11 of Our Most Anticipated Debuts of the Second Half of 2016

YA debuts Another season, another crisp stack of YA debuts to lose your heart to. Earlier this year I talked up 15 January–June debuts I adored, now I’m diving face first into amazing releases for the rest of the year. These 11 books by new authors to watch include a metaphysical fantasy bookworms will find irresistible, a daring coming of age that explores cycles of abuse through hip, poetry-packed prose, and a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling unlike any you’ve read.

The Killer in Me, by Margot Harrison (July 12)
When Nina Barrows closes her eyes at night, she doesn’t dream—instead, she sees the world through the eyes of the man she’s come to know as the Thief. She watched his life unfold when he was a child. She watches him now with his girlfriend and her daughter. And she watches, helpless to intervene, as he plans and executes serial murders. With the help of budding filmmaker Warren, and under the guise of finally seeking out her birth mother, Nina goes on a cross-country trip to locate and stop the Thief. But meeting him complicates everything, including her understanding of her own past and the nighttime visions she has been plagued with for as long as she can remember.

Gemini, by Sonya Mukherjee (July 26)
Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins, living with their publicity-shy parents in a tiny California town where they’ve long since ceased to be a spectacle. But high-school graduation is approaching, and the wider world is calling. Despite their mother’s desire to keep them inside the snow globe world she has tried to create for them, Clara and Hailey want more—and, more importantly, they each want different things, despite being linked in a way that makes pursuing them nearly impossible. The girls contend with crushes, judgment, and the terror and wonder of ambition, while deciding whether to allow the bodies they’re in to define their future. Mukherjee enlightens readers curious about a deeply unusual mutation without ever being sensationalistic, and despite their fears Clara and Hailey emerge fully as individuals, not representatives.

Unscripted Joss Byrd, by Lygia Day Peñaflor (August 23)
Though Peñaflor’s Joss is 12, younger than your usual YA heroine, her story and her burdens are those of a much older girl. She’s a rising indie film actress taking on her most challenging role yet: that of Norah, a sexual abuse survivor and the kid sister of Joss’s director, who based the film on his own childhood spent under the eye of an abusive stepfather. On their beachfront set, Joss contends with a role that takes her places she doesn’t want to go, with the dyslexia that dogs her attempt to memorize lines—and with her mother, a complicated figure who’s part best friend and part rabid stage mom. Informed by Peñaflor’s time as an teacher of Hollywood actors, this debut has enough behind the scenes action to hook you, but its main concern is tracking Joss’s tumultuous inner life.

Girl in Pieces, by Kathleen Glasgow (August 30)
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 gets released earlier than she’d like from care, and heads to Tucson to live near the last friend she has left, recovery gets complicated. She lingers at first in the margins, making connections that could buoy her or make her drown, and slowly, painfully, starts to scrape together a life. Every small victory will squeeze your heart in this beautifully paced must-read.

Into White, by Randi Pink (September 13)
Pink’s debut is daring, thought-provoking, and hilarious. It kicks off with African American heroine Toya buffing a scuff out of a bully’s Air Jordans, an episode so humiliating she sends up a Hail Mary prayer to Jesus: that he make her “anything but black.” Jesus not only answers her plea, he does so in person, appearing throughout the book as a Revelation-eyed deity who might just be teaching Toya to be careful what she prays for. In her new guise as lily-white exchange student Katarina, Toya revels at first in her freedoms: to subject her hair to chlorine, to stop worrying about her “badonkadonk,” to be set loose from her “Black skin (that) was filled with so many barriers, so many restrictions.” But after dealing up close with bigoted classmates, a predatorial crush, and alienation from her beloved brother, she starts rethinking her most fervent wish. Pink’s voice is loose but utterly distinct, and her high-concept story is grounded in sharply specific, super-funny prose.

