Favorite YA Books of 2015
Yes, it’s list time. What follows are 15 of my favorite 2015 books and excerpts of the reviews. At my current count, I’ve read 156 books this year. There are hundreds more I wish I could have read. I’m sure I missed a lot of great titles, so I’m hoping you will jump in with a comment on some of your favorite books from the year. I always enjoy reading the many lists that crop up this time of the year, but I also always want more variety and to hear from more people. So here’s my list—will you share yours with us too? Leave us a comment or hit me up on Twitter where I’m @CiteSomething.
There were so many tiny things I just loved about this book, like Leah’s act of subversion of dressing up in a dress for Homecoming week’s Gender Bender Day, the unpredictability of both the plot and most of the characters, and the conversations and observations about sex, sexuality, race, and more. Simon wonders why straight is the default, why everyone shouldn’t have to come out as whatever their attraction or identity is. I loved the many relationships, romantic and platonic. I also absolutely loved that Blue and Simon (on email as Jacques and in his “real” life) talk about and make flirty innuendos about sex. I don’t want to reveal much more of the plot because a lot of the fun of reading this book was not really knowing what would happen next or how certain events would be dealt with. One repeated idea in the book is that “people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.” Getting to explore Simon’s vast rooms, and those of his friends, was a total joy. This book is an absolute must-read: sweet, funny, honest, and filled with a bunch of happy endings. Get this one on your list. (See the full review here.)
A murky watercolor storm spreads across pages, darkening and becoming more ominous as it builds in Brown’s deeply affecting look at Hurricane Katrina. Dynamic sketches capture shocking scenes, such as residents fleeing down claustrophobic highways as the 400-mile-wide storm looms in a nearly completely dark spread. Brown depicts broken levees, flooded homes, and inhabitants scrabbling to not drown in their attics. A stunningly powerful spread shows water everywhere and two lone people trapped on a roof. The images demonstrate the utter devastation and despair while the at times spare text powerfully reveals the voices of the victims. The many failures of President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Mayor Ray Nagin, and others are repeatedly noted, as is the heroism of various organizations and ordinary people. Brown walks readers through the ghastly conditions at the Superdome, the horrors of hospitals with no electricity, and the nightmarish reality of dead bodies everywhere. The story becomes grimmer at every turn: ineffectual police and rescue efforts, looting, the lack of housing for rescued victims, and 5,000 missing children. The muted watercolors effectively capture the squalid and treacherous conditions of every inch of New Orleans. The final pages show the rebuilding efforts but note the lasting effects of vastly decreased populations.
VERDICT This astonishingly powerful look at one of America’s worst disasters is a masterful blend of story and art and a required purchase for all libraries. (This review originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of School Library Journal. Original post here.)
High school junior Etta juggles many identities, none of which seem to fit quite right. She’s bisexual, but shunned by her group of friends, the self-named Disco Dykes, who can’t forgive her for dating a boy. She has an eating disorder, but never weighs little enough to qualify as officially anorexic. She’s a dancer, but just tap these days, not ballet, because as a short, curvy, African American teen, she doesn’t seem to have the right look for ballet. She feels like she’s never enough—not gay enough, straight enough, sick enough, or healthy enough. More than anything, she just wants to get out of Nebraska and hopes auditioning for the prestigious Brentwood arts high school will be her ticket to New York. A rehearsal group introduces her to Bianca, a quiet (and extremely sick) 14 year old from her eating disorder support group. Together, they prepare for the auditions and form a surprising friendship, one that embraces flaws, transcends identities, and is rooted in genuine caring. Moskowitz masterfully negotiates all of the issues, never letting them overwhelm the story, and shows the intersectionality of the many aspects of Etta’s identity. The characters here are imperfect and complicated, but ultimately hopeful. Moskowitz addresses issues like biphobia, race, class, privilege, friendship, and bullying in ways that feel organic to the story. Etta’s candid and vulnerable narrative voice will immediately draw in readers, making them root for her as she strives to embrace her identity free from labels and expectations. (This review originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of School Library Journal. Original post here.)
While this family is good at baseball, what it really excels at is ignoring the realities and complexities of both race and adoption—specifically of transracial adoption.
