What it’s about: A boy who wants to be friends with a girl in his class but is too nervous to talk to her. And his friend, who is a psychic. And the class bully.
What made me pick it up: It beat Long Way Down for the Newbery and WHAT KIND OF BOOK CAN DO THAT? I had to find out.
My favorite parts: This book has four main characters and they are all wonderfully fleshed out. The bully is a cringingly accurate portrayal of fragile mscunlinity and bravado/posturing. The other three are excellent weirdos in their own way learning how to be brave enough to reach out to others in the morass that is middle school. OMG I love this book so much. I love the strength it takes for these characters to step outside their comfort zones and how they are such individuals. Middle school to me felt like the time to blend in and try to be as homogenous as possible. But not for these kids. They have special circumstances that make them unique and it’s wonderful. And I love the tiny fragment of hope the book ends on. You will want to know how the story continues after this heartwarming adventure.
Who it’s great for: Upper elementary and new middle school readers.
Originally published in: 2015 (here in the States)
What it’s about: A man who has been grieving (or not so much) his lost love for 20 years by shutting down part of himself and trying to forget, and his path back to life.
What made me pick it up: I had tried to read it once before but was expecting a bit of fluff centered around a female protagonist (for no particular reason) and when I encountered a male one I set it back down. Just couldn’t get into it. Then I got it as a gift for Christmas and gave myself a six-month deadline. Five months in, when I finally picked it up and gave it a try I was quite engaged and it went very quickly.
My favorite things: I absolutely didn’t expect this to fall near my category of grumpy old man books, but it really wasn’t far from it. In that sense it fit my bill. We follow Paris’s Literary Apothecary as he prescribes books for all of life’s ailments, except his own. But once he is force to confront his past loss he…. well, he runs away. Expect to fall wildly in love with the lush description of France’s cities and countryside. You’ll want to throw everything away and rush across the pond to also amble through. Along the way he meets fellow travelers hiding from their own lives and it becomes a tale of becoming, and friendship, and healing. Grief isn’t neat and tidy and its timeline is fluid. I adored how the author presented characters who were decades into their half lives and still solidly grieving. And of course, there are love stories, and tiny surprises, and a lot of forgiveness and compassion and new beginnings. This story will give you hope and do so with stories of the gentlest absurdity that is life. You’ll be thinking of this story long after you finish it.
Who it’s great for: Adults, especially those who feel like they got off track somewhere and are struggling to find the way back.
What’s it about: In a near-future dystopian United States, Hannah has been subjected to chroming – her skin genetically altered to bright red – to publicly indicate her guilt as a violent felon in a society that has moved quickly toward a theocracy.
What made me pick it up: I’d heard that this was a modern-day Scarlet Letter with a strong Handmaid’s Tale feel, which was impossible to resist.
My favorite things: While the latter part of the book didn’t wow me, the opening and the premise are nearly perfect. Jordan creates a complex main character who wrestles with her own values as she moves away from a total acceptance of the righteous and utterly restrictive laws that rule much of the country. Though she is in a world where religious moralism reigns supreme and bodily autonomy doesn’t exist, her struggle to find peace with herself and her actions gives hope in a time of what feels like insurmountable tension and divisiveness.
Who it’s great for: Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, and other dystopian stories with a strong feminist bent.
What it’s about: A novel in verse about a teen boy coping with the sudden loss of his father.
What made me pick it up: I’m a huge fan of Alexander’s and read whatever he puts out. It helped that it was National Poetry Month and I was looking for books in verse.
My favorite parts: I really like the depiction of how sincerely mixed up this boy is since his dad’s death. He’s trying to be good but also he is having trouble coping and expressing his grief especially when everyone around him is afraid to bring up the subject or show their grief, even his mother and friends. Part of his grief is having panic attacks when sirens sound, and I appreciated the description of them and the understanding of the situation by supporting characters. You will really cheer for him to find his way forward with help from good friends and love of family. There is also a positive portrayal of using a journal to express your thoughts and feelings. You might cry — especially if you’ve read The Crossover.
What’s it about: In the near future, much of the Southwestern United States has been engulfed by a growing sea of sand due to the effects of climate change and unsustainable water practices. Luz and Ray struggle to survive, do what’s right, and find hope in the desiccated land.
What made me pick it up: I heard about this on a podcast that I’ve been subscribing to for a while.
