- How to Save A Life – Sara Zarr
Oh, Sara Zarr. How I want the world to shout your name from the rooftops. Over the last year, I worked my way through her collected works. Sara writes some of the best relationally complex contemporary in YA, but, much like Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe, you don’t notice it until later. Sara has this way of carrying you through her stories on quiet threads of redemption and hope so powerful you’re always sucker punched by them in the end.
HTSAL is a story shared between two girls, Jill and Mandy. Jill’s reeling from her dad’s death, Mandy pregnant and wanting to find a better life for her baby. HTSAL tells the tale of Jill and Mandy as their lives collide, twist and change around each other.
Sara Zarr’s next book, Dixie & Gem, her first since 2013, comes out next year and I’m calling it right now, it’s gonna be one of the year’s buzz books.
- Challenger Deep – Neal Shusterman
For a book that won the National Book Award in 2015, it had a very quiet after release. Every once in awhile you find a book that makes you choose to keep reading. I have a rule, if I’m not hooked in the first fifty pages, I’m done. Fifty pages into Challenger Deep, I wasn’t hooked. I had no idea what was happening, but the utter strangeness of it pushed me to keep reading. Then, about halfway through the book, there was this moment where I said out loud, “wow, this is brilliant.”
Challenger Deep is about a boy’s descent into mental illness. It pits the real life story of the boy in contrast with a fictional world he’s creating. At first, the two storylines stand stark against each other, and because you have very little context, they make no sense. But the deeper you go into the book, suddenly the stories that felt like random misplaced breadcrumbs have reformed into a delicious loaf of bread.
The thing about Challenger Deep is that, in my opinion, it doesn’t follow normal book writing rules. It doesn’t establish everything clearly and immediately at the beginning of the book. You have the responsibility of working it out. You have to wade through the information given to you in order to engage with the plot, which might turn off the casual reader, but it’s all worth it for that “OMG” moment, as well as a wider understanding of what a broken mind might look like.
- The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – Leslye Walton
This book. This book. I read this book a year ago and I still think about it. I mentioned “book afterburn” when talking about Dante and Aristotle, and this book is a prime example of it. It exceeded my normal quirk levels so much that I didn’t know what I thought about it when I finished it. I just closed the covers and walked away, but since then, I’ve found myself thinking about how masterful it was.The quiet elements of magical realism. The prose. The specificity. The quirk. The relational complexity. The quiet elements of magical realism. Yes. They were so good I have to say them twice.
- Walk On Earth A Stranger – Rae Carson
Walk On Earth A Stranger is another historical YA that took me by surprise. I might be a little biased because it mentions my hometown–Chattanooga–but a main character who can sense gold during the gold rush era? A road trip novel before road trips were road trip didn’t come with a risk of jaundice? Come on. Why would you not read this? So clever. The thing I like the best about WOEAS is that feels like legend. Like a YA tall tale that, if published along side of Buffalo Bill and Paul Bunyon, would probably be a part of our American folklore.
- Mexican WhiteBoy – Matt de la Peña
Mexican WhiteBoy is about a Half-Mexican boy named Danny who can pitch a baseball so fast he should be getting signed by college scouts in seconds. He’s known for his skill in his small border town, but his mixed race colors everything. Convinced that it was his whiteness that drove his dad back to Mexico, that keeps him from fitting in, he chooses to spend his summer with his dad’s family. Looking for belonging, he battles to find himself, his identity, and friendship.
I was hit hard by this book. Matt de la Peña shapes the emotion in this book in a way I’ve seen very fewauthors do. It’s one thing to say a book made you feel emotional, it’s another to say that you felt the emotion in the book. Danny wears his conflicts so strongly that you can’t help but feel both.
My favorite thing about contemporary YA is that it takes you out of yourself and lets you hang out in the bodies of people who are looking at issues you may never face, in a body you will never have. A real life Everyday by David Levithan experience. Some books transcend the page in this particular way, and Mexican WhiteBoy is one of them.