My Favorite Reads of 2021, by Teen Librarian Karen Jensen
I know it is now 2022 and most people have already shared their best of 2021 lists, but I have waited until now because I was a first round panelist for the Cybils and I wanted to wait until they made their announcements. If you aren’t familiar with the Cybils, they are an award for kid lit put out by various bloggers and online reviewers. They come in three stages. First stage, nominations are opened to the public. Then, when the nominees are all submitted, the first round panelists read all of the nominees and create a shortlist. That’s where I came in as I was one of the first round panelists who put together the shortlist for YA fiction. You can see that shortlist here. In the next round, a new group of judges will read the titles on the shortlist and pick a winner. In addition to my regular reading throughout the year, there were around 84 books nominated by the public for the Cybils YA Fiction category.
So here’s a look at my favorite YA reads of 2021. I will present them in no particular order except I will save my favorite for last.
The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe
I was aware of this book but hadn’t really been interested in reading it, though to be fair like many people the pandemic was very horrific for me and I had a harder time reading earlier in the year. But this book was one of the books I read for the Cybils and I am so glad that I read it because THIS IS A REALLY FASCINATING AND ENTERTAINING READ. It begins with a group of 3 teens going to the bank to make a deposit for a fundraiser they worked on. While there, the bank is robbed and they are all taken hostage. Unfortunately for the bank robbers, one of those teens was raised by a major con artist and they have mad skills that help them in this situation. What follows is a book that looks at this person’s past to help explain the skills they have now that help them survive and thwart the robbery. It’s a complex look at identity, a psychological thriller, and a heist novel all wrapped into one very entertaining package.
Publisher’s Book Description: A slick, twisty YA page-turner about the daughter of a con artist who is taken hostage in a bank heist.
Nora O’Malley’s been a lot of girls. As the daughter of a con-artist who targets criminal men, she grew up as her mother’s protégé. But when mom fell for the mark instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con: escape.
For five years Nora’s been playing at normal. But she needs to dust off the skills she ditched because she has three problems:
#1: Her ex walked in on her with her girlfriend. Even though they’re all friends, Wes didn’t know about her and Iris.
#2: The morning after Wes finds them kissing, they all have to meet to deposit the fundraiser money they raised at the bank. It’s a nightmare that goes from awkward to deadly, because:
#3: Right after they enter bank, two guys start robbing it.
The bank robbers may be trouble, but Nora’s something else entirely. They have no idea who they’re really holding hostage…
Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler
This book is on my list because of my teen, Riley. She picked this book off of a cart of ARCs as summer approached because she needed to read a book with joy, and she found it in these pages. When I asked her what she likes about it she says, “it’s just a vibe, you know. It was just a nice, entertaining book that brought me joy and didn’t make me depressed, which was exactly what I needed.” So for those of you who have teens looking for some joy on the page, we recommend Cool for the Summer.
Publisher’s Book Description: Lara’s had eyes for exactly one person throughout her three years of high school: Chase Harding. He’s tall, strong, sweet, a football star, and frankly, stupid hot. Oh, and he’s talking to her now. On purpose and everything. Maybe…flirting, even? No, wait, he’s definitely flirting, which is pretty much the sum of everything Lara’s wanted out of life.
Except she’s haunted by a memory. A memory of a confusing, romantic, strangely perfect summer spent with a girl named Jasmine. A memory that becomes a confusing, disorienting present when Jasmine herself walks through the front doors of the school to see Lara and Chase chatting it up in front of the lockers.
Lara has everything she ever wanted: a tight-knit group of friends, a job that borders on cool, and Chase, the boy of her literal dreams. But if she’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?
Cool for the Summer is a story of self-discovery and new love. It’s about the things we want and the things we need. And it’s about the people who will let us be who we are.
Eat Your Heart Out by Kelly DeVos
First, regularly long-time readers know that I love zombie books. And if the zombie book is funny and makes deep social commentary, even better. Here’s a book that tackles body positivity while taking down corporate corruption while also tackling zombies with humor.
Publisher’s Book Description: Shaun of the Dead meets Dumplin’ in this bitingly funny YA thriller about a kickass group of teens battling a ravenous group of zombies.
In the next few hours, one of three things will happen.
