YA Contemporary Fiction

YOU’D BE HOME NOW by Kathleen Glasgow

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

When Emory’s brother comes home from rehab, she hopes life will change for the better. Or as good as it can get after Joey nearly dying from a heroin overdose and Emmy nearly dying in the car accident that killed a classmate. At the very least, Emmy hopes to become less invisible. Maybe her parents will finally start paying some attention to her, instead of just to Joey and all his problems. And maybe the boy next door that she’s been hooking up with for ages will finally acknowledge her in public.

But even though neither of them was driving, the school community blames Emmy and Joey for their classmate’s death. And it turns out that Joey’s return from rehab is just the beginning of a long, arduous journey in his recovery from addiction. As Joey’s life crumbles again–and Emmy’s sex life becomes public in the worst possible way–a new community begins to form, and the hope Emmy had abandoned gradually flickers back to life.

Gorgeous prose and an infusion of classic literature elevate this story of a community’s coming-of-age into something truly exquisite. The suspenseful plot pushes readers along while authentic and complex emotions pull us deeper into the characters’ world. Though the novel takes on two mammoth social problems (the opioid crisis crisis and slut-shaming culture), Glasgow anchors them both in her protagonist’s struggle to be both noticed and respected by her family and community and also in the subplots of the parents and school community struggling to see outcasts as human beings. This novel is a must-read for any fan of YA contemporary fiction!

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

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Since the car accident that took the lives of Moth’s parents and brother, she has been living with her aunt in a Virginia suburb where all the other kids (most of them white) do their best to ignore her. Moth doesn’t mind. She has been doing her best to make herself invisible. If she hadn’t lived so exuberantly before, maybe there would have been enough life available in that hospital for the rest of her family to walk out, too.

When a Navajo teen starts at her school just before summer break, Moth finds herself connecting with another person for the first time since her family’s death. Sani is a musician, always drumming on his desk, reminding Moth of her life before the accident, when she danced as easily as she breathed. And when Sani flees his abusive stepfather at the same time that Moth’s aunt vanishes, it seems like fate that the two should go on an adventure together, in search of healing and their history. On a roadtrip across the South toward Sani’s father in New Mexico, a romance blossoms as they each connect with their ancestors’ experiences and grapple with the magic and miracle of first love and their place in the universe.

This beautiful YA novel-in-verse explores the ways that our ancestral history and romantic love can both root us in the world and set us free. Poignant and surprising, the story brims with complex emotions and exquisite yet authentic poetry. Fans of Elizabeth Acevado and anyone looking for a thought-provoking, immersive literary novel will not want to miss this gorgeous debut!

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

WHERE I BELONG by Marcia Argueta Mickelson

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Millie isn’t sure how to tell her mom she got into Stanford. She knows she’ll be proud, but her mom counts on her to babysit her younger siblings while she’s busy as the housekeeper for a wealthy senator and his family. And after everything her mom sacrificed to get her family from the poverty and political upheaval of Guatemala to become naturalized U.S. citizens in Corpus Christi, Millie can’t just abandon her to go to school.

But when the senator uses Millie as an example of an asylum seeker success story in a speech decrying the policy of family separation at the border, she is thrust into an uncomfortable–and dangerous–spotlight. Violent anti-immigrant extremists burn her house to the ground and she finds herself living with the senator and his family. As journalists clamor for interviews and her feelings warm toward the senator’s teenage son, Charlie, Millie wrestles with her responsibility to her family, the tension between her social class and Charlie’s, a sense of obligation to use her own privilege as an American citizen to stand up for other immigrants, and her fervent desire to live a quiet, safe, and anonymous life.

Set in the very recent past (2018), this coming-of-age story spotlights issues of race, class, and identity as Millie confronts the injustice of U.S. immigration policy and the complex moral and emotional issues that arise when she is held up as an “ideal” Latina immigrant. As Charlie comes to better understand his prejudices and blindspots, Millie works through her own judgments and assumptions about others (especially her mother) and her rigid opinions about the right way to do things. A great addition to YA contemporary collections, this book would also provide fuel for discussion in high school Government/Civics classrooms.