A Song to Take the World Apart, by Zan Romanoff (September 13)
For as long as she can remember, Lorelei has been commanded by the grandmother who raised her never to sing. She lives in a silent house, with a sheepish father, emotionally absent mom, and twin brothers who form their own unit apart from her. Then a scrap of song sneaks out of her mouth outside her crush’s rock show, and soon the two are falling into an intense relationship despite widespread disapproval. That moment of letting her musical guard down leads to more recklessness, as the song inside of her becomes impossible to hold back. But dangerous things happen when she sings, and soon Lorelei is questioning what in her life is real, as she struggles to control a power she doesn’t want and can’t control. This is a page-turning exploration of power and consent and the dark side of desire, a paranormal novel with a truly unique shape.

Rani Patel in Full Effect, by Sonia Patel (September 13)
In prose that is by turns spare and lyrical, and always full of soul, Patel introduces a heroine struggling to break the cycle of abuse. Rani Patel lives with her mother on the Hawaaian island of Moloka’i, carried away from their family support system by Rani’s deadbeat dad. After catching him with another woman, Rani’s rage and pain at this abandonment is complicated by her father’s history of assault and manipulative love. She finds a voice for her pain in rhymes, which she performs with hip-hop crew 4eva Flowin’. But even as Rani’s figuring out who she is without her dad—and what her stalled relationship with her mother can be—the legacy of sexual abuse echoes throughout her dangerous relationship with an older man. Patel pays equal respects to Rani’s damage and to her potential, to her past and to the present and future she’s writing for herself with every rhyme. She presents not only a totally fresh heroine but an underused setting: through Rani you can smell the salt air of Moloka’i, and taste the rose water kulfi her mother makes for her. This book is a must-read.

The Reader, by Traci Chee (September 13)
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—and can get you killed. 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 embarks on a life on the run. She takes only two things from home: her guardian, Aunt Nin, and a mysterious rectangular object she doesn’t dare investigate—until 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, using half-remembered lessons from her childhood. Soon the words in the Book overlap with her reality in mind-bending ways, as she comes ever closer to discovering the truth behind her family past. The Reader combines a decadently visual adventure by land and sea with a meditation on the power of story, to make you a legend while you’re living and to keep you alive once you’re dead.

Beast, by Brie Spangler (October 11)
Maybe you don’t need more information than this: 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 growing!) and the body hair of a Sasquatch. But allow me to gush. 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.

The Weight of Zero, by Karen Fortunati (October 11)
Seventeen-year-old Catherine has felt the full weight of Zero, her name for the depressive low point of her bipolar disorder, and it almost killed her. She knows it’s only a matter of time before Zero comes back to claim her for good, and she’s stockpiling pills to escape when it does. But in the time she has left, she wants to live—to lose her virginity with the sweet classmate who doesn’t treat her like a leper, to find a new BFF in a girl in her outpatient support group, and to exercise her intellectual curiosity as it comes out of hibernation. Accustomed to living in a worst-case scenario, Catherine holds tight to her suicide plan even as her mind and body start coming out of deep freeze with the help of the right meds and therapy. Fortunati depicts a heroine who can’t see light without being reminded of shadow, exploring the sometimes crippling power of a diagnosis through a heroine I was rooting for so hard I was white-knuckling the pages.

Girls in the Moon, by Janet McNally (November 29)
Phoebe Ferris is the daughter of rock royalty, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Her mother, Meg, is a sculptor who fled the spotlight to raise her two daughters alone in upstate New York. Her father craved the fame he and Meg found with their 90s rock band, Shelter, and chose a life making music over being a dad. But now Phoebe’s older sister, Luna, is starting down the path her mother took, gaining momentum with her indie rock band in Brooklyn. When Phoebe goes to stay with her for the last week of summer before her senior year, the visit becomes a compressed voyage of self-discovery: she tracks down the father who stopped calling three years ago, tests her new connection with Luna’s bandmate, and spreads her wings as a nascent lyricist, proving her artistic birthright despite being the only non-musician in a family of savants. McNally is a published poet and it shows, not just in Phoebe’s lyrics but in the simple beauty of her prose. The book also incorporates brief chapters from Meg’s point of view, highlighting key moments in her ascension to Kim Gordon–level rock goddess heights, and her disillusionment with both her marriage and her music.

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