Book List

Best YA Books of 2019 About Living Boldly

Those preparing to “slay the sucktastic beast known as high school” will particularly appreciate this spirited read.


From the Life of a Cactus series

In the sequel to Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (2017), Aven Green confronts her biggest challenge yet: surviving high school without arms.

Fourteen-year-old Aven has just settled into life at Stagecoach Pass with her adoptive parents when everything changes again. She’s entering high school, which means that 2,300 new kids will stare at her missing arms—and her feet, which do almost everything hands can (except, alas, air quotes). Aven resolves to be “blasé” and field her classmates’ pranks with aplomb, but a humiliating betrayal shakes her self-confidence. Even her friendships feel unsteady. Her friend Connor’s moved away and made a new friend who, like him, has Tourette’s syndrome: a girl. And is Lando, her friend Zion’s popular older brother, being sweet to Aven out of pity—or something more? Bowling keenly depicts the universal awkwardness of adolescence and the particular self-consciousness of navigating a disability. Aven’s “armless-girl problems” realistically grow thornier in this outing, touching on such tough topics as death and aging, but warm, quirky secondary characters lend support. A few preachy epiphanies notwithstanding, Aven’s honest, witty voice shines—whether out-of-reach vending-machine snacks are “taunting” her or she’s nursing heartaches. A subplot exploring Aven’s curiosity about her biological father resolves with a touching twist. Most characters, including Aven, appear white; Zion and Lando are black.

Those preparing to “slay the sucktastic beast known as high school” will particularly appreciate this spirited read. (Fiction. 12-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4549-3329-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Sterling

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019


An Australian teenager struggles to cope with grief and mental illness in this captivating debut.

Seventeen-year-old Biz constantly sees her father even though he died nearly 10 years ago. He pops up to remind her of events from her childhood, to speak with her when she’s spiraling, to puzzle out their shared history of mental illness. She doesn’t tell anyone else: not her single mother, not her best friend, Grace (with whom she shared a kiss), not the new boy, Jasper, who walks with a limp, or his grandmother, who has taken Biz under her wing. After an incident further triggers her undiagnosed (or, at least, unnamed) PTSD, Biz begins to unravel, dropping out of school before both literally and metaphorically journeying to better understand her father. Biz’s mental health crisis, which primarily takes the form of hallucinations, dissociation, and panic attacks, is portrayed with raw, vivid authenticity. Biz and the majority of the cast default to white (Grace is implied biracial Chinese/white), and while their sexual identities are questioned, they never become the central focus of the story. Characters sometimes feel flat or underdeveloped, but this is fitting for Biz’s first-person perspective, which is unreliable and frequently foggy. Fox’s prose is lyrical and profoundly affecting, providing a nuanced account of the hereditary effects of trauma.

Haunting. (resources) (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55429-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

An exceptional road taken.


Forsaken and left to confront their doubts and dreads, a brave young child and a buoyant creature fall through vibrant, extraordinary new worlds in Mendoza’s (contributor: The Real Folk Blues, 2019, etc.) kaleidoscopic ode to metamorphosis.

Bloom awakens from a deep sleep. It’s another day with Bee, checking on the potatoes, fishing on the lake, and pondering the city from a safe distance. The crackling radio disrupts their night by the fire. A plea fills the air, and before Bloom’s ready, Bee heads out to answer it. Left alone to “watch the lake,” Bloom fills the days with routines until Bee’s extended absence moves Bloom to leap into the lake. Transported in a swirl of colors, Bloom reemerges in another world and meets an exiled creature named Gloopy, whose half-hearted, distracted assistance during the Moon Harvest preparations results in catastrophe. Together, Bloom and Gloopy slip into a different place, kicking off a multiworld voyage back to their respective homes. From the first spread to the last image, Mendoza’s gorgeous, surrealist artwork presents imaginative depths both refreshing and disorienting. Poignant catharsis surfaces through tearful declarations and emotional strife as Bloom and Gloopy reflect on their strengths and weaknesses amid unusual environments (imagine playing games with a giant lizard or discussing creative ambition with a wistful AI–like being). Both Bloom and Bee are brown skinned, and the author uses “they/them” pronouns throughout.

An exceptional road taken. (Graphic dystopia. 12-adult)

Pub Date: July 23, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-910620-42-7

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Nobrow Ltd.

