YA Thriller/Suspense

#12DaysOfKidlit 2022

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I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

I received Advance Reader Copies of most of these books from the publishers in order to write my initial reviews.

Happy December! The holiday buying season is well under way and I fervently, devoutly, fanatically believe there is no greater gift than a good book. For the next twelve days I’ll be celebrating the 12 Days Of Kidlit, posting a book a day to add up to my six favorite Middle Grade and six favorite Young Adult novels released this year.

Of course, this list will be limited by a) Books I Happened to Read and b) Books I Happened to Like. So…I need your help! Hop on your favorite social media platform and post your favorite titles of 2022 with #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m excited to check out your recommendations.

Now, let’s dive in with today’s pick…

Day 12: YA Mysteries

As usual, I really struggled to narrow down my list of YAs. So I decided to share two today, both mysteries, but oh so different!

THE RED PALACE by June Hur

What it’s about:

Set in 1758 Korea (Joseon), this mystery follows a young nurse who gets assigned to treat a prince with a dark and secretive past (and present) and winds up getting embroiled in an investigation of a murder that the prince may or may not have committed while dodging the suspicions of an attractive young detective on the police force.

Who it’s for:

Teens and 20-somethings (and on up!). Great for book clubs for all ages. Historical mystery fans and historical romance fans (yes, Romancelandia, this will satisfy you).

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

I love how atmospheric June Hur’s writing is. I get sucked into this world and I never want to leave. The mystery is suspenseful, the subplots gripping, and by now you know I’m a sucker for enemies-to-lovers storylines, so…

QUEEN OF THE TILES by Hanna Alkaf

What it’s about:

They Wish They Were Us meets The Queen’s Gambit in this “stunning…unforgettable” (Publishers Weekly) thriller set in the world of competitive Scrabble, where a teen girl is forced to investigate the mysterious death of her best friend when her Instagram comes back to life with cryptic posts and messages.” Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster

Who it’s for:

Teen (ages 12 & up) fans of mysteries and competition dramas (“The Queen’s Gambit”is an apt comparison title). It’s not really a thriller, but it is a murder mystery so there’s plenty of suspense from both the investigation and the Scrabble tournament as it ramps up in intensity.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

What set this one apart for me was the setting—not just that it was set in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and representing competitors from a variety of Asian cultures and religious backgrounds, but also the competitive Scrabble world which I’d not seen before in Kidlit. It was so intense—just as intense as the suspicious death, threatening social media messages, and suspected poisonings of the mystery plot, and plenty cutthroat enough to prompt a murder…


Day 11: THE DOOR OF NO RETURN by Kwame Alexander

What it’s about:

“From the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award winning author Kwame Alexander, comes the first book in a searing, breathtaking trilogy that tells the story of a boy, a village, and the epic odyssey of an African family.” Little, Brown & Company

Who it’s for:

4th-8th graders who like historical fiction, epic adventures, and/or novels-in-verse. In fact, this is a great “gateway” novel-in-verse due to the smooth, transparent language. It flows beautifully and is easy to understand. It is also a phenomenal choice for MG book clubs, especially at the middle school level due to darker subject matter and the potential for mature discussions of colonization in West Africa and its lingering impacts.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Set in the Asante Kingdom (modern Ghana) in 1860, this is literary middle grade at its best—the language worming its way into my heart, the characters jumping off the page like real people, the world enveloping me from the first page, and the adventure so gripping I couldn’t put it down. Sublime. And despite the maturity of the writing that will speak to even adult readers, Alexander perfectly captures an 11-year-old’s point of view and emotions as he experiences the life shattering hardships of white colonization in his homeland.


Day 10: VIOLET MADE OF THORNS by Gina Chen

What it’s about:

“A darkly enchanting fantasy about a lying witch, a cursed prince, and a sinister prophecy that ignites their doomed destinies—perfect for fans of The Cruel Prince.” Delacorte Press

Who it’s for:

YA high fantasy people! Especially fans of Holly Black, Marisa Meyer, Heather Walter, Melissa Bashardoust, and similar.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

I’m still stunned this is a debut. It is absolutely everything I want in a dark high fantasy. Politics that shape the story but aren’t excessive and don’t require tons of backstory/explanation. Interweaving of fairytales without it feeling derivative. All Of The Morally Gray Characters! Enemies-to-lovers romance! And TWISTS!! It was just intense, addictive FUN in fantasy form.


