high school audience, it will be accessible to mature middle schoolers as well.

THE FEAR by Natasha Preston

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Izzy is the only one in her school who hasn’t reposted the meme. It’s just too morbid, thinking about the worst way to die. But she never thought a creepy Insta post could be the work of a serial killer–not until she stumbles upon the first body. As classmates start turning up murdered in the exact ways they posted as their worst fears, Izzy gets caught up in the investigation. She knows it’s a small town, but it can’t be coincidence the ways that clues–and sometimes bodies–keep showing up in her path. And even though she never posted her worst fear, the idea that the murderer might be someone she knows could be the most terrifying thing of all.

This thriller starts to take on a slasher-horror vibe as bodies pile up and terror takes over. Preston meticulously weaves in clues that could implicate any of her three main suspects, setting up for a series of jaw-dropping twists. Teen fans of twisty thrillers who are up for some gore and horror-like conclusion will not want to miss this title!

GALLANT by Victoria Schwab

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Olivia Prior has no real memories of her parents–nothing but her mother’s journal. She doesn’t even know their names, just that her father is dead and her mother went mad before leaving her on the doorstep of the dismal boarding school where she has grown up. So when the letter arrives–a summons from the uncle she didn’t know she had, back to the family estate she didn’t know existed–the temptation to finally have a real home and family is too great to resist.

Even though her mother’s journal warns her of unnamed dangers within the halls of Gallant.

But the welcome at the manor is not what she expected. Her uncle is dead–and died too long ago to have sent her the mysterious letter–and the only remaining relative, her cousin Matthew, is determined that she should be sent away. Matthew is tortured by violent dreams, and the halls are haunted by ghouls that only Olivia can see. Yet none of that compares to the darkness on the other side of the stone wall in the garden, where a shadowy master of crumbling reflection of Gallant has been waiting for Olivia to arrive…

Atmospheric and horrifying, Schwab’s latest YA sits solidly in the horror genre and is impossible to put down. As you can expect from Schwab’s prose, every word hits like a gunshot, creating an atmosphere and story so immersive that you are as ensnared as her protagonist. This story is a must-read for teen and adult fans of paranormal horror!

WHEN WE WERE THEM by Laura Taylor Namey

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Graduation week isn’t going as Willa planned, and it’s all her fault. She hurt her best friends–badly–and the worst part is, that she isn’t sure why. But when her friends issue her an ultimatum with their friendship hanging in the balance, Willa will have to sort through her memories, from the blissful days on the beach their sophomore year with the girls and Nico, when all their dreams seemed perfect and possible, to the terrible tragedy their junior year that tore it all apart, to Willa’s choice last October that signed the death warrant of their friendship. With graduation looming closer, Willa opens some painful wounds, discovering some uncomfortable truths about herself and an even worse realization of what her future needs to look like.

This story hits the ground running with a strong thread of suspense that makes it hard to stop turning pages. The friendship struggles are relatable and heart-wrenching while the mysteries from the past give the story a bit of a thriller vibe. I highly recommend it to fans of books like WE WERE LIARS.

LAWLESS SPACES by Corey Ann Haydu

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Mimi’s sixteenth birthday isn’t what she’d hoped. She’s not surprised that her mother chooses to go on an impromptu trip with her boyfriend and leave Mimi alone for days. It’s just like her mom. But she is shocked when the news story breaks that her mother is the accuser in a high-profile sexual assault case that’s been all over the news.

Home alone, and unable to get in touch with her mom, Mimi isn’t sure how to handle this news–especially because of how her mom reacted about an incident in Mimi’s life last year, an incident which her mother seemed to think was all Mimi’s fault simply because of how her body is shaped. But as Mimi struggles to navigate these overwhelming revelations–all the while dealing with her own struggles with dating and her body image–she finds a stack of journals in the attic and begins to connect with the journey of the generations of women in her family before her, women who have had struggles that are dishearteningly similar to the sexism Mimi is still experiencing decades later.

Told through Mimi’s poetry, this story is beautifully told, but heavy. There are very few lighter moments in this book that deals with such important but difficult themes. It is a strong, feminist coming-of-age novel that will appeal most to older teens and twenty-somethings who want to immerse themselves in this struggle and come out the other side feeling connected to a community of women–generations of women–who have experienced gender-based violence and discrimination and feeling inspired to join them in the fight.

THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA by Axie Oh

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Mina didn’t plan to dive into the sea. She had just hoped to reach her older brother on the boat before he did something deadly–like try to save his beloved from the Sea God. For the past hundred years it has been the fate of the most beautiful girl in the country to be thrown into the sea in hopes that she may be the Sea God’s true bride, the only one who can break his cursed sleep and bring an end to the violent storms and wars that ravage the land. But when Mina sees her brother in the prow of the boat facing down the Sea God’s dragon to save the girl he loves, Mina takes fate into her own hands, and dives into the sea in her place.

In the world of spirits, nothing is as Mina expected. As soon as she arrives, three young men slice through the Red String of Fate that ties her to the Sea God–supposedly for his protection–and the leader, Lord Shin, traps her soul in a cage before vanishing. Mina is not about to surrender her soul without a fight, but when she tracks her soul down at Lord Shin’s mansion, she stumbles into an attempted rebellion, and when her soul breaks free it binds her not back to the Sea God but to Shin. Shin takes Mina under his protection, hoping that they can work together to break the Sea God’s curse. But the more Mina sees of the callous gods, the more her faith wavers, and there may be more than a red ribbon tying her heart to Shin. With the fate of her people hanging in the balance and the Sea God’s enemies seeking her life, Mina will have to trust in herself and the stories she was raised on to find the right path to walk.

This feminist reimagining of Korean folklore is immersive with soaring emotions and a swoon-worthy romance. The world had its hooks in me from the earliest pages, and the story was captivating. One of the highlights for me was Mina’s wrestling with her faith as the gods disappoint her and her ultimate realization that she can forge her own fate. I highly recommend this novel to fans of YA fantasy and fairytale retellings!

REQUIRED READING FOR THE DISENFRANCHISED FRESHMAN by Kristen R. Lee

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I deserve to be here.

Savannah has to repeat those words to herself every day–several times a day–just to remind herself that she hasn’t shown up at the wrong university. She’s one of only 100 Black students at the prestigious Ivy League school and her white classmates haven’t exactly gone out of their way to make her feel welcome. Hopefully, her mother is right that if she makes it all four years in this place, people will respect her degree more than they would have if she studied at an HBCU. But Savannah is starting to doubt it.

Savannah’s whole life has reinforced the reality that no matter what she does, some people will always assign her a label based on the color of her skin alone. And deserving to be somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be allowed to stay–whether that place is a pizza parlor or an elite university. So when a statue on campus is desecrated with blackface, Savannah is torn between wanting to speak out and fearing possible repercussions, especially since she’s pretty sure the racist behind the hate crime is a rich kid whose family has a long history at the school. But some things are too important to keep quiet about–even if they might cost your future.

This gripping, thought-provoking contemporary novel is a must-read! Although it is set on a college campus, the cliques, power dynamics, and constant struggle to find your niche and to balance school with life will be relatable to every high school student. Lee slams racist institutions with a blunt honesty that is refreshing, convicting, and guaranteed to get every reader thinking about how they will navigate the college environment and confront those injustices when they inevitably encounter them. I highly recommend this wonderful debut!