The Best Young Adult Books of 2016

best-of-20162-lg2It’s the happiest, hardest day in the bookish calendar, when all the past year’s most glorious reads are winnowed down into a list of the best of the best books to cross my desk in 2016. Here there be magnificent debuts, swoony, promise-keeping series finales, and bolts from the blue; books that enchant, provoke, and break hearts. This year saw the publication of a library’s worth of wonderful reads—these are my picks for the 25 that grabbed on and didn’t let go.

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
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To an outside observer, intrepid Victorian heroine Faith may seem boring and subservient, but beneath her dull exterior lies a mind bursting with curiosity, intelligence, and passion. When her once-celebrated naturalist father moves their family from London to a clannish island following a scandal, Faith is desperate to get to the bottom of things…and more so after her father is found dead. Certain he was murdered, she reenacts his final journey the night he died and discovers what he was hiding: an impossible tree that bears fruit only upon hearing lies, the eating of which gives the liar strange wisdom. In this vivid, brainy, deeply feminist tale, Faith uses the tree to spread falsehoods throughout the island on a desperate quest for the truth, using others’ misperceptions of her as cover for her plotting. (See our full review here.)

The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
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Yoon’s stupendous sophomore novel takes some of the themes she introduced in her best-selling debut Everything, Everything—the power of human connection, love’s ability to both save and destroy—and expands on them to tell the fast-burning, possibly doomed love story of Daniel, a dreamy Korean American teen on his way to an alumni interview, and Natasha, a girl on a last-minute mission to save her family from deportation to Jamaica. The two meet in a record store and have an epic stop-and-go romance all stuffed into a single day that might be Natasha’s last in New York. Told in alternating narration, the book also makes room for a whole chorus of other voices and perspectives, transforming it into a big compassionate tapestry of New York City, life, and everything. It’s an absolute knockout. (See our full review here.)

And I Darken, by Kiersten White
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White’s meticulously researched, gorgeously transporting historical fiction, the first (hallelujah!) in a series, starts to answer a question the author put to herself: what if Vlad the Impaler had been female? Her answer is a book that convinces you, inch by inch, that a vicious girl, abandoned by her father as an Ottoman hostage, doomed to forfeit her life for her father’s follies or to be married off at the sultan’s convenience, could instead rise to be a ruler whose name would be remembered generations after she’s dead. It runs on its heroine’s white-hot rage, complicated but never quenched by her love for her gentle younger brother and for Mehmed, the sultan’s heir. Lada must balance her political aspirations, hunger for vengeance, and the desires of her heart to thrive in a brutal, high-intrigue world she has spent her whole life learning to navigate.

Lucy and Linh, by Alice Pung
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When smart girl Lucy Lam, a Vietnamese immigrant in Australia, unexpectedly wins a single scholarship spot to a mostly white academy, she fears she won’t fit in. Instead she finds herself gaining admittance to the school’s small, vicious power elite, a trio of girls who barely hide their manipulations under cover of faux concern. But the temptations of her new life set her adrift from her old one—the friends from her former, rundown, school, and a family kept going by her father’s factory work and her mother’s home sewing of designer knockoffs—in a book depicting two very different worlds and the sharply drawn girl who attempts to live in both of them. Pung’s prose is burningly intelligent and breathtakingly precise; the book rewards on a sentence level.

The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi
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Reviled because of the dark stars she was born under, Maya lives like a leper among the poison-tongued women of her raja father’s harem. On what is supposed to be her wedding day, she’s saved from politically motivated self-sacrifice by a mysterious stranger, who takes her away to his lonely palace. But who, exactly, is her new husband, and what darkness lies behind the chilly beauty of her new home? As Maya harnesses the power that lies within her and learns the truth about her past, she must decide what’s real and what’s illusion. Chokshi weaves a mystical fantasy that drips with lush enchantments, pushing past the tropes and older tales it nods toward to walk a fresher, more perilous path.

American Girls, by Alison Umminger
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Fleeing a childish mother, a stalled life, and a guilty conscience, 15-year-old Anna runs away to Los Angeles to live with Delia, her D-list actress sister. She spends her days chasing down donuts, trailing Delia around town, and hanging out on the set of the universally despised kids’ show where Delia’s boyfriend is a writer. Her outsider’s view of Hollywood’s has-beens and never-weres winds together with her background research on the Manson girls, at the behest of her sister’s creepy director ex. Like Manson’s followers, Anna is hungry, lost, and stuck on the fringes, watching Delia’s life crash while she avoids the wreckage of her own. Her voice is perfect: forthright and earthy, equal parts wistful beauty and teen viciousness.