Day 9: JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller

What it’s about:

“In her first novel since winning the Newbery Medal for When You Trap a Tiger, Tae Keller offers a gripping and emotional story about friendship, bullying, and the possibility that there’s more in the universe than just us.” Random House Books for Young Readers

Who it’s for:

4th-7th grade fans of contemporary fiction with sci-fi vibes. And book clubs! There is a great exploration of the nuances of bullying culture in middle schools that could fuel some excellent conversations.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

What sticks in my mind about this book is how much Keller focused on the possibilities: all the little choices that added up to the ultimate disaster, how what each character did and did not do created their school culture, and of course the big possibility—are the aliens in the book real?? I love books where there are no easy answers and books where the characters have fallen into the crevice between two aspects of their identity and are struggling to see themselves. Plus, Keller perfectly captures middle school clique culture in all of its nuances without writing off a single character as a lost cause, however bad their choices at one time or another. This book is just perfection in so many ways.


Day 8: HOW TO EXCAVATE A HEART by Jake Maia Arlow

What it’s about:

“Stonewall Honor author Jake Maia Arlow delivers a sapphic Jewish twist on the classic Christmas rom-com in a read perfect for fans of Kelly Quindlen and Casey McQuiston.” HarperTeen

Who it’s for:

This is YA/NA Rom Com gold!! Set during freshman year of college, this would also make a great pick for college and 20-something women’s book clubs.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Enemies to lovers!! A meet-cute where one hits the other with a car!! But what really set this one apart for me was the humor. This voice had me cracking up from the first page. It was such a fast, smooth read and I was having so much fun with the characters, I didn’t want it to end. Plus, Arlow works in some lovely layers of thematic depth as the characters and their relationship evolve.


Day 7: HUMMINGBIRD by Natalie Lloyd

The cover of HUMMINGBIRD by Natalie Lloyd

What it’s about:

Tired of being treated as “fragile,” a twelve-year-old girl with a brittle bone disease convinces her parents to let her go to a real middle school and gets her heart set on playing the lead in a school play—until rumors of a magical wish-granting hummingbird sends her off on a mission to solve a riddle and (maybe) ask for normal bones.

Who it’s for:

4th-6th graders who like contemporary fiction set in small towns and “light” fantasy where the magic is real but almost a metaphor for the main themes of the story (think: Savvy by Ingrid Law, The Stars of Whistling Ridge by Cindy Baldwin, or Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic.) This one is also an excellent candidate for book clubs, chock full of the kind of humor and suspense that makes it hard to resist but plenty of meat for discussion, too.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

SO many reasons. First, voice (a theme of my MG faves this year). The main character’s voice not only immediately hooked me on who she was as a person, it threw me headlong into this small Appalachian town—and that setting is another thing that has stuck with me. A small town, full of colorful characters supporting one another, with some little bits of literal magic more bits of community growth that feels as magical as the fantasy. And then there’s the disability representation in this book. Lloyd doesn’t shy away from the prickliest issues and uncertainties and struggles of developing your identity when you have a disability and how you see yourself and your disability as part of yourself but not your who self but also a key component of your identity and not a negative but also sometimes painful and… well, you’ll have to read the book. But even though the main character (and Lloyd) has a different disability from me, everything she’s going through psychologically resonated so strongly and authentically with me that this story hasn’t let go of my heart.


Day 6: THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

The cover of THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

What it’s about:

One small fandom convention. One teen beauty pageant. One meet cute waiting to happen.A big-hearted, joyful romance and a love letter to all things geek, Remi K. England’s The One True Me and You is a *witness me* celebration of standing up for, and being, yourself.” Wednesday Books

Who it’s for:

Teens 12 & up. Rom Com fans! Comic-con fans! Comic-Rom-Com-Con Fans! It’s solidly in the LGBTQ+ Rom Com genre, BUT there is so much going on in each of the character’s lives that readers who like YA contemporary coming-of-age stories will find lots to love, even if they’re not typically into romance.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

What I loved about this one is first and foremost the geeky joy—and how this was like my teenage self’s DREAM! I mean, I remember staying in hotels with fellow teens on band trips, which was exciting enough, but if there had been a nerd con in the same hotel? With my favorite fandom?! Beyond the geeky joy, I loved the exploration of having different interests that feel like different worlds—the tension that can create in forming your identity and the beauty and complexity it can add to your life. Plus, those thorny questions of how much of yourself you should share with your crush and when that crush becomes falling in love… and a spotlight on homophobic and transphobic bullying, authentic conversations and interiority surrounding sexual identity and gender identity, and a cheerful, triumphant, fist-pumping ending that would make John Hughes proud.


