YA Contemporary Fiction

THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson

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Only a year ago, Bobby lived a perfectly normal teenage life.  He hung out with his friends, did as little school work as he could get away with, and of course spent lots of time with his girlfriend, Nia.  But when Nia got pregnant, Bobby’s life changed forever.  Both his and Nia’s parents wanted to give the baby up for adoption, but Bobby couldn’t imagine letting go of his beautiful daughter, Feather.  Bobby decides to raise Feather on his own, even though the pressures of parental responsibility, when added to his existing family and school responsibilities, seem almost too difficult to conquer.

It is difficult for me to discuss my opinions about First Part Last without spoiling the ending, but I will reveal as little as I can.  First, let me say that there are elements of this book that I love.  The perspective of a teen father is so rarely voiced, and the love and responsibility that Bobby feels for his infant daughter in conflict with his own immaturity and need to be a kid himself make him an incredibly realistic and sympathetic character.  But the ending did sour the book for me.   Throughout the novel, the reader is aware that Feather’s mother has been absent from the story since Feather’s birth—only present in Bobby’s memories of the past.  When Johnson reveals what happened to Nia, it is surprisingly dramatic.  That single plot point overwhelmed the earlier, less tragic and dramatic elements of the story and detracted from the impact of the novel for me.   I would still recommend this book to teens who enjoy realistic fiction, and I understand why Angela Johnson was honored with a Coretta Scott King Award for the wonderful protagonist, Bobby.  But it is not my favorite of her books.


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When Dorie’s family moves from California to New Jersey, Dorie realizes that she has a unique opportunity.  She can redo her image and change from an unpopular nerd to a member of the popular clique.  Being a scientifically minded individual, she decides to do her research and make a plan for how to become popular.  When she stumbles upon the most popular clique in the school (what she calls the “Holly Trinity”), Dorie studies their behavior to determine what unifying characteristic makes them all popular.  She is surprised to discover that the only thing they have in common is that they have all dated and been dumped by the same guy.  If Dorie can do the same, she’ll surely get into their clique!  But first she has to get Grant Braddish to ask her out. . . .

This is definitely my favorite tween realistic fiction book.  Dorie is smart and funny, and anyone who is or has been a middle-school-age girl will relate to the situations she gets tangled up in.  I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers who enjoy realistic fiction!

If you liked Dumped by Popular Demand, you might like Dork Diaries, Babymouse, Smile, and Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf.

SAFFY’S ANGEL by Hilary McKay

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Saffron loves her eccentric family.  Both of her parents are artisits, her little brother Indigo cooks experimental dinners every night, her little sister Permanent Rose has a strange taste for paint, and though her older sister Cadmium can’t seem to pass any of her exams, she certainly fails them with style.  But since Saffron found out that she is not really her parents’ daughter–that she is really their niece, adopted when she was three years old after her real mother died–Saffy doesn’t feel like she fits in anymore. 
The only straightforward relationship Saffy has is with her grandfather, who has always been her grandfather since the day she was born.  Unfortunately, he also suffered in a car crash shortly after he brought Saffy back from her real mother’s home in Italy to her adopted family in England, and he has not spoken since–only to say Saffron’s name.  When her grandfather passes away, the family discovers a cryptic note in his will, leaving to his granddaughter Saffron “her angel in the garden.”  Although Saffy does not remember her angel, she believes it must be in the garden of her real mother’s house in Sienna.  When she happens to strike up a new friendship with a wealthy and adventurous neighbor girl, it seems Saffy may have a chance to travel to Italy in search of her angel–if only friendship troubles do not get in the way.
I really enjoyed this book, the first in Hilary McKay’s series about this eccentric family.  If you like books about quirky characters, such as Ingrid Law’s Savvy or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you should definitely check this one out!  Aside from the fantastic characters, the book contains a coming-of-age story about fitting in with family and friends while finding one’s own identity which is sure to be accessible to older elementary schoolers and teens.  I highly recommend this book! 
Thanks for the recommendation, Linda!