The Winner’s Kiss, by Marie Rutkoski (March 29)
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Rutkoski’s gorgeous, sharply intelligent, meltingly romantic trilogy concluded this year with The Winner’s Kiss, the final chapter in the star-crossed love story between Kestrel, disgraced daughter of a conquering Valorian general, and Arin, a Herrani slave-turned-rebel leader. At the book’s start, Kestrel is in miserable exile for treason against her people, and Arin is far away and unaware of all she has sacrificed for him. In her precise and lovely prose, Rutkoski brings them back into each other’s orbit, and carries the war that’s keeping them apart to a deeply satisfying conclusion. (Also, there’s kissing.)

The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
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In a vividly evoked 1970s Alaska, Hitchcock sets hardscrabble poverty and domestic violence against a backdrop of transcendent natural beauty. Her characters are fighting to build good lives amid harsh circumstances—Ruth is an almost-orphan grappling with a terrible secret, Dora is terrified she’ll be forced back under her violent father’s roof, Hank and his brothers have no choice but to escape, and Alyce doesn’t know how to claim her future without losing her past. All take a circuitous path toward finally making the connections they need to survive.

Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse 
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In five linked novellas hopscotching forward through time, Peevyhouse imagines the effects on humanity of the discovery of a parallel world lying just beyond our own. As earth’s atmosphere sickens, and social media sharing advances to the point that privacy is a relic and transient online stardom the best way to make a buck, her characters dream of the Other Place, intersect with its people, and grapple with the mystery of its existence. Facing the challenge of making readers care afresh for each new narrator and their increasingly desperate plights, Peevyhouse grips you every time.

Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee
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Lee brilliantly spins a historical tale in which Chinese American teen Mercy Wong finagles herself entrance to a genteel, all-white girls’ school, a nearly impossible feat in early 20th-century San Francisco. But her journey is a rocky one, and Mercy is on the brink of being thrown out when a historic earthquake strikes the city, killing rich and poor and shaking people of all stripes out of their houses. In the park where refugees gather, Lee evokes a place out of time, a tiny, hard-won idyll in the midst of a broken city. There, led by Mercy, the remaining girls of St. Clare’s School reject panic and base survivalism in favor of compassion and collaboration. Mercy’s first-person narration is colored by her fortune-teller mother’s practice, full of lovely insights on Chinese folk beliefs, myth, and medicine. She’s a timeless heroine who bends but doesn’t break. (See our full review here.)

The Memory Book, by Lara Avery
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This book will strap you inside a Gravitron of feels and hold you there until you stumble away from the final page using your sleeve as a Kleenex. Sammie McCoy is a brilliant, ambitious student who can’t wait to leave her rural hometown behind to start a new life at NYU. When she’s diagnosed with Niemann-Pick, an Alzheimer’s-like condition, she’s determined to muscle through it, make valedictorian, and head victorious to college in the fall. She starts writing a memory book, a series of letters to her future self meant to work as a second brain for when her own fails her. In it she records conversation with her parents, first dates with her longtime crush, imagined futures for her three younger siblings—and the rekindling of her relationship with Coop, the childhood friend who ditched her for popularity way back in junior high. As her mind deteriorates, she learns to love every minute of her life now, instead of just the ones to come. Avery fits so much life and love into this memory book that I’m actually tearing up right now recalling it. Read this book. (See our full review here.)

The Reader, by Traci Chee
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Chee has penned a gorgeous metaphysical fairy tale in the guise of a straight-up fantasy novel, and it succeeds on both counts. The Reader takes place in a massive web of an invented world in which literacy is nearly nonexistent. Sefia was raised in isolation by parents always bracing for the arrival of a danger from their past, and once it strikes, leaving Sefia an orphan, she becomes a fugitive. She takes only two things from home: her guardian, Aunt Nin, and a mysterious rectangular object she doesn’t dare investigate. Then Nin is abducted, and she finds herself suddenly alone. What Sefia has been carrying is, of course, a Book, possibly the only one in existence. As she trails her aunt’s captors and picks up a mysterious travel companion, she teaches herself to read. Soon the words in the Book overlap with her reality in mind-bending ways, as she comes closer to discovering the truth behind her family’s past. The Reader combines a decadently visual adventure by land and sea with a meditation on the power of story.

Beast, by Brie Spangler
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Spangler’s debut is a (very) loose retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” in which Beauty is a transgender girl named Jamie, and the Beast, narrator Dylan, is a 15-year-old boy with the physical presence of a full-grown quarterback and the body hair of a Sasquatch. Beast is tender and hilarious, biting and compassionate, a love story between a confused boy grappling with self-loathing and a girl whose self-possession and hard-earned sense of self-worth are something to reckon with. The dialogue is perfect, Dylan’s relationship with his mom is warm and real, and Spangler makes Jamie as fully realized as Dylan, even though the story is told from inside his head.

