In an epic year for young adult lit, in the midst of a YA golden age, these are the 2015 books that made us laugh, cry, ship, reread, and stay up late, that inspired us to add too many exclamation points to our emails and too many gifs to our online reviews. These are the best of the best reads of the year.
Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell
We first met teen mage Simon Snow, the hero of a beloved fictional fantasy series, in Rowell’s 2013 novel Fangirl. Protag Cath obsessed over Simon, his magical world of mages, and his possibly evil roommate, Baz, writing them into an epic fanfic love story. Rowell’s full-length take on Snow’s story is equal parts high magic and creased reality, as full of awkward pauses and chapped lips as it is epic spells and supernatural mayhem. At the center of her rich, weird, deeply human magical world is Simon and Baz’s quippy, complicated love affair, as imperfect and painfully real as Eleanor and Park’s.
More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera
In Silvera’s knockout debut, Aaron Soto lives with his mom and brother in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, in a near-future world that’s just like our own—but for the existence of a memory-suppressing procedure that allows trauma survivors a chance to live a normal life. Aaron, struggling with his disappointed father’s death and fighting against his attraction to boys, is drawn to the procedure, with all its promise and peril—relief from pain; abandonment of responsibility. But weird science remains at the fringes for most of his story, one of love and expectation and self-discovery, and of declaring yourself to a world that won’t give you a soft landing.
All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
In a chilling echo of the videos of police brutality that have been surfacing online with horrific frequency, All-American Boys hinges on an encounter between a black teen and a white cop that ends in a videotaped assault. Varsity athlete Quinn is connected to both men: he’s a classmate of beaten teen Rashad, and the de facto nephew of cop Paul, older brother of his best friend. In a taut, topical tale cowritten by Reynolds and Kiely, respectively taking on the narration of Rashad and Quinn, the aftermath of that violence has a long-reaching impact on the teens, their school, and the entire community. This painful story, unflinchingly told, is a must-read for anyone who has watched with horror as name after name becomes posthumous hashtags.
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Bone Gap is a dense, weird, magical realistic fairy tale about a girl whose beauty makes her a target, and a boy whose sight works differently from everyone else’s. It’s about the dangers and delights of seeing and being seen. It alternates between the contemporary small town where teenaged Finn has been raised by his stoic older brother, Sean, since their mom skipped town, and the enchanted hinterland where Sean’s girlfriend, Roza, is being held by a terrifying figure out of fairy tales. Enigmatic Roza washed up on the boys’ property after some mysterious trauma, and both fell in love with her in their own way. When she’s kidnapped by the man she was running from, Finn is the only witness, and his inability to save her haunts him. With the help of a bee-eyed girl and his slow discovery of his own strengths, he sets out to bring Rosa home.
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
Bardugo’s new series starter takes place in the world of the Grisha trilogy, but you don’t need to know a thing about it to be instantly swept up into the tale of a crew of gifted thieves banding together to pull off an impossible heist. The supernaturally talented Grisha are hunted as abominations and used as slaves, and someone has created a drug that amplifies their abilities to a terrifying degree. In pursuit of a life-changing reward, Kaz, a brilliant criminal mastermind with a haunted past, pursues the creator of the drug right into the Ice Palace, the perilously well-protected heart of anti-Grisha sentiment. Each twist of the tale will leave you more astonished at what Bardugo, a near-supernatural storyteller, can pull off.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
This first-love story about two boys who meet on a high school Tumblr and fall in love through anonymous emails is joyful, immensely satisfying, and so quotable you’ve got to read it with a stack of Post-its. Simon knows his family and friends will be cool with him coming out, but he isn’t quite ready to test the theory…until classmate Martin sees an email he shouldn’t, jeopardizing both Simon’s privacy and that of “Blue,” his correspondent and crush. The threat of Martin blabbing, and the price of his silence—he wants to get in good with Simon’s pretty friend—provide impetus to the story, but the larger focus is on Simon’s quest to identify Blue, pick the right time to come out, and try to grow into the person he’s meant to be.
Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older
Older’s supernatural thriller is deeply, deliciously rooted in its setting, a contemporary Brooklyn thrumming with life, diversity, and strangeness. It follows Bed-Stuy teen Sierra from surviving a walking dead attack at a summer party to discovering and claiming her dangerous birthright, as a manipulator of spirits who gain life through her street art. In between painting murals, running from beasties, and unraveling the rules of an ancient supernatural order, Sierra sits down for a makeover from her BFF, worries (just a little) about her belly ponch, and dances around the possibility of a gifted boy who might be worth her while. Voice for days and a heroine you just can’t quit.
