YA Contemporary Fiction

VINYL MOON by Mahogany L. Browne

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It’s been five weeks since Angel’s mother sent her to the live with her uncle in Brooklyn, and Angel knows it’s her own fault. Her fault that she had to leave California. Her fault that her arm is in a sling. Her fault that Darius, the first boy who called her beautiful, the boy who loved her so much he couldn’t help but hurt her, is in jail.

Angel isn’t eager to share her past–or her guilt–with the other girls in her advisory class at her new school or with her teacher, however cool she might seem. But when she rediscovers the poetry of Maya Angelou, which she had loved to read until Darius tore up her book, the words of Angelou and soon other Black artists take root in her soul. And as she confronts the darkness in her past, she begins to open herself up to love: the love of a boy, the love of a friend, the love of her uncle, and most incredibly, the love of herself.

Exquisite poetry and prose intertwine in this uplifting novel about a Black trauma survivor finding herself through the powerful voices of BIPOC artists. Writers like Cisneros, Morrison, and Angelou influence both the character on her journey to becoming a musical artist and the style of narration, a combination of vignettes, poems, and conversations. Browne also surrounds her protagonist with a community of Black women and girls, each with her own developed identity and arc, who flesh out not only the world of the story but the message about the strength, resilience, ingenuity, and above all value of Black girls, despite how society teaches them that they don’t matter or can’t achieve. This book is an essential purchase for any YA collection and an emotional, uplifting literary read for teens and adults.

DANGEROUS PLAY by Emma Kress

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Zoe has one goal for the year: to lead her field hockey team to the championships where she’ll have the chance to impress scouts from her dream college. It’s not going to be easy, especially since most of the team will be new players, but that’s why Zoe has been leading her handpicked new girls in middle-of-the-night training sessions, so that they really blow Coach away at try-outs.

Everything goes according to plan, except that one of the girls who makes the team isn’t one of Zoe’s picks. In fact, the only time Zoe has seen Nikki before was when she ran across the field during one of the middle of the night trainings, her shirt undone, a wild look in her eyes like she was fleeing for something–or someone. Zoe is pretty sure something happened to Nikki, just like she’s pretty sure that another teammate has been getting harassed at school while the administration does nothing, but the best option seems to stay out of it and focus on the game. But when Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, her focus begins to slip away, and suddenly she realizes: she and her fierce teammates shouldn’t be saving all their fight for the field. Their nighttime training sessions would be better spent wreaking vigilante justice against the boys who have hurt them.

This novel is packed with emotional intensity and morally-questionable heroics. Ultimately, Zoe and her friends will find a way to fight for justice without using violence, and Zoe’s fraught family relationships will settle into a supportive community. A great read for anyone wanting to vicariously take out some rage against the patriarchy with an positive and constructive message about how all high schoolers can take a proactive stance against rape culture.

A SECRET SHARED by Patricia MacLachlan

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Nora doesn’t understand why her mom wants a DNA test. Isn’t it enough to know who you are and where you came from? Do you need to know who your ancestors were, too? As Nora expected, her mother’s test results don’t hold any surprises. But Nora finds a huge surprise hidden in the envelope: her little sister, Birdy, snuck a tube of her own spit into the testing envelope and her results don’t match her mom or her dad. Nora doesn’t know why her parents would keep Birdy’s adoption a secret, but as she investigates to learn more about her little sister’s past, Nora’s own secrets begin to pile up. With all of the complicated things she’s thinking and feeling, could there possibly be enough love in her family to hold her together?

This complex story about love and truth is told in MacLachlan’s spare yet meaningful prose. With the current conversation about the trauma of adoption, it might have been nice to see more of Birdy’s perspective and more complex and conflicting emotions from her character upon learning about her first mother. But that isn’t the story MacLachlan is telling here; this is Nora’s story–the older sister, trying to figure out what her family means not only because one of her siblings is adopted but because her loving, trusted parents have lied to her since Birdy’s arrival. I’d recommend this story to elementary-aged readers who enjoy literary fiction.

