Amanda’s favorites of 2020
Yes, it’s list time.
What follows are my favorite 2020 books that I reviewed here at TLT and excerpts of my reviews. This was a ROUGH year (understatement, I know) full of stress and grief and change and despair. Everyone who debuted during this terrible year, congratulations. Everyone who published anything this year, congratulations. Anyone who wrote anything this year, congratulations. Anyone who simply survived this year, congratulations.
It’s hardly unique to say that 2020 has zapped my ability to concentrate AND that it’s worked hard to ruin reading for me. Why escape into fiction when you could doomscroll endlessly? As a result, I wrote more Post-It-style reviews than I usually do, and some of those books ended up being my favorites of the year. Longer reviews are excerpted and linked back to the original review.
I pretty much exclusively read contemporary fiction, which my list reflects. These are the YA books that most stuck with me this year. Even though I’m a voracious reader, I’m sure I missed a lot of great 2020 books. 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.
Books appear on this list in order of publication date.
Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis by K. R. Gaddy (ISBN-13: 9780525555414 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 01/07/2020 Ages 12-17)
Here’s the thing: I knew absolutely nothing about the Edelweiss Pirates beyond at some point having heard that name and knowing that they were an anti-Nazi resistance group. I absolutely devoured this book. Get this one up on your displays about youth activism and youth movements.
The action, rebellion, resistance, sabotage, and survival of these young people is extraordinary. Some of them were as young as 13, which, as the parent of a 13-year-old, was mind-blowing. For me, though, the most interesting part of all of this is how little I know or have ever read about these groups, yet have read so many things over the years about the White Rose group, which was made up of older, upper-middle class young people. The Edelweiss Pirates were leftist, young, working class kids. In fact, they weren’t even officially recognized as a resistance movement until 2005. The stories of these brave children need to be more well-known and further underscore just how much children and young adults have always led the way in political activism and resistance against evils. A deeply affecting book. (Full review here.)
Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden (ISBN-13: 9781681198040 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 01/14/2020 Ages 13-17)
17-year-old Savannah is hearing a lot of messages in 1919 Washington D.C. In the wake of WWI and the Spanish Flu, “onward and upward” is the motto of the times. She also hears a lot about being “a credit to the race” and “lifting as we climb.” Politically, there is a lot going on, particularly around the issue of women’s suffrage and the role that black women are allowed to play in that (and the issue of whether white women are considering them at all). Savannah feels a bit frustrated and disenchanted, embarrassed by the excess of the social circles her family is part of and curious about the wider world. Her uncle, a photographer, encourages her to find a challenge, a passion, a purpose. He urges her to stop just being an observer. When Savannah learns about a local school for girls, she begins to get involved helping there and, through her new contacts (many of whom are considered to be a “more radical element”), has her eyes opened to not just what is happening around the country but to what is happening in her very own city.
This complex story will put readers right in the middle of all the action and introduces a wide swath of ideas and perspectives. Set just over 100 years ago, the quest for social justice and real change makes for a powerful and still (always) relevant topic. An author’s note, historical photographs, notes, and sources all provide further context for Savannah’s story and her awakening in this engaging and unique read. (Full review here.)
Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry (ISBN-13: 9781616208967 Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers Publication date: 03/24/2020 Ages 14-18)
Only two months and a few dozen books into 2020 and I’m ready to call something one of my favorite books of the year? Yes, yes I am. This stunning book is easily the best thing I’ve read so far this year.
The power and beauty of this book is in the lovely writing and the magnificent, unforgettable characters. This is a story about what happens when girls become ghosts, when girls become animals. This is about what happens when girls embrace anger, when girls attack, when girls grow sick of the imprints men leave upon them. This is about aching, desperate, trapped, screaming girls. This is a warning and a celebration of what happens when girls become feral, become hunters, when girls decide they are not sorry. This haunting story is about sisterhood and death, about power and pain, and about confronting men and boys who are meddling cowards and abusers. A fierce story of heartbreak, grief, connection, and the complications of the human heart. Absolutely not to be missed. (Full review here.)
