YA novel best picks – A librarian’s perspective, Part II

We’re lucky to have Beth Kirchenberg, Middle School and Teen Librarian at River Forest Public Library, back with us for another round.

Since we’re all stuck at home, it’s an excellent time to pick up a book. For your kiddos who are YA aged, Beth has provided us with the ultimate YA literature picks. I mean, it’s coming straight from a YA librarian, so we know it’s going to be great!

Take it away, Beth!

My Picks

Keeping It Real
Teenagers can so easily relate to the characters; characters who are often flawed, imperfect and facing similar problems to those of the reader. Authors and publishers seem to have tapped into the fact that teenagers like to cry at books even more than they like to laugh at books. Sometimes reading about the most terrible things life has to offer can remind you how fortunate you are or that you are not alone in your struggles.The rise of realism as a genre has also helped raise the profile of previously taboo subjects such as drugs, rape and sexuality in teen fiction. If it takes place realistically, then that allows people to fully put themselves in the situation and thus empathize more effectively. In the same way, writing about situations that actually exist aid the reader’s journey to becoming more accepting of those different from themselves. In my opinion, realistic books allow readers to develop a sense of empathy like no other genre can. Reading about characters experiencing real-life hardship allows teens to encounter the scary things in life from the safety of the pages of a book. From housing projects to suburban mansions, realism allows you to experience it all and become better for it.

Current Cultural Issues: Black Lives Matter Movement, immigration, religion, etc

  • Saints and Misfits – S.K Ali, 2017
  • Allegedly – Tiffany Jackson, 2017
  • Dear Martin – Nic Stone, 2017
  • This is Where It Ends – Marieke Nijkmap, 2016
  • The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas, 2017
  • The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon, 2016
  • American Street – Ibi Zoboi, 2016
  • A Very Large Expanse of Sea – Tahereh Mafi, 2018
  • With the Fire On High – Elizabeth Acevedo, 2019

Issues: Drugs, abuse, death, #metoo

  • Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson, 1999
  • Sadie – Courtney Summers, 2018
  • Looking for Alaska – John Green, 2005
  • Anything written by Ellen Hopkins
  • The Female of the Species – Mindy McGinnis, 2016
  • All the Bright Places – Jennifer Niven, 2015
  • A List of Cages – Robin Roe, 2017
  • New David Espinoza – Randy Ribay, 2020

Identity: Self discovery, sexual identity

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie, 2007
  • Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli, 2015
  • The Crossover – Kwame Alexander, 2014
  • Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy, 2015
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Saenz, 2012
  • We All Looked Up – Tommy Wallach, 2015
  • On the Come Up – Angie Thomas, 2019

Dystopia/Sci Fi/Paranormal
When it comes to demoralizing literature, dystopian novels have it all! Teens are reading about the bad stuff happening in the near or far future rather than actually living it. Dystopias feel honest because we know that politicians, military people and corporate moguls are capable of doing awful things. It helps teens understand the potential impact of their actions.

By proposing possible visions of the future, science fiction asks questions of us—of humanity, of Earth, of individuals—that we wouldn’t ordinarily ask ourselves. Who are we? Where are we going? Real science fiction is as close to an intense discussion of philosophy as you can get while still reading fast-paced, page-turning fiction. And it doesn’t always give us the answers.

Just like adolescence is between childhood and adulthood, paranormal is between human and supernatural. Teens are caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood, and in YA, they can navigate those two worlds and sometimes dualities of other worlds.

Dystopia: an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one, ala Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc

  • The Selection – Kiera Cass, 2012
  • Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne, 2012
  • Legend – Marie Lu, 2013
  • Steelheart – Brandon Sanderson, 2014
  • Unwind – Neal Shusterman, 2007
  • The Program – Suzanne Young, 2013
  • Pet – Akwaeke Emezi, 2019
  • Warcross – Marie Lu, 2017
  • Scythe – Neal Shusterman, 2016

Sci-Fi: imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life

  • Feed – MT Anderson, 2002
  • The Next Together – Lauren James, 2017
  • Illuminae – Amie Kaufman, 2015
  • The Diabolic – S.J. Kincaid, 2016
  • Carve the Mark – Veronica Roth
  • Ready Player One – Ernest Cline, 2012

