Book List

Best YA Books of 2019 That Tackle Hard Truths

This one is a winner.


In an alternate Wild West, five girls are on the run.

On the night of her sister’s debut into the world of prostitution, Aster tells Clementine to think of a song to distract herself. They are Good Luck Girls, indentured sex workers from poor, sharecropping families of a social underclass known as dustbloods. There is no outward difference between a dustblood and a fairblood, but generations ago, dustbloods had their shadows torn away, and since then their children have been born without them. When Clementine accidentally murders her first “brag,” or customer, Aster knows they must run for it. In seeking help, she unwittingly recruits three other girls itching to escape, and the five head north, where fairblood Violet insists a woman named Lady Ghost can help by removing their favors, mystical tattoos applied to the throats of Good Luck Girls that cannot be disguised. And thus begins their adventure, which also involves robbing men who deserve it and having to avoid vicious ghosts called vengeants and soulless, evil club bouncers/bounty hunters called raveners. Inventive language and outlaw girls are nothing new in Westerns, but debut author Davis’ richly imagined setting goes deeper than that, questioning the difference between ethics and law, exploring the complexity of socio-economic advantage and disadvantage, and exposing the lengths men will go to control and constrain women. Characters have varying shades of skin, from light to dark, and hair of different colors and textures.

This one is a winner. (Speculative adventure. 14-adult)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-29970-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Tor Teen

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

This soaring novel shoots for the stars and explodes the sky with its bold brilliance.


Teenager Jam unwittingly animates her mother’s painting, summoning a being through a cross-dimensional portal.

When Pet, giant and grotesque, bursts into her life one night, Jam learns it has emerged to hunt and needs the help of a human who can go places it cannot. Through their telekinetic connection, Jam learns that though all the monsters were thought to have been purged by the angels, one still roams the house of her best friend, Redemption, and Jam must uncover it. There’s a curious vagueness as to the nature of the banished monsters’ crimes, and it takes a few chapters to settle into Emezi’s (Freshwater, 2018) YA debut, set in an unspecified American town where people are united under the creed: “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond,” taken from Gwendolyn Brooks’ ode to Paul Robeson. However, their lush imagery and prose coupled with nuanced inclusion of African diasporic languages and peoples creates space for individuals to broadly love and live. Jam’s parents strongly affirm and celebrate her trans identity, and Redemption’s three parents are dedicated and caring, giving Jam a second, albeit more chaotic, home. Still, Emezi’s timely and critical point, “monsters don’t look like anything,” encourages our steady vigilance to recognize and identify them even in the most idyllic of settings.

This soaring novel shoots for the stars and explodes the sky with its bold brilliance. (Fantasy. 14-18)

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-64707-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Make Me a World

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

An #ownvoices story that empowers its female heroines, giving them pride in their lineage and power in remembering.


Beth Teller may be a ghost, but she is hoping to solve a mystery and heal her father’s broken heart.

Beth is a biracial Aboriginal (no nation is specified) girl from Australia who remembers very little about the car accident that took her life. She can’t fathom why her spirit hasn’t moved on, but she suspects it might have something to do with her love for her grieving white father. He’s a detective who always did right by her mother and siblings after being rejected by his own parents when he fell in love with an Aboriginal woman. Dedicated to serving justice, her dad has fallen into a deep depression after Beth’s death. When he finally heads back to work, he must investigate a possible arson: the charred remains of a children’s home. What Beth and her father find are secrets far more complicated than the mere burning of a building. A legacy of violence sits at the heart of this important novel, yet artful language softens the blows of pain and fear. The only interviewee the two detectives can consult is a witness who speaks in riddles: Isobel Catching. Who is she, and what does she know? Crimes—common yet unspeakable—rise to the surface in this fast-paced thriller with a supernatural bent.

An #ownvoices story that empowers its female heroines, giving them pride in their lineage and power in remembering. (Thriller. 13-18)

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9848-4878-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

Chilling, poignant, haunting, and, unfortunately, all too timely.

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A rebellious 16-year-old is sent to an isolated island for her grace year, when she must release her seductive, poisonous magic into the wild before taking her proper place as a wife and child bearer.

In gaslit Garner County, women and girls are said to harbor diabolical magic capable of manipulating men. Dreaming, among other things, is forbidden, and before girls embark on their grace year, they hope to receive a veil, which promises marriage. Otherwise, it’s life in a labor house—or worse. Strong, outdoorsy, skeptical Tierney James doesn’t want to be married, but a shocking twist leaves her with a veil—and a dangerous enemy in the vindictive Kiersten. Thirty-three girls with red ribbons symbolizing sin woven into their braids set out to survive the island, but it won’t be easy. Poachers, who trade in the body parts of grace-year girls, surround the camp, and paranoia, superstition, and mistrust rule. Not everyone will make it home alive. The bones of Liggett’s (The Unfortunates, 2018, etc.) tale of female repression are familiar ones, but her immersive storytelling effortlessly weaves horror elements with a harrowing and surprising survival story. Profound moments lie in small details, and readers’ hearts will race and break right along with the brave, capable Tierney’s. The biggest changes often begin with the smallest rebellions, and the emotional conclusion will resonate. All characters are assumed white.

