This year is an uncontested garbage fire, y’all. From start to finish. I began the year by attending my grandfather’s funeral… on my birthday. And if I’d known that was a metaphor for how the whole 365 days were going to be I’d have gone back to bed. However. Here we are. Deep breaths.
There were also some really great things that happened to me this year. I saw Hamilton in Chicago and it was everything I dreamed it would be. I saw the touring company of Fun Home: The Musical and seeing my awkward baby gay self on stage was life changing. It really is hard for me to overstate how empowering and validating that felt, especially to see it with a bunch of other fabulous queer ladies. I went to the YALSA symposium and met some amazing authors. I transferred branches in my library system and now work much closer to home with a group of really awesome co-workers. I started seeing a therapist who is helping me put together the pieces of my life. I spent a lot of time with the most amazing friends a girl could ever have.
This year has had some good in it.
Among that precious good I’m trying to focus on in between calling and emailing and learning and reading and donating and volunteering because – GIRL – is the fact that there were a lot of truly wonderful YA books published this year and part of my job is to read them.
10. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King
I’ve been a huge fan of King’s since Ask the Passengers and I’ll read everything she publishes always. This title is classic A.S. King. It’s kind of weird, and hard to describe, but hits you right in the feels. Sarah is a 16-yr old artist who can’t do art anymore and while she’s sorting things out she starts interacting with past and future versions of herself who help her on her journey. Imagine you could actually talk to your 10 year old self, and your 40 year old self. That’s what’s going on here. It explores family and domestic violence and the impact that has on a child who grows up in the house, even when they aren’t the one who ever gets hit. I really enjoy YA books that deal with family so this was 100% my jam.
9. Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
Labyrinth Lost is kind of a Latina Alice in Wonderland but way more awesome and gay. Or not so much Alice as it is a classic quest novel where the main character is not a dude. Alex is a bruja, and the most powerful witch in a generation. At her Deathday celebration she gets scared and does magic and accidentally sends her whole family to the underworld and then has to go get them. Along for the ride are Mysterious Brujo Dude (so much side eye) and her totally mortal, non-witch friend, Rishi, whom she definitely kisses at the end… so… really. Alex’s journey through the underworld is epic and awesome and her family is super ‘Girls to the Front’ because, obviously. It’s fantastic. Did I mention Alex is bisexual? Cuz she is. And it’s great.
8. Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown
This book is so beautifully sweet and so wonderfully gay and it’s everything I need in a book. Jo has been out for years, but when her father remarries and moves them from Atlanta to a tiny town in GA he asks her to “lay low” about her sexuality for her senior year, and though Jo has some feelings about that, she agrees. But then she winds up falling for Mary Carlson, a girl in her church group, who falls for her back and when Mary Carlson wants to come out with gusto Jo’s life gets complicated. Mary Carlson has the most wonderful brother, B.T.B., who is disabled and she loves him so much it will make your heart grow three sizes. It’s a great presentation of church as a positive force in a queermo’s life. And it’s an interesting look at coming out since you sort of get both an insider and outsider perspective.
7. Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
BUTCH LESBIAN. I REPEAT. BUTCH LESBIAN. Pen just wants to be who she is. She’s not confused about her gender identity. She’s not trans. Those things are awesome, but she’s not either of them. She’s just Pen. Pen who is a butch lesbian. Pen’s parents are from Portugal and there’s a language barrier between them, as well as a bunch of cultural expectations that Pen struggles with. And she’s trying to be a teenager and navigate the shitty people who populate high schools. I have never seen a Pen in a YA book before and it is so beautiful and well written you’ll cry. It’s also a finalist for the Morris Award, so.
6. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicole Yoon
Natasha believes in science and facts. One fact is that she’s going to be deported back to Jamaica in 12 hours because her father kind of sucks. Daniel has always been the good Korean son who wants to write poetry instead of going to an Ivy League school and making up for his fuck up of a brother. They meet. Sparks fly. Can I make it anymore obvious? This takes place in a single day and holy shit does it run the gamut of feelings. It tackles a lot of issues very authentically and the occasional outside perspective gives the book a really well rounded feeling. It reminded me a bit of Eleanor and Park in the best possible ways, mostly in the way the ending is both totally devastating and beautifully hopeful at the same time.
5. When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Magical realism at its best. Miel is a girl who grows roses out of her wrists and her best friend/boyfriend Sam paints her hundreds of moons to help her sleep. Then there are the Bonner sisters -who come as a package deal – who believe they need Miel’s roses to make boys continue to fall in love with them. This book has it all. Diverse culture (Latinx, Pakistani), diverse identities (trans boy, trans woman) all of which are celebrated and treated with the utmost respect. It has magical pumpkins, a dash of fairy tale and mystical beautiful witchy-girls. There aren’t enough synonyms for beautiful to describe it.
4. The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter
It’s been 2.5 years since Cassie’s mother dumped her in a mental institution for no reason. Now Cassie is 18, out of the hospital, and trying to create a life for herself. So of course her mom shows up to fuck everything up again. This book explores the way cycles of abuse are perpetuated and the terrifying damage a mother who is legit a narcissistic sociopath can inflict. It’s centered on Cassie and her mother, and in some ways reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, which is a high compliment because I LOVE that book. As someone who has a really complicated and fucked up relationship with my own mother, it felt like it reached into my heart and put things I’d never been able to verbalize into words. As a bonus, Cassie has a really positive and healthy relationship with her therapist, which is really good to see in a YA book (or any book for that matter).
3. Three Dark Crowns by Kendara Blake
Into every generation on the island of Fennbirn is born a set of triplets. All girls, each with a different power, who are raised by the ruling houses that foster their powers until they turn 16 and must fight to the death until only one remains to reign as queen until her own triplets are born. It’s sort of GOT meets Hunger Games but full to the brim of Girl Power and SO MUCH MORE AWESOME THAN THAT SOUNDS. It’s a matriarchal society, (praise!!) and is full of amazing women of all personalities. It’s the first in a trilogy and I am so Grabby Hands about the second one I can’t even tell you.
2. As I Descended by Robin Talley
This is a queer, gender flipped, retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted boarding school and if that doesn’t sound awesome you’re doing it wrong. Maria and Lily are the school’s secret power couple and are sick of always being outdone by the Queen Bee, Delilah. So they decide to do something about it. Chaos ensues. There are tons of queer characters in here and a lot of ethnic diversity as well which is dealt with authentically and honestly, sometimes brutally. I’ve found that all Shakespeare plays can be improved when set in a high school because the ridiculous plots seem less ridiculous when underdeveloped brains and hormones are involved. Also this book is spooky AF. Like. I couldn’t read it at night because I’d imagine ghosts in my room kind of spooky.
1. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
It’s no secret that I love everything Johnston has ever written, but this book is everything. First of all, best title ever, am I right? It’s a famous stage direction from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale on which Exit is loosely based. This is a book about sexual assault in which every adult is as comforting to encounter as Olivia Benson. When Hermione is raped on the last day of cheer camp her whole life changes, but instead of falling apart the way Queen Hermione does in Shakespeare’s version, this Hermione gathers her people around her and puts herself back together. It’s an anti-rape culture book, showing how the world should be when a woman is attacked. I love Hermione so much, and her BFF Polly is the fucking best and also gay so that’s a bonus. This book made me laugh out loud and cry a lot and gave me a tiny hope that maybe humanity isn’t exclusively full of garbage humans. Everyone everywhere should read it. Period. I wrote a longer, more gushing, review of it here.
So there you have it, my top 10 picks. There are many many many that almost made the list.
Tell me about your favorites in the comments.