This year’s best of the best new YA books include ubiquitous must-reads, unexpected gems from beloved authors, fantasies both insistently fresh and in the mode of timeless classics, and addictive contemporaries with stellar voice and huge heart. They take us to mystical lost cities, lovingly wrought urban neighborhoods, and the insides of their character’s heads. In a year when escaping into books felt as crucial as being educated by them, these were the 25 most necessary reads we got our hands on.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Thomas’s Black Lives Matter–inspired debut has spent months atop the bestseller list, gained fans around the world, and become a kind of shorthand for a much-needed wave of fiction examining police brutality against black communities (for a slightly earlier take, see also: last year’s excellent All American Boys). But at the heart of the hype is the wonderful story of Starr Carter, sole witness to her childhood friend’s killing by a white cop during a traffic stop. THUG is a breathless, topical, and heartbreaking take on an issue that trends with horrifying frequency, but it’s also a warm, hilarious look at the life of a family and a neighborhood, rendered with vivid, loving specificity. Thomas’s eye for telling detail is true, her dialogue is perfect, and her characters are so concisely drawn you can see every one of them with stunning clarity. I cannot wait for her sophomore novel to hit the shelves, or the THUG adaptation to hit the big screen.
Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
Turtles came in on a wave of concentrated hype, with just a handful of months elapsing between its announcement and its release. All hype aside, Green’s first book since mega bestseller The Fault in Our Stars delivers the expected blend of funny/sad feels but goes darker, taking a deep dive into the cyclical, bullying terrain of its heroine’s mental landscape. Like Green, Aza suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the book’s gentle plot arc—Aza reconnects with a boy from her past, tries with her indomitable best friend to track down that boy’s wildly wealthy tax criminal father, and navigates her loving, frustrating relationship with her widowed mother—is lain alongside the inescapable whirlpool of her thoughts. The book manages to be both satisfying and delicately incomplete, with an elegiac ending that expands its scope and highlights, excitingly, the maturation of Green’s talents and range.
Caraval, by Stephanie Garber
This fantasy debut (and duology starter) is a synesthetic delight, carrying readers away to a dream city of luminous magic and dark secrets, all seen through an enchanted haze that blurs the lines between real and make-believe. Scarlett Dragna is the abused daughter of a brutal man living on an island in a distant world. She sees marriage to the mysterious count with whom she has been exchanging letters as her only chance for escape—but her wild younger sister, Tella, has different ideas. The sisters have always longed to attend Caraval, a floating annual game in which participants navigate a fantastical arena in pursuit of a supernatural prize. A pair of free tickets from Caraval’s elusive ringmaster, Legend, leads the sisters into the heart of the game, where one will go missing and one will risk losing herself to Legend’s dangerous enchantments.
Far from the Tree, by Robin Benway
This National Book Award winner twines the stories of three teens connected by a birth mother, who meet for the first time after middle sister Grace gives her own baby up for adoption. Youngest child Maya is dealing with issues of her own, as her adoptive family disintegrates under the force of her mother’s alcoholism, and Joaquin, the only one of the three who wasn’t adopted as a baby, finds himself detonating the good things in his life, pulling away from both his beloved girlfriend and the foster parents who want to adopt him. Benway examines love, belonging, and different definitions of family through a delicate network of connections—platonic and romantic, blood and otherwise—as the three work up the courage to seek out the mother who cut off all contact when she gave them away. Grace’s story is particularly moving, as she learns how to survive the loss of “Peach,” the baby whose life she determined would be better with another family, but whose delivery room cry still haunts her.
