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Best Teen Realism of 2014

A beautiful integration of art, religion, compassion and connection.


Flowing free verse tells the story of a teenage dancer in Chennai, India, who loses a leg and re-learns how to dance.

As a child, Veda climbs a stepladder in the temple to reach up and trace the dancers’ feet carved into granite with her fingertips. Shiva’s the god of dance and creator of universes, and a priest teaches Veda to “feel Shiva’s feet moving” inside her chest, as her heartbeat. Years later, as a teen, she wins a Bharatanatyam dance competition and relishes the applause. Then a van accident leads to the amputation of her right leg below the knee. Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one: Veda’s bodily exertion, learning to dance with her prosthetic leg; her process of changing her dance technique to be emotional and spiritual as well as physical; and all the rest of Veda’s life, including young love, grief, insecurity and a dawning awareness of class issues. The fluid first-person verse uses figurative speech sparingly, so when it appears—“A bucket of gold melting from the sky”—it packs a punch. Veda’s no disabled saint; awkwardness and jealousy receive spot-on portrayals as she works to incorporate Hinduism and Buddhism, life experience and emotion into her dancing. When she does, her achievement is about being centered, not receiving accolades.

A beautiful integration of art, religion, compassion and connection. (author’s note) (Verse fiction. 13-17)

Pub Date: May 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-399-25710-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: March 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

Keenly observed and gorgeously illustrated—a triumph.

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A summer of family drama, secrets and change in a small beach town.

Rose’s family has always vacationed in Awago Beach. It’s “a place where beer grows on trees and everyone can sleep in until eleven,” but this year’s getaway is proving less idyllic than those of the past. Rose’s parents argue constantly, and she is painfully aware of her mother’s unhappiness. Though her friendship with Windy, a younger girl, remains strong, Rose is increasingly curious about the town’s older teens, especially Dunc, a clerk at the general store. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (Skim, 2008) skillfully portray the emotional ups and downs of a girl on the cusp of adolescence in this eloquent graphic novel. Rose waxes nostalgic for past summers even as she rejects some old pursuits as too childlike and mimics the older teens. The realistic dialogue and sensitive first-person narration convey Rose’s naïveté and confusion, and Windy’s comfort in her own skin contrasts with Rose’s uncertainty. Both the text and art highlight small but meaningful incidents as readers gradually learn the truth behind the tension in Rose’s family. Printed in dark blue ink, Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations feature strong, fluid lines, and the detailed backgrounds and stunning two-page spreads throughout the work establish the mood and a compelling sense of place.

Keenly observed and gorgeously illustrated—a triumph. (Graphic novel. 13 & up)

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59643-774-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: First Second

Review Posted Online: April 9, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2014

A fresh, authentic and honest exploration of contemporary Latina identity.


Struggles with body image, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, rape, coming out, first love and death are all experiences that touch Gabi’s life in some way during her senior year, and she processes her raw and honest feelings in her journal as these events unfold.

Gabi’s family life is unbalanced. Her father is a drug addict who comes in and out of her life sporadically. Her mother tries desperately to keep her tethered to the values of her traditional Mexican heritage. Gabi’s weight, her desire to go away to college and her blossoming sexuality are all at odds with what she feels are expected from her as a young Mexican-American woman. The teen is deeply bonded with her two best friends, Cindy and Sebastian, who each struggle themselves with the tension between sexuality and culture. Through poetry, Gabi finds her voice and develops the confidence to be true to herself. With this first novel, Quintero excels at presenting a life that is simultaneously messy and hopeful. Readers won’t soon forget Gabi, a young woman coming into her own in the face of intense pressure from her family, culture and society to fit someone else’s idea of what it means to be a “good” girl.

A fresh, authentic and honest exploration of contemporary Latina identity. (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-935955-94-8

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

Riveting, humanizing and real.


Using innovative page design, Frank crafts an unflinching look at illness.