Paranormal: phenomenon that occur that we can’t explain; demons, vampires, witches, ghosts

  • Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black, 2013
  • City of Bones – Cassandra Clare, 2007
  • Clockwork Angel – Cassandra Clare, 2010
  • The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater, 2012
  • The Walls Around Us – Nova Ren Suma, 2015

Falling in love is one of the most popular topics in young adult novels. But falling in love is complex, especially for teen characters. A teen falls in love and, one minute, the world is rosy. But, the next minute, everything can be dark and dismal. If they believe everyone’s love experiences will include candlelight and fireworks, they are bound to be disappointed. So yes, many are fluffy and unrealistic to provide escapism and others are brutally realistic. All of these emotions are new to teens so everything is overly dramatic and intense ten times over compared to adult romance. Drama, drama, and more drama when it comes to teen romance, but almost all of them follow this basic plot outline:
Infatuation & Conflict
Love/Happily Ever After

Romance and Relationships

  • What If It’s Us – Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, 2018
  • I Believe in a Thing Called Love – Maureen Goo, 2017
  • To All the Boys I Loved Before – Jenny Han, 2014
  • Why We Broke Up – Daniel Handler(aka Lemony Snicket), 2011
  • When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhya Menon, 2017
  • Anna and the French Kiss – Stephanie Perkins, 2010
  • Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell, 2013
  • Everything, Everything – Nicola Yoon, 2015
  • The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon, 2016

Get Graphic
Here are three reasons to read graphic novels:

Graphic novels are full of text. Sure, they have drawings and illustrations and sometimes photos, but really, graphic novels have text that readers must actually decode, analyze, and comprehend.

Graphic novels are engaging. Often, especially for our struggling or emerging readers, graphic novels add that extra support that kids need to help them through a text. The illustrations keep readers’ minds working, and the combination of text and pictures gets kids through stories that they may have otherwise not completely understood.

Graphic novels are rich. Just like traditional novels, graphic novels have exciting and complex plots, characters, and conflicts. Plots have twists and turns. Characters are developed and are dynamic. Conflicts are presented, unwound, and resolved in the same ways that they are in other texts. The only difference is that graphic novels have graphics to support the development.

Literary: a complete story presented as a book rather than a periodical

  • Color of Water – Dong Hwa Kim, 2009
  • Nimona – Noelle Stevenson, 2015
  • Smile – Raina Telgemeier, 2010
  • American Born Chinese – Gene Luen Yang, 2006
  • Dragon Hoops – Gene Luen Yang, 2020

Comics: a magazine that presents a serialized story in the form of a comic strip, typically featuring a superhero.

  • Marvel Civil War – Ed Brubaker, 2016
  • Hawkeye – Matt Fraction, 2013
  • Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman, 1991
  • Batman, Vol. 1: I Am Gotham – Tom King, 2017
  • Lumberjanes – Noelle Stevenson, 2015
  • Ms Marvel – G. Willow Wilson, 2014

Manga: are comics created in the Japanese language, read back to front, right to left.

  • Delicious in Dungeon – Ryoko Kui, 2017
  • Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life – Bryan O’Malley, 2004
  • Fruits Basket – Natsuki Takaya, 2016
  • Naruto Vol 1. – Masashi Kishimoto, 2003
  • Sword Art Online Progressive Vol 1 – Reki Kawahara, 2015

Non-Fiction: is non-fiction in the comics medium, often memoirs or historical events. Ours are primarily found in the adult collection.

  • Drowned City – Don Brown, 2016
  • Relish – Lucy Knisley, 2013
  • Brazen – Penelope Bagieu, 2018
  • March – John Lewis, 2014
  • Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi, 2003
  • Maus – Art Spiegelman, 1983

TV Ready Drama

Kids are very busy. School, homework, sports, jobs, clothes, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, games, texting, Instagramming)—compared with all of that, reading a book is a weak, claim on their time. So these titles are easy to sell to a kid with a mere sentence or two – they have killer hooks, high action, and ooooooze drama. These titles are frequently turned into movies and are good for reluctant readers. You’ll be asking “Did Shonda Rhimes write these?”