Scythe, by Neal Shusterman
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Shusterman has a gift for marrying high concepts with great compassion and grippingly intelligent payoff; he sees his ideas through to their broadest conclusions in fascinating, right, and always relevant ways. Scythe imagines a future in which scientific advancement has defeated death, but may have birthed something even more frightening: a world free of consequences, aging, and foreseeable ends. Its people can turn back the clock on their bodies whenever they want, and live lives nearly devoid of intense passions—except when a Scythe comes to visit. Scythes are a highly trained force of public servants who deal out death according to quotas and within a strict set of rules: rules of studied randomness doing its best to imitate the indifference of true death. When an exemplary Scythe takes on two teen apprentices, Citra and Rowan, both seem suited to the job. But after their mentor dies under mysterious circumstances, the teens’ paths diverge: Citra is assigned to another noble Scythe, but Rowan finds himself re-apprenticed to a psychopath who threatens to upend the Scythehood for his own ends. This series starter is as haunting and eerily believable as Unwind.

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys
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In Sepetys’s hands, a footnote of World War II history—the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the biggest and perhaps most undersung naval tragedy in history—becomes a moving tapestry of lives and voices, of four people whose fates will converge onboard the doomed ship. Joana is a nurse and Lithuanian refugee attempting to outrun horrible guilt. Florian is a German art restorer with a secret, bent on avenging one small corner of the Nazis’ atrocities. Emilia is an orphaned Polish teen who carries her worst memory on her body, and who sees Florian’s heroic qualities even if he doesn’t. And Alfred is a Nazi sailor whose moral disease runs deeper than his uniform. After a headlong race across the frozen East Prussian landscape in the twilight days of the war, the three refugees believe passage on the Gustloff means salvation. But the worst is yet to come, and some scars never fade. Sepetys finds moments of grace, humanity, and sacrifice amid tragedy, while never eliding the costs of war or the brutal truths of the survival instinct.

Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham
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Downham’s latest is about secrets that reverberate through generations, and the frazzled chain of bad behavior that animates, disorders, and ultimately frees a family line of three women, for better or worse. Elderly Mary is losing her mind to dementia when she’s handed over to the care of her angry, estranged daughter, Caroline. Caroline’s daughter, teenaged Katie, feels an immediate connection with her grandmother, whose free-spirited ways saved her from a small life—but may have doomed her own daughter to the circumscribed existence Mary escaped. In a fluid narrative that laps at the past, enfolding episodes in Mary’s long, adventurous, often heartbroken life, and Katie’s slow acceptance of who she really wants to love, Downham explores the legacies we intend to leave our children and the ones that actually stick, the way unspoken things can poison, and the power of talk to heal.

Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King
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Despairing at her inability to ever do anything original, talented teen artist Sarah drops out of school and out of life, spending her days searching for meaning. As she wanders the streets, rides buses, follows a homeless man, and meets and converses with younger and older versions of herself, she revisits the breakdown of her family over the course of a doomed family vacation six years earlier, and slowly reveals the familial and creative traumas that led to her total abandonment of the status quo. The true nature of her family narrative, one she has hidden even from herself, is revealed slowly, and the payoff is great. King’s surreal elements are balanced as always by the lucidity of her prose, and her generous, unflagging faith in her readers’ ability to keep up with her mental fireworks results yet again in a book that’s truly singular.

The First Time She Drowned, by Kerry Kletter
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Cassie’s rage at and longing for the mother who first emotionally abandoned her, then responded to her rebellion by institutionalizing her, are braided together like a rope. Fresh out of an institution and embarking on the college career her mother, confusingly, has paid for, Cassie struggles with the cruel tenets she was raised to believe: that she’s unloved. That she’s unwanted. That anyone who sees her true self will hate her. And when her mother starts pushing her way back into Cassie’s life, nobody—not a new friend, a school therapist, or the boy who just might like the real her—can decide for Cassie that it’s time to push away the woman who both made and destroyed her.

The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner
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In this soul-tugging southern-set debut, Dill Early is the son of a zealous Pentecostal preacher and snake handler, who is unrepentant despite his imprisonment for a sickening crime. Dill’s best friend and secret crush, Lydia, is a proud outsider in their small town, a fashion blogger who plans to ride her self-created fame the hell out of Dodge after graduation. The third member of their tiny tribe is Travis, a gentle giant with an abusive father, who escapes into an internet relationship and the world of his beloved fantasy series every chance he gets. Over the course of their senior year, the three grapple with impending separation, and the struggle to define and declare themselves in the face of other people’s expectations.