1–We’ll be rescued (unlikely)
2–We’ll freeze to death (maybe)
3–We’ll be eaten by thin and athletic zombies (odds: excellent)
Vivian Ellenshaw is fat, but she knows she doesn’t need to lose weight, so she’s none too happy to find herself forced into a weight-loss camp’s van with her ex-best friend, Allie, a meathead jock who can barely drive, and the camp owner’s snobby son. And when they arrive at Camp Featherlite at the start of the worst blizzard in the history of Flagstaff, Arizona, it’s clear that something isn’t right.
Vee barely has a chance to meet the other members of her pod, all who seem as unhappy to be at Featherlite as she does, when a camper goes missing down by the lake. Then she spots something horrifying outside in the snow. Something…that isn’t human. Plus, the camp’s supposed “miracle cure” for obesity just seems fishy, and Vee and her fellow campers know they don’t need to be cured. Of anything.
Even worse, it’s not long before Camp Featherlite’s luxurious bungalows are totally overrun with zombies. What starts out as a mission to unravel the camp’s secrets turns into a desperate fight for survival–and not all of the Featherlite campers will make it out alive.
A satirical blend of horror, body positivity, and humor, Kelly deVos’s witty, biting novel proves that everyone deserves to feel validated, and taking down the evil enterprise determined to dehumanize you is a good place to start.
How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao
It turns out, I love a good murder mystery and am a fan of teen gets killed at school/boarding school because of the extreme competition to get into college trope. There were several that have come out recently including They’ll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman (good, highly recommend) and The Ivies by Alexa Donne (also good, I also recommend). How We Fall Apart was the first one of many I read this year and it’s the first book in a series. It’s a good mystery and I look forward to reading more.
Editor’s Book Description:
Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.
They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.
Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.
The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin
This book takes a really unique twist on the idea of witches, mixes in some very relevant climate change concerns, and grapples eloquently with the nature of grief and guilty.
Publisher’s Book Description: For centuries, witches have maintained the climate, their power from the sun peaking in the season of their birth. But now their control is faltering as the atmosphere becomes more erratic. All hope lies with Clara, an Everwitch whose rare magic is tied to every season.
In Autumn, Clara wants nothing to do with her power. It’s wild and volatile, and the price of her magic―losing the ones she loves―is too high, despite the need to control the increasingly dangerous weather.
In Winter, the world is on the precipice of disaster. Fires burn, storms rage, and Clara accepts that she’s the only one who can make a difference.
In Spring, she falls for Sang, the witch training her. As her magic grows, so do her feelings, until she’s terrified Sang will be the next one she loses.
In Summer, Clara must choose between her power and her happiness, her duty and the people she loves… before she loses Sang, her magic, and thrusts the world into chaos.
Practical Magic meets Twister in this debut contemporary fantasy standalone about heartbreaking power, the terror of our collapsing atmosphere, and the ways we unknowingly change our fate.
Never Saw You Coming by Erin Hahn
The adolescent years are when a lot of young people really wrestle with their faith. They tend to spend a lot of time analyzing the faith they’ve been brought up in and have to either internalize it in some personal way or reject it. Never Saw You Coming is a book that shows two teens grappling with their conservative Christian faith, purity culture, and who they choose to be and what they choose to believe as they move from their teen to their young adult years. It’s a very rich and nuanced look at faith that manages to affirm it in many ways while breaking it down in others. As a person who grew up in the church in the 90s and went on to get my undergraduate in youth ministry, I thought this was such a beautiful, realistic and compassionate look at this important life changing journey. Though it does affirm many aspects of the Christian faith, it also contains some very real discussions of sex that are intimate, beautiful and sexually positive, but you should know about them for those who don’t want any sex in their books, especially ones deemed Christian fiction. This was a beautiful book that was personally very resonant and moving.
Publisher’s Book Description: Raised by conservative parents, 18-year-old Meg Hennessey just found out her entire childhood was a lie. Instead of taking a gap year before college to find herself, she ends up traveling north to meet what’s left of the family she never knew existed.
While there, she meets Micah Allen, a former pastor’s kid whose dad ended up in prison, leaving Micah with his own complicated relationship about the church. The clock is ticking on Pastor Allen’s probation hearing and Micah, now 19, feels the pressure to forgive – even when he can’t possibly forget.
As Meg and Micah grow closer, they are confronted with the heavy flutterings of first love and all the complications it brings. Together, they must navigate the sometimes-painful process of cutting ties with childhood beliefs as they build toward something truer and straight from the heart.
