Best Contemporary YA Books to Open our Hearts & Minds: Selected by Marie Marquardt, Author of Flight Season
Marie Marquardt | The Children’s Book Review | February 20, 2018
I am a voracious reader of contemporary YA. There’s always a huge TBR stack on my bedside table. Where to begin?
For 2018, I’ve made a commitment to #ReadForChange – I’m diving into stories that have all the feels and also bring readers into social issues that matter now. I believe books are powerful tools for change because they create empathy – something our world desperately needs. I’m so grateful that publishers are making more space on their YA lists for stories like these.
Here are a couple of my long-time favorites, best recent releases, and the one I can’t wait to get my hands on:
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Jeremiah & Ellie are fifteen when they meet at a private school in NYC and fall in love. They are an interracial couple, and their relationship has to face-off against racism and police brutality. The story captures so beautifully the experience of falling in love for the first time, and the heartbreak of living in a society that tugs you apart.
Ages 12+ | Publisher: Speak | 2010 (Reprint) | ISBN-13: 978-0142415221
Written by Jenny Downham
Most readers know Jennie Downham’s Before I Die, but many overlook her second novel, which is an absolute gem. It’s the story of Mikey & Ellie (I guess I’m drawn to stories with protagonists named Ellie!), who are classic star-crossed lovers. When the story opens, we learn that her brother, Tom, has been accused by his sister, Karyn, of rape. Needless to say, Mikey and Ellie’s relationship is complicated, but in all of the most beautiful, life affirming, and healing ways.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: Ember | 2012 (Reprint) | ISBN-13: 978-0385752664
This is the gorgeous, spirit-filled story of Fabiola Toussaint, a U.S. born teen who has spent almost her entire life in her family’s homeland of Port-au-Prince Haiti. She arrives back in the U.S. alone to live with her cousins on the west side of Detroit, and must learn to navigate an entirely new world that’s not at all what she expected.
Fabiola, striving to fit in while also struggling to reunite with her detained mother, is my favorite sort of teen protagonist: the one that you root hard for, even when she makes decisions that you know won’t take her where she hopes to go. Zoboi brings beautiful prose to Fabiola’s story, interweaving Haitian religion’s vibrant spirit world. The result: pure magic.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: Balzer + Bray | 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-0062473042
Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Sal, the adopted son of a single gay father, is a Euro-American living in a loving Mexican-American family. He knows how fortunate he is to have an amazing dad and tons of support, so when he begins to feel violent impulses, he’s scared, confused, and more than a little ashamed.
Sal moves through a series of crises, accompanied by his friends Sam and Fito – both of whom I loved from start. Filled with perfectly-rendered characters and gorgeous description, Sal’s story engages many timely themes. The most important: what it means to be a man.
Ages 12+ | Publisher: Clarion Books | 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-0544586505
Which brings me to the 2018 read I’m most looking forward to:
Written by Brendan Kiely
I don’t think we pay enough attention to masculinity – to the toxic effects some forms of masculinity have on our society, and to the absolute beauty of those men who work to re-define masculinity and be their best selves. This is a tough theme to tackle, but having read Brendan Kiely’s other books, I know that Tradition will not disappoint. Set in an elite prep-school, the story explores the dark side of tradition, and the courage of those who stand against it. Kiely explains that his novel asks the central question, “How can men be better feminists?” I am ALL IN for that!
Ages 12+ | Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books | May 1, 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-1481480345
Written by Marie Marquardt
Publisher’s Synopsis: From Marie Marquardt, the author of Dream Things True and The Radius of Us, comes a story of two teenagers learning what to hold on to, what to let go of, and that sometimes love gets in the way of our plans.
Back when they were still strangers, TJ Carvalho witnessed the only moment in Vivi Flannigan’s life when she lost control entirely. Now, TJ can’t seem to erase that moment from his mind, no matter how hard he tries. Vivi doesn’t remember any of it, but she’s determined to leave it far behind. And she will.
But when Vivi returns home from her first year away at college, her big plans and TJ’s ambition to become a nurse land them both on the heart ward of a university hospital, facing them with a long and painful summer together – three months of glorified babysitting for Ángel, the problem patient on the hall. Sure, Ángel may be suffering from a life-threatening heart infection, but that doesn’t make him any less of a pain.
As it turns out, though, Ángel Solís has a thing or two to teach them about all those big plans, and the incredible moments when love gets in their way.
Written in alternating first person from the perspectives of all three characters, Flight Season is a story about discovering what’s really worth holding onto, learning how to let go of the rest, and that one crazy summer that changes your life forever.
Ages 14 and up | Publisher: Wednesday Books | 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-1250107015
MARIE MARQUARDT is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of Dream Things True and The Radius of Us. She has published articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. Marie is chair of El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families. She lives in a busy household in Decatur, Georgia with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon.
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