WHY WE BROKE UP by Daniel Handler

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Ed is likely sitting at home, heartbroken.  Still, he probably won’t even notice when Min drops the box on his doorstep.  Inside the box are all of the things that she saved from their relationship, all of which tell the story of why they broke up.  But in case he doesn’t see the objects the same way she does, Min is writing Ed a very detailed letter explaining each item and its significance.  As a future film director, Min is poetic and visual in her writing, conjuring scenes from their relationship, beginning with Al’s Bitter Sixteen Party that Ed crashed, continuing through the adventures of planning a birthday party for an elderly movie star, faltering at the challenges of balancing a relationship with friendships and individual interests, and finally ending with the pain, the heartache, and the realization that so many things just shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

This book surprised me.  In fact, it blew me away.  I do not generally enjoy reading books about relationships.  But Why We Broke Up is perhaps the most genuine, realistic depiction of first love and the heartache of a broken relationship that I have ever read.  Min is a beautifully human character: cynical yet naive, confident in her individuality yet insecure, “different” and “arty” yet ultimately the same as any other teenage girl in love.  There is explicit sexual content in this book, but the author portrays both the fun and positive intimacy of the physical relationship as well as the awkwardness, vulnerability, embarrasment, and ultimate emotional devastation of a premature physical commitment.

I will reiterate that this book has mature content and is not for all readers.  But older teens (particularly girls) who have dealt with love and a break up, who enjoy reading books about relationships, or who just want a sobering dose of reality after reading romance novels like Twilight may find Min’s story as captivating as I do.

If you liked Why We Broke Up, you may like Eleanor and Park.  You may also like Thirteen Reasons Whywhich has different subject matter but a similarly creative narrative style.

DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

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When Amal makes the decision to wear the hijab full time, she knows that some people will support her–her friends from her old Muslim private school, for example, and even some close friends from her new Catholic school.  But from everyone else, she is prepared for the worst: the stares, the ridicule, the assumptions that she is a terrorist or an oppressed woman forced into submission by an anti-feminist culture, etc.  What she doesn’t anticipate is the sense of freedom, confidence, and identity that comes from wearing the hijab.  As Amal continues to navigate the many stresses of high school–parental pressures, bullying at school, and a crush on a wonderful boy who may or may not share her affections–she learns more about herself, her personal and cultural identity, and the diverse cultural identities of her friends and neighbors.

Amal is a fun, snarky, and genuine narrator who realistically captures the common experiences of the typical teenage girl while also providing a window into a culture that may be unfamiliar to some readers.  This book would be a tough sell for boys, but teen girls who enjoy realistic fiction should definitely check this one out!


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Although some of the Greasers would be quick to pick a fight with the Socials, Ponyboy generally tries to stay out of trouble in an effort to please his older brother Darry (who has been responsible for him since their parents died).  But that doesn’t stop the Socs from picking a fight with him.  Walking home from the movie theater one night, Ponyboy gets jumped by a few Socs, one of whom has a knife.  Darry, their middle brother, Sodapop, and a few other Greasers come to Ponyboy’s aid and chase the rival gang away, but the incident confirms what Ponyboy already believed: the rich kids hate the poor, greasy haired East Siders so much that they don’t care how badly they hurt them–just like how they beat up Johnny and left him for dead a few weeks earlier.  Socs are so rich that they have no problems, no responsibilities, and no consequences for their actions.  The only way Greasers can defend themselves is to fight back.  But when Ponyboy meets a couple of Soc girls at a drive-in and has a real conversation with them, he begins to realize that maybe they aren’t so different after all.  The Greasers are walking the girls home when the Socs boyfriends show up.  The girls manage to prevent a fight in the moment, but later that night the Soc boys catch up with Ponyboy and Johnny.  When they try to drown Ponyboy in a fountain, Johnny pulls a knife and accidentally kills one of the Socs.  Not knowing what else to do, Ponyboy and Johnny flee the city, knowing that nothing will ever be the same.

Once a popular realistic fiction novel, The Outsiders has become a YA classic.  While the action of the plot centers of gang rivalries and violence, the thematic focus of the story is on the social differences that underlie these rivalries and the common coming-of-age experiences of balancing social and family pressures and solidifying a sense of identity.  It is an exciting and thought-provoking novel, and short enough to entice reluctant readers.  I don’t recommend the 1988 audiobook; it’s not the best performance. But I definitely do recommend the book itself, particularly to high schoolers.

SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

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High school has very defined social rules.  Most of them are comical.  People divide into cliques that all have absurd dress codes and behavior expectations.  Everyone is supposed to be incredibly enthusiastic about the school’s crappy sports teams and the mascot that seems to change every other day.  Melinda can see the absurdity of the high school social environment because she is an outsider.  She has no clique.  She has no friends.  The people who used to be her friends will barely even look at her after what happened at the party over the summer.  It had been Melinda who called 911, but not because of the drinking.  She called because of what happened to her outside, that no one knows about except her and the boy she now thinks of as “It.”  Melinda has not told anyone what happened; she doesn’t say much of anything anymore.  Her grades are slipping, attempts at friendship failing, and even the desire to have friends seems to be slipping away.  Only something about art class still seems compelling to her, though she isn’t much of an artist.  As her parents and teachers get increasingly frustrated and concerned, Melinda struggles to navigate the rules of high school and to find a way to express what happened over the summer.