La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust series #1), by Philip Pullman
Pullman’s return to the world of his beloved Dark Materials trilogy, set years before the events of The Golden Compass, is worth the 17-year wait. Malcolm, a kind and curious 11-year-old, is drawn into the world of alethiometers and science vs. magic/church vs. all things good when a baby is left in the care of the priory just across the river from his parents’ inn. He’s fascinated with the child, six-month-old Lyra Bellacqua, whose role in a prophecy places her at the center of a grand custody battle. Malcolm’s small world becomes populated with scholars and lords, evil men and church toadies, before a flood to end all floods sweeps the usual order away. In a transformed, postdiluvian world, Malcolm and companion Alice travel down the swollen waters with little Lyra, encountering menace and magic in increasingly surreal vignettes. The rigor of Pullman’s richly wrought otherworld—one of violent religious zealots, bureaucratic oppressors, and a mixture of enchantment and scientific study—continues to entrance, and his soulful, earthbound hero is a fine foil to baby Lyra, whose mischief and brilliance are beautifully expressed through Pantalaimon’s transformations.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee
This gorgeously written love story comes across like a wildly charming romantic romp, then bops you over the head with emotional depth and prose you can’t quit. Monty and Percy are set to take the Continent by storm, before settling into the lives their parents have planned for them: Monty will step into his detestable father’s shoes, and Percy is destined for something much darker. But Monty is distracted by his highly inconvenient feels for Percy, and their well-laid plans go up in smoke when they become the targets of a manhunt after Monty sort-of-accidentally steals a mysterious object from a royal hanger-on. With Monty’s steely sister, Felicity, in tow, the boys set off on a far different tour than expected…and Monty discovers his love for Percy may not be so unrequited after all. And great news for everyone who has already fallen in love with this devastatingly charming trio: Felicity is getting her own book!
American Street, by Ibi Zoboi
Fabiola leaves Haiti to claim her piece of the American dream, but when her mother is indefinitely detained, it casts a shadow over Fabiola’s new Detroit life with her aunt and trio of tough-as-nails cousins. Zoboi’s debut is set in America but never forgets its heroine’s Haitian roots, seen in the texture of her homesickness, the food she cooks, the Creole that colors her words, and the Haitian voudou beliefs that give her story a magical realistic flavor. As Fabiola falls in love, navigates her family’s extralegal activities, and takes increasingly desperate risks to bring her mother safely to her side, she’s watched over by an old busker who may be Papa Legba in disguise, and sees aspects of Haitian spirits in her family members and in the violent boyfriend her cousin can’t seem to leave. Fabiola is a steely, pure-hearted heroine whose beautifully specific American journey reminds readers this is a nation of immigrants.
Jane, Unlimited, by Kristin Cashore
Graceling author Cashore’s first standalone novel is a genre mashup with an intriguing setup: Jane is a grieving 18-year-old whose Aunt Magnolia, her de facto mother, has recently died while working in Antarctica. Just before the trip, her aunt delivered an odd final request: that Jane accept any invitation she receives to the grand estate Tu Reviens. Soon a chance encounter leads Jane to the massive, Frankensteinish house, where she finds herself amid a cast of variously shady characters on the eve of a gala. At the end of the book’s first section, Jane is at a crossroads: she can follow one of five paths, each of which may help her answer a burning question, from determining what’s behind other guests’ strange behavior to untangling her aunt’s connection to Tu Reviens. Across the five ensuing segments, Jane’s story skates among genres, including mystery, horror, and portal fantasy, each building in some way on the last. It’s an epic performance from one of YA’s best fantasy authors.
An Enchantment of Ravens, by Margaret Rogerson
One of the best fantasies you’ll read this year, Rogerson’s debut follows a young portrait artist specializing in painting the dangerous Fair Folk deep into the fairy-tale woods. Isobel lives in the enchanted town of Whimsy, perched at the edge of fairyland. There, she practices her Craft alongside other artisans, all of whom trade their creations for fey enchantments, ranging from the foolish (bright eyes at the cost of an early death) to the practical (in Isobel’s case, inexhaustible eggs and firewood). When she makes the mistake of painting human sorrow into the eyes of Rook, the Autumn Prince, he drags her away to stand trial for the crime. But on the way to his court they encounter even more-deadly threats, from faerie beasts to the threat of immortality promised by the Green Well, where the fey’s favored craftspeople drink. The most dangerous threat of all? The possibility of falling in love, which will put their lives at risk. This book is gorgeously written and bracingly smart, and feels like a newly discovered classic.
The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli
Albertalli’s heartwarming, wise, eminently quotable sophomore book proves (as if we needed it) that her debut was just the beginning. Molly’s story takes place in the same universe as Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but it focuses on new characters. Molly’s a maestro of unrequited crushes, but it has never bothered her so much as it does now that her twin sister and BFF, Cassie, is falling for a just-right girl and, maybe, pulling away from Molly. Then two boys enter her life: one the extremely cute, seemingly interested friend of Cassie’s new girlfriend, who comes highly pre-approved, and the other her new coworker Reid, a Ren Faire-loving, white-sneaker-wearing nerd who could be just the thing to break Molly’s unrequited streak—if she can get over her fears of whether her friends will accept him. Alongside her journey is that of her mothers, finally getting married in the wake of the nationwide legalization of gay marriage, and of Cassie, navigating her own first-love feels. Albertalli knows a thing or two about the way crushes, heartbreak, and growing pains feel, and she’ll make you feel it, too.
