2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+
December 9, 2021 § Leave a comment
All good things must come to an end, so here we are at my final Gift Guide post of the year. I didn’t want to send you into the holidays without some fun, gripping, eye-opening, occasionally heart-wrenching new reads for your teens!
The titles below are truly stand-out works of fiction. But it doesn’t have to stop here! If you’re looking for graphic novels, remember that there are three not-to-be-missed titles for teens at the end of my Graphic Novels Gift Guide post. (And for mercy’s sake, if your teen hasn’t discovered the Heartstopper graphic novel series by now, with the fourth out in a few weeks, please remedy that now.) And, if non-fiction is your teen’s jam, check out Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Shutdown, included in my Middle-Grade Gift Guide post.
Finally, a gentle reminder that with YA increasingly finding readership among adults in addition to teens, it skews older than it used to. The subject matter is getting more mature and, oftentimes, downright heavy. If you have young teens, encourage them not to graduate from middle-grade literature too quickly; there are a rising number of gems being expressly written for the 10-14 crowd, with elevated prose and complex characters (there are at least four favorites in this earlier post, for example). That said, pay close attention to the age ranges listed below for each title, and I’ll be sure to follow each review with any trigger warnings.
A Snake Falls to Earth
by Darcie Little Badger
Working at the bookstore, I am constantly asked to recommend books for sophisticated tween or teen readers who are not interested in romance or anything heavy—an increasingly tall ask for YA fiction, as I mentioned above. But Darcie Little Badger has written just such a book. Actually, she wrote one last year, too, with her debut (and critically-acclaimed) fantasy, Elatsoe. I just finished A Snake Falls to Earth and was swept up in this gorgeous contemporary Native fable that straddles the human and spirit worlds.
Nina is a human Lipan girl, living in modern day Texas, where she helps her father run a bookshop out of their house with some unusual clientele. For years, she has been intrigued by the mystery surrounding her great-great grandmother—specifically, by a story she told Nina in unintelligible dialects right before she died. What did Rosita’s warning mean? And, if Nina’s math is correct, could Rosita have been over 150 years old at her death? Oli is a cottonmouth snake youth, learning to survive on his own in the land of spirits and monsters, after his mother casts him out. He finds welcome companionship in three fellow animal spirits, a taciturn toad and two rambunctious coyote twins, and he’s about to discover how far he’d go to help them.
Nina and Oli know nothing of one another—millennia have passed since the Joined Era, where humans and spirits could pass through the two worlds easily—and yet, they both come to need each other’s help, urgently and desperately. An immersive, dual-narrative tale that weaves together the science of climate change and animal extinction with traditional Lipan Apache storytelling to explore inter-generational questions and connections.
Luck of the Titanic
by Stacey Lee
Acrobatics, haute couture, concealed identities, romance, a female protagonist with razor-sharp comebacks, and the most famous ocean liner in history? Yesssssss. Add to that a portrait of class and race traditionally left out of history books, and Stacey Lee’s historical novel, Luck of the Titanic, is easily one of my favorite YA reads of the year. Come for the ending you already know; stay for a story you’ve never heard before.
Inspired by the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic—six of whom, remarkably, survived—this retelling of the iconic voyage moves between the high-class British finery of the upper decks and the crowded lower decks, a melting pot of languages and temperaments, many responsible for stoking the boilers with coal. At the heart of the story are Valora and Jamie Luck, orphaned homegrown acrobats of Chinese diaspora, reunited after a long period and bent on making it across the Atlantic, though for entirely different reasons. After her mistress dies, freeing Valora from servitude, she takes the old lady’s Titanic ticket and stows away on the legendary ship, masquerading as a first-class passenger while trying to convince her coal-shoveling twin to join her in auditioning for one of the most prestigious passengers, a partner in the Ringling Brothers Circus. If she can convince the circus to sponsor her when the boat docks in New York, she’ll be able to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act and claim her new chapter as leading lady. Trouble is, she’ll need Jamie for the act, and he has sworn off performing, forever.