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson, Omar Mohamed, Iman Geddy (ISBN-13: 9780525553908 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 04/14/2020, Ages 10-14)
POST-IT SAYS: Phenomenal. Such a moving look at life in a refugee camp. Full of as much love and hope as it is of pain and despair, this is a powerful and unforgettable story. Required reading.
Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder (ISBN-13: 9780525553021 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 04/14/2020 Age Range: 12 – 17 Years)
Grief is a weird thing. It changes all the time, it’s intensely personal while also being so universal, and you have to still try to live your regular life while hauling it around. Feder’s book captures all of that and so much more.
When Tyler’s mother feels some abdominal pain, no one knows that indicates their lives will be forever changed. She’s eventually diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, and eventually that diagnosis morphs to stage 4 uterine cancer. They all try to remain optimistic, but it isn’t long before it’s very clear to Tyler and her family that her mother will not survive this. As her mother undergoes treatment and begins to fade, Tyler is still going to college and trying to compartmentalize her life enough to power through each day. Eventually, of course, as we know this is a dead mom memoir, the cancer spreads, hospice is called, and her mother dies.
While this is about watching someone you love die and life after loss, it’s also just a really beautiful love letter to her mom. Her mom seems like she was awesome. I was worried this book would wreck me, but that wasn’t the case. I mostly just nodded my head in recognition at her feelings, admired the close relationship Tyler and her mother had, and appreciated the candid, warm, cathartic feel of the whole thing. The mileage varies on everyone’s grief, but this story full of so much love and honesty will be a comfort to many. (Full review here.)
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (ISBN-13: 9780062882769 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/05/2020, Ages 14-17)
POST-IT SAYS: Quite possibly one of the most perfect books ever written. Sad, beautiful, powerful, and bittersweet, this story of family bonds broken and discovered will leave you crying. Just lovely.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (ISBN-13: 9780062820259 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/05/2020 Ages 14-17)
Black, queer, and trans Felix explores love, friendship, and possibly retribution in this powerful #OwnVoices story of identity and self-worth. Seventeen-year-old Felix Love hopes the summer art program he’s attending will help raise his grades and increase his chances of getting a full scholarship to attend Brown. Surrounded by a diverse and mostly queer group of artist friends, Felix navigates complicated relationships, including transphobia and harassment from his own friends, from his loving but still learning father, and from an anonymous bully. Bent on revenge, Felix begins catfishing his top suspect, only to encounter some uncomfortable and surprising revelations about not just his potential tormentor, but his own feelings. Coping with the abandonment of his mother and feeling like he isn’t worthy of love, Felix also grapples with the unsettling feeling that his identity still isn’t the best fit. It’s only after a lot of research that he discovers the label “demiboy” and begins to feel a sense of comfort that extends to how he works through and untangles his various complex relationships, both romantic and platonic.
Full of warmth, love, and support, this is an important story and an essential purchase. (Full review here.)
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (ISBN-13: 9780062990297 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/26/2020, Ages 14+)
POST-IT SAYS: Absolutely perfect and beautiful and unforgettable, just like Michael. A powerful and affirming exploration of identity, sexuality, gender, and relationships. One of my favorite reads of 2020 so far.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson (ISBN-13: 9781338503265 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. Publication date: 06/02/2020 Age Range: 12 – 17 Years)
It’s probably not enough to just write a little love note, like, “Dear book, I love you. Love, Amanda,” and consider this review done, is it? Or maybe it is. It gets across the point—I love this book. It’s cute, sweet, and fun while still dealing with serious and upsetting things. It made me remember all the best things about high school romances—the many firsts, the excitement, the joy, the fun.