Amazon.com: Where I Belong: 9781541597976: Mickelson, Marcia Argueta: Books

SWITCH by A.S. King

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Time stopped on June 23, 2020. The world never stopped. The sun still rises and sets. People still wake up, go to school, come home. But the clocks and stopwatches and oven timers don’t move. Time no longer exists.

For two hours at the start of each school day, teenagers are tasked with brainstorming solutions to this problem. Tru is pretty sure she knows the cause. As with most global crises, it’s people who caused it–people who didn’t care enough about each other. Tru is an expert in the evils of humanity because she spent most of her life living with a bomb, the sister she hasn’t spoken to since she moved out. Sister left Tru’s family in tatters, her mom gone, her brother on edge, her father at the brink of insanity, turning their whole house into a series of plywood boxes, shutting off from one another and covering up the mysterious switch in the wall that no one’s allowed to touch. But just as her father spends his days pounding nails in, Tru spends her nights pulling nails out. And when Javelin throwing on the track team gives her an outlet for the incredible, almost superhuman energy that’s been building inside her, Tru realizes the solution. If a lack of human empathy cause the problem, only a swell of human emotion can break them out. And Tru is going to be the one to flip the switch.

Another stunning, powerful literary novel from A.S. King. Though the novel is slim, it is dense with poetry and heavy thematic content. This is one to savor. The sci-fi of this poetic book is unveiled symbolism for the brokenness of Tru’s family as they resist healing and connection, and I would therefore recommend it to fans of contemporary fiction and literary fiction–both teens and adults.

Switch by A.S. King: 9780525555513 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

WE ARE INEVITABLE by Gayle Forman

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Aaron’s family business is going extinct. No one comes into the bookstore anymore. Aaron doesn’t blame them. It’s not just that books are cheaper and easier to get online. It’s that the bookstore itself is crumbling. Shelves are literally crashing to the ground, books scattered in disorganized chaos. And the dinosaurs who run the bookstore–Aaron and his father–have been in a similar condition since a tragedy broke up their family. Aaron has been holding on as best he can, running the business and trying to keep his father sane, but it’s not enough. Their debts will bury them. Although his father won’t entertain the notion, Aaron knows their only chance is to sell to a local real estate shark, even if it means going behind his back. But when Aaron reconnects with his brother’s best friend, he is gradually swept back up into the vibrant and caring community of his small town. As hope begins to blossom around him, Aaron begins to wonder–is it possible to survive when the asteroid has already struck?

This novel is quiet in its heartbreak and loud in its hope. Aaron’s grief rings throughout all of his actions while the undercurrent of love from everyone around him lifts him up until he can see a path forward. It’s a must-read for fans of contemporary fiction, both teens and adults, and will be a wonderful pick for book clubs!

Amazon.com: We Are Inevitable (9780425290804): Forman, Gayle: Books

STRANGE CREATURES by Phoebe North

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Jamie invented Gumlea, the magical land in the woods behind their house. Annie knew it was real from the minute he described it. The woods came to life, bathed in golden light. She wasn’t Annie, Jamie’s little sister, anymore. She was Emperata Annit, and he was the Nameless Boy. They had adventures together in Gumlea, adventures no one else could understand. They made a pact to tell no one else about Gumlea, and to break that pact was punishable by a death price.

But everything changed when Jamie entered middle school. He changed, not just physically. He started pulling away from Annie and from Gumlea. And then he disappeared altogether. Eventually the police gave up the search. Even her parents started talking about him in the past tense. But Annie knew where Jamie really was. He was in Gumlea, and she was the only one who could find him.

Told in parallel with the mythology of Gumlea, this coming-of-age story is both beautiful and heart-breaking. Lyrical language and the suspense of Jamie’s disappearance makes it difficult to put down. I’d recommend this one to fans of dark YA contemporary with a literary feel.