At a baseball game, Alex’s dad is talking to the other team’s coach, who mentions he heard the team has a great a center fielder. “A girl, I hear—a black girl,” he says. Alex’s dad corrects him: “She’s mixed, not black. She’s half white.” He’s always quick to point this out. Alex has heard this her whole life—the qualification that she’s mixed, the repeated seemingly-positive phrase that her family “doesn’t see color.” When she meets Reggie, a player from a rival team, she is surprised that a black guy wants to talk to her. Usually the black kids at her school make fun of her. In her head, as Reggie’s talking to her, she thinks, “But I’m not really black.” Seconds later, when Reggie comments on the similar features he can see between her and her (adoptive) dad, she lies and says her mom is black, letting him believe both that lie and the lie that they are her biological parents.
Soon after this, Alex’s sister Kit finds an old letter from Alex’s birth father, leading Alex to a folder of many letters written over three years. Suddenly, all of the things she didn’t even necessarily know she wanted answers about bubble to the surface. Her family may have made it this far without ever really talking about race or transracial adoption, but Alex (with the help of Kit) begins to push them to.
Mixed into the narrative are incidents from Alex’s past, such as being a small child at the beach and a rude woman telling her she’s floated too far from her “host family.” The woman goes on to ask if she speaks English and asks where she’s from. When Alex’s white mother appears, the woman’s tiny brain explodes. She sputters over how it could be possible that this girl belongs to this woman. When Alex’s mom tries to make her feel better about what happened, she says, “We are all one in this family, okay? We don’t even see color.” As readers, we understand that Alex’s family believes this to be true and to be a good thing. But of course, their constant correction that she’s mixed proves otherwise, and claimingto be colorblind isn’t really helping anything, as it ignores and invalidates identities and experiences. (See the full review here.)
There is a lot to talk about here. I have pages and pages of notes. Hartzler’s novel addresses the role social media plays in rumors and bullying, rape culture, slut-shaming, speaking up, and consent. He pushes Kate to think about what consent looks like and models both what it does and does not look like in her relationship with Ben. There is a wonderful scene where Mr. Johnston takes Reggie to task for making it seem like he couldn’t help himself if he were to rape a drunk girl. “You’re saying that our natural state as men is ‘rapist,’” Mr. Johnston says to Reggie. He asks the boys in class to brainstorm what you could do with a drunk girl instead of rape her. Bring her water, drive her home, find her friends, just walk away. THIS is the conversation that we all need to be having—not girls, here’s how you don’t get raped, but boys, here’s how you don’t rape.
Hartzler’s novel is not just phenomenal, it is important. It is an unflinching examination of just how exactly rape culture comes to exist. If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without really thinking about what rape culture looks like, Hartzler’s book will make it clear to you. And if you read this and think, but that’s not really what is happening, you need to look around you. Look at the news. Look at Steubenville. Look at Owen Labrie‘s case, where the girl said no at least 3 times, but “the defense maintained that she did not resist actively enough.” Look anywhere, really. Powerful and terrifying, this is another title that definitely makes my top books of 2015 list. (See the full review here.)
Violent Ends by Steve Brezenoff, Beth Revis, Tom Leveen, Delilah S. Dawson, Margie Gelbwasser, Shaun David Hutchinson, Trish Doller, Christine Johnson, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, Blythe Woolston, E.M. Kokie, Elisa Nader, Mindi Scott, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kendare Blake, Hannah Moskowitz, and Courtney Summers
The question of “what would push a kid to do something like this?” is asked and answered over and over in the chapters that follow the massacre. The perspectives switch with each chapter and sometimes it takes a little bit to see how this character’s story ties into the larger narrative. We hear from Kirby’s camp friend, Teddy; his friend Zach, who he plays Dungeons and Dragons with; Lauren, the head cheerleader with an eating disorder; Jenny, his onetime girlfriend; Billie, a photographer girl with some secrets; Morgan, who rejected Kirby’s offer to take her to the school dance; Mark, who played a cruel prank on Kirby; the gun Kirby uses; Reba, a girl who ditched the assembly that turned into the massacre; Ray, who used to live in the house Kirby’s family bought; Abby, who appears to have a crush on Kirby; Carah, Kirby’s sister; Ruben, a classmate who falls under suspicion as a possible accomplice; Alice, a stoner who had a crush on one of the kids who gets killed; Laura, Kirby’s old neighbor; and Nate, a classmate with a complicated history with Kirby. It’s an awful lot of perspectives, yes, but it works. It really works. Taken all together, we see not just more pieces of Kirby’s life, but the often dark and always complex lives of everyone involved in the story. In some way or another, they all are involved in Kirby’s story, but they all have rich stories of their own. Their stories include horrible home lives, regret, pressures, confusion, and guilt.
