Grief beats at the heart of adolescence in this fantasy version of North America.
For the free women of the forest, death is a complex, dangerous thing: The dead are bound, and some rise again as White Hands, whose touch brings madness and transformation. Bow’s lyrical writing, which beats like the storyteller’s drum Cricket and, later, Orca wield, tells a story both specific and timeless. The conflict between tradition and change, the tensions between mothers and daughters, and the journey west (itself both physical and metaphorical) all play a role. Within the grand thematic scope is a simpler story, reminiscent of the timeless hero’s journey: Otter, the binder’s daughter, untrained and called upon to face great threats, must use the tools of tradition and forbidden knowledge (a secret story echoes throughout the novel) to remake the world. Add to that epic scope two love stories, a genuine portrait of friendship, a nuanced exploration of loss and letting go, and a fine tracery of humor as well as plenty of tears, and you have a winner.
A lovely gem, dark and quiet as the dead but glimmering with life as well. Not to be missed.
(Fantasy. 13 & up)
India, 1947: As Britain prepares to divide the country before leaving, three lives unexpectedly intersect.
The partition of India and Pakistan, based on a border drawn by British civil servants, rarely appears in Western literature, much less fiction for teens. Bradbury pens a careful, respectful—but fictionalized—account of the final days before the line between the countries was announced, recounting it in the voices of three teens. Impulsive, spoiled English Margaret may not be entirely likable, but her love for the strange country she finds herself in is wholly believable and makes her the perfect stand-in for the reader; through Margaret, India in this specific time comes to life, and hard questions about British culpability are asked. Much of Margaret’s complex relationship with India plays out through her growing friendship with Sikh Anupreet, who has been caught in the violence between Sikhs and Muslims already, and Muslim Tariq, who hopes Margaret’s father will be his ticket to Oxford since “[e]veryone listens to the men who have the right education from the right places.” Through Tariq’s and Anu’s voices additional complexities and context are provided. Bradbury’s research (detailed in an author’s note) infuses but never overwhelms the narrative; the lack of solid resolution for the characters suits a book about a violent and confusing time.
Historical fiction that brings its history to bloody, poignant life: rare and notable.
(Historical fiction. 14 & up)
An eye-opening, autobiographical account of growing up waiting for the rapture.
Since birth, Hartzler has been taught that any day, Jesus could scoop his family off to heaven. To prepare, his mom leads his youth group in a song called “Countdown,” in which they sing “BLASTOFF!” at the tops of their lungs and jump as if they’re being taken into the sky. Religion shapes every aspect of Hartzler’s life, but love is also at the heart of his work. That’s what’s at stake when he starts making left turns in both his activities and his belief system in high school. He sneaks to movies his parents would never approve of, illicitly listens to popular music, and plans wild, drunken parties. He has his first kiss, and eventually he begins to think that he might like boys (but that’s not the main point). His story emphasizes discovery more than rebellion, and the narrative is carefully constructed to show and not judge the beliefs of his family and their community. That said, he’s constantly under close surveillance, and readers will wince in sympathy as they experience his punishments for what they might deem trivial actions. Hartzler’s laugh-out-loud stylings range from the subtle to the ridiculous (his grandmother on wearing lipstick: “I need just a touch, so folks won’t think we’re Pentecostal”).
A hilarious first-of-its-kind story that will surely inspire more
. (Memoir. 14 & up)
Rachel, after donning an inappropriately bright lipstick called “Little Red Lies,” welcomes her beloved elder brother, James, back from World War II.
Unfortunately, lies aren’t confined to the lipstick. James, deeply altered by the war, glosses over his disturbing experiences to his family, although letters he continues to write to Rachel—but has never sent—contain the truth of the brutality. Tragically, once safely home, he develops leukemia, a lethal illness in 1947. Rachel lies to him to convince him to visit a faith healer, whom she then recognizes as a fraud. Then she lies to her parents (and herself) about the intentions of a handsome but predatory teacher who’s playing up to her as well as other girls. After her mom conceives an unplanned baby, it’s concealed from both Rachel and James. When they discover, embarrassingly late, the cause of her weight gain, James feels convinced the baby is intended as a replacement for him. The seeming surfeit of subplots is believably explained and sensitively written, succeeding largely due to Rachel’s spunky though almost pathetically naïve first-person voice, which rings fully true. At one point, the whole town believes James has the clap, largely because Rachel overheard then repeated a conversation she didn’t understand.