THE BIG REVEAL by Jen Larsen

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Addie isn’t ashamed of her body. In fact, she’s incredibly proud–not only of how she looks, but of the strength and grace that has helped her rise to being the best dancer at the top arts boarding school in the country. But she is frustrated with how others see her and think less of her for being fat, especially since fat dancers are discriminated against in the industry.

When Addie gets the opportunity to attend an elite summer program led by one of her biggest heroes, an elite dancer with a body like hers, she won’t let anything stand in her way, especially not the $6,000 she definitely doesn’t have. Fortunately, her awesome and supportive friends have a plan: put on a secret underground burlesque show on campus after dark. It’s an exciting idea, one that makes Addie feel incredibly excited and empowered. But as the date of the show grows closer, doubts about baring her skin in front of an audience begin to creep in. And on a campus where young women are routinely shamed and disciplined for outfits that the administration deems “too revealing,” the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will Addie find the courage to dance for what she believes in?

This unapologetically feminist and body positive YA contemporary novel will resonate with all young women who have ever been shamed and objectified for having bodies (so, all young women…). Debates over the validity and empowerment of sex work take center stage, but complex friendships, budding relationships, and amazingly witty banter keep the feminist message from feeling overly preachy. The high stakes plot makes it difficult to put this one down. I highly recommend this novel to fans of YA contemporary fiction.

THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I by Cassandra Hartt

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A small town in Maine is slowly eroding into the sea, and the lives of three high schoolers are crumbling with it. When Tommy swam out into the ocean, he wasn’t planning on swimming back or being rescued. He was hoping to sink beneath the waves, to leave his miserable existence behind. His twin brother, Ellis, has been trying to pretend Tommy’s depression doesn’t exist, focusing on his own struggles as an aspiring track star whose prosthetic leg is starting to irritate him from overuse. And his best friend and Tommy’s sworn enemy, Harlow, knows that all of it–from Ellis’s leg to Tommy’s depression–is her fault. But through their efforts to save their town and their relationships with one another, the teens begin a journey toward healing where new romances blossom, old secrets are purged, and forgiveness will lead to a path forward.

Lyrical prose and authentic emotions guide readers through this poetic story. Fans of emotional contemporary YA, such as A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL, WE ARE OKAY, or AN EMOTION OF GREAT DELIGHT will love this quietly beautiful debut. Hartt includes a warning at the start for scenes of suicidal ideation, suicide, and depression, which are upsetting in their realism, but the hope and healing that propels the story makes it a rewarding read for anyone who won’t be triggered by the content. I highly recommend this one.

Amazon.com: The Sea Is Salt and So Am I: 9781250619242: Hartt, Cassandra:  Books

THE SUMMER OF LOST LETTERS by Hannah Reynolds

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Until she finds her grandmother’s letters, most of Abby’s summer plans involve trying to avoid her ex. But the minute she starts reading the love letters from a mysterious man named Edward–who apparently wanted to marry her grandmother and still has a necklace that belonged to her–everything changes. Her grandmother never mentioned an Edward, or spending summers with a wealthy family on Nantucket. In fact, all Abby really knew about her grandmother was that she came to America alone as a toddler while her parents perished in Auschwitz. Now, Abby wants to learn more about the grandmother she loved but, as it turns out, barely knew.

After securing a job at a Nantucket bookstore for the summer, Abby is determined to find Edward, get some answers about her grandmother’s past, and get that necklace back–even if it means breaking into his mansion. But she didn’t count on Edward’s grandson, Noah, who is just as handsome and charming as he is determined to thwart Abby’s attempts to poke her nose in his family’s business. As the summer wears on and friendship blossoms into something more both Noah and Abby wrestle with the price of love: how much they are each willing to sacrifice for love of their families and for each other.

From the jacket summary and cover art, I did not expect to laugh out loud at this romance–but the banter! The premise of the romance of the grandparents and the tension between families left room for angst (and there was angst) but the thrust of the contemporary romance is summer fling turns to forever love over a series of adventures and capers. It was sweet, funny, and at times heart-wrenching, full of history and thorny ethical dilemmas, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommend to fans of YA contemporary romance who like family drama and a bit of mystery.