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2019

Captivating and uplifting.



An anthology of short stories, poems, and collages by 10 American Muslim teens.

A project of the nonprofit Next Wave Muslim Initiative, this collection presents the work of young people who reflect on their experiences as members of a marginalized and misunderstood faith coming-of-age in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Iman Ilias’ “How To Be a 14-Year-Old Paki Muslim American Girl” and Leyla Rasheed’s “Moments I Remember I’m Muslim” unpack the social pressures on Muslim teens to simultaneously fit in and retain their sense of self. “Kabob Squad Takes Down Propaganda Man: (A Concept for the TV Show I Needed as a Kid),” by Samaa Eldadah and Fatima Rafie, and “Hyphen,” a poem by Noor Saleem, both address representation and identity. Other themes explored include relationships to prayer, perceptions of the hijab, and what it’s like to be an observant Muslim guitarist navigating the American teen party scene. Readers seeking a sociological account of the persecution of American Muslims will have to look elsewhere. This volume focuses instead on the creative minds of Muslim American youths themselves, opening a window into the complexity of their lived realities as teens in today’s America. The varied text layouts, font styles, and exceptional art enhance the reading experience. The book features a foreword by Pakistani American children’s author Hena Khan. The contributors are diverse in ethnicity, race, and sect.

Captivating and uplifting. (Anthology. 12-adult)

Pub Date: May 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-945434-93-8

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Shout Mouse Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2019

Part coming-of-age story and part exposé of Duterte’s problematic policies, this powerful and courageous story offers...


Seventeen-year-old Jay Reguero searches for the truth about his cousin’s death amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs while on an epic trip back to his native Philippines.

Shocked out of his senioritis slumber when his beloved cousin Jun is killed by the police in the Philippines for presumably using drugs, Jay makes a radical move to spend his spring break in the Philippines to find out the whole story. Once pen pals, Jay hasn’t corresponded with Jun in years and is wracked by guilt at ghosting his cousin. A mixed heritage (his mother is white) Filipino immigrant who grew up in suburban Michigan, Jay’s connection to current-day Philippines has dulled from assimilation. His internal tensions around culture, identity, and languages—as “a spoiled American”—are realistic. Told through a mix of first-person narration, Jun’s letters to Jay, and believable dialogue among a strong, full cast of characters, the result is a deeply emotional story about family ties, addiction, and the complexity of truth. The tender relationship between Jay and Jun is especially notable—as is the underlying commentary about the challenges and nuances between young men and their uncles, fathers, male friends, and male cousins.

Part coming-of-age story and part exposé of Duterte’s problematic policies, this powerful and courageous story offers readers a refreshingly emotional depiction of a young man of color with an earnest desire for the truth. (author’s note, recommended reading) (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: June 18, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55491-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Kokila

Review Posted Online: March 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

Simultaneously sobering and uplifting, it will lead thoughtful readers to contemplate othering in their own lives.


Tan’s narratives often critique traditional office culture; this one features the inhumane treatment of the protagonist, a cicada dressed in a four-armed gray suit, complete with tie and pocket square.

Oriented vertically, the insect does not reach the top of his human co-workers’ desks, thus skewing the perspective so their heads are not visible. The green data entry clerk works in a gray maze of cubicles. Despite his exceptional performance and strong work ethic, he must walk blocks to a bathroom and is physically bullied. Readers will recognize forms of marginalization throughout, i.e., the elevator buttons are too high, poverty forces residency in the office wall. Cicada language is primitive and rhythmic: “Seventeen year. No promotion. / Human resources say cicada not human. / Need no resources. / Tok Tok Tok!” The last line is a refrain following each brief description, suggesting both the sound of a clock (time passing) and the notion of cicada “talk.” Upon retiring, he ascends the long stairway to the skyscraper’s ledge. The oil paintings of shadowy, cramped spaces transition to a brightened sky; a split in Cicada’s body reveals a molten glow. An orange-red winged nymph emerges and joins a sky full of friends flying to the forest, where they have the last laugh. No Kafkaesque conclusion here; metamorphosis brings liberation and joy.

Simultaneously sobering and uplifting, it will lead thoughtful readers to contemplate othering in their own lives. (Picture book. 12-adult)

Pub Date: Jan. 29, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-338-29839-0

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Levine/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

A joyous experience awaits. Read it. Learn it. Love it.