Filled with bumbling characters who achingly love each other, this coming-of-age tale rises above a crowded field to take readers on a moving journey of discovery.
(Historical fiction. 12 & up)
A meditation on manhood takes a turn into magical realism in this mesmerizing novel.
Sam, his father and his older brother are all coping—with varying degrees of success; Sam’s coping includes whiskey and frozen pizza—with Sam’s mother’s departure for Women’s Land. In an attempt to pull things together, his dad decides they will spend the summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Prickly yet lethargic, 17-year-old Sam gradually becomes intrigued by the mysterious, beautiful blonde girls who work at the hotels and restaurants there. Interspersed throughout Sam’s slightly sarcastic first-person narration are short, haunting prose poems from these sisters, who can’t swim though they come from the ocean and whose mother is the Deepness and whose father is the Endlessness. The girls seem to reinvent themselves as needed, much as they reinvent the island where they live, adding to the air of mystery. The brothers’ parents are vividly portrayed, particularly the once-frumpy mother who left their father in a “swamp of discontent”—which turns into a complete abandonment of his job and their usual life. The heart of the story centers on Sam’s gradual unfurling into a less brittle, kinder and more thoughtful youth. The writing, though realistically laced with the F-word and references to smoking and drinking, has a curiously appealing distance from the ordinary but doesn’t abandon it altogether.
A not-mermaid story for boys.
(Magical realism. 14 & up)
Seth, not yet 17, walks into the Pacific Ocean and ends his life. Or does he?
He wakes, groggy, in front of the house in England where he spent his childhood, before his little brother, Owen, was kidnapped and the family moved to America. He spends days in a dust-covered, desolate landscape scavenging for food in empty stores, imagining that he’s in a “hell built exactly for him.” His dreams are filled with vivid memories of his life: his romance with a boy named Gudmund, a photo that’s gone viral, and farther back, his inability to keep Owen safe. Seth is rescued by a girl named Regine and Tomasz, a younger, Polish boy, from pursuit by a silent, helmeted figure they call the Driver. Past and present collide as Seth struggles to determine what’s real and what isn’t, whether circumstances are all of his own doing. He faces doorways everywhere, with genuine death seemingly just beyond, but there are hints of something even more sinister going on. There are no easy answers either for Seth or readers. With a nod to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ness brilliantly plays with contrasts: life and death, privacy and exposure, guilt and innocence.
In characteristic style, the author of the Chaos Walking trilogy delves into the stuff of nightmares for an existential exploration of the human psyche.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
Step right onto the rough streets of the New Orleans French Quarter, circa 1950…
…and meet 17-year-old Josie Moraine, a feisty young woman whose mother, a prostitute in a Conti Street brothel, offers her nothing but scorn and abuse. From the tender age of 12, Josie has made her own way in the world, working in a local bookstore in exchange for a safe place to sleep and cleaning the brothel to earn money toward her planned escape from the Big Easy. Equal parts book smart and street smart, Josie’s dream is to attend Smith College, and she will go to extremes, even blackmail, in her desperation to be accepted. But just when her plans start to gain some traction, her mother strikes again, putting Josie in the middle of a murder investigation and saddling her with a mob debt. There are some meaningful messages here: that love can come from the unlikeliest of sources—the rough-and-tumble brothel madam is much more supportive of Josie than her mother ever was—and that we are all in control of our own destinies if only we choose to be. With a rich and realistic setting, a compelling and entertaining first-person narration, a colorful cast of memorable characters and an intriguing storyline, this is a surefire winner.
A boarding school is the setting for life-changing experiences in this smart, wickedly funny work of realistic fiction from the author of The Marbury Lens (2010).
Self-proclaimed loser Ryan Dean is a 14-year-old junior at Pine Mountain, where he plays wing for the tightknit rugby team. In a magnificently frenetic first-person narration that includes clever short comics, charts and diagrams, he relates the story of the first few months of the school term as he’s forced to room with an intimidating senior on the restricted, euphemistic Opportunity Hall, due to transgressions from the previous year. He’s completely head over heels for Annie, an older classmate who insists she can’t be in love with him due to his age, and lives in fear of the “glacially unhot” teacher Mrs. Singer, who he’s certain is a witch responsible for cursing him with a “catastrophic injury to [his] penis,” among other ailments. He’s also navigating letting go of some old friends and becoming closer to one of his teammates, Joey, who’s gay. Smith deftly builds characters—readers will suddenly realize they’ve effortlessly fallen in love with them—and he laces meaning and poignantly real dialogue into uproariously funny scatological and hormonally charged humor, somehow creating a balance between the two that seems to intensify both extremes.