In a lot of ways, it seems like any one of them could be pushed to a breaking point—though maybe not one that would play out like Kirby’s. When we ask ourselves how a kid could do something like shoot up his school, it often feels like the real question is how is it that tragedies like this don’t happen even more often. Together, the 17 authors present a riveting and terrifying look at a tragedy, how we get there, how it affects a community, and how we go on after. They take us beyond the facts of the massacre and past the speculation about what could make a teenager turn into a murderer. Haunting and heartbreaking, this powerful book will remind readers—especially teen readers who have huddled in classrooms during lockdown drills or during the real thing—that we rarely know what’s really going on in someone’s life or how close to the breaking point someone might be. (See the full review here.)
When Carson and Aisha get to San Francisco, they track down a man named Turk who may have known Russ. When Carson finds this now elderly man, he is in for a big surprise: Turk was his grandpa’s lover. Another shock? His grandpa died in the early 80s from AIDS. When he finds this out, standing in front of an AIDS quilt, he loses it. Everything that follows is profoundly moving. What was a good book became a great book in the last 100 or so pages. For those of us who were adults or even children in the 80s, we remember seeing the initial stories about AIDS, reading about the panic and fear, understanding that, generally speaking, it was a death sentence. And it never becomes less powerful or upsetting to see a personal story of life in the shadow of AIDS. Many teen readers might not fully understand the history behind AIDS (going back to it being called GRID and understanding how severely it ravaged the gay community) or have seen or read some of the documentaries or stories adults are more familiar with. This look at what it meant to be a gay man at this period of time will be deeply moving for readers of all ages. For Carson, he came to Billings with only a rather icy mother who talked to him like he was one of her patients. Weeks later, his father is back in his life, his mother understands now what he needs from her, and he has a new grandpa (Turk) and sister (Aisha).
This story of family—both the one we are born into and the one we can choose to make—is not to be missed. Konigsberg packs so much into this story, and his characters, all damaged and flawed, struggle with HUGE questions. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It left me wanting to know more about all of the characters’ pasts and their futures. Masterfully written and intensely moving, this is a road trip book unlike any other. Be ready to laugh, groan, and cry as you follow Carson and Aisha on their (literal and metaphorical) journey. (See the full review here.)
The last notes I took as I read this were, “So good. So Carrie.” If four words could be a full review, those would be the four words. As she did in her previous two books, Mesrobian excels in creating not just characters in general, but teen boy characters. She nails the tone, language, and narrative voice. Will is crass, sex-obsessed, thoughtful, and uncertain. He’s honest, but a liar. He’s a city kid who lives in his dad’s nearly uninhabitable under-renovation house, but also lives part-time in his mom’s perfect and generic sprawling suburban home. He’s an only child at his dad’s house, but a big brother at his mom’s. He seems, for the most part, equally attracted to Angus and to Brandy. And that part of the storyline alone would be enough fodder for a novel—figuring out your sexuality and then deciding if and how to come out and how to navigate your relationships. But Will has to deal with his dad’s alcoholism, the disaster of his dad’s house, his new job, and the constant shuffling of his living situation.
….Mesrobian understands how teens think, talk, and act and never sugarcoats plot points or shies away from an unvarnished look at her characters’ lives. Fans of her first two books, Sex & Violence and Perfectly Good White Boy, will walk into this one knowing exactly what to expect (meaning it’s predictable in all the best ways). This intense and raw read will appeal widely to fans of contemporary YA, but especially to those looking for LGBTQIA+ stories or those who feel a little uncertain about where home is, who they are, or how to make big decisions. So, you know, everyone. (See the full review here.)