Easy Sells

  • Tiny Pretty Things -Sona Charaipotra, 2015 (ultra competitive murderous ballerinas)
  • Dividing Eden – Joelle Charbonneau, 2017 (twins bloody fight for royal succession)
  • Wolf by Wolf – Ryan Graudin, 2015 (motorcycling shapeshifter tries to assassinate Hitler)
  • Stormbreaker – Anthony Horowitz, 2000 ( teen MI6 agent)
  • Illuminae – Amie Kaufman, 2015 (plague, evil AI, & romance in space told in files)
  • These Broken Stars – Amie Kaufman, 2013 (titanic in space)
  • Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne, 2012 (school bus survives apocalypse in a Walmart)
  • I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga, 2012 (son hunts down serial killer dad)
  • Throne of Glass – Sarah J Maas, 2012 (best assassin battle)
  • Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi, 2011 (girl’s fatal touch is weaponized)
  • Thousandth Floor – Katharine McGee, 2016 (futuristic tower society full of lies)
  • One of Us is Lying – Karen McManus, 2017 (5 student in detention, only 4 leave alive)
  • Ten – Gretchen McNeil, 2012 (killer party, literally)
  • Cinder – Marissa Meyer, 2012 (cyborg Cinderella in a post apocalyptic world)
  • Secrets, Lies, and Scandals – Amanda Morgan, 2016 (dead teacher, who’s to blame?)
  • Panic – Lauren Oliver, 2014 (seniors compete for 50 g’s to start a new life, or lose it)
  • Dorothy Must Die – Danielle Paige, 2014 ( what if Oz isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?)
  • Unwind – Neal Shusterman, 2007 (parents can have kids bodies redistributed)
  • Spontaneous – Aaron Starmer, 2016 (teens spontaneously combust)
  • Noggin – John Corey Whaley, 2015 (head transplant)


Fantasy simultaneously invites us to escape from our daily lives while illuminating them at a slant. We can step into someone else’s shoes or cape or even wings for a while and leave our day-to-day routine and pressures behind. The bigots target shape-shifters, the manipulative older guy is a vampire and the danger of the deep is a dragon that breathes fire. The magic is in the metaphors. They personalize the experience and give it meaning. And we have just enough distance, separated by the fantastical veil, to, ironically enough, see more clearly.

These stories also reinforce readers’ sense of self at a crucial time in their lives. Every kid wants to feel like there are special qualities that set them apart from everyone else. Fantasy books really allow that to happen and highlight that. Characters are forged by fire and put into situations that really bring out the best in them.

High/Epic: a subgenre, defined either by its setting in a fictional universe or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, and plot.

  • Red Queen – Victoria Aveyard, 2015
  • Throne of Glass – Sarah J Maas, 2012
  • Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi, 2018
  • Ember in the Ashes – Sabaa Tahir, 2015
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor, 2011

Retelling: a new, and often updated or retranslated, version of a story or fairy tale.

  • The Wrath and the Dawn – Renee Ahdieh, 2015 (Arabian Nights)
  • Bull – David Elliott, 2016 (Theseus and the Minotaur)
  • Wintersong – S. Jae-Jones, 2016 (Goblin King)
  • Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J. Maas, 2015 (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Heartless – Marissa Meyer, 2016 (Alice in Wonderland)
  • Cinder – Marissa Meyer, 2012 (Cinderella)
  • Hunter – Megan Spooner, 2017 (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Heart of Iron – Ashley Poston, 2018 (Anastasia)

Magic: the endowment of characters or objects with powers that do not naturally occur in the real world.

  • Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo, 2012
  • Three Dark Crowns – Kendare Blake, 2016
  • Walk on Earth a Stranger – Rae Carson. 2015
  • The Bone Witch – Rin Chupeco, 2017
  • Caraval – Stephanie Garber, 2017
  • Carry On – Rainbow Rowell, 2015
  • The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater, 2012


While libraries are closed right now, many systems have robust digital collections. In addition, many library systems have waived residence restrictions during our quarantine time. Please check them out! Furthermore, many independent book stores are still offering shipping. Please check in with them as well!

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