YA Romance

THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

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

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 GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA by Axie Oh

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

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!

THE RED PALACE by June Hur

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

Hyeon worked her whole life to become a palace nurse. It wasn’t an easy path for her, especially without the support of her father, a prominent justice who barely acknowledges her and her mother, who was once his concubine. Hyeon’s success as a nurse and rise to the prestigious palace position was largely thanks to her mentor, Nurse Jeongsu.

But when a massacre at the student hospital leaves four women dead, Nurse Jeongsu is arrested under suspicion of murder. And when an anonymous pamphlet circulates accusing the Crown Prince of the murders, Hyeon realizes two terrible truths: first, that Nurse Jeongsu will be convicted and executed to divert suspicion from the Palace, and second, that Hyeon herself has unwittingly provided the prince with a false alibi by claiming to treat his illness that night. She knows she must investigate the massacre herself if she has any hope of saving her mentor from execution, even when it means defying her father and forming an unlikely alliance with the young and unconventional police inspector who seems to respect her, despite her being a woman and a commoner, but who has the power to destroy her life–or maybe break her heart. But Hyeon will risk her heart, her job, and her father’s disapproval to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, with so many bloody secrets hidden within the Palace walls, the truth may cost her life.

Suspenseful, romantic, and rich with the fascinating history of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, THE RED PALACE is perhaps my favorite June Hur novel yet! She seamlessly weaves together the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in her family and her society with a based-on-a-tragic-true-story murder mystery–plus, a swoon-worthy romance that delighted my historical-romance-loving heart. I highly recommend this novel for any YA collection and to any teen and adult fans of historical mysteries.

HOW NOT TO FALL IN LOVE by Jacqueline Firkins

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

Harper doesn’t believe in love. There’s nothing like working summers hemming dresses for bridezillas that will kill all dreams of a happily ever after. And then, of course, there was last summer’s fling that ended in a broken heart. No, Harper isn’t planning on falling in love ever again. Unlike her best friend, Theo, who seems to fall in love twice a week with girls who ultimately reject him. Harper decides what Theo needs is some lessons in casual dating, and who better to give them than the hardened cynic who is an expert in closing off her heart to love. To prove it, she’ll even casually ask out the hot athlete she’s had a crush on since forever and who she is definitely not going to fall in love with.

There are only two problems with Harper’s plan. First off, she starts falling for Felix almost as soon as they start dating. The bigger problem: she might be falling even harder for Theo…

I was swept away by this earnest, emotional rom-com. Harper’s voice is funny, and her experiences of love are raw and realistic. There were points in the novel when I genuinely wasn’t sure how things would turn out because of the believable complications that Firkins built into her love life. It is refreshing to have a love triangle where all three people are good humans trying to figure out what they want in the world and whether they can fit together in a relationship, and the sex-positive mom was an added bonus. I highly recommend this novel to teen and college-age romance readers! It would be an excellent addition to any YA collection.

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.


More:

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.

THE LAST LEGACY by Adrienne Young

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When Bryn Roth turned eighteen, she was summoned back to the country of her birth to take her place in her powerful family. But she soon learns that her uncle’s methods of securing and maintaining their power are illegal, underhanded, and sometimes even violent. The first time she one of her uncle’s schemes deliberately puts her in danger, she realizes that she will need to find a way to make herself valuable to the family to avoid being used again.

Unfortunately, her uncle has other ideas of how she can be of use to him in his bid for a coveted merchant’s guild ring. And his plans keep bringing her into conflict with Ezra, the surly and infuriating silversmith that Bryn finds herself unwittingly drawn toward. As her uncle plots to sell her to an influential merchant in marriage, Bryn desperately tries to distance herself from the dangerous family politics by immersing herself in her late mother’s legitimate business. But when lies and betrayals come to light, Bryn learns that if she is to have any hope of a future independent from her uncle, she will have to embrace all the aspects of being a Roth.

Young returns to the cutthroat world of the FABLE duology for a story of political intrigue and forbidden love. Fans of FABLE and SKY IN THE DEEP may be surprised at the almost courtly start to this novel, as the well-bred, gown-wearing young woman arrives to take her place in her powerful family. But the story quickly gets underway with all of the grounded world-building and visceral story experience you can expect from Adrienne Young. The plot kept me guessing, the characters surprised me, and the romance threw me off-balance in the best possible way. This was one of my favorite books of the year. Highly recommend!

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

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Ambrose can’t remember the launch. He knows he’s on a spaceship bound for Saturn’s moon Titan, tasked with rescuing his sister, Titan’s only colonist. But he can’t remember the launch.

And he certainly doesn’t know why he was in a coma.

The ship’s OS assures him that he will recover and have plenty of time to finish all of the necessary maintenance on the ship to prepare for their approach to Titan–especially since the ship has a second spacefarer. Another surprise. When he meets Kodiak, the surly and infuriatingly attractive spacefarer from Dimokratía, Earth’s most backward, sexist, and homophobic country, Ambrose suspects he would be better off alone. But that’s before Ambrose discovers blood smeared on a panel in the engine room, blood that OS claims to know nothing about but which Kodiak is able to date to 5,000 years in the past–a time before the ship could have possibly existed. As they work to unravel the mystery, trying to somehow hide from OS’s constant surveillance, Kodiak and Ambrose quickly realize they will have to put mistrust and national rivalries aside if they want to survive.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US is both 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque sci-fi and YA queer romantic suspense. If you thought you only liked one of these genres, think again. This book will change your mind. It is both true to the classic tropes of each genre and somehow fresh and inventive in their application. It has humor and heart, gnarly moral situations and thrilling action, devastation and hope. This summer has seen a wealth of exceptional YA releases, but this one really stood out to me. It will be tricky to use in book clubs because there is sex, but I will definitely be recommending and displaying it. If you are a fan of either YA sci-fi or romantic suspense, this novel is a must-read!

The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer

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!)