The conclusion to the “Metamorphoses” trilogy (St. Martin’s) follows Tally to a small town outside of Seattle where she seeks out her maybe-father to learn more about her past and her family. The place feels full of magic and people who intrigue her. Tally has a hard time thinking straight here, and her dreams are filled with vivid and terrifying images of blood. She falls for the mysterious Maddy, a girl who seems to hold the answers to her many questions. Based loosely on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the protagonist’s journey reveals far more about her family than she could have imagined. Maddy keeps saying “no pasts,” but as Tally learns, the past is everywhere—the past is then and now. The stunning, densely packed story is full of as much intoxicating poetry as meticulous scientific explanations. Tally’s initial prim and rather academic narration becomes richer and more dreamlike as her story unfolds. This edgy, smart, and challenging title combines mythology, punk rock, science, a quest, feminism, art, dreams, and the power of stories and storytelling with unforgettable results. The well-developed cast of characters is racially and sexually diverse. The emphasis on the importance of female relationships—as family, as lovers, and as friends—is a welcome exploration of the many levels of intimacy. The book can be read as a stand-alone, but will certainly send new readers looking for the previous books in the series. VERDICT A highly recommended and breathtakingly read for sophisticated readers. (This review originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of School Library Journal. Original post here.)
It’s a month prior to graduation and Mel, Mikey, Henna, and Jared are spending their last few weeks all together before their post-high school lives split them up. Outside of the constant background threat of possible undead masses coming to destroy the town, the kids lead pretty normal lives. Mike is full of anxiety about his friends, his future, and his family. He suffers from OCD and can’t stop getting stuck in repetitive loops. Mel, who’s one year older than her brother Mike, is making up for the year of school she lost while battling anorexia. Henna, the object of Mike’s affection, is not super excited to be heading to a war-torn African country for the summer. And Jared? Well, he’s a little less normal. He’s three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter God. His mother was a half-Goddess. So what exactly is Jared a god of? Cats. Mikey starts to stress out more when Nathan moves to town five weeks before graduation. Henna seems interested in him, much to Mikey’s dismay, and he can’t help but think it’s super suspicious that Nathan’s arrival happens to coincide with a resurgence of supernatural activity.
There is a lot to love about this book. The structure is intriguing, the writing is smart and funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting and well-developed. I love how they interact with each other and care for each other. At one point, Mike’s OCD has made him wash his face until it’s raw. Jared dabs some moisturizer on it for him. In Mike’s narration, he says, “Yeah, I know most people would think it weird that two guy friends touch as much as we do, but when you choose your family, you get to choose how it is between you, too. This is how we work. I hope you get to choose your family and I hope it means as much to you as mine does to me.” These friends care deeply for one another (and explore just what exactly might be found in the depth of those feelings, with Mike noting very matter-of-factly that he and Jared have hooked up in the past–“And fine, he and I have messed around a few times growing up together, even though I like girls, even though I like Henna, because a horny teenage boy would do it with a tree trunk if it offered at the right moment….”). Their stories dovetail at times with the story of the indie kids waging war against a potential apocalypse (those poor indie kids, always battling the undead, ghosts, and vampires. At one point, Mike notes there are two more indie kids dead. Henna says, “This is worse than when they were all dying beautifully of cancer.” GOD I LOVE THIS BOOK), but they prove that daily teenage life is just as fraught and dramatic as the lives of The Chosen Ones. (See the full review here.)
We leave this heart-wrenching and gruesome scene to jump back to September 1936.Naomi and her twin siblings Beto and Cari are new to town, having recently been relocated from their San Antonio barrio to an oil-mining town by the twins’ father (and Naomi’s stepfather), Henry (their mother is dead). Naomi, who is Mexican, and her biracial siblings are instructed by Henry not to speak Spanish. The children seem to pass as white, but Naomi faces the town’s ugly racism. African-American Wash, the siblings’ one friend, is no stranger to racism either. The foursome quickly become friends, but keep their friendship secret, mainly getting together in wooded areas removed from the judging and gossiping of others. Wash is the one saving grace in Naomi’s fairly unhappy life. Her classmates are constantly whispering about her. The girls hate her because she’s pretty and the boys just want to get in her pants.She does make one girl friend, and a few of the neighbors are friendly, but even if she had a thousand friends, it wouldn’t erase what is happening at home.