The best thing about this book is how REAL it feels. Liz and friends all mess up. They make bad choices, hurt each other, apologize, and learn what true friendship looks like. The connection and acceptance and support that eventually shines through in this story shows all the best parts of high school and the best parts of people. As Liz fumbles her way toward the prom court, she learns that maybe playing the game differently is the key to it all. And with the encouragement of her friends and the eventual support of her peers, Liz comes to understand that if they won’t make space for you, demand it.
A smart, fun, and sweet look at navigating the unexpected moments and at celebrating being yourself. (Full review here.)
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (ISBN-13: 9780062996480 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/01/2020 Age Range: 14 – 17 Years)
This incredible novel in verse is definitely one of my top reads of 2020. The reality is that books about racism, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex will always be both timely and timeless. But, I do think that at this particular time in history, maybe more people than ever will be drawn to this story and open to really sitting with what they learn from what happens to Amal and how it affects him.
Perhaps no page is more moving, more devastating, than the one where, on the day of his conviction, Amal memorizes his inmate number, his crime, and his time, and forgets his school ID number, his top colleges, and his class schedule. Stripped of his humanity, Amal becomes just another number in the school-to-prison pipeline. We see people fail Amal again and again, but also, surprisingly, we see people really see him for who he is and push him to retain his identity (an artist, a poet) while in prison. These people include other inmates who appreciate his talents, a corrections officer who understands his need to create art, and a teacher who visits and tells Amal she’s a prison abolitionist.
A deeply moving, profound, and infuriating look at how we fail Black boys, at the miscarriage of justice, at racist systems, and so much more. An essential purchase. (Full review here.)
Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour (ISBN-13: 9780593108970 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 09/15/2020, Ages 14-17)
POST-IT SAYS: A stunning, heartbreaking look at what it means to be haunted. Readers will ache with Mila as she tries to be hopeful about her future while unable to heal from her traumatic past. Just lovely.
Grown by Tiffany D Jackson (ISBN-13: 9780062840356 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/15/2020, Ages 14-17)
POST-IT SAYS: Profound. Possibly one of the most powerful and gripping books I’ve ever read. A horrific look at abuse, manipulation, gaslighting, and ambition. You need to read this.
Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh (ISBN-13: 9780525556206 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 09/22/2020 Age Range: 12 – 17 Years)
Iloh writes, “when you start growing/further away from/what used to be home/you go looking for somewhere/that lets you be/what’s inside your head.”
I’m not sure I’ve read any better lines in any book this year. There is nothing Ada wants more than to be the person inside her head. She’s always been drawn to dance, but her practical father never saw the point in pursuing it. A chance encounter with Kendra, another dancer, provides connection and the encouragement to follow her desire.
A hopeful, beautifully written, deeply affecting story of what we endure and overcome in the journey to become ourselves. (Full review here.)
Thoughts & Prayers by Bryan Bliss (ISBN-13: 9780062962249 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/29/2020 Age Range: 14 – 17 Years)
I finished this book feeling both so, so angry and so, so hopeful. Angry because of the state of things and hopeful because of the awe-inspiring resiliency of humans. Angry that school shootings happen and hopeful that expanded conversations and movements regarding gun violence may one day lead us to a better, safer place. Angry as I think back to every library I’ve worked at, whether school or public, and had moments of fear, had lockdown drills, had spots picked out where I would hide, where I would shove kids. I finished the book angry at some characters, hopeful because of others, and really just profoundly sad that this fictional story is the true story of so many schools, so many communities, so many children.
These are teenagers in pain. We watch them remember to breathe, pretend to be fine, try to feel “normal,” and fall apart. Their stories are filled with pain, fear, rage, and grief. But no one is any one thing, no matter what our trauma or seemingly defining moment may be. The characters change, grow, and heal. They need help and they get help. They are not okay, and readers see that that’s okay. They have supportive teachers, parents, and friends. There is talk of therapy and trauma-informed practices. The characters show what is possibly the only true and universal part of grief and trauma: that healing and progress are not linear. In Bliss’s capable hands, we see their stories as intensely personal and individual while also being part of a larger narrative, a shared experience. We see them as broken and scarred but also as brave, fighters, warriors. They are survivors. They are coping. They are made-up characters, but their stories are those of thousands upon thousands of teenagers who live through these school shootings. A deeply empathetic, emotional, and infuriating story full of unforgettable characters (Dr. Palmer, I love you!). This affecting story is not to be missed. (Full review here.)
Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe (ISBN-13: 9780062824141 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 10/13/2020 Age Range: 13 – 17 Years)
Senior year ends up holding many surprises, the biggest (and best) being Corinne, his upstairs neighbor and the most intense girl in his class. She blackmails Henri into helping her revamp her image as someone less uptight and socially awkward, hoping it will improve her college recommendation letters. And while Henri is game, he has no idea what he’s in for. Turns out that Cori is not just brilliant but totally and bluntly honest, hilarious, and almost always gets what she wants (usually thanks to a series of note cards to study from and exceedingly detailed multi-point plans). What starts as a weird transaction between the two turns into a real friendship (and more) as they get to see each other beyond the labels, preconceived ideas, and Smiles. But Henri messes it all up (and I mean ALL of it) when he makes a terrible choice that he justifies as evening the playing field but really is just SO. BAD.
This book has everything going for it. The conversational tone, the standout characters, the excellent (and rocky) romance… everything. I’m a fast reader. Generally my approach is that I have to read as fast as I possibly can so I can keep flying through my TBR pile. But if I take the time to slow down, to make sure I’m really reading and not just skimming, to be sure I’m enjoying every well-crafted sentence and clever exchange, then I know I am loving a book. I stretched this one out over three afternoons, just so I could keep dipping back into Henri and Cori’s world. A completely satisfying, engaging, and memorable read. (Full review here.)
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (ISBN-13: 9781984851598 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 10/13/2020 Age Range: 12 – 17 Years)
This book is beautiful in every sense of the word and in every aspect of its presentation. The art is dynamic and full of detail, the shifting color palette works so well, the writing is spectacular, and the emotional heart of the story is stunning. Is this just a list of gushing love and appreciation instead of an actual professional-sounding book review? YES.
This is a story about immigrants, about shared language and connection, about a life left behind, about fitting in, about family, about being yourself, and about love. Tiến learns about the power of stories, about happy endings, about stories changing when they need to. The book ended abruptly but perfectly, leaving me crying and wishing everyone had the love and support Tiến has.
Beautiful and moving, this book will stick with me. I hope it gets the attention it deserves. Go add it to your library queue or order it from your local indie now. (Full review here.)
Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon (ISBN-13: 9781984812230 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/17/2020, Ages 14-17)
Here’s my favorite line from the book: Sunny and Cirrus are talking and she says, “It begs the question, What person isn’t just a made-up thing in the first place? Is it the fakery that makes us real? Is anything real?” And while that may sound like the kind of eye-roll-inducing conversation we all had as teens and thought was so deep, guess what? It is deep. Is there anything innate about our personalities or are we all just amalgamations of our interests and influences and ideals and emulations etc? And in Sunny’s case, is he actually faking being “cool” and interesting or is he indeed cool and interesting? Is changing our personalities and interests really in any way being “fake” when there’s nothing any more “real” about our previous identities or personalities or interests?
As I said in my review of Yoon’s previous book, I’m a hard one to make laugh, as a reader. Cry, sure, at the drop of a hat. But laugh? Rarely. But with this book, I laughed and laughed. I made note of brilliant lines. I went back and read clever conversations. I got completely sucked into the story and felt right there with the characters. I was shoving my fist right in there with theirs and shouting, “To metal!” I can’t say enough positive about this really smart, empathetic, and hilarious look at identity, friendship, preconceived notions, high school, and missteps. One of my very favorite reads this year. (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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