In the emergency room at 4 a.m., Chess is whisked into invasive medical testing—a colonoscopy—and then into a hospital room. She’s had severe gastrointestinal symptoms before, but this is her first diagnosis: the chronic, autoimmune disorder Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. Her roommate, Shannon, has Crohn’s, too. Their conversations—acerbic, worried, snippy—progress down each page in fast-reading columns of verse. When the curtain between their beds is closed, a vertical line appears between Chess’ text column and Shannon’s, emphasizing the room’s physicality and restriction. A doctor calls Crohn’s “tough and / unpredictable”; Chess finds it disgusting (“gross green bubbles / glub up from my insides, / slip down the tube”), painful (her insides “burn”) and humiliating—especially the mortifying incident that sent her to the emergency room. Chess laughs until she cries, and then “the rage flows, / shocking and unstoppable / as shit.” Her future holds prescriptions, side effects, food restrictions, flare-ups—and remissions. Frank’s portrayal of chronic, mostly invisible sickness is spot-on. Illness isn’t metaphor, it isn’t a consequence, it isn’t a literary vehicle—it’s a precarious and uprooting fact of life, inconvenient and enraging, but not the end of the world.

Riveting, humanizing and real. (Verse fiction. 13-17)

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-307-97974-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade/Random

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

A sparkling, timely tour of the complicated intersection where life meets art.


Blending Ezra Pound, rhetoric and reality TV, this hilarious, subversive debut about a cadre of friends at an arts high school is a treat from cover to cover.

In seventh grade, popular, good-looking Luke rescued Ethan, Jackson and Elizabeth from misfit nerd-dom. Four years later, Luke still leads while Narrator Ethan is cheerfully resigned to a spot in the “Untalented caste” at Selwyn Academy. Disturbing the status quo, the school’s chosen to host a new reality TV show, a student talent competition with a $100,000 scholarship prize and a familiar format: interviews, clichéd romances and rivalries, and two smarmy hosts. The obsequious vice principal and most students are thrilled, but For Art’s Sake feels like an insult to Ethan and friends. Luke, the most offended, leads a counterattack, writing guerilla poetry inspired by Pound’s Cantos that ridicules the enterprise, which the conspirators secretly print at school. However, the masterminds behind reality TV are several steps ahead of them—money and fame are powerful currency, and they know how to use them. Maura, the beautiful, talented ballerina Ethan fancies, has been accepted at Juilliard, but without the scholarship, she can’t attend—participating is a no-brainer. Ethan struggles with ethical conundrums (Does Pound’s anti-Semitism invalidate his work? Are compromises the price of an arts career?) as he works out his own place in this world and among his friends, especially Elizabeth.

A sparkling, timely tour of the complicated intersection where life meets art. (Fiction. 12 & up)

Pub Date: April 8, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-75378-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

In his first novel translated into English, Herrndorf sits squarely and triumphantly at the intersection of literary tall...


Social misfits hit the Autobahn.

Mike Klingenberg has just finished another boring, socially awkward year in middle school and is staring down a solitary two-week stint at home, thanks to his mother’s latest round of rehab and his father’s “business trip” with a suspiciously attractive personal assistant. Just as he’s watering the lawn, imagining himself lord of a very small manor in suburban Berlin, class reject Tschick shows up in a “borrowed” old Soviet-era car, and the boys hatch a plan to hit the road. Mike’s rich interior life—he meditates on beauty and the meaning of life and spins self-mocking fantasies of himself as a great essayist—hasn’t translated well to the flirtatious physical swagger required by eighth grade. Tschick, meanwhile, is a badly dressed Russian immigrant who often shows up to school reeking of alcohol and who is also given to profound leaps of psychological insight. Their road trip (destination: Wallachia, a German euphemism for “the middle of nowhere”; also a region of Romania) is peopled by unexpected, often bizarre, largely benign characters who deepen Mike’s appreciation for humanity and life. Each episode in the boys’ journey grows more outrageous, leading readers to wonder how far they’ll go before coming to a literal screeching (and squealing) halt.

