YA Realistic Fiction

MWD by Brian David Johnson and Jan Egleson

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Liz left high school and went straight to Iraq.  Her town was a dead end, her mother in prison, her grandmother as selfish as ever, and the military was an escape.  There was good and bad, but through it all, she had Ender, a Military Working Dog that she trained and worked alongside.  When a bomb abruptly ends her tour of duty, however, she finds herself back in her miserable hometown where even the few friends she used to have can no longer relate to her, no matter how hard they try.  But when she has a run-in with an aggressive stray dog, Liz finds a new sense of purpose.  She knows that Brutus could learn to be a great companion if only he were given a chance and the right kind of training.  Unfortunately, he is on doggy death row.  Desperate to save Brutus, Liz takes a job at the animal shelter and begins building her relationship with him–and with the people in her life.

A powerful story of a young woman whose connection to animals helps her rebuild her life after the trauma of war.  The characters and relationships are complex and the subject matter heavy.  Some of the more complicated action sequences were difficult to follow without any accompanying text due to the chaotic, dark and occasionally unclear black and white illustrations.  But the story overall still came across powerfully in the text and artwork.  I highly recommend it to mature teen fans of graphic novels and realistic fiction.

A LIST OF CAGES by Robin Roe 

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Julian hasn’t seen his former foster brother since Uncle Russell took him in.  Uncle Russell told him how much Adam and his mom hated him. He was such a burden to them.  And now he’s a burden to Uncle Russell.  He hates himself for all the mistakes he makes.  And for how he can’t even make it to school the days after Uncle Russell’s punishments.  

Adam can hardly believe it when he sees Julian at school.  The kid looks so different!  His new guardian never responded to any of his mom’s requests to check up on him.  It is so wonderful to see him again!  Except that something seems wrong.  As the year progresses, Adam realizes that something very dark is happening in Julian’s life, and he will have to make a choice between protecting Julian’s privacy and reaching out to help.

Through this dark tale of an abusice guardian, readers can see the warning signs of abuse, the wrongness of a child blaming himself for being abused, and the importance of speaking up about suspected abuse, even at the risk of losing a friendship.  Recommended for realistic fiction readers who can handle some disturbing subject matter.

FIRE COLOR ONE by Jenny Valentine

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Iris knows why her mother and Lowell moved them all to England.   They said it was because of her arson charges, but Iris knows it’s really because they ran out of money and need to come crawling back to her filthy rich dad, Ernest, who abandoned them so long ago that Iris doesn’t even remember him.  When they find out Ernest is terminally ill with only months to live, Iris’ mom is ecstatic.  Soon the fortune will be theirs!  At Ernest’s request Iris, her mom, and Lowell all travel to visit him at his estate.  Iris is stunned by Ernest’s art collection.  But everything seems to remind her of her best friend, Thurston, who was a New York performance artist and whom she will never see again.  Or get to apologize to.  She expects to get an apology from Ernest, but soon learns that her mother’s side of the story may not be the whole truth.  With only a few weeks to develop a relationship with the father she has never known, and to figure out her relationship with the mother who has deceived her, Iris knows healing can only come from two things: fire and art.

Rich in imagery, this novel explores the relationships of a dysfunctional family and eccentric friends with an endearing protagonist whose only means of release and escape is lighting fires.  The book will find its audience with teens who enjoy realistic fiction and literary fiction.

A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL by Eric Lindstrom

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None of Mel’s friends know about what happened to her brother.  They don’t even know why she missed so much school last year or why she had to break off her friendship with Zumi, Connor, and Annie.  But as managing her bipolar disorder becomes more of a challenge, Mel worries that they might start to guess her secrets.  Especially as her new friendship with David seems like it could become more than just a friendship.  In order for that to happen, though, she will have to let him in.

I had trouble putting this book down!  Lindstrom masterfully builds suspense as readers yearn to uncover Mel’s hinted-at secrets while at the same time developing his rich and interesting characters.  I highly recommend this novel to teen realistic fiction fans!