The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig
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Heilig’s intricately plotted, lushly sensory debut filled the “time traveling pirate ship” hole in my heart and bookshelf I didn’t even know was there. With her gifted, addicted captain father at the helm of the Temptation, and a motley crew of fellow ship hands onboard, teenaged Nix travels through time and space, between fantasy and reality, by way of hand-drawn maps. So long as the map is original, signed by its creator, and has never been used before, the ship can navigate to whatever realm the map has frozen in time, whether it be real or purely mythical. Then the Temptation docks in Hawaii in the waning years of the Hawaiian monarchy, with a mission in mind that threaten’s Nix’s very existence. Lush writing, a plot that effortlessly weaves together past and present, a high-stakes heist, and a completely earned love triangle round out a fantastic fantasy I wish was a series. (Take heart—it is a duology!)

The Mystery of Hollow Places, by Rebecca Podos
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Imogene, a mystery writer’s mystery novel–obsessed daughter, finds herself embroiled in a case of her own when her father goes missing, vanishing as completely as her mother did more than a decade ago. Burying her hurt beneath a hardboiled pose, Imogene draws on everything she has read to find the parents who’ve abandoned her. More than just a mystery, Hollow Places explores what it is to have and to miss a mother, in a wry, self-aware voice I couldn’t resist.

If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo
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Amanda is a new girl in a small town, testing a tentative reconciliation with her estranged father and trying to fit in with new friends and an intriguing crush. But Amanda used to be Andrew, before recognizing, after a hate-fueled attack and suicide attempt, that transitioning was the only way to make her life worth living. Flashbacks to her disorienting years living as Andrew punctuate the book, but primarily the story belongs to Amanda, a gentle beauty whose sense of self-preservation in a normative small town might be outweighed by her desire to share all of herself with the boy she’s falling in love with. An arresting, compassionate reminder of how far some have to go to claim the lives they need to live, written by a transgender author who kicks off with a generous and enlightening foreword.

The Raven King, by Maggie Stiefvater
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Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle started with a dark prophecy: that Blue Sargent, the unmagical daughter of a houseful of female psychics, would kill her true love if she kissed him. Over the course of the first three books, she fell in with the raven boys—doomed Gansey, angry dream thief Ronan, proud, self-sacrificing Adam, and barely-there Noah—helping them on a dangerous quest. Spearheaded by Gansey, the most likely recipient of Blue’s deadly kiss, they sought the resting place of the Welsh king Glendower, believing he’ll grant whoever wakes him a wish. Stiefvater’s storytelling is lyrical and layered, full of sucker-punch twists, creepy darkness, sly humor, and pagan magic. The story concludes with this year’s The Raven King, in which, yes, first kisses are had, lives are lost, and we learn that one of our favorite ships will very much sail. The book is spooky, funny, and enchanting, doing justice to its massive cast and all your unanswered questions.

Girl in Pieces, by Kathleen Glasgow
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When Girl in Pieces begins, narrator Charlie is electively mute. She tells her story—of being dropped half-dead on the lawn of a rehab center, her arms laddered in cuts—in brief narrative bursts. Even her soul can hardly speak. As the story progresses, encompassing her present and the slow march toward homelessness and worse that led her there, she becomes more verbal. Soon the story is tumbling out of her, in spare, assured prose. When she’s released earlier than she’d like from care, and heads to Tucson to live near the last friend she has left, her recovery gets complicated. She lingers at first in the margins of life, making connections that could buoy her or make her drown, and slowly, painfully, starts to scrape together a life. When she becomes wrapped up in the life of a man whose damage might be more than she can handle, the miseries that landed her in rehab threaten to drag her back under—but art may be the lifeline that pulls her back out again. Every small victory Charlie makes will squeeze your heart in this beautifully paced must-read.

Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2), by Leigh Bardugo
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By the end of Bardugo’s mesmerizing supernatural heist epic Six of Crows, Kaz Brekker and his crew had traveled to the very heart of anti-Grisha sentiment in pursuit of their quarry: a prisoner with impossible abilities, ripe to be weaponized. But by book’s end they learn they’ve been used by the powerful man who sent them on their mission, and in Crooked Kingdom they’re once again fighting for survival. This time, their war is on home soil: the filthy, dangerous streets of Ketterdam, where criminal mastermind Kaz is king, and a deadly powerful drug threatens to decimate the world order. Bardugo deftly balances a complicated web of revenge plots, rich character arcs, and a trio of extremely shippable love connections, bringing this white-knuckle duology to an satisfying, heart-tugging close.

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