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This honest and unflinching story of toil, tears, and triumph is a musical love letter that proves literary lightning does indeed strike twice.

Thomas’ (The Hate U Give, 2017) sophomore novel returns to Garden Heights, but while Brianna may live in Starr's old neighborhood, their experiences couldn't differ more. Raised by a widowed mother, a recovering drug addict, Bri attends an arts school while dreaming of becoming a famous rapper, as her father was before gang violence ended his life. Her struggles within the music industry and in school highlight the humiliations and injustices that remain an indelible part of the African American story while also showcasing rap’s undeniable lyrical power as a language through which to find strength. Bri's journey is deeply personal: small in scope and edgy in tone. When Bri raps, the prose sings on the page as she uses it to voice her frustration at being stigmatized as “hood” at school, her humiliation at being unable to pay the bills, and her yearning to succeed in the music world on her own merit. Most importantly, the novel gives voice to teens whose lives diverge from middle-class Americana. Bri wrestles with parent relationships and boy drama—and a trip to the food bank so they don’t starve during Christmas. The rawness of Bri's narrative demonstrates Thomas’ undeniable storytelling prowess as she tells truths that are neither pretty nor necessarily universally relatable.

A joyous experience awaits. Read it. Learn it. Love it. (Fiction. 13-adult)

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-249856-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Lovely, evocative, unadorned writing shines in this smart, poignant story that serious teen readers shouldn’t miss


Grief, addiction, first loves, and traveling an unplanned road are among the many themes explored in this debut novel.

After growing up in an insular town in Colorado, graduating senior Scarlett has big ambitions. Though she dabbles with alcohol and drugs, her intelligence, drive, and propensity for physics pave her way into college after college. At the same time, her close relationships prove difficult for Scarlett to leave behind: her best friend, Hannah; ex-boyfriend, Cody; and lifelong friend, David, with whom a clandestine romance, replete with a sort of magnetic sexual draw, blooms. Moving between the present and two points in the recent past, her heartfelt yet often sardonic first-person narration fills in the details of this deeply authentic story, realistically portraying how paralyzing unexpected circumstances and tragedy can be. Scarlett herself is marvelously complex, sympathetic but difficult, grief-stricken and funny. Secondary characters are also well developed, imbued with interesting backstories that help frame this study both in how people can break one another and hold each other together. Scarlett and David are both white, Cody is Latinx, and there is some diversity in ethnicity, gender, and sexuality among the people Scarlett meets while at her fictional college in Maine.

Lovely, evocative, unadorned writing shines in this smart, poignant story that serious teen readers shouldn’t miss . (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55385-4

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

A breath of fresh air and a sigh of long overdue relief. Nuanced and necessary.



A diverse and compelling fiction anthology that taps 17 established, rising star, and new #ownvoices talents.

Editor Zoboi (Pride, 2018, etc.) lays out the collection’s purpose: exploring black interconnectedness, traditions, and identity in terms of how they apply to black teens. Given that scope, that most stories are contemporary realistic fiction makes sense (Rita Williams-Garcia’s humorous “Whoa!” which dips into the waters of speculative fiction, is a notable exception). Conversely, the characters are incredibly varied, as are the narrative styles. Standouts include the elegant simplicity of Jason Reynolds’ “The Ingredients,” about a group of boys walking home from the swimming pool; Leah Henderson’s “Warning: Color May Fade,” about an artist afraid to express herself; the immediacy of Tracey Baptiste’s “Gravity,” about a #MeToo moment of self-actualization birthed from violation; Renée Watson’s reflection on family in “Half a Moon”; and the collection’s namesake, Varian Johnson’s “Black Enough,” which highlights the paradigm shift that is getting woke. In these stories, black kids are nerds and geeks, gay and lesbian, first gen and immigrants, outdoorsy and artists, conflicted and confused, grieving and succeeding, thriving and surviving—in short, they’re fully human. No collection could represent the entire spectrum of blackness, however, the presence of trans, Afro-Latinx, and physically disabled characters is missed: a clarion call for more authentic black-centric collections.

A breath of fresh air and a sigh of long overdue relief. Nuanced and necessary. (contributor biographies) (Anthology. 12-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-269872-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

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