The Game of Love and Death, by Martha Brockenbrough
In this shape-shifting, gorgeous novel, Love and Death—in the forms of a dapper man with a fever-inducing touch, and an uncanny woman who hungers for souls—run a high-stakes game, in which Death has always won. Each chooses a human player, creating a couple that will either choose love, and therefore life, or separation, and death. Previous players have included Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Romeo and Juliet—and now Flora, an African American pilot and jazz singer, and Henry, a white musician and errant foster son to a rich newspaperman. Love and Death take on human shapes and insinuate themselves into the story, as Flora and Henry must decide, in the face of terrible obstacles, whether to choose each other. The book gets better with every page.
Fans of the Impossible Life, by Kate Scelsa
Sebby and Mira are best friends and soul mates, clinging together in a world that continually disappoints them. Friendless Jeremy, traumatized after being outed by school bullies, can hardly believe his luck when they take him under their wing—and when Sebby maybe, possibly, starts becoming his boyfriend. But not all damage is created equal, and even Mira’s quicksand depression and Jeremy’s past can’t help them understand foster child Sebby’s hunger for annihilation, which threatens to tear their three-person world apart. Scelsa has created a gorgeous portrait of an all-consuming friendship touched by magic and ritual and mutual need. It’s told in alternating perspectives between the three friends, with dialogue so funny and true you’ll want to read it aloud.
The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow
Bow imagines a decimated future world in which wars over resources led to the uprising of Talis, a soulless yet folksy AI who took over the faltering planet and instated order via mass murder. Four centuries later, that order is kept in place by the revival of an old practice: the children of world powers are kept hostage till age 18 in a pastoral prison run by machines. If their parent regions declare or are drawn into war, their lives are forfeit. Princess Greta of Halifax is counting down the months to freedom, but always expecting a noble death, knowing her kingdom is on the brink of war with Cumberland. But the arrival of an angry new hostage and seeing her roommate, Xie, through new eyes introduces love and rebellion into Greta’s battened-down heart.
Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy
Murphy’s sophomore novel is a sharp and funny rebel yell that’ll hook you from the killer cover to the last page. Put Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on repeat and binge-read the story of Willowdean—known by her image-obsessed pageant judge mother as Dumplin’—and her complicated decision to enter the pageant, haters be damned. She’s a complex heroine, equal parts bravado and self-doubt, who accepts her identity as a fat girl but struggles to accept love when it finds her. In her efforts to take on the pageant industrial complex, she fights against becoming a symbol or an inspiration: she’s just herself, and that’s enough.
The Winner’s Crime, by Marie Rutkoski
Book two in Rutkoski’s epic trilogy, which opened with 2013’s The Winner’s Crime, is gorgeously imagined, breathlessly plotted, and deeply felt. It’s set in an Ancient Rome–influenced world in which Kestrel, a general’s daughter and member of the Valorian upper class, falls in love with Arin, the Herrani slave and rebel she purchased in a moment of misplaced mercy. In book one they circle each other under the increasingly suspicious watch of Kestrel’s fellow Valorians, till an act of rebellion by one and self-sacrifice by the other tears them apart. In book two, they’re back on separate sides of a seemingly unbridgeable divide. Kestrel’s among my all-time favorite heroines, a strong-willed, practical girl with a strategic warrior’s mind and a pacifist’s heart. You’ll swoon every time she and Arin share a page.
The Accident Season, by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Cara is the daughter of a family afflicted every October by the “accident season,” when they’re dogged by disasters ranging from scrapes to death. In the waning days of this year’s accident season, she starts noticing dark omens: a mysteriously missing classmate who shows up in the background of all her photos, a malevolent man who looks like her long-gone stepfather following her through town. The brewing weirdness—and her need for a distraction from her feelings for her stepbrother—inspire Cara to take a risk, spending the last day of the accident season throwing a wild Halloween party in an abandoned house on the edge of town, that just might hold the answers to the secrets of her past. Fowley-Doyle’s magical realism is both transporting and purposeful, weaving a narrative web that will haunt you.
Under a Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee
If your only experience with the Oregon Trail is the video game in which your family keeps dying of cholera, you need this book. If you love ballsy, tough-as-nails girl protagonists, you need this book. If you like adventure stories of any stripe, yes, you need this book. During the Gold Rush days in a bustling Missouri town, recently orphaned Chinese American teen Samantha commits an accidental but righteous crime. She and new friend Annamae, an African American slave, dress as boys and flee, setting off on a dangerous trek along the famous trail. Falling in with a trio of cowboys both helps and complicates their journey, and the integration of the girls’ background and beliefs and Lee’s impeccable research make the story unputdownable.