What begins as a rich exploration of identity transforms into a nail-biting struggle for survival, as the Titanic does what the Titanic did, delivering equal parts heroism and heartbreak. Stacey Lee has a knack for writing historical female characters with grit and wit (remember The Downstairs Girl?), and Val is no exception. She’s also flanked by an intriguing, well-developed cast of supporting characters. This is character writing at its best, though the inclusion of high seas drama should ensnare some plot-driven readers as well.
The Girls I’ve Been
by Tess Sharpe
My teen has been on a mystery-thriller tear, and if I can get him off Karen M. McManus for a hot minute (which is hard, because her newest just came out), I can’t wait to put The Girls I’ve Been in his hands. “Three teens. Two bank robbers. One way out.” Plus, some of the punchiest writing of the year. (The movie adaptation, starring Millie Bobbie Brown, launches soon on Netflix so…)
As the protégé of a con-artist mother, who targeted criminal men and involved her daughter in her heists, Nora O’Malley has been a lot of girls, most of whom she’d rather forget. Ever since she turned the tables on her mother and got her locked up, Nora has been enjoying normal life, including high school, dating, therapy, and time with her caring older sister. Until the moment she walks into a bank with her ex-boyfriend and current girlfriend, on an errand to deposit money from a recent fundraiser, and finds herself a hostage in a robbery gone wrong—at least, for the next 356 pages. Is Nora prepared to save herself and her friends by delving into her past and making use of the deception skills she had hoped never to use again? To put it simply: is she willing to run the ultimate con?
The sizzling first-person narration alternates from the scene of the crime to flashbacks from Nora’s past, as we learn about the highs and lows of a life in disguise, meet the different personalities she has inhabited, and consider the lure of validation from success against the trauma of a life spent doing someone else’s bidding.
Potentially triggering material includes domestic abuse.
In the Wild Light
by Jeff Zentner
Oh, Jeff Zentner. Thank you for writing the most beautiful, sensitive boy characters into your books, so our sons know it is OK to be tender and vulnerable, and our daughters know that men like this exist in the world. In the Wild Light is an exquisitely written coming-of-age story about a teenage boy, his best friend, the life they escape, and the new ones they forge.
Cash lives in a tiny Appalachian town, where he lost his single mom to opioid addiction and now lives with his beloved grandfather, dying of emphysema. He has never really envisioned a life for himself beyond mowing lawns, canoeing down the Pigeon River, and dodging the local drug dealers, until his best friend makes him an offer he can’t refuse—or, at least, one his grandparents won’t let him refuse. A STEM-whiz kid, fresh off her recent discovery of a cave mold that kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Delaney is offered a free ride to an elite New England boarding school. Her pitch to the admissions team: she’ll take it, so long as Cash can come, too.
Life at the cushy Connecticut boarding school couldn’t be more different than life in the Smoky Mountains, but Cash and Delaney are convinced their friendship can weather the culture shock. Cash has always seen past Delaney’s nervous ticks and offbeat humor, and he is fiercely protective of her complex mind. And only Delaney understands the grief at the forefront of Cash’s every action. But when new friendships and love interests start to come into the mix, both must learn to stand on their own or risk jeopardizing their special, soulful connection.
by Sharon Cameron
Sharon Cameron is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting writers of historical fiction for older teens. Her debut novel, The Light in Hidden Places, made last year’s Gift Guide, and Bluebird—another World War II thriller—is just as meticulously researched (seamlessly blending real and fictional people), just as riveting, and packs just as big of a punch.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the War, alternating between Berlin and New York City, the novel centers around Eva, once Inge, the obedient daughter of a prominent Nazi psychiatrist, known for the horrifying experiments he inflicted on prisoners of concentration camps. As Berlin crumbles and the Soviets move in, Eva learns the truth about her father. She also learns that he has fled to New York City to avoid execution and help pioneer a secret mind-control program, initiated by the CIA, known as Project Blackbird—one that could tip the balance of world power in a postwar world where Americans and Soviets are clamoring to get their hands on German technology.