Chilling, poignant, haunting, and, unfortunately, all too timely. (Dystopian. 14-18)

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-14544-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

A cautionary tale that exposes the danger of prescription medications by humanizing one victim of America’s current epidemic.


A compassionate, compelling, and terrifying story about a high school softball player’s addiction to opioids.

A promising life can be upended in a minute. One moment star catcher Mickey Catalan, who is assumed white, is living an ordinary life, talking about boys and anticipating a winning season with her best friend, pitcher Carolina Galarza. The next moment her car is upside down in a field, and their promising softball careers are in danger. Mickey’s divorced parents and Carolina’s tightknit Puerto Rican family are rooting for them to recover before the start of the season. After enduring surgeries, they are each given opioid painkillers, yet only Mickey spirals into addiction. From the novel’s opening line, the reader awaits the tragic outcome. What matters are the details—the lying, the stealing, the fear about college scholarships, the pain confronted in the weight room, and the desperate desire to win—because they force the reader to empathize with Mickey’s escalating need. Realistic depictions of heroin abuse abound, and the author includes a trigger warning. The writing is visceral, and following Mickey as she rationalizes about her addiction is educative and frightening. Even more frightening are the descriptive passages that reveal how pleasant the drugs make her feel. By the end, readers understand how heroin can infiltrate even the most promising lives.

A cautionary tale that exposes the danger of prescription medications by humanizing one victim of America’s current epidemic. (author’s note, resources) (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: March 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-284719-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

Part survival thriller, part post-apocalyptic romance, and part ecocritical feminist manifesto, a staggering gut punch of a...

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When the institutions you trust fail you, what will you do—and how will you handle the consequences?

Two girls grapple with these questions in this gritty, lush debut chronicling psychological and environmental tipping points at a boarding school for girls on a remote island in the near future. Sixteen-year-old scholarship student Hetty was one of the first to show signs of the Tox. Over the last 18 months, she’s watched it ravage her classmates and teachers as they wait, quarantined within school grounds, for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and deliver a cure. The Tox affects everyone differently: Hetty’s right eye sealed itself shut; her best friend, Byatt, grew a second, exterior spine; Reese has a sharp, silver-scaled left hand and glowing hair. Not everyone adapts to the Tox’s cyclical flare-ups—a girl brought to the infirmary rarely returns. The two remaining staff maintain tenuous order, but a flare-up that lands Byatt in the infirmary—with Hetty determined to protect her—quickly escalates into events that irrevocably shape the fates of everyone left on the island. Power deftly weaves a chilling narrative that disrupts readers' expectations through an expertly crafted, slow-burn reveal of the deadly consequences of climate change. Most characters are assumed white; Julia is brown-skinned and Cat is cued as Chinese-American. Several significant characters, including Hetty, are queer.

Part survival thriller, part post-apocalyptic romance, and part ecocritical feminist manifesto, a staggering gut punch of a book. (Dystopian. 12-18)

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-64558-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

A heartbreaking case worth revisiting again and again.


Two West Virginia teens become as close as two boys can get—until one stabs the other.

During the course of a three-day deposition, Nate, the victim, gives the prosecutor a detailed account of how Cam stabbed him. Before it turns violent, the bromance begins when the two pair up in 11th grade biology class. Between formerly attending private Catholic schools and losing family members young, the two share an intimate connection. As that intimacy becomes physical, problems start to arise—for one, Nate has a girlfriend. Nate’s home, run by his straight-laced aunt, is also one of rules. The newest rule is that Nate can’t see Cam anymore. But Nate still wants to. Cam does, too. So, why the violence? The first-person present-tense narrative twists between dialogue, letters, and descriptive sequences. Jolting moments of direct address heighten the drama. Though the adults read as extremes, debut author Smedley adds depth by including intimate backstories. Nate’s internalized homophobia and Catholic guilt mix, resulting in a layered, complex depiction of questioning (bi)sexuality. Meanwhile, ignostic Cam provides a more bi-positive foil. Smedley’s tight control of the structure, alternating between burgeoning romance and cringeworthy case details, skillfully results in cognitive dissonance. Most of the cast presents as white, but the prosecutor is black and uses a wheelchair.

A heartbreaking case worth revisiting again and again. (Fiction. 13-18)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62414-735-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Page Street

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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