Amazon.com: The Summer of Lost Letters: 9780593349724: Reynolds, Hannah:  Books

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


More:

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

YOU CAN GO YOUR OWN WAY by Eric Smith

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Adam throws all of his energy into keeping his family’s pinball arcade up and running; it’s his way of preserving his dad’s memory. But with finances tight, his mom is starting to give up hope and talk about finally giving in to the esports cafe that wants to buy them out. The esports cafe that is owned by Whitney’s dad.

Although they were once best friends, Whitney has barely spoken to Adam since his dad died, and although Whitney’s mom also owns a shop in the old city center by the pinball arcade, her dad represents everything Adam hates–the destruction of classic culture in favor of sleek new technology and of course, money. But Whitney has problems of her own and when an act of vandalism throws them into each others’ paths again, their reluctant reunion will force them to acknowledge the past and confront the obstacles that are keeping them from defining their own futures.

Romantic, funny, and heartwarming, this YA contemporary has a perfect blend of fun and emotional depth. The pinball background and general ’80s nostalgia creates a delightful atmosphere, and I found myself longing to be part of the Old City shop owners’ community with their wonderful, hilarious camaraderie. I highly recommend this to fans of YA contemporary fiction and YA rom coms.

DARLING by K. Ancrum

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Wendy’s parents may as well have her under house arrest. It was their idea to move to Chicago so that she could go to a prestigious prep school (and so they could adopt more kids to keep under house arrest). But now they won’t let her hang out with her friends–all because when her mom was younger she saw some kid get murdered at a party in a graveyard.

Of course, Wendy’s parents aren’t home when a charismatic guy named Peter breaks into her house, and when he invites her to join him and his friend Tinkerbelle at a party, she can’t bring herself to say no. But instead of a party, Peter brings her home to meet the boys he’s taken under his wing–boys who give Wendy cryptic warnings that lead her to believe that Peter isn’t what he seems. With the police on their trail and something dramatic slated to happen later that night, Wendy will need to figure out who to trust if she’s going to make it home alive.

This dark Peter Pan twist is impossible to put down! I loved how Ancrum turned it into a thriller instead of a fantasy, drawing out the darkness that already exists in the original Peter Pan and infusing it with a new take on the concept of “eternal youth.” I was riveted. Highly recommend to fans of YA thrillers and dark contemporary.

Amazon.com: Darling: 9781250265265: Ancrum, K.: Books

JUST ASH by Sol Santana

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Ash is a boy. He has always known he was a boy, and his parents have always agreed. It even says “male” on his birth certificate. But his parents have always insisted that he never tell anyone that he is also intersex. It’s so rare and confusing, they taught him, that it’s better if it stays a secret.

Unfortunately, when Ash unexpectedly starts menstruating for the first time during soccer practice, his intersex identity suddenly becomes very public. He gets kicked off the team, his friends abandon him, and his parents insist that he is now a girl, enrolling him him in a new school where he is forced to wear a dress and use the girl’s bathroom. Ash struggles to please his parents, giving “being a girl” a try, but when they announce that they want to have his male genitalia surgically removed, he realizes that home is no longer safe. On the run, Ash soon learns that being intersex isn’t nearly as rare his parents led him to believe and that the fight to live as his true identity must begin with accepting and loving his own body.

JUST ASH is a message to intersex teens: you are not “wrong,” and you are not alone. The heartbreaking abuse Ash endures from his parents is balanced by the love and unmitigated acceptance from his older sister, his girlfriend, his intersex support group, and a supportive teacher. But the most heart-wrenching part of the book is how much a reality experiences like these are for many LGBTQIA+ teens. In addition to the positive (and grossly underrepresented) intersex perspective, the story and characters are compelling. I would recommend this novel to fans of YA contemporary fiction, to intersex readers who want to see their experiences represented, and to any teen reader who does not know what it means to be intersex.