What’s happening at home, you ask? Some pretty horrific stuff. Naomi is essentially raising her siblings. She does all of the cleaning, cooking, and shopping (not easy when the stores don’t want to let in Negros, Mexicans, or dogs–the wording on the sign at the grocery store) while also attending high school. Naomi dislikes Henry (to put it mildly), that much we know, but the reasons why she hates him are slowly revealed. You might be able to guess what’s happening even with no context, but I’m not explicitly going to give you spoilers. Let’s just say it’s as bad as think…. multiplied by 100 more bads. Oh, and wait until you reach the end. Then it’s an infinite amount of bad.
…Perez’s story is nothing short of brilliant. The writing is tight, the tension manages to constantly increase, and the characters are exceptionally well-rendered. Was this book hard to read? Yes. Should that scare you away? No. Recommend this one widely to teens who like doomed love stories, historical fiction, diversity, or books where terrible things happen to people. Profoundly moving and richly imagined, this is a story that you won’t soon forget. (See the full review here.)
Here’s what you can know about Joseph: Joseph, the son of a plumber, is secretly seeing Madeleine, a well-to-do girl whose parents are often gone. When their relationship is discovered, her parents issue an injunction against Joseph to keep him away from Madeleine. She winds up pregnant. He winds up in a group home, then a high-security juvenile facility, then, eventually, with Jack’s family. Joseph is just about one of the most broken, scarred characters I have read in a long time. He’s gone through horrible things in his young life, both at home and in the facility, and now lives his life always on the defensive.
Jack’s family does their best to show him kindness, support, and love. He slowly starts to come out of his shell, eventually filling them in on the events prior to him landing at their house. A few teachers at school see beyond the label of troubled teen father and go out of their way to encourage him and help him. Jack tells him he has his back, no matter what. All the while, things with Joseph’s father are brewing in the background. And Joseph is always thinking of his daughter, Jupiter, and desperately wishing he could see her. His new life may be starting to look like it might be okay, but his old life is nipping at his heels, constantly pulling him backwards.
Schmidt’s spare writing is beautiful and the voice of Jack, our young narrator, is moving, compassionate, and, at times, appropriately naive. It’s an understatement to say I cried while reading this. It’s an understatement to say that Joseph’s story will stay with me. Schmidt has crafted a heartbreaking story about the redemptive power of love and second chances. No one ever said life was fair, but readers will walk away stunned at the cruel hand some people are dealt. (See the full review here.)
Aaron and his friends live in a modern-day Bronx neighborhood with one major difference: it’s home to a Leteo institute, which offers a memory-relief procedure, which alters and suppresses painful or problematic memories. Aaron’s skeptical about it, but a kid from his block had it done and it seems legit. It seems like Aaron would have reason to undergo the procedure—when his dad committed suicide, Aaron was the one who found him. Aaron also survived his own recent attempt at suicide, something we’re reminded of every time he touches the smile-like scar on his wrist. His mother works two jobs to be able to pay the rent on their tiny one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has a job at the corner market and gives much of the money to his mom to help with the rent. He goes without a lot of things that he would like. But life isn’t all bad. He’s dating Genevieve, spends a lot of time playing games with his friends from the block, and has an intriguing new friend, Thomas.
Thomas and Aaron quickly become best friends. They have deep, honest, revealing conversations. There is an ease between them that makes it feel safe to be real. Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Thomas is gay, which, after some time, leads him to thinking that maybehe is gay (or, in Aaron’s parlance, a dude-liker). Before long, Aaron is torn between what to do, who he likes and loves, and what it all means. He comes out to Thomas, who is cool with it, but when Aaron makes a move on him, he’s rejected—Thomas says he is straight. Aaron is embarrassed and confused. He feels like he’s already lost so many people, and it seems certain he will now lose Thomas and Genevieve, not to mention who he might stand to lose if he came out to more than just Thomas. Aaron knows how to fix this, though: Leteo. He hopes Leteo will be able to make him straight, even though he knows that will mean that he’ll never really be able to be himself.