Melinda is a wonderful narrator.  Her observations about the high school world are snarky and 100% accurate.  You may not expect to laugh at a book with as heavy subject matter as this one, but Speak is about more than just rape.  This incredibly well-written and nuanced novel will be accessible to anyone who is or has ever been in high school, and Melinda’s journey toward finding her voice is a powerful one.  The subject matter is heavy (though not graphic) and may be upsetting to some readers, so use your judgment.  But this is one of my favorites–possibly because Melinda and I have a very similar sense of humor and reaction to high school.


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Hazel does not particularly enjoy support group.  It consists of sitting in a church with a bunch of other teenagers with cancer of various kinds at various stages, all in the process of dying–even those in remission.  All humans are in the process of dying, after all.  But it is at support group that she first meets Augustus Waters, an incredibly attractive guy with an unrelenting wit and an affinity for metaphorical cigarettes.  Their friendship forms quickly around conversations about nuances of language, action movies, video games, and in particular a somewhat philosophical novel by a reclusive author.  Peter Van Houten’s novel has had a profound influence on Hazel and her worldview, but there is one problem.  It ends mid-sentence with the main character’s death.  Not a very satisfying conclusion.  As Hazel tries to balance her feelings for Augustus with her reluctance to begin a relationship that must inevitably soon end with her death, Augustus tries to track down Van Houten to find out how the novel ends.

The Fault in Our Stars is at once hilarious and heartbreaking.  Through an exploration of love, family, hope, disappointment, and loss, John Green captures the infinite beauty, tragedy, and potential of finite human life.  Hazel and Augustus are witty, intelligent, imperfect, and so utterly human that I could not help but fall in love with them.  Although it is heart-wrenching, I would not call this book depressing.  In fact, I would describe it as uplifting, a reminder that the transience of human life does not diminish its beauty or its meaningfulness.  Thank you for this book, John Green.  It is truly a masterpiece.

If you liked The Fault in Our Stars, you might like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

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Devon’s Eagle Scout project, a large wooden chest he was building with his father, sits in the corner of the living room covered with a sheet.  Caitlin fears it will never be finished now that Devon is gone, one of the three victims of the Virginia Dare Middle School shooting.  Caitlin’s father hasn’t smiled since the tragedy, and she can often hear him crying.  Mrs. Brook, the counselor at James Madison Elementary School, tries to encourage Caitlin to talk about what she is feeling, but Caitlin doesn’t know what she is feeling.  She has Asperger’s and doesn’t always understand emotions–either other people’s or her own.  But at Mrs. Brook’s prompting, Caitlin tries to “work at” understanding emotions and to develop empathy so that she can make friends.  And when she learns that there is something called Closure which might give the tragedy an “emotional conclusion” for herself, her father, and her new friend, Michael, she is determined to figure out how to get it.

This is one of those books that other people might describe as depressing but that I see it as uplifting–sad and tragic, but heartwarming in the end.  The focus of the story is on families and friendships and dealing with loss as a community.  For Caitlin, the journey toward Closure is closely tied to her efforts to build friendships.  Despite the tragedy that set the plot in motion, there is a lot of love and hope in this story.  School Library Journal recommends Mockingbird for 4th-6th graders.  I think older middle schoolers and possibly high schoolers would enjoy it as well.  It is a very complex story and the themes of friendships, family, and coping with loss will be relevant to teens and even adults.

If you liked Mockingbird, you might like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.


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The monkey king masters the disciplines of kung-fu but cannot earn the respect of the gods because he wears no shoes.  Jin Wang moves from China to America and tries to adjust to the new culture while dealing with the prejudices–not all of them ill-intentioned–of his classmates.  Danny lives in a world similar to a sitcom where his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee constantly embarrasses him with his unusual behavior.

Yang weaves these three stories together to highlight the challenges of moving to a new culture and struggling to develop one’s identity as an individual.  The graphic novel earned him the Printz Award in 2007.  It may seem disjointed at first, but it comes together in the end.  It will probably appeal most to teenagers, especially high schoolers.