In his first novel translated into English, Herrndorf sits squarely and triumphantly at the intersection of literary tall tale and coming-of-age picaresque. (Fiction. 14-17)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-48180-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Levine/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

Funny, observant, a relentless critic of the world’s (and her own) flaws, Sky is original, thoroughly authentic and great...


Skylark Martin lives above her family’s vintage vinyl shop that—like its merchandise—is an endangered species in their re-gentrified, forward-looking Melbourne suburb.

In the five years since Mum left to “follow her art” in Japan, Dad’s kept the shop going, drinking homebrew and mourning the past (musical and otherwise). Sky, 15, and Gully, 10, aka Agent Seagull Martin, who wears a pig-snout mask 24/7 and views the world as a crime scene waiting to be investigated, hold down the fort. Sky harbors no illusions about their dreary status quo—Dad’s drinking, Gully’s issues, her own social stasis—but she does have dreams, recently ignited by a new friend, the beautiful, wild and fearless Nancy. Other agents of change include Eve, Dad’s old flame, and Luke, the shop’s attractive, moody new hire. Drawn, mothlike, to Nancy’s flame, Sky’s dreams are haunted by Luke’s sister, whose similarly wild lifestyle led to tragedy. The family business grounds Sky. Its used records and cassettes, like time capsules, store music that evokes the past’s rich emotional complexity for the Martins and their quirky customers, while the eternal present and frantic quest for the next big thing hold no appeal. 

Funny, observant, a relentless critic of the world’s (and her own) flaws, Sky is original, thoroughly authentic and great company, decorating her astute, irreverent commentary with vivid Aussie references; chasing these down should provide foreign readers with hours of online fun. (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4424-9760-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

As graceful as a feather drifting down, this lyrical story delivers a deep journey of healing on a tragic theme.


A strong, gentle, smart and powerful book about suicide’s aftermath.

Emily Beam is no goody-goody. She breaks the rules of the Amherst School for Girls—a boarding school in Massachusetts where her parents have placed her after her boyfriend Paul’s suicide and her abortion—when she feels she needs to. But the rules are broken in the service of her agency. Emily is driven to write out her grief and horror (Paul shot himself in front of her in her former school’s library) in private poems she models after her inspiration, Emily Dickinson (another one-time Amherst resident). Teasing out strands of the past and the present, Hubbard masterfully twines together a story of one girl’s journey to self-identity. In past-tense flashbacks, readers learn the circumstances of Emily and Paul’s relationship, while the poems Emily writes in her present-day environment infuse those same circumstances with newly realized perceptions. The narrative switches to present tense when it relates Emily’s current life in boarding school, a fresh and unexplored world with emerging possibilities as well as potential pitfalls. The layered story evolves naturally as Emily’s creative courage first unravels and then reassembles her understanding of what has happened to her and what part she has played.

As graceful as a feather drifting down, this lyrical story delivers a deep journey of healing on a tragic theme. (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-74057-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

Often bleak, eventually hopeful and beautifully told.


In a lyrical and hard-hitting exploration of betrayal and healing, the son of a Connecticut socialite comes to terms with his abuse at the hands of a beloved priest.

From the moment readers see Aidan escape his mother’s Christmas Eve party to snort Adderall in his absent father’s opulent office, it is clear that the teen is unhappy. Some of the reasons emerge when Aidan witnesses Father Greg, a priest he greatly admires, in an intimate—and, refreshingly, not graphically described—moment with a younger boy. The first thing Aidan feels in reaction to the sight is hurt that Aidan himself is not the only boy to have received Father Greg’s attention. Only over time, and through the cracks of Aidan’s denial and attempts to ignore the truth, do readers begin to see other reactions: anger, disgust, the need to re-enact Father Greg’s coercions with his peers. The story is set in late 2001 and early 2002, and the news stories of the time—the 9/11 attacks, the capture of John Walker Lindh, and eventually, devastatingly, the Catholic Church abuse scandals—are woven in easily and seamlessly. Each of Aidan’s relationships is carefully and subtly drawn, revealed slowly through Aidan’s elegant, pained and often circumspect narration.