My favorite things: I’ve always know that the East coast is the right place to be, and this sealed the deal for me. Watkins’ tale of an uninhabitable Southwest is terrifyingly believable and a reminder of the impact we’re having on our world. It’s also a great story about the struggle to build and maintain relationships through adversity.
My favorite things: While this doesn’t dip into the supernatural they way that Sing did, it still traces similar themes that I was hoping to find. Each character experiences specific manifestations of systemic racism unique to their era but undeniably tied to those of the other generations. The lines between each are clear, with the desperation escalating in younger characters. The people missing from each character’s life have almost as much of an impact on their stories as do those who are present.
Who it’s great for: Fans of family histories that trace multiple generations. Readers looking for writers telling complex stories of the African-American family; fans of Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, and Angela Flournoy.
What it’s about: A teen sees his older brother shot to death on the basketball court and how he deals with his grief.
What made me pick it up: I’ve read two of Reynolds’ other books and this one was getting really good reviews.
My favorite parts: This novel is in verse, which always amazes me that as much story can be told in few words and some authors need many. The best part for me was the beautiful language the author uses — describing the sidewalk as “the pavement galaxy of bubble gum stars” and so many other great turns of phrase. I also liked the dilemma he gave his character. On the one hand he’d like to avenge his brother’s death, but on the other that would dramatically change his life. I can’t say too much about the premise without giving away the wonderful structure Reynolds used to tell his story, but it invokes the best of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but with a delectably ambiguous ending.
Who it’s great for: Teens, especially urban ones who may have to deal with gangs, violence, and less than stable living conditions in their daily lives. Anyone who has wondered if revenge was worth it.
What’s it about: The story of two friends, partners in art and life, creating animated works that bring them a sort of fame while also forcing them to confront difficult truths and traumas in their lives that other people would like to leave in the past.
What made me pick it up: I needed an audiobook to listen to and this one was available, has gotten a lot of good press, and has a cover that makes me want to read it.
My favorite things: Whitaker treats characters suffering addictions almost without judgment in a way that is refreshingly humane. She takes the time to develop every character’s layers and the complexity of their relationships.
Who it’s great for: Readers looking for complex relationships between characters or an exploration of identity.
Originally published in: 2016 (North American edition 2017)
What’s it about: This reads like a thought experiment gone very, very right.What would happen in a world where women developed a physical power that men couldn’t match?
What made me pick it up: I think I put this on hold because there was a blurb from Margaret Atwood on the cover. But I’m also just a sucker for speculative work that is (post)apocalyptic and/or dystopian.
My favorite things: Somehow this book is both a very heavy-handed critique of global patriarchy and an electrifying story. The novel is bookended by letters between two writers, Naomi and Neil, whose gendered interactions flip the script in a way that will entertain anyone tired of mansplaining.
Who it’s great for: Fan’s of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Readers looking for unapologetically feminist read that doesn’t sacrifice story for politics.
What it’s about: A sixteen-year-old girl who has extreme anxiety which leads to thought spirals that can only be controlled through compulsive, self-harming actions and how she deals with her mental illness while she continues to also be just a normal teen with crushes on boys, a best friend, and straight As in school.
What made me pick it up: John Green is a phenomenal writer who structures his stories so the blows come at you hard and fast at the end and leave you happy/sad and bawling. He just gets teens and how to write them and when I found out he had incorporated aspects of his struggle with mental health into this book I admired him all the more.
My favorite things: My favorite thing is also the thing I hated the most and what made me keep getting exasperated and putting the book down and walking away. Green writes so honestly and in such a raw way about this character’s experience of thought spirals and the compulsive behaviors they lead to which she feels will help that it was hard to read about her suffering. I needed frequent breaks because staying in the fictional situation for too long made me uncomfortable for her and sad for her and in pain for her. It is masterful, but it may be a trigger to some individuals, and it is certainly overwhelming to read if you have any amount of empathy at all. I like how he portrayed it as a struggle by a normal person who has a normal life and only ever aspires to be her authentic, balanced self able to do normal things. Most of all I was brought to tears by the honest depiction of the process of treating and managing a mental illness and the very hard-earned hope that can come from continuing to try.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who has struggled with or known someone who struggled with mental illness. Readers who need hope.
Pick this up in your local library or get a copy online somewhere like Amazon (affiliate link).