THE RADIUS OF US by Marie Marquardt 

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It took less than two minutes for Gretchen’s life to change.  She was hit from behind, crushed into the asphalt, and robbed.  And then she witnessed something even worse.  Six months later she’s still having panic attacks.  Phoenix has them, too.  After what he experienced of gang violence in El Salvador, and his harrowing journey through Mexico, he is now being treated as a criminal for seeking asylum in the United States.  His brother Ari, in his group home in Texas, is worse:not speaking a word to anyone.  A legal adult at 18, Phoenix is grateful to have a place to live in Atlanta, even though he knows he will soon be sent back and killed. Almost no one from El Salvador is allowed to stay, even when deportation is a death sentence. But when he meets Gretchen, things begin to change.  He begins to enjoy his life in the U.S.  And Gretchen begins to venture out of her shell.  Together, they begin to heal from the traumas gang violence brought to their lives.

A horrifying glimpse into the realities of gang warfare and the Central American refugee journey, The Radius of Us does not shy away from graphic violence.   As disturbing as some scenes are, the novel helps teen (and adult) readers understand how gangs can take hold of the lives of children and teens and what the experience of fleeing to the U.S can mean for these children, including being abducted up by drug cartels and trafficked as slaves.  And memories and flashbacks aside, the story is busting with kindness and hope.  It does have the fairly trite plot where the girl kicks the boy out, but once he’s gone suddenly learns from his friends all these wonderful things about him and must therefore go on a road trip to get him back.  But still a worthwhile read.

A GOOD IDEA by Cristina Moracho

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Fin had been excitedly awaiting the day she and her best friend, Betty, would graduate and reunite as college roommates.  Only seeing Betty in the summers when Fin visited her Dad was just not enough.  But then, Calder Miller killed her–drowned her in the cold Maine ocean–and now Fin will never see her friend again.  She attends her old high school’s graduation and is sickened that the principal doesn’t even mention Betty.  Worse still, Calder just accepts his diploma like nothing ever happened.  Released from jail on a technicality, thanks to his powerful father, and now his life is back to normal.  Everyone seems to have forgotten Betty except Serena, who loved her from afar.  Fin and Serena begin exacting revenge not just on Calder but the whole town, and in the process find themselves in a whirlwind investigation that plunges them into the underbelly of the small town’s drug trade and put themselves and their fledgling relationship in danger.  

A thrilling “rural-noir” mystery that mimics the style of Fin and Betty’s favorite classic films like Bunny Lake is Missing. The plot is gritty, and every character has both good and evil aspects.  This novel will be most engaging for older teens and twenty-somethings who like dark realistic fiction.

THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT by Chelsea Sedoti 

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When Hawthorn learns that popular, perfect Lizzie Lovett disappeared during a camping trip, she isn’t exactly sad.  But she is curious.  Lizzie was the most popular cheerleader in Hawthorn’s older brother’s grade.  Camping?  The Lizzie Hawthorn knew was way too concerned with designer clothes and make-up to spend the night in the woods.  Not that Hawthorn knew Lizzie well.  Like everyone else, Lizzie treated Hawthorn as a social outcast. But for some reason, Hawthorn is drawn to the mystery of Lizzie’s disappearance, and it isn’t long before she comes up with a crazy theory of her own–a theory so nuts that she becomes the school laughingstock.  Only Lizzie’s boyfriend, Enzo, seems to believe that Hawthorn’s theory might be true.  And as they begin to investigate, she winds up closer to Lizzie–and Enzo–than she ever would have imagined.

This realistic fiction novel pits a unique narrator with an unconventional family background against the common conflicts of friendships, family relationships, first love, high school social strata, and finding one’s identity.  The story is engaging not only due to the mystery of Lizzie’s but also thanks to compelling characters and relationships.  An enjoyable read from a new YA author!