In Erin Hahn’s Never Saw You Coming, sometimes it takes a leap of faith to find yourself.
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
As far as I am concerned, everyone should read every book by author Tiffany D. Jackson and this is no exception. From the first page, this book is truly haunting. And then it takes you on a journey that you never imagined with all the twists and turns. It also deals really well with the topic of anxiety.
Publisher’s Book Description:
The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!
Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.
The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone.
But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?
As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.
Aetherbound by E. K. Johnston
Johnston writes one of my very favorite YA books that tackle both cheerleading and sexual assault, Exit, Pursued by a Bear. But she is perhaps more well known for her science fiction novels, including many set in the Star Wars universe. Aetherboun is a science fiction novel that tackles topics like scarcity and identity, with all the excitement of space that you hunger for. It’s everything you want in a science fiction novel while being nothing you would expect.
Publisher’s Book Description:
Set on a family-run interstellar freighter called the Harland and a mysterious remote space station, E. K. Johnston’s latest is story of survival and self-determination.
Pendt Harland’s family sees her as a waste of food on their long-haul space cruiser when her genes reveal an undesirable mutation. But if she plays her cards right she might have a chance to do much more than survive. During a space-station layover, Pendt escapes and forms a lucky bond with the Brannick twins, the teenage heirs of the powerful family that owns the station. Against all odds, the trio hatches a long-shot scheme to take over the station and thwart the destinies they never wished for.
Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
I started reading this book in early 2021 and kept remarking that it was such a realistic depiction of grief and then, in the midst of reading it, my father passed away and I had to set it aside because it became to real. But it was a Cybils nominee so I picked it back up to finish it. It continues to be one of the most realistic depictions of grief that really resonated with me. In addition, as someone with ties to Michigan, that’s where my father is from, the depiction of this area and the economic challenges and opioid epidemic they are facing are all too real. It’s also a great mystery that talks about things like family, friendship and identity. It really is a very well written book that deserves its place on this list.
Publisher’s Book Description:
As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.
The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.
Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home.
Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
Debut author Angeline Boulley crafts a groundbreaking YA thriller about a Native teen who must root out the corruption in her community, for readers of Angie Thomas and Tommy Orange.
So before we get to my favorite read of 2021, I thought I would mention a few other books that I thought about adding to this list, but I tried to keep it to 10. Some of the books that almost made this list inlcude The Falling Girls by Hayley Krischer, Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones and Gilley Segal, Playing with Fire by April Henry, You’d Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow, and The Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey.
And now, my favorite read of 2021 is . . .
In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner
This book is, to me, quintessential and timeless YA. It plucks two teens, best friends who may actually be in love, from a life of economic hardship and puts them into a boarding school via scholarship. At school, they wrestle with identity, friendship, family, and more. In the Wild Light covers the year in the life of teens with emotional richness and nuance and a laser-sharp precision and intensity that any teen will find beats that resonate with them. The teens are from the Appalachia region, making this one of the few YA titles that give nuanced and positive representation to teens from this region. It deals with the economic poverty and opioid crisis of that region with respect, nuance and compassion. It’s just a very rich, compelling, moving read. Even some of the scenes included, such as an instance of sexual violence, are handled with tenderness and care and they add to the story because they are both realistic and deftly handled, and though the story isn’t about these types of moments, they add to the story because this is a story about teen life and the moments and emotions that make it. In the Wild Light is a profoundly moving and rich YA novel that will surely long live as one of the classics.
Publisher’s Book Description:
Life in a small Appalachian town is not easy. Cash lost his mother to an opioid addiction and his Papaw is dying slowly from emphysema. Dodging drug dealers and watching out for his best friend, Delaney, is second nature. He’s been spending his summer mowing lawns while she works at Dairy Queen.
But when Delaney manages to secure both of them full rides to an elite prep school in Connecticut, Cash will have to grapple with his need to protect and love Delaney, and his love for the grandparents who saved him and the town he would have to leave behind.
From the award-winning author of The Serpent King comes a beautiful examination of grief, found family, and young love.
2021 was a brutal year for all of us collectively and for my family personally, but books helped us navigate it. These are some of the ones that meant a lot to us on our journey through this year. Share some of yours in the comments.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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