2019 Gift Guide: For the Teens
December 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
As part of the Capitol Choices community, I’m now regularly reading young adult literature. I share most of my YA reviews on Instagram, but I thought for the holiday season I’d do a round-up of my favorite teen fiction of the year. Even if you don’t have a teen to buy for, you might check out one of these for yourself. A few definitely qualify as “crossover titles.” Even better, read them at the same time as your teen, and you’ll have something to talk about over dinner. This is literature at its best: transportive, provocative, thrilling, unsettling, and piercingly beautiful. These stories do what good stories should: they make us question where we’ve been, what we know, and what we should do with the time we have left.
Of everything I read this year, nothing captured my heart quite like Ruta Sepetys’ The Fountains of Silence. The historical novel immerses us in a dark, secreted slice of Spain’s history: eighteen years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, but still in the trenches of General Franco’s totalitarian rule. Daniel, the eighteen-year-old son of a Texas oil tycoon, arrives with his parents in Madrid in 1957, where his photo-journalistic ambitions lead him to uncover haunting truths outside the glamorous Hotel Castellana.
A story about love and bullfighting and photography. A story which unpacks the limitations of privilege, the dangers of silence, and the enduring wounds of war. A story impeccably researched as only Sepetys can (she doesn’t call herself “seeker of lost stories” for nothing). A story whose characters will stay with you long after its 473 exquisite pages.
Nikki Grimes’ memoir-in-verse, Ordinary Hazards, is one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. Each of its searing free-verse poems depicts a specific moment in time; woven together they tell the story of a childhood saved by faith and writing. From the age of six, Grimes turned to writing in notebooks late at night to process the shame, loneliness, confusion, fear, and grief she experienced growing up in poverty, in foster homes, and with a mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and alcoholism. “Home may be/ a four-letter word,/ but it’s getting/ harder and harder/ to spell.”
Grimes tackles the grim events of her childhood—at times “an ocean of ugliness”—with an unflinching honesty, but she’s also careful to guide her reader to seek out moments of hope along the way: “Search my life for luck,/ and bad is all you’ll find./ Keep an eye out/ for grace, though./ Hard evidence appears/ round every corner./ It is the invisible bridge/ spanning the abyss,/ the single light/ that outstrips the dark every time.” For Grimes, hope is the feel of her hand in her sister’s, the kindness of a stranger, a fresh blanket of snow, and the magic of a violin string played by her father. In Grimes’ poetry, people are as beautiful as they are flawed, the world as redemptive as it is painful. I can’t wait to read this book a dozen more times.
Protagonists like the one in Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing fill me with incredible hope for today’s teens. This is a gripping coming-of-age novel about uncovering truths, confronting heritage, accepting flaws, speaking up for what is right, and finding purpose.
Jay is a sheltered, suburban Filipino-American teenager, who expects to coast through his senior spring playing video games before attending University of Michigan in the fall. Until his world view is turned on its head. Jay’s Filipino cousin—his pen pal when the boys were younger—has been murdered by police as part of the country’s ongoing drug war, and everyone is suspiciously close-lipped about it. Compelled by an emotion he doesn’t entirely understand, Jay elects to spend his spring break returning to a country he left when he was one year old, in an effort to uncover the truths behind his cousin’s life and death.
“The curse isn’t on our family…It’s on every woman in this country. Kept in shame and silence for generations. Kicked out, locked up, taken away. Their children sold in illegal adoptions; their babies buried in unmarked graves. Forced pregnancies and back-street abortions, eleven a day on the boat to England only to come home to rejection and stigma. Insults and prayers and keeping up appearances—and how do you break a curse like that?” A powerfully feminist, ghostly page turner, All the Bad Apples, by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, adeptly blends magic and reality to raise the hair on the back of our necks.
When Deena’s wild older sister goes missing and is presumed dead, Deena refuses to accept it, especially after she discovers mysterious letters addressed to her from her sister, with details about an ancient curse passed down over generations to the women in their family. Set against the wild Irish coastline, the story centers on Deena’s determination to uncover generational secrets in an attempt, not only to find her sister, but to free herself from a deeply seeded belief—perpetuated by her father—that she’s just another in her family’s long line of “bad apples.” Only by confronting a shared history of what it means to be a woman can Deena begin to define herself in the present, on her own terms.
The Things She’s Seen, by siblings Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, is part ghost story, part crime thriller. Nothing has been the same for teenager Beth Teller since the day she died in a car crash. Now a ghost, trapped between the living and the dead, she wants desperately to ease the grief of her father, the only living person who can see and hear her. When her father, a police detective, is called to investigate a dead body following a fire at a foster care home in a remote Australian town, Beth seizes the opportunity to provide the assistance only she can, by communicating with a mysterious female witness who speaks in riddles. Ultimately, what begins as a way for the father and daughter to stay together becomes an important first step towards setting each other free.
This slim, gorgeously written novella gracefully tackles an impressive range of subjects and themes: grief and loss, Australian Aboriginal history and culture, child trafficking and abuse, and police corruption. The story is delivered through two alternating first-person voices, one in prose and the other in free verse. It’s a haunting window into an indigenous people whose shared heritage is ripe with wrongs done unto them. And it’s an ultimately hopeful portrait of what it means to let go of the powerful hold of trauma and how love for family can pave the way for rebirth.
In Stacey Lee’s historical novel, The Downstairs Girl, the dry wit of the narrating protagonist will win over readers straight out of the gate, while the carefully wrought portrait of a Chinese woman trying to forge an independent life for herself against the prejudicial backdrop of the New American South will deepen their understanding of our country’s bigoted history. By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest families. By night, she moonlights as the pseudonymous author of “Dear Ms. Sweetie,” a wildly popular newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, into which Jo cleverly serves up some of her own revolutionary ideas about race and gender. What starts as an innocent, mischievous endeavor begins to take a dark turn, as controversy erupts and threatens to expose a secret about her origins that even Jo doesn’t know.
Amidst hat tying and horse racing, segregated buses and suffragist meetings, comes a novel about identity, deception, family, fairness, and the lengths we’ll go to discover the truth about who we are.
When I initially published this post, I forgot to include one of my absolute favorites! I read it so long ago I almost forgot it was a 2019 title. Let me correct that now. There is not much lovelier than losing oneself in the pages of Julie Berry’s Lovely War. What do you get when you combine Greek mythology, World War I, the rise of ragtime, Harlem Hellfighters, two epic romances, and two memorably courageous female protagonists? A brilliantly-paced piece of historical fiction, which not only pays tribute to the extraordinary sacrifices demanded of young people by the Great War, but also of the power of love to guide, transform, and heal. Oh, and it’s not often that you get your history straight from the mouths of the gods.
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