I went on a publishing industry professional following spree back in 2013 after I finally bit the bullet and joined the Twitter. I was querying my own books at the time, so I followed literary agents and editors with motives similar to a cheetah stalking a gazelle in tall grass. I’m a einsy tiensy bit (read: a lot) ashamed of my debut twitter motives, but luckily, the universe shined blessings down upon me and gave me a side effect I didn’t expect: I get to see what books get industry buzz.
Because of this, I’ve been lucky to watch deserving authors have their books break out, explode, and hit bestseller lists. I’ve also seen amazing books slide just under the “literally everyone in publishing is talking about this book” radar.
I’m sure a lot of people have their own “underrated books” list, so this is certainly not conclusive, but I did want to share the criteria I used to develop my list before we get started.
- Under 100,000 reviews on Goodreads (to put in in perspective, Eleanor and Park currently has 438,613 ratings)
- I’ve noticed most buzz books keep people talking long after the release date. The books on this list are some I’ve seen come up via twitter/IRL conversation sparingly.
- Some books here came out before social media was as prevalent as it is, so it was hard for the average joe to take the temperature on their release. It’s quite possible that these had big releases that I’m just ignorant of, but like above, I haven’t heard much talk around them, so here they are.
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Saenz
I picked this book up simply because it had more stickers on the front page then I had on my year’s worth of homework in kindergarten. It was obvious at some point the book had been a big deal, but I hadn’t heard anyone talk about it until I posted on Twitter I was about to read it and few people responded with, “I loved this book and I can’t believe it isn’t talked about more than it is.” After reading it, I agree.
This book follows the friendship of Aristotle and Dante, two lonely boys who don’t seem to have much in common. We get to watch them grow from awkward acquaintances into people who can’t breathe without the other. Their friendship is one that people search for their entire lives, and it’s because of this friendship that Dante and Ari learn truths about themselves that change their lives.
Aristotle and Dante was one of those books with an afterburn you don’t notice until you’re lying awake at one AM thinking about it. It has a beauty so subtle you don’t realize you’ve just read something special until after you close the covers.
- Made You Up – Francesca Zappia
John Green tweeted about this book on its birthday and that’s when I put it on my TBR list. After its release, I heard a few blips and blurbs about it, but as time went on, all got quiet. I finally read it a few months ago and I honestly can’t believe it was Zappia’s debut novel.
MYU is a story of a girl named Alex, a senior in high school who can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not. The book starts with a scene from her childhood that had me in awe of her writing in about…immediately minutes.
It takes an old soul to have such a specific and well-rounded through voice as Zappia does in MYU and, when I finished, it didn’t make sense to me why no one else was talking about it, because I couldn’t stop talking about it.
- Airman – Eion Colfer
I have to confess something up front on this one: I listened to the Airman audio book; I didn’t read the physical copy, but by george and a bundle of bees, the audiobook has been the best piece of literature I’ve ever had the chance to listen to.
It’s a historical YA about a boy, Connor, who spends his days studying flight and exploring the castle with the king’s daughter on the Saltee Islands off the Irish coast. Everything changes for Connor when he discovers a plot to kill the king, tries to foil it, but instead is thrown in prison.
I’ve recently developed a big crush on historical children’s lit, and the more books I read in this genre, the more I realize how freaking good Airman was. It had the weight of epic importance, not because of the era, but because of the specific detail of the story. Historicals that can detail the world down to the lugnut blow my mind, and Airman was one of the first to do this. Yet, somehow, every time I say, “have you ever read Airman by Eoin Colfer?” The response is always “no.”
- Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass – Meg Medina
I’m a librarian by day and a writer by whenever I have time, and when I’m asked for a book about bullying, this is the first that comes to mind, but I’m pretty certain I’m a rarity in that. That’s why I had to include it on the list. I’ve read a few bullying books that begin with some sort of inciting incident or contextual reason that gives the bully their ammunition, ie: A boy is overweight, therefore a bully picks on his weight. A girl is caught in some unfortunate situation, and a bully holds it over her head.
Yaqui Delgado begins with its main character, Piddy Sanchez, starting a school day off by learning that some girl named Yaqui Delgado, SURPRISE, wants to kick her ass. The asinine and random quality of this threat is what stood out to me, because it’s a sort of bullying I hadn’t seen in YA before. The ammunition the bully uses comes out of the void. We haven’t even seen the antagonist before we learn about their intentions, and the process of watching Piddy deal with it is so weighty. I’m sad this book slid under the buzz radar, because the topic of this sort of ex nihilo bullying is extremely important. Sometimes, people don’t need a particular reason to mean, and that’s an important thing to know.
- Ship Breaker – Paolo Bacigalupi
Ship Breaker was a dystopian before dystopians were dystopians. As with all books that have come before this on the list, I’ve recommended this book multiple times to people who’ve never heard about it before.
It takes place on a post-apocalyptic Gulf Coast, where a boy named Nailer works on a crew that scraps washed up oil tankers. Most oil tankers have been picked over, but a new one washes up during a storm, and Nailer has to choose between scrapping the new tanker for all its worth or saving its lone survivor, a daughter of a wealthy merchant.
Unlike a slew of dystopians that came after this book was published, this book doesn’t focus its plot on the cause and effect of the apocalyptic event. The storyline simply takes place in and around a broken world. These sorts of books, the ones that have nothing to do with the government or an uprising, but a story of someone living in the constraints of the new world trying to make it by are some of my favorites in the genre, and I think it’s that exact reason, they don’t contain massive revolutions, that they often slide under the radar.
- 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.