It’s an overwhelming and amazing thing, how many great young adult lit books come out every year, but it also means no one can possibly get to all of them. So often the books we reach for are the ones we see everywhere, whether through ads or Best Of lists or nominations. But then there are the hidden gems that aren’t quite as ubiquitous—sometimes because they’re quiet, sometimes because they just didn’t get the marketing, and sometimes simply because they came out too early or late in the year. Here are some of the great YAs from last year I think deserve more notice than they got.
These Gentle Wounds by Helene Dunbar
Grief, PTSD, abuse…they’re all relevant topics, and they’re all covered beautifully in Dunbar’s quiet debut, about a boy named Gordie who’s the sole survivor of his mother’s driving him and his siblings into a river five years earlier. Now he’s living with his half-brother and stepfather, but when his biological father returns to his life, Gordie will need to open up to others to survive what may come next. Emotional, intense, and containing one of my favorite brotherly relationships in YA, this book has also left me very much looking forward to Dunbar’s sophomore novel, What Remains, out this May.
When I Was the Greatest, by Jason Reynolds
This is a recommendation I’m taking on faith, as I haven’t read it myself yet (though Reynolds’ follow-up, The Boy in the Black Suit, was my first book purchase of the new year). But the love I’ve seen for this book is so wholehearted and prevalent, I had to give it a shoutout. What excerpts I’ve read of both books positively bleed strong voice, and books set in lower-income areas are so few and far between that the good ones definitely need their due. Basically, don’t make the same mistake I did by waiting to pick up one of Reynolds’ titles; I remedied this error for myself, and so can you!
Rites of Passage, by Joy N. Hensley
This book was big among my YA reader friends, but wasn’t nearly as prevalent on Best Of lists as I thought it should’ve been. I’d been dying for a YA set in military school, and this one not only delivered but did so with a female main character and such fully fleshed-out worldbuilding that it left no doubt the author had intimate knowledge of this life. It’s basically the combination of The Lords of Discipline and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks you didn’t even know you were looking for but desperately need.
Wish You Were Italian, by Kristin Rae
There are surprisingly few books set abroad, considering the vast numbers of YA books published in a given year, and given all the (well-deserved!) love Anna and the French Kiss gets for its fabulous Parisian setting, I definitely expected more attention to be paid to this one. Rae makes fantastic use of the sights and sounds (and tastes!) of Italy here, and nearly ten years after my lone trip to Florence and Rome, her debut took me back there in a heartbeat.
The Other Way Around, by Sashi Kaufman
This book is such a unique trip, I honestly don’t even know what to compare it to, but I do know those who love diverse casts of quirky characters should be giving it a look. Centered around a boy who runs away and joins a group of dumpster-diving, circus-performing freegans, it’s an enchanting, funny, unique exploration of humanity and a journey of self-discovery.
The Chance You Won’t Return, by Annie Cardi
About eighty-five percent of the experience of reading this book about a girl whose mother is mentally ill is feeling like Cardi is squeezing your insides in a vise. Alex’s pain at effectively losing her mother is practically tangible, and perhaps even more brutal is watching her father struggle so hard to be supportive and slowly lose it. This book might break your heart, but it’s a worthwhile kind of pain.
Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass
It’s a tricky thing, being released at the very end of the year, because you’ve missed the cutoff for both holiday shopping and inclusion on end-of-year lists. But this is a book that hit me so hard, I’d be remiss not to shove it into the hands of others like me who love thoughtful, uncomfortable contemporary YA. Bass so poignantly captures the feeling of watching yourself lose those you care about and being powerless to stop it. It’s a great examination of the way we try to force ourselves to feel a certain way, to be careless when in fact we’re anything but.
Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
You know those books you think are so excellent you expect them to be the titles no one can shut up about for the rest of the year? That was Pointe for me, and it kills me that it wasn’t so. We’ve seen ballet books, and eating disorder books, and abduction books, but nothing that combined all those things together in the marvelous and subtly trope-subverting way Colbert managed in her debut. Theo was one of the most fabulous and layered main characters I encountered all year, and if you haven’t yet met her and the other true, morally gray characters of this book, it’s never too late.