But before Aaron can undergo the procedure, his own friends start to get suspicious about his relationship with Thomas and attack him, brutally beating him. When Me-Crazy throws him through the door to their building, Aaron hits his head so hard that—much to his surprise—it loosens all of his memories, leading to a series of startling realizations for both Aaron and the reader. To say more would give away too much. (See the full review here.)
16-year-old music-obsessed Riley and her bandmate/friend Reid decide they need to work on finding significant others after they walk in on their other two bandmates (Lucy and Nathan) hooking up. They start a notebook that they pass back and forth detailing their efforts and advice for finding true love/someone to have sex with. Riley’s crush is on Ted Callahan, but she quickly finds herself seeing (and kissing) two other boys. Reid has his eye on Jane, who works at an animal rescue operation, and goes so far as to pretend he intends to adopt a dog. After their band plays a school dance, Reid starts to get a little more interest from other girls. Meanwhile, Riley juggles her feelings for the three boys she’s been seeing, even though she pretty clearly knows who she really wants to be with. Then the unthinkable happens: they lose their notebook. Suddenly they have to contend with the idea that someone out there knows all of their confessions about their various infatuations, which forces them to tell the truth to the people they’ve been dating or wanting to date, and to deal with the consequences.
The thing I loved best about this book was how seriously funny it was. Riley is as bold as she is awkward. Her little inner voice, often speaking to the boys she likes, made me laugh. She can’t help but blurt out things that she knows are weird or embarrassing. She talks about having a second brain that takes over when she’s around boys she likes and makes her come off sounding like a babbling idiot. I also loved that Riley and Reid are best friends with zero potential for something more. They are JUST friends. And this book doesn’t take what could be a very predictable route of having them realize, over the course of writing in the notebook and seeking out dates, that they actually love each other. They don’t. As someone who has had a boy BFF since I was 12, I appreciated the hell out of this storyline. I kind of wished this was a flip book and I could have finished Riley’s story and flipped it over to start Reid’s story. We get a lot of details about his dating experiences through handwritten entries in the notebook and conversations with Riley, but I wanted to see more of what he was up to. That minor quibble aside, this was a total blast to read. I’m a character-drive reader and could have easily read another few hundred pages of Riley and Reid’s exploits. Great dialogue, fantastic characters, lots of music references, and funny to boot—what more could you want? (See the full review here.)
Nimona decides she will be the sidekick to supervillain Ballister Blackheart, enemy of The Institute of Law Enforcement. He claims to not need a sidekick, but there’s no dissuading Nimona. She giddily suggests ramping up the drama to his villainous plan—more chaos! more fire! more death!—and wants to kill his rival, Ambrosius Goldenloin. Blackheart and Goldenloin have a long and extremely complicated past with each other. Nimona is impulsive and believes in making big statements. She’s excited to attack people from the Institute and isn’t bothered by killing anyone. “Killing solves nothing, Nimona. It’s vulgar and messy,” the not-so-entirely-villainous Blackheart tells her. After they discover the Institution has been stockpiling a poisonous plant, their focus on fighting and exposing the Institution tightens.
Nimona and Blackheart are a dangerous duo. They can crack codes, escape from almost anywhere, masquerade as anyone or anything else, and together can cause far more havoc than they could alone. But taking down the Institution isn’t the most difficult task—the eventual choices they have to make regarding the relationships between Nimona, Blackheart, and Goldenloin are the real battles. At its heart, this is a story of identity, rescue, and the many roles we all can play. The story is deep, funny, witty, sad, and complicated. All of the characters are fantastically original and have their own unique quirks, but it’s the endearing and gutsy Nimona who stands out as an amazingly powerful, complicated, and strong but needy heroine. Whether she’s a dragon, a cat, or a punk girl with a vibrantly-colored Chelsea haircut and rows of earrings, she leaps off the page and demands to be reckoned with. An utterly fantastic read. Pair with Kristin Cashore’s FIRE for another interesting look at girls and monsters. (See the full review here.)
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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