Day 5: YONDER by Ali Standish

Cover of YONDER by Ali Standish

What it’s about:

“From Ali Standish, award-winning author of The Ethan I Was Before, August Isle, How to Disappear Completely, and The Mending Summer, comes a captivating historical fiction middle grade novel about a boy on the home front in World War II who must solve the mystery of the disappearance of his best friend.” HarperCollins 

Who it’s for:

This one is a stunner for book clubs, overflowing with substance for group discussions and an immediate hook that will convince even reluctant participants to keep reading. It will snag 4th-7th grade fans of character-driven mysteries, character-driven historical fiction (think Okay for Now) or both!

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

This book has one of those perfect first chapters that serve as a microcosm for the book as a whole: the killer voice that roots you in the character and the Appalachian world you’ll be inhabiting, a glimpse of the theme that will be explored in depth going forward (What is heroism? And what does it mean to be a hero—or to be labeled a hero?), and a suspenseful hook at the end, setting up the mystery to come and making it impossible for me to put the book down. The book delivered on every promise the prologue made, and then some; I’m an absolute sucker for books that don’t give me any easy answers but still somehow give me hope.


Day 4: THE WORDS WE KEEP by Erin Stewart

What it’s about:

Struggling to balance her own mental health when her sister returns home after receiving treatment for bipolar disorder after a near-fatal experience with self-harm, overachiever Lily reluctantly teams up with a boy from her sister’s treatment program and goes all in on a school project, leaving subversive poetry around the school and community.

Who it’s for:

Mature teen readers who like darker contemporary and book clubs that can handle themes of suicide and self-harm. The primary access points are mental health, art, and creative writing.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

I’m a sucker for writing about writing, and this book took it to the next level by making the poetry into a form of performance art that has the power to transform a community as well as helping the main character explore her own identity and come to terms with her mental illness. Also, therapy positivity is a must for me in mental health-themed books, and this depiction was extremely nuanced, showing a character going through the process of frustration, failure, and struggle to find the right therapy and right treatment for her. Not just a gripping read, but so hopeful and necessary!


Day 3: SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE by Sonja Thomas

Book cover of Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence

What it’s about:

From the Desk of Zoe Washington meets Ways to Make Sunshine in this “noteworthy” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) middle grade novel about a determined young girl who must rely on her ingenuity and scientific know-how to save her beloved cat.” Simon and Schuster

Who it’s for:

4th-6th graders (can definitely skew younger for advanced readers), especially STEM lovers and animal lovers.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Mostly, the voice. I fell for Mira on page one because she made me laugh, feel for her not fitting in (and oh, did my inner 12-year-old relate!), and admire her scientific motivation and tenacity–not to mention that she has a “nemesis” (who should obviously be her BFF). This book executed everything I love in a voicey, character-driven contemporary and hooked me by the heart with the protagonist’s desperation to save her pet. (I was rooting for a nemeses-to-besties transformation, too!)


Day 2: RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

Cover of RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

What it’s about:

In 1937, mage Laura Ann Langston adopts the moniker the Peregrine and joins a corps of Black government operatives to find the source of a deadly magical blight in the Midwest, only to discover that the government hasn’t been honest about the waiting dangers and their sinister source.

Who it’s for:

Teen (YA) and young adult (NA) fans of immersive, grounded fantasies—especially historical fantasy, but honestly, the historical setting is so integrated into the world building and magical politics that I think it could pull fans of contemporary and secondary world fantasies, too. It also has the perfect blend of unputdownable drive and meaty themes for YA and 20-something book clubs (and tbh, I’ve pitched it to my book club of 30- and 40-somethings, too).