Often bleak, eventually hopeful and beautifully told. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4424-8489-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: McElderry

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

This sobering yet satisfying novel leaves readers to ponder the complex questions it raises.


A racially charged shooting reveals the complicated relationships that surround a popular teen and the neighborhood that nurtured and challenged him.

Instead of a gangster after retribution, 16-year-old African-American Tariq Johnson’s killer is a white man claiming to have acted in self-defense. Despite their failure to find a weapon on the black teen, the police release the shooter, rocking the community. On its face, this novel sounds like an easy example of fiction “ripped from the headlines.” However, Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning writer Magoon provides an intriguing story that allows readers to learn much about the family, friends and enemies of everyone affected. There are young men attempting to navigate the streets and young women, including one who tried in vain to save Tariq, wishing for better lives but with little idea how to change their paths. There are the grief-stricken family and adults who seek to give voice to powerless people but also serve themselves. The episode affects even those who think they have moved away from the community. As each character reflects on Tariq, a complex young man is revealed, one who used his considerable charm to walk the tightrope of life in his neighborhood. Magoon skillfully tells the story in multiple, sometimes conflicting, voices.

This sobering yet satisfying novel leaves readers to ponder the complex questions it raises. (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9869-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014


This ain’t no fairy tale: This raw coming-of-age novel captures the listless wanderings of teens at loose ends.

Althea is always waiting for Oliver to wake up. Plagued by a mysterious affliction that renders him nearly comatose for weeks at a time, Oliver’s increasingly unpredictable absences test his lifelong friendship with Althea at precisely the moment that the mounting sexual tension between them reaches the limits of plausible deniability. After a particularly intense bout causes him to sleep through the summer before their senior year, he wakes to find that life has gone on both with and without him, with startling consequences. At turns gritty and gooey, Oliver and Althea’s evolving relationship unfolds in a warts-and-all narration that alternates between the two, deftly capturing the purgatorial crossroads between youth and adulthood. Moracho’s descriptions are vivid and arresting—a potent cocktail of speed and Southern Comfort “unbutton[s] [Althea’s] diffidence like a blouse and cast[s] it aside” at a punk-rock concert—which both grounds the story in familiar details and filigrees it with poetic flourishes. There is rich potential for crossover appeal here; while Althea and Oliver’s fumbling progress toward maturity will resonate with teens currently in the angst-filled trenches, the characters’ worldly-wise perspectives on their own histrionics will give adult readers reason to nod and sigh in appreciative recognition: Growing up is a messy business.

Mesmerizing. (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-670-78539-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

Patrick’s tales from the distant and not-so-distant past shed fresh light on interracial and intraracial conflicts that...


Eight short stories with long memory cut to the quick—all the more as they could be true.

Patrick’s tales from the distant and not-so-distant past shed fresh light on interracial and intraracial conflicts that shape and often distort the realities of African-Americans. The youthful characters possess passion and purpose, even if they remain misguided or too proud to live safely within their historically situated habitats. In one story, “Colorstruck,” Hazel absorbs everything Miss Clotille, her light-skinned, middle-class Negro employer, has taught her: how to say etiquette instead of manners and teal and magenta instead of green and purple, and to wear shoes in public. Living in the shadow of Clotille and her five fair-skinned sisters, Hazel believes that blackness will impede her upward social mobility. She loses her job and nearly loses her life by placing her faith in “Beauty Queen Complexion Clarifier…guaranteed to brighten, lighten and heighten your natural beauty!” As the visage of the “ideal Colored woman” floats through this tale, it illuminates the multifaceted sources of self-hatred and enmity within black families around skin color. The plots and characters change from one story to the next, but each one artfully tells a poignant truth without flinching. Shocking, informative and powerful, this volume offers spectacular literary snapshots of black history and culture. (Short stories. 12-18)

Shocking, informative and powerful, this volume offers spectacular literary snapshots of black history and culture(Short stories. 12-18)

Pub Date: April 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7613-9280-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

Powerfully evocative.