Bawdily comic but ultimately devastating, this is unforgettable.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
Some call Habo a zeruzeru—a zero-zero—nothing. Others willingly pursue the riches his albino body parts will bring on the black market in Sullivan’s intense debut.
With his white skin, shaky, blue, unfocused eyes and yellow hair, 13-year-old Habo fits nowhere in his chocolate-brown Tanzanian family—not with his brothers who shun him, nor even with his mother, who avoids his touch. Did this bad-luck child even cause his father to abandon him at his birth? Only Habo’s sister, Asu, protects and nurtures him. Poverty forces the family from their rural home near Arusha to Mwanza, hundreds of miles away, to stay with relatives. After their bus fare runs out, they hitch a ride across the Serengeti with an ivory poacher who sees opportunity in Habo. Forced to flee for his life, the boy eventually becomes an apprentice to Kweli, a wise, blind carver in urban Dar es Salaam. The stark contrasts Habo experiences on his physical journey to safety and his emotional journey to self-awareness bring his growth into sharp relief while informing readers of a social ill still prevalent in East Africa. Thankfully for readers as well as Habo, the blind man’s appreciation challenges Habo to prove that he is worth more alive than dead. His present-tense narration is keenly perceptive and eschews self-pity.
A riveting fictional snapshot of one Tanzanian boy who makes himself matter.
Kevin Phifer, 13, a black seventh-grader in 1990s Richmond, Va., and hero of this sparkling debut, belongs in the front ranks of fiction’s hormone-addled, angst-ridden adolescents, from Holden Caulfield to the teenage Harry Potter.
Kevin wants a fade, thinking the stylish haircut will bolster his shaky standing in the cutthroat world of middle school, where he’s just one friend away from eating lunch alone. But his mother, a church secretary and solo parent studying for a nursing degree at night, won’t even try. Expressing his frustration leads to a week’s grounding. Tyrell and his entourage of bullies make Kevin’s life miserable at school. In science lab, Aisha, girl of Kevin’s dreams, points out his “mushy tushy.” Sandbagged by dizzyingly abrupt mood shifts, Kevin hurtles from altruism to craven self-interest, mature self-knowledge to wild fantasy. His anchor in rough seas is Uncle Paul, a quiet, manly museum security guard. Weary of hiding his sexual orientation, Paul’s recently come out to family and friends but has yet to tell Kevin, for whom “faggot” is the worst insult there is. Paul’s perspective, with its temporal and social context, enriches and deepens the narrative, offering an effective contrast to Kevin’s volatile reality, where “now” is all that counts.
Original, hilarious, thought-provoking and wicked smart: not to be missed.
(Historical fiction. 12 & up)
After a daring attempt to intercept a flying bomb, a young American pilot ferrying planes during World War II is captured by the Nazis in this companion to Printz Honor–winning Code Name Verity (2012).
After being brutally punished for her refusal to make fuses for flying bombs and having “more or less forgotten who [she] was,” Rose is befriended by Polish “Rabbits,” victims of horrific medical experimentation. She uses “counting-out rhymes” to preserve her sanity and as a way to memorize the names of the Rabbits. Rose’s poetry, a panacea that’s translated and passed through the camp, is at the heart of the story, revealing her growing understanding of what’s happening around her. As the book progresses, Wein masterfully sets up a stark contrast between the innocent American teen’s view of an untarnished world and the realities of the Holocaust, using slices of narrative from characters first encountered in the previous book. Recounting her six months in the Ravensbrück concentration camp through journal entries and poems, Rose honors her commitment to tell the world of the atrocities she witnessed. Readers who want more Code Name Verity should retool their expectations; although the story’s action follows the earlier book’s, it has its own, equally incandescent integrity.
Rich in detail, from the small kindnesses of fellow prisoners to harrowing scenes of escape and the Nazi Doctors’ Trial in Nuremburg, at the core of this novel is the resilience of human nature and the power of friendship and hope.
(Historical fiction. 14 & up)