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Justina Ireland’s world building is always off the hook, and this one is my new favorite. She takes history, adds fantasy, and somehow makes it more real, more relevant to what I’m witnessing and experiencing in my contemporary, non-magical life. And boy do I love a meticulously constructed, well-founded, logical yet novel magic system. Add the unbelievable stakes, nuanced characters, and ever-increasing suspense from snippets of future news clippings… *chef’s kiss* Absolute exquisite perfection. 10/10. 11/10, actually.


Day 1: TREX by Christyne Morrell

Cover of TREX by Christyne Morrell

What it’s about:

“This middle grade mystery follows the adventures of a boy with an experimental brain implant, and a reclusive girl training to be a spy, as they’re pitted against school bullies, their own parents, and an evil, brain-hacking corporation.” Penguin Random House

Who it’s for:

Compared by the publisher to Stranger Things, this is for middle grade readers who like sci-fi with big mystery-thriller energy and resilient underdog characters. It also has the perfect blend of unputdownable drive and meaty themes for MG book clubs.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

This one was right up my alley genre-wise (I’m all about big mystery-thriller energy in my speculative middle grade!) but it stood out from the pack because of how well Morrell balances agency between her two protagonists, because of the realistic and ultimately therapy-positive depiction of a character with an anxiety disorder, and because I genuinely did not see one of the twists coming. It’s rare for me to be surprised by a well-founded twist for this age group, but Morrell pulled it off in a big way. The character interactions were authentic, the stakes high, and the suspense driving. What a ride!

THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Tiffany D. Jackson

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

Maddy did it.

Those were the only words uttered by one of two survivors of the Springfield, Georgia Prom Night Massacre. As the makers of a podcast delve into the history of Springfield and the unsolved mysteries surrounding the massacre that took place a decade ago, they keep returning to the same questions: who was the real Maddy Washington and could rumors of her horrific telekinetic powers be true?

The graduating class of 2014 thought the knew the real Maddy Washington: a quiet girl who wore long skirts and only came to school on sunny days. But when getting caught in the rain causes her straightened hair to return to its natural texture, Maddy’s classmates suddenly realize that she is biracial. After years of passing as white at the insistence of her fanatical, abusive father, Maddy’s life is thrown into chaos, now facing racist microaggressions, all too common in a small town that still holds segregated proms. When an incident filmed by a fellow Black student goes viral, one of the bullies fears that she will be labeled as “a racist” and in order to help clear her name, suggests finally integrating prom. But the media firestorm has turned an uncomfortable spotlight on racism and prejudice in Springfield, sparking conflict in the school and town and leading to Maddy’s discovery of another secret inheritance–one that might send them all up in flames.

Deliberately parallel to Stephen King’s Carrie, including the journalistic excerpts in each chapter, The Weight of Blood both springs from and revolutionizes classic horror tropes, using Carrie’s plot as a vehicle for exploring microaggressions and the weight of a town’s racist history on the shoulders of its younger generations, both Black and white. The narrative follows multiple viewpoints, including Maddy, a white teacher who wants to be a better ally, a white student who doesn’t want to be racist, an unapologetic white racist bully, and the Black football star struggling to find his place among white friends, fellow Black students, and a family split between philosophies of “keep your head down” and BLM-equivalent activism. The result is a nuanced, challenging, story that will stick with readers long after they close the book. Add Jackson’s masterful suspense plotting and gripping character development, and you have an unputdownable masterpiece that will have kids clamoring for more. An essential addition to any YA collection and must-read for horror fans or fans of Jackson’s work in general.

FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley

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Daunis has always existed in two worlds: the Ojibwe community where her father is from and the community of wealthy white people in Sault Ste. Marie where she lives with her mother. She is part of both but fully accepted by neither.

When her maternal grandmother has a stroke shortly after her uncle dies of a meth overdose, Daunis knows a third disaster is coming. She tries to prevent it by deferring her college admission–pushing off her dream of becoming a doctor so that she can stay close to both of her communities–but her presence isn’t enough to stop a shocking tragedy. With her world crumbling around her, Daunis is swept up into an investigation of drug trade on the reservation as a confidential informant, taking the place of her uncle, who she learns was likely murdered. But even though she isn’t an enrolled member of the tribe, Daunis is an Ojibwe woman, and she has her own agenda for helping the Cherokee FBI agents who have infiltrated her town. She will be searching for the truth to save her people’s lives, while also protecting their culture and traditions from meddling outsiders. Unfortunately, even in the investigation, the line between her identities is blurred, and as her secrets pile up, and the fake relationship she’s developed with the young FBI rookie starts to morph into something real, Daunis realizes that the truth has the power not only to save lives but also to tear them apart.