Strange Creatures by Phoebe North

THE (UN)POPULAR VOTE by Jasper Sanchez

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Mark Adams doesn’t exist. At least not as far as the public knows. No one will find an article about Congressman Adams’ transgender son. No one will even find rumors about the Congressman’s separation from his wife. And as for his daughter, Madison–well, there may be speculation about why she no longer appears at campaign events with her father, but no one suspects that she no longer exists, or that the boy names Mark Adams who suddenly appeared at a public high school several hours away from the Catholic school she once attended is the person “Madison” always was, finally living his truth.

Mark knows he has to keep quiet about his past and his parentage. It was part of the deal–he could transition and live life as himself, but only if he didn’t screw things up for his father. But when a homophobic jock starts bullying a queer friend, Mark can stay in the background no longer, and he challenges the jock in the race for Class President. Mark puts all of his political savvy to work, and may even have shot at winning. But as the scent of victory prompts him to make bigger and bigger promises, Mark never stops to ask himself whether his small queer community–and his own integrity–will survive the cut-throat campaign.

This novel has all of the thrilling elements of a competition story and all of the thought-provoking elements of a YA coming -of-age story–all with excellent, authentic queer representation. A great pick for YA contemporary readers.

The (Un)Popular Vote – HarperCollins

IN THE WILD LIGHT by Jeff Zentner

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

Cash doesn’t know how to explain his friendship with Delaney. In fact, there’s not much about Delaney he can explain. She’s brilliant, obviously. Not every high school junior has discovered an antibacterial mold that can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And he understands the struggles she experiences at home, trying to take care of her junkie mother. Cash’s own mother ODed when he was still a kid, a story that’s too common in their small Tennessee town. But Cash’s Mamaw and Papaw have always been there–for him and for Delaney.

When Delaney gets offered a scholarship spot at an elite boarding school in Connecticut–and insists that the same offer be extended to Cash–his grandparents encourage him to take advantage of the opportunity, one that they could never have afforded to give him. Cash is devastated to leave his grandparents behind, especially since Papaw’s emphysema has been getting worse, and after a few weeks surrounded by geniuses and his entitled bigot of a roommate, Cash is ready to quit and head back home. But when he unexpectedly connect with a poetry class, Cash finds a path to self-expression he never imagined, and as new friendships blossom, he suddenly finds himself caught between the home he’s always known and the home he’s building on his own.

This beautiful and poetic story moves from heart-wrenching to heart-warming in organic swells, and the emotion stayed with me long after I closed the book. In addition to the less-often depicted Appalachian community, it stood out from other YA novels I’ve read lately in that instead of trying to establish his identity as independent from his parents, this protagonist is trying to remain connected to his family and true to his heritage when circumstances pull them apart. Ultimately, Cash’s journey is toward learning what his grandparents and Delaney have been trying to tell him all along–that he is just as remarkable as she. I highly recommend this novel to fans of YA Contemporary fiction.

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THE MARVELOUS MIRZA GIRLS by Sheba Karim

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Noreen’s high school graduation isn’t exactly how she pictured it. I mean, in some ways it was exactly what she’d imagined–parents getting teary-eyed over cliche speeches about achieving your dreams, as if achieving dreams were actually plausible. More of her classmates would be hit by buses than win a Nobel Prize. Most of life is out of their control. Case in point: Noreen’s aunt should be here, but instead she’s in her grave.

When Noreen’s mother is offered an year-long work opportunity in India, Noreen thinks that maybe this is what they need to start processing their grief and for her to sort out her life and get past her writer’s block. After all, that’s what white people do, right? Go to India to find themselves? But the first person she finds in India is Kabir, a boy who’s off the hotness index and immediately becomes a friend (and dare she hope something more?). But when Kabir’s father is MeTooed, Noreen is forced to examine her beliefs about love, loyalty, and family as she realizes that finding “herself” depends a lot on finding her place in relationships with those she cares about.

How refreshing to find an exploration of grief and complex moral issues in the form of a laugh-out-loud rom com! Noreen’s voice is a delight to read and the heavier themes are woven through the narrative poetically in a way that never dragged me down and kept me thinking long after the book ended. Highly recommend to fans of YA contemporary fiction!

Amazon.com: The Marvelous Mirza Girls (9780062845481): Karim, Sheba: Books