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Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor
In her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, a portal fantasy spanning Earth and the angel- and chimaera-populated land of Eretz, Taylor established her bona fides as a creator of rich, expansive worlds, author of impossible love stories, and spinner of narrative spells. In Strange the Dreamer, the first in a planned duology, she introduces a less likely hero: Lazlo Strange, an orphan-turned-librarian whose obsession with the lost city of Weep leads him, finally, to its borders. Years ago Weep’s hero, known as the Godslayer, killed the supernatural beings that held their city in thrall, but they left a dark legacy behind that he’s battling to erase. Meanwhile, a blue-skinned goddess girl and her supernaturally gifted companions walk the halls of an empty citadel, surviving on plums and rainwater. When the girl and Lazlo meet inside a dream, it’s the beginning of one of those lush, long-shot love stories Taylor excels at, from opposite sides of a seemingly unbreachable divide. TL;DR: this book is too heady and stuffed with gorgeous prose to describe in a blurb. Just read it.
We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour
This slender, gorgeous tale opens on an east coast dorm, emptying out for the winter holidays. As her classmates head home, Marin steels herself for days of isolation, broken only by a visit from her best friend, Mabel. Despite previously sharing everything, including a brief but heady romance, Marin left Mabel behind without warning following the sudden death of her grandfather, her only known relative. Two stories unfold in tandem: the tentative, delicately wrought detente between the two girls in the present day, as they navigate both the snowbound college campus and their own emotional baggage, and Marin’s former life in San Francisco, full of hazy beach days, a passionate love for her home city, and a warm but incomplete relationship with her grandparent-guardian, whose passing ripped more than one hole in her life.
When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon
This book is a hug you can carry, but it’s also a smart exploration of how hard it can be to hold onto who you are and what you want if you dare to let someone else in. Dimple is a hardheaded coder who dreams of making life-saving apps and fights hard against her traditional Indian mother’s expectations (makeup, marriage, mini-Dimples). Rishi is a born romantic, deeply respectful of tradition and his parents’ wishes and sacrifice. The two first-generation Americans meet at Insomnia Con, a coders’ paradise where Dimple hopes to win the grand prize and Rishi hopes to win Dimple, whose parents have failed to reveal they sent her to the con in order to throw her together with their friends’ son. Despite her initial rage, Dimple finds herself falling for Rishi, and the two must navigate parental hopes, the even heavier burden of self-expectations, and nefarious fellow con attendees on their way to a happy-ending romance (complete with a Bollywood dance number).
Confessions of a High School Disaster, by Emma Chastain
A diary-style contemporary tale made crazy bingeable by way of its Austen-level observational wit, Confessions of a High School Disaster is funny and painfully real. Over the course of 365 diary entries covering her freshman year, Chloe Snow has high highs—school play stardom! Flirtation with a sexy upperclassman!—and low lows—BFF awkwardness, sort of accidentally trying to steal the coolest girl in school’s boyfriend—all under the shadow of missing her mom, who has jetted off to Mexico to finally finish her novel. Chloe is a hilariously sharp teen, who grows up a little bit (but not too much) during a year of disasters both comic and heart-tugging. But the real reason I’ll keep reading this book again and again is the way it exactly captures, say, the geeky wonderfulness of good dads, or the self-possessed feeling of artistic success, or the way guilt can twist itself until you end up hating the victims of your own bad behavior. By centering on and poking at one girl’s comically narrow perceptions of herself and the world, Confessions offers up insights on growing up that will make you cringe-laugh.
City of Saints and Thieves, by Natalie C. Anderson
Tiny lives in an abandoned building in the fictional African city of Sangui, pledging her allegiance to the Goondas gang and honing her revenge plot against the man who killed her mother: rich, white Mr. Greyhill, with whom she lived when she was small. Tiny’s mother was both his maid and his mistress before her murder, and police incompetence and greased palms meant nobody ever paid for her death. When Tiny is caught hacking Greyhill’s computer by his son—and her childhood playmate—Michael, the two strike a deal: if he can prove his father isn’t the murderer, she won’t turn him in for other evidence of crime found on his computer. Together they descend into the dark heart of the Congo, where the dead woman’s secrets are buried, as Tiny’s gangland past closes in on her and the murder case she believed to be cut and dry widens into a net of conspiracies and buried traumas, all set against the lush, corrupt background of a land warred over by militia, police, and other ruthless survivors.
Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner
The long-awaited fifth installment in Whalen Turner’s classic Queen’s Thief series is an epic bromance and road novel that unfolds in real time. An unnamed Attolian (whom we’ve met before) escorts Kamet, former right-hand slave to the arrogant, thwarted suitor first seen in The Queen of Attolia, across the dangerous terrain of the Mede empire, at the behest of the distant Attolian king. Following his Mede master’s murder, Kamet leaves only certain death behind, but plans to flee the Attolian at the first possible opportunity, taking his chances alone on the road. Instead the two men bond over near-death experience, a fragile but growing trust, and, of course, storytelling, as Whalen Turner delves into the mythology of yet another people in her impeccably built fantasy world. As ever, the preternaturally insightful and constantly underestimated Eugenides has a hand in everything that occurs, and figuring out just what that entails is the cherry on the book’s fantasy sundae. (Coincidentally my favorite ice-cream order.)
Now I Rise, by Kiersten White
The sequel to And I Darken, one of our favorite books of 2016, has finally arrived, telling the second chapter in the story of fierce Lada, a genderbent Vlad the Impaler; her brother, Radu, who excels at more insidious forms of statesmanship; and Mehmed, the young, conquest-hungry sultan they both love. Mehmed has his sights set on taking Constantinople, Lada longs to reclaim her homeland of Wallachia, and Radu is caught between loyalty to the man who may never love him back, and the sister whose love always felt double-edged. Again White delivers beautifully researched historical fiction populated with imperfect characters who do terrible things in the name of love, religion, patriotism, and revenge. This is alt history at its most engrossing.
Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor
In 2011’s beloved Akata Witch, novice magic worker Sunny, a 12-year-old American-born Nigerian whose albinism makes her even more of an outsider, learns she’s a magical Leopard person in a world of lambs. Okorafor leads her into the magical otherworld of Leopard Knocks, where acts of magic call down showers of currency and figures both wholly original and inspired by African folklore run wild. In long-awaited follow-up Akata Warrior, Sunny continues her training, walks among worlds, and moves closer to a foretold battle of apocalyptic proportions. Okorafor ‘s Nigeria is a palimpsest, where magic bleeds through the fabric of contemporary life: the perpetrators of a terrible initiation ritual find their all-too-human evil outmatched by a supernatural nightmare; a pond in a field turns out to be the magically summoned abode of a deep-water monster; a marketplace is turned uninhabitable by a dread-bringing spell and the mischief of a magical creature. More than in Akata Witch, Okorafor braids together Sunny’s mundane family life with her magical one, which has consequences including a nearly deadly punishment after she puts the secrets of the Leopard world at risk. Akata Warrior is a wholly original tale and feat of fantasy worldbuilding by an author whose gifts of invention feel endless.
A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares, by Krystal Sutherland
Sutherland’s sophomore novel is very funny and deeply sad, deftly combining a broken family history and a supernatural curse with the satisfying trope of a bucket list. Esther’s family is cursed with mortal fears, each developing a debilitating terror of the very thing that will one day kill them. She believes that by cataloguing every potentially scary thing and avoiding it forever, she might be able to dodge the grip of the Big Bad Fear that will destroy her life, but changes her tune when she reunites with childhood friend Jonah. Soon the two are facing down her fears one by one, with Jonah as cameraman. But Esther remains on the lookout for Death, as embodied by the ageless reaper her grandfather met during the Vietnam War, a run-in that kicked off the curse. The book is an appealing love story that takes on darker themes, including the costs of mental illness on families, rendered in beautiful prose.
Like Water, by Rebecca Podos
Podos’ sophomore novel, after 2016’s The Mystery of Hollow Places, is a complicated coming of age that glitters with sensory descriptions of swimming, of sex, of first love and aquatic performance and seeing the person you’re crazy about out in the wild. Recent high school grad Savannah never felt trapped by the boundaries of her tiny New Mexico hometown, until the day she realized escape might be beyond her grasp: her father’s Huntington’s diagnosis endangers both her family’s restaurant business and Savannah’s own health, as she counts down the weeks until she can get tested for the disease. She expects to fill those weeks with laps swum, forgettable boys kissed, and restaurant shifts clocked. But her summer looks up when she gets a job as a mermaid at a newly opened waterpark, and starts to fall for Leigh, the rough-edged sister of a fellow park employee. As Savannah’s feelings for Leigh deepen, she must navigate both her own laden emotional terrain and that of her new girlfriend and, perhaps, first love.
Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds
Reynolds brief, knockout novel in verse is a thoroughly modern ghost story. It follows the grieving brother of a young man killed in a retributive act of gun violence, who’s setting out to continue the vicious cycle by killing the man he believes is responsible. But as he makes his way by elevator from his apartment to the street, gun tucked into his waistband, reality buckles and ghosts come in. On each floor, a different spirit from his past enters the elevator, each offering their perspective on the costs and perverse draw of gun violence, from the childhood friend slaughtered by an errant bullet to a fellow foot soldier in the never-ending war of eye for an eye. This vivid book pulls no punches, and ends on a note that’s just elliptical enough to ensure it’ll be on your mind for days.
Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson
In Anderson’s latest dark futuristic vision, the vuvv, a super-advanced alien race, have taken over Earth, bringing with them impossibly efficient medicine and technology that renders most human skill sets obsolete. In the resulting world order, wealthy humans live in beautiful buildings floating above the wasted landscape, while the have-nots suffer and die from treatable diseases, unable to scrape together the money to support themselves or pay for vuvv medicine. To save his family, talented teen artist Adam is exploiting one path out of poverty: performing as half of a 1950s-style pay-per-view couple with his new girlfriend, Chloe, complete with doo-wop and chaste kisses, for the midcentury-obsessed vuvv overlords. But when their real-life romance goes south, he has to rethink his survival plan, in a pitch-black tale that’s nevertheless deeply funny and infused with hope.
In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
Brennan’s fantasy follows irritating, fire-haired 11-year-old Elliot over a magical wall and into the Borderlands, an otherworld where humans and a multitude of fantasy races are permanently in and out of war. Though he’s a pain in the ass, Elliot is also a staunch, outspoken pacifist, and sets about learning the ins and outs of interspecies diplomacy. But that’s just the basic shape of this extremely funny, sneakily moving coming-of-age riff on classic portal fic, which finds Elliot thrown into an anti-Harry/Ron/Hermione trio with sun-touched human Luke Sunborn, of the warlike Sunborn clan, and Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, a female elf whose race reveres men as the gentler, fairer sex, a conceit Brennan mines for endless hilarity and insight. The book is rangy and warm, encompassing Elliot’s entire school career and his slow bloom from unloved son and reflexively aggressive smartest jerk in the room to good man, good friend, and good diplomat, as he discovers his strengths, his bisexuality, and his worthiness of being loved. It’s hard to do justice in a blurb to the sweet, hilarious satisfactions of this book, so you should just read it.
Midnight at the Electric, by Jodi Lynn Anderson
I’ve been hooked on Anderson’s work since Tiger Lily, her luminous, feminist take on Neverland. In Midnight, the stories of three girls, separated by distance and decades, come together into one moving tapestry of tales. Adri is a Kansas girl in 2065 who’s about to leave everything she knows behind for a life on Mars—then discovers a more than century-old journal that engrosses her in an earthbound mystery. Catherine lives in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl with her family in 1934, and is on the cusp of a life-changing sacrifice. Lenora is a grieving British girl planning to emigrate to America the year after World War I ends. Their stories dovetail in satisfying ways, in a confidently quiet book that’ll get its hooks in you.
Song of the Current, by Sarah Tolcser
Tolcser’s debut, set in a watery world of nature gods, royal intrigue, and the river-faring life, is a good old-fashioned irresistible fantasy adventure. Caro is a wherryman’s daughter, sailing up and down the river delivering goods with a side of smuggling. But when she’s blackmailed into making a dangerous run without her father, who will be held in prison until her return, it makes her life a lot more complicated—and her horizons a lot bigger. The world building is beautifully done, weaving a slow, convincing spell, and life on Caro’s wherry is rich with sharp detail and an undertone of magic. The combative relationship between her and her unwanted cargo, an alleged courier with a secret, shades satisfyingly into something richer. And all along there’s the tingling sense of something more under the surface of her life: like the wherries’ river god, speaking to his chosen people from beneath the water, there’s something bubbling up in Caro, a mystery that starts with strange dreams and hints at a bigger magical destiny to come. This is second-world fantasy you won’t want to miss.