Disguised as a Jewish refugee—and joined by her best friend from childhood, who suffers unimaginable trauma at the hands of Soviet soldiers—Eva moves to New York City to hunt down her father and assassinate him. What she doesn’t expect is how it will feel to guard such secrets, especially when she unwittingly falls in love with a boy who believes she is someone she is not. A gripping story of survival, betrayal, justice, and found family.
Potentially triggering material includes a bit of graphic violence, sexual assault occurring off the page, and prolonged psychological trauma.
by Angeline Boulley
Clocking in at 488 pages, this debut thriller started out a little slow for me, and I wasn’t sure it would live up to its tremendous hype. But the last two thirds flew by, and I was gratifyingly submerged in the world of Daunis Fontaine, a half-white, half-Anishinaabe college freshman, dreaming of a fresh start after a shoulder injury derails her hockey dreams. (This one also has a Netflix movie in the works.)
Daunis has never felt entirely home in either of her two communities: her hometown where she lives with her mother, or the nearby Ojibwe reservation where her late father’s family resides. She’s also no stranger to the corruption plaguing both. But after her best friend is caught in the crossfire of a drug-related murder, Daunis can stay quiet no longer. Recruited by the FBI for her prowess in chemistry and a knowledge of Ojibawe traditional medicine, Daunis agrees to be a confidential informant for the agents investigating the role of meth in the two communities she straddles. She never anticipates how deep the secrets will run, how mounting the death toll will become, nor how critically her own identity will be called into question.
Though nail-biting and hair-raising, Firekeeper’s Daughter has at its center a whip-smart, spicy-tongued, deeply-feeling protagonist whom I liked a heck of a lot. The novel is a revealing look at the modern Native experience, and it will be relatable for all teens searching for answers about love, identity, the families we come from, and the ones we create.
Potentially triggering content includes drug use and some violence. There is also consensual sex (nothing graphic).
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
by Malinda Lo
I was thrilled to see Malinda Lo’s novel receive the National Book Award a few weeks ago, as much for its insightful storytelling as for the silenced history it shines a light on.
Historical fiction meets queer romance in this gripping, atmospheric story set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown during the Red Scare. Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu has always been the “good Chinese girl”—polite and studious, with dreams of building rockets—but when she stumbles upon a newspaper advertisement for a lesbian nightclub, featuring a male impersonator, and finds a classmate willing to sneak out with her, she begins to rebel in ways she never expected.
Lily’s foray into the lesbian scene, already risky for a young girl at the time, becomes even more dangerous given her race and the Communist accusations made against her family, including the threat of deportation to her father. With richly detailed prose, Last Night at the Telegraph Club brings the city and its nightclub scene to life, delivering a powerful coming-of-age novel that tears you down before it builds you back up again.
by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon
Let’s end with some feel-good love stories, shall we? Penned by six of the most beloved, critically-acclaimed writers for teens, Blackout is a creative project born out of the pandemic—a metaphorical “blackout”—in which these writers, all friends, turned to their craft to spark light and laughter for one another. They chose to write about a literal, fictional blackout, during a summer heat wave in New York City, in which love sizzles in unexpected places.
In six intertwining stories—one starts and stops numerous times throughout the book, the others begin and end like traditional short stories—we meet an ensemble of Black couples, united by the experience of being in the middle of Manhattan in the midst of a city-wide power outage. Some are native New Yorkers, others are in from out of town; some are down in the subway when the lights go out, others are on a tour bus, and still others are holed up in an elderly home. With dwindling cell phone batteries, each must decide what to do, where to walk, and whether to heed the call of music coming from a block party.
The electricity missing from the city finds its way onto the page and into these characters’ hearts, as sparks fly, friendships transform, grievances are aired, sexual identities are re-considered (after all, sometimes it’s easier to kiss someone in the dark), and New York City becomes alight with the magic of possibility.
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