Every fall the “Adult Books 4 Teens” reviewers come together to nominate, discuss, and select the best reading of the year for a list that guarantees a combination of excellence and appeal to young adults.
It’s hardly unusual to find debut novels among our best of the year, but nine out of 21 seems high. Wonderful stories abound, from the romance of The Sea of Tranquility to the self-discovery of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, from the Latin American tones of Lotería to the desperate texts and emails of Reconstructing Amelia. Mixed in with the newbies we find a group of past Alex Award winners (and teen favorites)–Max Barry, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Maltman, and Jeannette Walls.
Trends? Ten of our 21 fiction titles take place fully or partially in the past—including a trio of dark, brooding masterpieces that combine teen boys, small towns, and tragedy, not to mention beautiful writing: Brewster, Little Wolves, and Ordinary Grace. Add to those three the grim lives portrayed in The Painted Girls, The Panopticon, and Lotería, and you might think we don’t have a sense of humor. But it’s not all gloom and doom. Witness the quirky comedy of The Rosie Project, City Coldson’s antics in Long Division, and even a book of poetry with a hefty helping of humor: Schtick: These Are the Poems, People. And of course it’s hard not to be uplifted by Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir or the story of a life-changing teacher told in Drama High. All in all, while we could never hope, or even aspire, to have something on this list for every teen, it’s a pretty eclectic group.
Many thanks to reviewers Amy Cheney, Meghan Cirrito, Diane Colson, Sarah Debraski, Sarah Flowers, Paula Gallagher, Sarah Hill, Laura Pearle, Jake Pettit, Carla Riemer, Jane Ritter, John Sexton, Karlan Sick, Jamie Watson, and Connie Williams for their enthusiasm and discernment, and for sharing their expert knowledge of teens and books in the making of this list.
BARRY, Max. Lexicon. Penguin. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594205385.
Emily’s life is completely transformed when she is selected to attend an elite school for “poets,” masters of word strings that powerfully affect the human mind. Smart, madcap, and tragic, the plot thickens and twists in this ingenious story about a misguided group of wordsmiths who kill easily and frequently in their quest to retrieve an elusive magical word.
BUCHANAN, Cathy Marie. The Painted Girls. Riverhead. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594486241.
Based on known fact, this novel of familial love and redemption follows two sisters who are part of the Paris Opera Ballet. In the late 1870s, Antoinette, 17, and Marie, 13, live in abject poverty until they work their way up the ranks, catching the eye of Edgar Degas. Unfortunately, they also attract the notice of a hustler and of a wealthy patron who use them for their own ends.
DISCLAFANI, Anton. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. Riverhead. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781594486401.
For 15-year-old Thea Atwell, exiled from her family’s Florida home after a tragedy, being sent to an exclusive riding camp/boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is a punishment rather than a privilege. The book’s Depression-era setting prompts thoughts about class and the ephemeral nature of wealth and social standing.
EXTENCE, Gavin. The Universe Versus Alex Woods. Orbit Bks./ Redhook. Tr $26. ISBN 9780316246576.
Being struck by a meteorite when he was 10 has made Alex a celebrity as well as a target for bullies. When he befriends the curmudgeonly Mr. Peterson, who introduces him to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Alex finds that life’s meaning is less about survival than how you live and love.
FAGAN, Jenni. The Panopticon. Crown/Hogarth. Tr $22. ISBN 9780385347860.
Awaiting charges related to an assault that left a police officer in a coma, Anais is placed in a group home called The Panopticon, the latest in a string of group and foster homes for her. Though filled with sex, violence, and drugs, this novel is at its heart about teens trying to find their place in a world that has already given up on them.
FOWLER, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Putnam/Marian Wood. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780399162091.
Rosemary, the witty heroine of this suspenseful coming-of-age novel, is a 22-year-old college student who is still deeply affected by the events of her childhood. Gradually, readers learn her secret—she was raised alongside a chimpanzee that she knew as her sister. Based on experiments conducted in the 1970s, this book provides a unique window into behavioral psychology and the ethics of animal experimentation.
GAIMAN, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Morrow. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062255655.
A seven-year-old boy is at the center of a conflict between an ancient evil trying to access our world and the three generations of women who are determined to protect us against it. In this magical, scary tale, Gaiman escorts readers just past the borderline of darkness and then returns them to this world, not unchanged.
HILL, Joe. NOS4A2. Morrow. Tr $28.99. ISBN 9780062200570.
Vic McQueen has the power to find lost things: First as a child on her Raleigh Tough Burner bike, later as a young adult on a motorcycle. Charlie Manx drives a 1938 black Rolls-Royce Wraith, license plate NOS4A2, kidnapping children and delivering them to Christmasland, from which they never return. Vic can find them, but will that power erode her sanity before she can save the children?
KINDT, Matt. Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes. First Second. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781596436626.
Kindt’s twisty, mind-bending graphic novel seems at first to tell the stories of several eccentric crimes in the town of Red Wheelbarrow, investigated by Detective Gould. As the novel comes to its close, the crimes all fall into place as pieces of one master plan that calls into question everything Detective Gould thinks he knows.
KRUEGER, William Kent. Ordinary Grace. S & S/ Atria. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781451645828.
Frank Drum, and his younger brother, Jake, consider the neighborhood of New Bremen, Minnesota, an extension of their own backyard. But in the summer of 1961, death visits their community in the form of murder and suicide. Small-town characters struggle with incomprehensible tragedy in this page-turning mystery.
LAYMON, Kiese. Long Division. Agate. pap. $15. ISBN 9781932841725.
How about a book set in 2013 Mississippi that includes another book set in 1985 with time travel to 1964? It sure baffles 14-year-old City Coldson, an outspoken, slightly chubby, African American boy featured in each of the three stories, and he’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
MCCREIGHT, Kimberly. Reconstructing Amelia. HarperCollins. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062225436.
