The pandemic may have brought tumult to every phase of the publishing process, but nothing could stop many exceptional books from being released this year, ones that are memorable, thought-provoking, and worthy of special recognition. Dive into the complete list of 100 Best YA Books of 2021; or start with this introductory sampling.
Coming-of-age stories are naturally a YA staple. The following titles, exemplary of this genre, are rooted in specific communities, and the resulting authenticity speaks for itself. They will leave readers reeling with their devastating emotional impacts. In When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert (Simon and Schuster, March 9), Beth looks back at the intense high school years when she and her friends, all Asian American, were wrestling with questions of family, identity and belonging, sexuality, mental health, personal ambitions, and paralyzing fears. In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (Crown, Aug. 10) follows two young people from rural Tennessee who have grown up with poverty and familial instability. Attending a New England boarding school brings unimaginable changes as they discover how we find, honor, and are buoyed by our people. (Read our recent interview with Zentner.)
Two historical novels about young people fleeing totalitarian regimes focus on escapes made by water rather than land. Each is a riveting, insightful page-turner; taken together, these are complementary reads that shed light on events that have echoes in our present and offer thoughtful perspectives for understanding contemporary refugees and migrants. Originally published in Australia in 2016, Freedom Swimmer by Kirkus Prize finalist Wai Chim (Scholastic, Nov. 2) is based on the experience of the author’s father as a young person who fled communist China for Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution. In Beyond the Blue Border by Dorit Linke, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer (Charlesbridge Teen, Sept. 7), two young East Germans in late-1980s Rostock, the author’s hometown, attempt a hazardous swim through the Baltic Sea to reach the West.
The ever timely subject of feminism provided rich material for several new works that offer nuanced interpretations of issues that are woven throughout society and affect everyone. In One Great Lie (Atheneum, June 1), a teenage girl gets the opportunity of a lifetime when she spends the summer in Venice at a young writers’ workshop with a celebrity author; author Deb Caletti explores sexual harassment and abuses of power by influential men. Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood by Brittney Cooper, Susana Morris, and Chanel Craft Tanner (Norton Young Readers, Oct. 5) is an empowering and comprehensive nonfiction survey that is enriched by the authors’ personal experiences of growing up as women of color. (Read an interview with Cooper and Craft Tanner.) In Britta Lundin’s Like Other Girls (Freeform/Disney, Aug. 3), a young woman challenges bias in sports by joining the school football team—leading her on an unexpected journey to question her own internalized sexism and desire to be perceived as not being like the other girls. (Hear Lundin on the Fully Booked podcast.)
Three enchanting books tantalizingly explore the spaces between our world and others. A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido, Nov. 23) weaves traditional Lipan Apache storytelling into a textured tale of two people whose paths cross, one a human girl from Texas and one a cottonmouth snake person from the Reflecting World. Ciela, who works in her family’s pastelería, is La Bruja de los Pasteles in The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel + Friends, March 16). But following a sexual assault, she loses her magical abilities; healing lies in a connection she has with a new boy at school. With All Our Hidden Gifts (Candlewick, June 8), Irish author Caroline O’Donoghue presents a story of societal change and zealotry, the pain of friends abandoned, the necessity of honestly facing the consequences of one’s actions, and the allure of tarot.
Laura Simeon is a young readers' editor.