Making Pretty, by Corey Ann Haydu
This book, about a teen girl struggling to stay close with her sister as growing up conspires to drive them apart, is a million love stories rolled into one. Montana has a wild, intriguing new best friend, a boy she’s falling for too fast, and a heady adoration of her New York City home. But when sister Arizona breaks their pledge to never have plastic surgery—a response to their surgeon father’s disdain for natural beauty—it’s the beginning of a rift between them, widened by Montana’s bond with new bestie Karissa and boyfriend Bernardo, as well as their perpetually remarried father’s latest relationship. Montana tries to locate the core of herself over the course of one hot, tempestuous summer, in a story that’s as heady and addictive as cold coffee. I’ve rarely read a more accurate depiction of what it feels like to be 17.
Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon
Yoon’s debut has a huge heart and vast emotional landscape, despite spending most of its pages within the walls of one house. There, 17-year-old Madeline lives with her mother behind air-tight doors, in sterilized air. She has a rare and deadly condition known as “bubble baby disease,” which essentially means she’s allergic to the world. But she’s not immune to longing for what she sees through the windows: seasons she’s cut off from, friends she can’t make…and the boy next door, with whom she begins a slow-blooming romance via instant message. But Maddy quickly realizes there’s no such thing as “enough” when it comes to beginning to really live, and soon she’s taking risks that could be fatal—or could expand her world beyond what she imagined possible.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Novik’s standalone fantasy feels both completely fresh and like something you might find on the classics shelf, right between Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. It’s the timeless, vivid story of a pragmatic village girl turned novice and the quarrelsome wizard who reluctantly becomes her mentor. It cleverly subverts the chosen one trope, takes a fresh approach to the irresistible enemies-turned-lovers plotline, and introduces a concrete, intelligent magic system, a medievalish world of conflicting social spheres, and a nearly indomitable supernatural horror.
Conviction, by Kelly Loy Gilbert
A son’s testimony may decide whether his father goes to prison or walks free in this wrenching, sure-footed drama that takes on a painful family history and the aftermath of a fatal hit and run. Braden’s demanding, morally self-righteous father, an evangelical radio host, is on trial for killing a cop, Braden one of just two witnesses on the foggy highway when it happened. In the weeks before he’ll be forced to testify, Braden, a star pitcher with a powerful Christian faith, has to take a hard look at the man his father is, what he did to drive Braden’s absentee older brother away, and what Braden is willing to give up in pursuit of the truth.
I’ll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios
In a flyspeck town full of dead-end lives, Skylar is determined to make college her escape route—until, the summer after senior year, her mother’s job loss puts her future in peril. It becomes even harder to leave when she starts falling for Afghanistan veteran and amputee Josh, her coworker at oddball motel The Paradise. Demetrios vividly evokes the comforting, choking rhythms of small-town life and the complications of early love, and pulled me so deeply into Skylar’s head I found myself suffering a fairly serious case of all the feels. It was worth it.
The Truth Commission, by Susan Juby
This book floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. What starts out as a funny art school romp, told in the form of a creative nonfiction project complete with footnotes, deepens into something more affecting and infuriating, a lacerating story about the nature of narrative ownership, truth telling, and the boundaries of what an artist can co-opt for their art. After Normandy Pale and her two best friends start the Truth Commission, devoted to asking the questions everybody thinks but doesn’t say, submerged mysteries in Normandy’s own life start coming to the surface. Like what, exactly, is going on with her brilliant graphic novelist sister—and is her tendency to draw stories from her family’s life a right or a trespass?
All the Rage, by Courtney Summers
This enraging book should be required reading for teens entering those perilous years when adults can no longer serve as their last line of protection. Romy Grey is in a quiet hell following her rape by one of her small town’s most beloved boys, betrayed by her best friend and relying on nothing more than red lipstick and nail polish to armor herself against the gauntlet of cruelty she walks each day. There are small mercies in her life—a boy who cares for her, and knows that no is no; a newly happy home life after the departure of her deadbeat dad—but Summers makes sure we know there’s no such thing as an easy fix following such a complete violation.
The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore’s writing is so densely beautiful, with such surprising imagery, you’ll want to read it slowly and aloud. This slow-blooming, forbidden love story between a girl with scales and a boy with feathers, from rival performing families who simmer with bad blood, is smartly set in a recognizably mundane world of gas station runs and small-town poverty, a choice that keeps its enchantments grounded. Cluck Corbeau is the overlooked son of a tree-walking aerialist family, Lace Paloma the daughter of a family of performing mermaids, exiled after rescue by Cluck marks her with his fatal Corbeau touch. Their love will endanger them both, and untangle their families’ poisonous pasts.