In this mystery/thriller, Kate tries to prove that her 15-year-old daughter, Amelia, didn’t jump from the roof of her prestigious Brooklyn private school. The story is told in alternating voices, Kate’s and Amelia’s, as well as through text messages, Facebook updates, and blog posts revealing that the teen was involved with a secret club.
MALTMAN, Thomas. Little Wolves. Soho. Tr $25. ISBN 9781616951900.
When troubled teen Seth Fallon murders his local sheriff and then kills himself, he sets in motion an unraveling of secrets that reveals the lengths to which a town will go in order to preserve the illusion of normalcy. A dark, brooding novel that is accessible and beautifully written.
MILLAY, Katja. The Sea of Tranquility. S & S/Atria. 2013. pap. $15. ISBN 9781476730943.
Nastya was a piano prodigy until the day her hand was destroyed. Josh has lost his entire family. He’s living alone in the empty house and finishing high school. Out for a run one night, Nastya is drawn to his garage light. Alternating narratives allow readers to see into the minds of these two damaged young people as they begin to fall in love.
SEARLES, John. Help for the Haunted. Morrow. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780060779634.
Sisters Sylvie and Rose try to unravel the mystery of the brutal murder of their parents, who had billed themselves as counselors, offering “help for the haunted.” A creepy coming-of-age mystery full of family secrets.
SIMSION, Graeme. The Rosie Project. S & S. Tr $24. ISBN 9781476729084.
Don Tillman manages his autism through a heavily regimented schedule, including such marvels as the Standardized Meal System. His newest life plan is The Wife Project, an attempt to locate the perfect life partner, using a questionnaire. But everything seems to fall apart when he meets Rosie, a young bartender who is seemingly the opposite of everything Don is looking for in a spouse.
SLOUKA, Mark. Brewster. Norton. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780393239751.
Teenagers Jon and Ray dream of escaping from their dysfunctional and even dangerous parents in their rural New York town in this novel set in 1969. Themes of friendship and violence reflect the tensions of the Vietnam War.
TARTTELIN, Abigail. Golden Boy. S & S/Atria. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781476705804.
Attractive, charismatic Max is intersex, born with both male and female organs. He’s able to keep it a non-issue until he hits puberty. But after suffering a violent rape, the young man realizes that he must be the one to claim his own sexuality. Teens will love kindhearted Max, whose journey through adolescence is a nightmare few will experience.
VALENTE, Catherynne M. Six-Gun Snow White. Subterranean. Tr $40. ISBN 9781596065529.
“Snow White” set in the mythic Wild West, with a protagonist who is the daughter of a corrupt miner and an American Indian woman. Fans of Valente’s teen novels should be more than familiar with her playfulness, and all fans of fairy-tale adaptations will find something powerful and intriguing here. (ow.ly/qAXDQ)
WALLS, Jeannette. The Silver Star. Scribner. Tr $26. ISBN 9781451661507.
Twelve-year-old Bean and 15-year-old Liz are sadly familiar with their mentally unstable mother disappearing for days at a time. But when she vanishes for two weeks, they decide to travel across the country to stay with their uncle in a Virginia mill town where they learn about both sides of their family and run into trouble.
ZAMBRANO, Mario Alberto. Lotería. HarperCollins. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9780062268549.
After an unnamed incident leaves Luz’s father in jail, her sister in the hospital, and Luz herself in a care home, the young girl refuses to speak. But she agrees to write out her life story, which she does by cuing each chapter to a card from the Latin American game lotería. A thought-provoking coming-of-age tale.
COVAL, Kevin. Schtick: “These Are the Poems, People.” Haymarket. pap. $16. ISBN 9781608462704.
In 10 sections of varying lengths, but with consistent humor, Coval manages to touch on seemingly every aspect of Jewish American life—the family, assimilation, anti-Semitism, comedy, nose jobs, shiksas, Israel, and the relationship between African Americans and Jews.
DOUGLAS, Mitchell L. H. \blak\ \al-fe bet\: Poems. Persea. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9780892554218.
Douglas sets out to tell the stories of his sharecropping grandparents. The first and last sections act as brackets, giving the narrative to readers in a more or less straight fashion. The third section directly confronts the collection’s place within African American literature. But it is in the crucial second segment that Douglas truly shines, as he builds on the tale’s musical references, creating “alternate takes” and variations, introducing a poetic form called “the fret.”
LAPSLEY, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Grove. Tr $26. ISBN 9780802120618.
Lapsley’s account of the teen and adult phone enthusiasts who figured out how to hack AT&T’s phone network is as interesting historically as it is important to the continued debate over the proper role of intellectual property against piracy, hacking, and cracking.
SOKOLOVE, Michael. Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater. Riverhead. Tr $27.95. 9781594488221.
Lou Volpe, the drama teacher at Harry S. Truman High School, has been changing lives for 40 years through innovative theatrical productions that bring the small town of Levittown, Pennsylvania, to the notice of Broadway’s hottest producers.
SOTOMAYOR, Sonia. My Beloved World. Knopf. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780307594884.
Sotomayor relates her rise from her beginnings in the South Bronx to become the first Hispanic Justice of the Supreme Court, emphasizing pride in her Puerto Rican heritage, prioritization of education, and belief in the law as a force for protecting community.
ZUCKOFF, Mitchell. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. HarperCollins/Harper. Tr $28.99. ISBN 9780062133434.
During World War II, a cargo plane, a B-17 bomber, and a Coast Guard plane all crashed in Greenland trying to save one another. In the present, an expedition that includes the author has gone looking for the remains of one of those planes.
The official SLJ article can be found here (including the book covers.)