Swing by Kwame Alexander

Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A teen guy who loves his best female friend but can’t bring himself to tell her, so he makes her anonymous art collage love letters. And their other best friend, Swing.

What made me pick it up: I adore Kwame Alexander and read everything he puts out.

My favorite parts: My favorite thing is the thing I can’t tell you. It’s the thing that made me cry in the LAST TEN PAGES and which I never saw coming. But I guess, generally, I can say it was the friendship. This book is about an angsty, mixed up teen who needs the guidance of his bestie to help him get the girl. And his friend shows up every time for him. Giving him advice. Lending him money. Introducing him to older, wiser individuals and the all important jazz music that permeates the book. This book is sweet and then it’s unexpected and sad and hard. Alexander wrapped all his strings up so well at the end and right under my nose as a reader. In hind sight I should’ve added everything up and known what was coming, but I guess even readers get hopeful that maybe the world isn’t the way it ends up being. Or at least maybe books won’t reflect that sad world back to us.

Who it’s great for: Everyone middle grade and up.

Erica’s rating: five shells

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

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Originally published in: 2017

What’s it about:  17-year-old Kiko Himura spends her days struggling with her social anxiety and feeling like her half-Japanese identity means she’ll never fit in anywhere – especially not with her mother. She lives for the day she’ll escape to art school, but first, she has to get in.

What made me pick it up: It was a finalist for the Morris Award given to the best YA debut novel.

My favorite things: Bowman includes the most magical descriptions of Kiko’s art. They make her paintings and drawings come to life and reflect and inspire real emotion. There’s a strong romantic element to the story that is perfectly complicated.

Who it’s great for:  Teens interested in a complicated romance with lots of family drama.

Abby’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells


Find this in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

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Originally published in: 2017

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.

Erica’s rating: five-shells


Find this book in your local library or on Amazon.


 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Originally published in: 2017

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.

Erica’s rating: four-shells


Pick this up in your local library or get a copy online somewhere like Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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Originally published: 2017

What it’s about: A teen girl who is working through the grief and guilt of losing her baby sister.

What made me pick it up: I was reading The Kite Runner when I just got really sick of what a fucking bummer it was so I went looking for a lighter book and stumbled upon this YA novel in audio on OverDrive. On double speed you’ll get through it in just a couple hours.

My favorite parts: I enjoyed the authentic depictions of various types of grieving and the discussion of and character arrivals at forgiveness. The relationships between all the teen characters were great, and very realistic. I appreciated the way it dealt with heavy themes in a hopeful way and didn’t feel like it was including horrific incidents just for show (looking at you, Kite Runner). It reminded me of Sarah Dessen novels mixed with just a smidgen of John Green.

Who it’s great for: Anyone struggling through something heavy who wants a break. Those looking for a quick, engaging read.

Erica’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells


Find this book on Amazon or in your local library.


 

Marlena by Julie Buntin

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: Fifteen-year-old Cat is uprooted from her middle-class suburban life and finds herself a member of the rural poor. She fills her days with Marlena, the neighbor with whom she develops a teenage friendship defined by wildness, loss, and addiction.

What made me pick it up: I heard a review of this on a podcast and was immediately intrigued.

My favorite things: The story is told through both reflections by an adult Cat still struggling to make sense of her time with Marlena, and by teenage Cat as she experiences the life-defining friendship. Cat’s two voices weave together to seamlessly to illustrate the desperation and urgency of her friendship with Marlena. Bonus: the whole time I was reading I had that one Wallflowers song playing in my head.

Who it’s great for: This is a good choice for fans of Elena Ferrante or readers looking for something with a similar feel to Winter’s BoneThe Lovely Bones, or History of Wolves.

Abby’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells


Pick up a copy of this book at Amazon (affiliate link) or in your local library.


 

Once and For All by Sarah Dessen

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: After a tragic loss of her first love, Louna no longer believes in happily ever after which is tough because her day job as a wedding planner has her surrounded by a thousand versions of just that.

What made me pick it up: Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite YA authors and one of my most enjoyed author follows on Twitter. I was excited to learn about this new book and grabbed it as soon as I could.

My favorite parts: Dessen doesn’t shy away from real teen behavior or feelings which I appreciate. Louna has suffered a catastrophic loss and spends her time with two cynical parental figures who no longer believe in love. Her growth throughout the story and courage to be honest with herself and willing to consider love again is powerful. More than anything Dessen shows how sadness and hope go hand-in-hand.

Who it’s great for: Teens of all ages. Dessen fans. Anyone looking for a hopeful love story that stays on the realistic side.

Erica’s rating: five-shells


Find this book in your local library or on Amazon with our handy affiliate link.


 

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: Rishi heads to a coding camp to finally meet and get to know Dimple, the woman his parents have selected for him to marry. Dimple is trying to become a world changing app developer and can’t figure out why some weirdo at coding camp is stalking her and talking about marriage.

What made me pick it up: It was getting a lot of press and play on Twitter. The cover is very engaging.

My favorite parts: This excellent YA novel is a wildly entertaining comedy of errors. While the timeline is, of course, a little condensed I really felt the emotions were authentic. I enjoyed the communication between teens and their families and even though it was a struggle, it was honest. The story line also incorporated the pressures of Indian-American children to uphold family traditions and cultural expectations while making their own way in America.

Who it’s great for: Teens of all ages. Anyone who wants a fun, light story and quick read. Readers looking for diverse books.

Erica’s rating: four-and-a-half-shells


Get this book on Amazon (affiliate link) or at your local library.


 

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan Wolf

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: A fictionalized account of a 1979 murder that took place in the author’s hometown while he was in high school. Told through 6 different narrators – including the killer.

What made me pick it up: I was intrigued by the plot, but when I realized it was based on a real murder from my hometown’s past I knew I had to read it.

My favorite things: Wolf changed the name of the town and the people involved, but he kept the names of streets, events, and local businesses. For a native of the town where the murder occurred, reading this was a bizarre experience but still engaging. I love the variety of voices, used to paint a more complete picture of the events that took place, with each of the narrators trying to discover ways they could have prevented the senseless murder.

Who it’s great for: Older teens and adults who crave mysteries or suspense. The short chapters and rotating narration make this a great choice for reluctant readers.

Abby’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells


Pick up a copy of this book at Amazon (affiliate link) or in your local library.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: A teen girl watches her oldest friend as he is murdered by the police. She contemplates Tupac’s concept of THUG LIFE (The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone) while struggling to stand up for her community.

What made me pick it up: This has been getting crazy good press so I scooped it up as soon as I could.

My favorite things: Starr’s voice is genuine and her heartbreak palpable. Thomas captures the essence and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement without exploiting or forgetting the real lives that have been lost. The current movement is tied to the past through more than Tupac’s words; reminiscent of the response by Bloods and Crips to the Rodney King verdict, local opposing gangs band together to protect their communities and join in protest against the violence they face at the hands of the state. The overall effect is both breathtaking and devastating.

Who it’s great for: Teens and adults looking to understand and process the violence faced by communities of color in our society.

Abby’s rating: five-shells


Pick up a copy of this book at Amazon (affiliate link) or in your local library.