This stellar novel hits all of the notes for a heart-wrenching YA contemporary, a brain-teasing YA mystery, and pulse-pounding thriller. Boulley immerses readers in Daunis’s communities–from Michigan “Hockey World” to her Ojibwe nation–and crafts a stunningly character-driven mystery that crescendos gradually toward the shocking conclusion. This book satisfies me as a thriller reader and as a contemporary reader, and while thoroughly accessible for its teenage audience, the mature storytelling style and pristine prose makes it a great choice for adult readers, as well. I will add my voice for the clamor of recommendations for this truly exceptional novel.

QUEEN OF THE TILES by Hanna Alkaf

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

It’s been a whole year since Najwa last competed at Scrabble, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The stakes are always high at these competitions–or at least they seem like they are, with the hyper-competitive word-nerds clawing their way toward the top of the Scrabble hierarchy. But at the very top of the pyramid was always Trina Low.

Until last year. Until she died.

Najwa returns, still battling her grief and the gaps in her memory from that day during the last competition when her best friend Trina died on the board in the championship game. She’s here to win, not for herself, but for Trina–to keep her title as Queen of the Tiles out of the hands of the circling vultures. But the competition has barely started when Trina’s Instagram account, which has been silent for a year, starts posting, claiming that Trina was murdered. As Najwa takes up the challenge to follow the clues, she begins to uncover the darkest secrets of her competitors, and the stakes of the game have never been higher.

Fast-paced with a compelling cast of suspicious characters and an unlikely heroine, QUEEN OF THE TILES is a triumphant win for YA thriller and mystery fans. The story unfolds like a detective drama, while the undercurrent of the Scrabble competition and the persistent Instagram posts crying murder keep upping the pulse. With its appealing premise, binge-able plot, and diverse representation, this book is a must for any YA mystery/thriller collection. Highly recommended!

THE FEAR by Natasha Preston

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

Izzy is the only one in her school who hasn’t reposted the meme. It’s just too morbid, thinking about the worst way to die. But she never thought a creepy Insta post could be the work of a serial killer–not until she stumbles upon the first body. As classmates start turning up murdered in the exact ways they posted as their worst fears, Izzy gets caught up in the investigation. She knows it’s a small town, but it can’t be coincidence the ways that clues–and sometimes bodies–keep showing up in her path. And even though she never posted her worst fear, the idea that the murderer might be someone she knows could be the most terrifying thing of all.

This thriller starts to take on a slasher-horror vibe as bodies pile up and terror takes over. Preston meticulously weaves in clues that could implicate any of her three main suspects, setting up for a series of jaw-dropping twists. Teen fans of twisty thrillers who are up for some gore and horror-like conclusion will not want to miss this title!

NO BEAUTIES OR MONSTERS by Tara Goedjen

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

Riley is dreading moving back to the desert town of Twentynine Palms to all the traumatic memories they left behind when they left four years ago. She knows her mom doesn’t get to pick where she’s stationed, but it feels like they’re coming back because her estranged grandfather has died. Like now it’s safe.

But there’s nothing safe about Twentynine Palms. Riley’s former best friend has become the latest in a long list of people who have disappeared, and her grandfather for some reason has photographs of all of them in his basement, along with audio tapes that seem to have recorded the memories of local murderers, including a teen named Ethan who is terrorizing the community. And if her grandfather’s possible involvement in this dark mystery weren’t bad enough, Riley has terrifying gaps in her own memories–and a vision of herself covered in blood…

Sitting squarely at the intersection of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and thriller, this suspenseful, chilling novel will delight fans of STRANGER THINGS. The unrelenting pacing and unreliable narrator make it difficult to put down, and although I noticed a few I consistencies in the sci-fi, it didn’t really bother me because of the fantasy/horror vibe. I would definitely recommend this one to fans of the speculative genres and I’d put it on any STRANGER THINGS read-alike list!

#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* 


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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.