In 1993, 16 year-old Maggie and her family move from Chicago to small-town Ireland with the latest of her mother’s romantic partners.

Moving to Bray, Maggie leaves behind warm, practical Nanny Ei and beloved Uncle Kevin, a 26-year-old who plays in a band, sneaks her into grunge rock concerts and makes himself responsible for Maggie’s musical education. Arriving in Ireland, Maggie finds that she’s no better at fitting in with the girls of St. Brigid’s than she had been at her old school. Instead, she forms a loose web of connections with local figures: Dan Sean, a Bray legend at 99, whose home becomes a refuge for Maggie in times of family conflict; Aíne, the bookish classmate with whom Maggie reluctantly goes on double dates; and Eoin, the gentle boy with whom Maggie falls in love. The narrative subtly and carefully interweaves peer and family drama—much of it involving troubled Uncle Kevin—with the highs and lows of the grunge music scene, from the transformative glory of a Nirvana concert to the outpouring of grief around the death of Kurt Cobain. Every character, every place comes alive with crisp, precise detail: Maggie’s heartbroken mother “howling along in an off-key soprano” to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Dan Sean welcoming Maggie with a Cossack’s hat and a hefty glass of port.

Powerfully evocative. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9895155-9-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Elephant Rock Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

Smart, relevant, required reading.


A teenage girl from an unnamed Middle Eastern country attempts to come to terms with her dictator father’s bloody legacy in this absorbing character-driven novel authored by a former CIA official.

Fifteen-year-old Laila lives in a shabby apartment outside of Washington, D.C., with her mother and little brother. She misses her homeland, but return is impossible since her uncle had her father assassinated and took control of the government. “I’m half Here. I’m half There. I’m a girl divided, which is to say I’m no one at all.” While her mother schemes with both American officials and rebels from their country to remedy their untenable situation, Laila reluctantly begins to enjoy the simple freedoms of school and friendships. But worrisome thoughts of her mother’s secretive phone calls and the mysterious CIA agent who lurks around their apartment are never far from her mind. And how will she ever reconcile what she now knows about her father the dictator with the loving man who raised her? Carleson shrewdly makes what has become a sadly familiar story on the evening news accessible by focusing on the experiences of one innocent girl at the center of it. Laila is a complex and layered character whose nuanced observations will help readers better understand the divide between American and Middle Eastern cultures.

Smart, relevant, required reading. (author’s note, commentary, further reading) (Fiction. 13 & up)

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-449-80997-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

Beautiful and illuminating but as hard as therapy.


An English teen can’t stop blaming herself for her brother’s death.

Thanks to the headlines, all of Europe knows what happened to 15-year-old Shiv’s brother one fateful night in Kyritos, Greece. Since then, she’s been experiencing PTSD-like symptoms that put her into rages she can’t remember and send illusions of her brother creeping across her vision. The two-pronged narrative shifts between the fateful family vacation in Greece and Shiv’s inpatient therapy at the Korsakoff Clinic. What matters most is not so much whether or not Shiv had a hand in her brother’s death, as she so accuses herself, but the relationships she builds with the other teen residents of the clinic and the arc of her treatment. Each session of therapy opens another window to Shiv’s time in Greece before her brother’s death—her crush on a handsome, 19-year-old Greek boy, days spent relaxing by the pool with her parents at the villa and the terrifying night her brother lost his life. The characters and the scenery are rendered with such photographic precision that readers will feel as though they’re watching a film. They’ll also find Bedford’s compellingly blunt, sharply drawn narrative (laced with Salinger references) sometimes too painful to read as they experience the harsh treatments right alongside Shiv. The results, however, are absolutely worth it.

Beautiful and illuminating but as hard as therapy. (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-73991-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Wendy Lamb/Random

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2014

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