The wonderful world of YA

As my daughters grow and as I delve further into my own studies, the types of books that get read change. I aim for some sort of balance in these pages, but tend to focus on picture books and middle grade. But you know what? I love YA fiction. The options for books in general is so different from when I was a teen, but I think that the young adult section has probably changed the most. When I was younger, I read books that some were horrified I was reading. One family friend who was also one of my teachers was shocked that my mother would allow me to read The Clan of the Cave Bear when I was in 6th grade. I read Gone with the Wind in 7th grade. There were not a lot of other options. When you aged out of “kid” books you either read Sweet Valley High or moved to adult books.

These days, the quality of books for what they market as “young adult” (12+) is outstanding. The variety is also rather impressive. They deal with topics that are timely and often challenging. Some use the real language and attitudes of teens whether adults like it or not, and some stay clean. There are also a number of authors reimagining old staples with a more modern tone and gender roles. Of course there is fluff, it is an important category for all ages, but there are also a number of really meaty books worthy of deeper looks. The following are a number of books that I have enjoyed in the past few months. I am only including one paragraph reviews. If you want more detail, all of these have been reviewed on Goodreads.

I listened to this one on audiobook. That was a phenomenal medium for this title, tough I am sure reading it on your own is also great. in How it all Blew Up, Amir Azadi is a young Iranian boy living in the US. He realizes that he is gay and has a secret relationship at school. When he is threatened to be outed to his parents if he doesn’t give a jock large sums of money, he winds up fleeing to Rome rather than going to his own high school graduation. Why would someone stay so far in the closet when faced with this dilemma? Because Amir is Iranian and gay is something not allowed in that culture. He is also Muslim, but it isn’t the religion part that is impactful in this book, it is Iranian culture. The majority of the story takes place in Rome where Amir winds up going to rewrite his own story.

The Princess Companion is an interesting reimagining of the classic story The Princess and the Pea. Alyssa, the wood cutter’s daughter, gets lost in the woods on a rainy night and winds up at the palace. She is mistakenly taken to the Princess room and made to sleep on a mattress with the hidden pea. Of course she feels it and doesn’t sleep well, but is too polite to tell anyone the next day. However, she wakes to find two little princesses waiting for her to wake up so they can play with her. In some interesting twists and turns, she winds up being their “companion,” staying with them at their winter palace and then moving back to the city in the spring. In the spring, the King and Queen will be welcoming visiting princesses in order to find a bride for their son, Prince Max. Of course we all know that the prince falls in love with Alyssa, but the twists and turns are entertaining and original. I also enjoyed the next book in this series, though not nearly as much.

Here is a book that is both light and yet deals with some important issues that teens face today. I have to admit I LOVED Roman & Jewel. Inhaled it. Didn’t want to put it down. Ok, so Romeo and Juliet getting the Hamilton treatment and being about Broadway might have influenced that. Jerzie Jhames will do anything to land the lead role in Broadway’s hottest new show, Roman and Jewel, a Romeo and Juliet inspired hip-hopera but is instead cast as the understudy. The lead is going to a “name.” Of course Jerzie falls for Zeppelin Reid, the male lead, but the female lead wants him for herself. Social media is a key player in this romance novel as are the concepts of fame, family, and friendship.

Sometimes a book is just fun. You Have a Match, by Emma Lord, made me smile, and during the pandemic that’s something we need more of. This was a fresh YA novel that will appeal to a wide audience. It was something like a modern day Parent Trap without twins and where they plan on going to camp together. I especially appreciate how Lord has a variety of gender identities included in the book without making any sort of deal about it, just totally normalized. Anyway, basic idea is that when a DNA test reveals that Abby has an older sister that she had never heard of, her life turns a bit upside down. She didn’t even want to take the test in the first place. After meeting her sister, Savannah, the two plan to go to the same summer camp where Savannah has gone for years. Of course more surprises are in store. Yes, many parts of the story were predictable, but I didn’t care. The characters that Lord created were fun and challenging, full of life. All of the teens were dealing with issues that were true to life – young crushes, friendships, misunderstandings, secrets, and complicated issues with parents. This is also a Reese Witherspoon YA book club selection.

Another Reese Witherspoon YA selection is Furia by Yamile Saied Mendez. An incredibly strong, #ownvoices coming of age story set in Argentina with a kick-ass female futbol player. Camila Hassan is a young girl who has to lead a double life. Her parents are only concerned with her brother and his futbol career, her mother has low expectations for her, and her father is abusive. That is one part of her life, one anyone would want to get away from. The other is her amazing skill and talent on the soccer field where she plays with one of the few female futbol teams. She lies to her family to go to practice and the games, but when her team makes the championships, she needs their okay to play. Her family would balk at a girl playing futbol, but the tournament has the potential to make her dreams come true and get a scholarship to a school in the United States. There is an additional story line about her relationship with another futbol star and not only how her emotions and thoughts change, but how she sees herself and her future. Furia is a powerful and realistic novel that really questions how women are seen in the world and in their families. Camila is the real deal and has some inner strength that we all yearn for.

It has been a long time since a book touched me so deeply and I struggle to put into words why it did so. Amelia Unabridged, by Ashley Schumacher (Feb. 16, 2021) was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next, but that I hated having to finish. A beautiful story with flawed characters trying to deal with an abundance of grief and heartbreak. Schumacher created a story that showed various ways we handle difficult situations in our lives and the important roles that others play in our lives. Amelia Griffin is obsessed with the famous Orman Chronicles, written by the young and reclusive prodigy N. E. Endsley. They’re the books that brought her and her best friend Jenna together after Amelia’s father left and her family imploded. Amelia receives a mysterious copy of the book and tracks it to an obscure but enchanting bookstore in Michigan, Amelia is shocked to find herself face-to-face with the enigmatic and handsome N. E. Endsley himself, the reason for Amelia’s and Jenna’s fight and perhaps the clue to what Jenna wanted to tell her all along.  It is also about a love affair with books, particularly the Orman chronicles. An amazing debut!

Wanting something with more action and mystery? The Good Girls by Claire Eliza Bartlett is described as “One of Us Is Lying meets Sadie in this twisty, feminist thriller for the Me Too era.” Good girl and daughter of the police chief goes missing and is assumed dead. Three girls wind up as prime suspects. But that’s just a part of this story. In many ways, The Good Girls was a vehicle to talk about sexual harassment, LGBTQ+ issues, and stereotypes. High school students are often put into specific little boxes, but those boxes don’t always tell the full story. The book was at times cliched but it was still an enjoyable read.

On the slightly younger side of YA is the latest by Gary D. Schmidt, Just Like That. I couldn’t put this book down. Gary Schmidt tells a story of grief, friendship, emotional growth, and becoming the person you want to be through the stories of Meryl Lee Kowalski and Matt Coffin. The book is somewhat hard to describe so I’m just going to use the publisher’s info: “Following the death of her closest friend in summer 1968, Meryl Lee Kowalski goes off to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls, where she struggles to navigate the venerable boarding school’s traditions and a social structure heavily weighted toward students from wealthy backgrounds. In a parallel story, Matt Coffin has wound up on the Maine coast near St. Elene’s with a pillowcase full of money lifted from the leader of a criminal gang, fearing the gang’s relentless, destructive pursuit. Both young people gradually dispel their loneliness, finding a way to be hopeful and also finding each other. “

These are just some of the great books that I have read in the last 6 months or so. Happy reading!

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