SEVEN DIRTY SECRETS by Natalie D. Richards

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

Cleo still has nightmares about the day Declan died. Some of it is the trauma of watching him drown. Some is the guilt. And maybe some of it is relief–that her ex died before his abuse killed her. But someone isn’t convinced that Declan’s death was an accident. What starts as a creepy scavenger hunt from a mysterious stalker quickly begins exposing secrets from the fatal camping trip. Is the stalker one of the five others who were there that night? Or was there another witness? One thing is for certain: Cleo has to play the stalker’s game. Because the stakes are high, and she can’t afford to lose anyone else…

Fast-moving and packed full of clues and suspects, SEVEN DIRTY SECRETS will satisfy teen thriller fans who love a mystery to solve. Well-founded twists and complicated characters add depth to the edge-of-your seat plot. A fun, quick read for YA thriller readers!

ANY SIGN OF LIFE by Rae Carson

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

When Paige wakes up, her first thought is that she’s missing basketball practice. Her mom probably hoped she’d oversleep and would say she shouldn’t be overdoing it while recovering from the flu. She apparently brought home a ton of IV bags from the hospital and hooked Paige up to all of them to keep her hydrated. It’s weird, though, that all the bags have run dry. And that she’s so thirsty that her first sip of water makes her vomit.

And then she finds the corpses.

Paige’s whole family is dead. Everyone on her street is dead–possibly everyone in Ohio. That flu that was going around wiped everyone out in less than a week. But Paige remembers the Covid-19 pandemic that happened less than a decade earlier. That virus didn’t even come close to this death toll. Is it even possible? Paige goes in search of supplies, aware that her mom’s last wish as she daisy-chained those IVs together was that Paige would live. But when she meets another survivor, a fellow teen athlete named Trey, she learns that her suspicion was correct. The virus wasn’t a coincidence. And the aliens that created it will stop at nothing until all the humans are eradicated…

Before I get to my effusive praise, I want to note that this book won’t be for every reader–at least not right now. For many readers, a book about an alien virus that wipes out 99.999% of humanity will be far enough removed from the reality of our current pandemic that it will allow them to work through some of the emotions and experiences of our real world in the fantastical extreme of the story. But for some teens, especially those who have recently lost loved ones to Covid-19, the wounds will be too raw and too deep. Early in this story, the protagonist abandons the corpses of her family, compartmentalizing her grief and focusing instead on survival. But for readers in mourning, this difficult shift and the constant presence of corpses–and reminders of the people they used to be–might be unduly upsetting. So I would hesitate to recommend this book to a teen who has lost someone during the pandemic.

That caveat aside, this book is excellent. The action and suspense starts on page one and builds to a thrilling climax, but what really elevates the story beyond a basic alien war is the constant search for–and discovery of–meaning in a post-apocalyptic world. The survivors aren’t just fighting for their lives; they are fighting to build something new and to preserve the memories of everyone who perished. It is truly a fight to preserve humanity rather than individual humans. The characters are nuanced, the moral quandaries complex, and the story riveting from the first sentence. I highly recommend this to fans of sci-fi, dystopias, and thrillers/suspense.

DARK AND SHALLOW LIES by Ginny Myers Sain

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Elora can’t be dead. Grey won’t accept it. When she steps off the boat back into her small bayou hometown, she’s immediately surrounded by the missing posters with her best friend’s face. She’s not the first of the Summer Children to be lost. Two of the ten children who were born in the same year died almost a decade ago, a double murder shrouded in secrets. But Elora is missing, not dead, and Grey is going to find her.

But as soon as Grey is back home, visions begin to plague her–visions of Elora fleeing from a shadowy madman who’s determined to kill her. Grey is the only one of the Summer Children who never developed supernatural abilities. There are times she wished she was a psychic like her mother, or an empath like her crush, Hart, but now she hopes that the visions only dreams, not a true window into a deadly past. That hope dies, however, when a stranger shows up in town–another Summer Child that no one knew about–and the dark undercurrents of the bayou rise to the surface. The only way this many secrets can exist in a town of psychics is if everyone only tells part of the truth…

World-tilting twists and an eerie, immersive atmosphere guarantee a gut-plummeting ride in this YA Mystery-Horror hybrid. Though it takes a few chapters to acclimate to the number of important players and their various superhuman abilities, the volume of characters and secrets makes the mystery that much more difficult to unravel. Suspense junkies won’t want to miss this stellar debut!