Click here to see all of the current Best Fiction for Young Adults nominees along with more information about the list and past years’ selections.
Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
Dutton Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
Publication Date: September 22, 2020
In the Igbo language, “Ada means first daughter, means oldest girl, means pressure, means you do as expected, to do a lot of things you don’t want to do because the honor of this family rests on your back.” Ada’s story unfolds in vignettes from different time periods in her life, as she searches to find her true self despite the expectations placed upon her by others.
This #Ownvoices autobiographical fiction novel in verse is a highly compelling coming of age narrative. Ada’s journey includes a Nigerian father with heavy expectations and a mother with an addiction who is often mentally absent and indifferent towards her daughter. Ada begins finding herself through her love of dance, which gives her a taste of the freedom of choice. As she heads off to her freshman year at a HBCU, it is the first time she has been away from her family and able to make her own choices. Her passion for dance continues, and she explores and questions her sexuality and freedom to make her own transformative decisions about her life. There are definitely intense moments, but ultimately this book encompasses healing from the past, and having the courage to make your own destiny moving forward. Content warnings are advised for addiction, molestation/sexual assault, fat phobia, and misogyny.
The autobiographical fiction characteristic of this book is akin to Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown, which is a fellow BFYA 2021 nominee. Readers may also enjoy memoirs such as All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes, or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
— Lisa Krok
What I Carry by Jennifer Longo
Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 21, 2020
Muir has one year left of foster care. One more placement, and then she is completely on her own. Having spent her entire life moving from one foster home to the next, she has learned a lot of things about how to survive. The biggest takeaways: don’t get attached to anyone or anything and fit everything you own in a single suitcase. As Muir settles into her final placement, she struggles to remain detached from the new people in her life. Desperately wanting meaningful connections with people but worried she won’t survive when she has to walk away when she turns 18.
An emotionally intense read, Longo begins each chapter with the history behind an item Muir carries with her in her suitcase. Muir’s relationships with her foster parent Francine, her new friend Kira and her developing feelings for Sean are rich and realistic. Muir makes mistakes and her insecurities and worries are present even when she has wonderful experiences. What I Carry weaves the challenges facing foster kids into the novel seamlessly and readers don’t realize they are learning more about the system as they bond with Muir.
Teens who love stories that focus on forming relationships and learning to trust others will enjoy this book. Give this to fans of Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree, Kate McLaughlin’s What Unbreakable Looks Like, and for a slightly younger audience, One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
— Amanda Kordeliski
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
In 1992 Los Angeles, upper class Black high school senior Ashley Bennett is more concerned with skipping school and going to pool parties than she is with the trial of four white police officers accused of brutally beating an unarmed Black man named Rodney King. But then the cops are acquitted, riots rock her city, and the friends who conveniently ignored her Blackness suddenly have opinions about everything. Now Ashley is forced to rethink everything she thought she knew (or could ignore, or tolerate) about race, class, privilege, and protection.
The Black Kids could not be more relevant, especially for a book that’s set in 1992. But the Rodney King riots mirror so closely the events of the summer of 2020, and socially-justice minded teens will be eager to make connections between their now and the disturbingly similar events in the not-so-distant past. For teens who are just beginning to explore social issues, Ashley is a wholly relatable ordinary teen, living in the blissful ignorance of her small bubble–until something big makes it pop.
The Black Kids is in direct conversation with the books of young adult authors Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, and Kekla Magoon. Pair also with Admission by Julie Buxbaum for another take on a wealthy kid getting a harsh reality check, or with Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn for more crime-inspired historical fiction.
Aftershocks by Marisa Reichardt
Amulet Books / ABRAMS
Publication Date: September 29, 2020
When “The Big One,” a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, hits California the entire state is rocked. Despite years of prepping, buildings are destroyed, people are killed by falling rubble, and families are separated.
Ruby finds herself trapped in a laundromat with a stranger named Charlie when the earthquake hits. Now she’s trapped under a table in the dark with nothing but the sound of Charlie’s voice to keep her company. Together they find comfort and friendship in a time tragedy as they both face the decisions they made leading up to the earthquake.
Told in alternating flashbacks, this story follows Ruby as she tries to reconcile her family issues in the midst of a disaster. Ruby is a scrappy protagonist who will do whatever it takes to reunite with her mom. She’s resilient and determined to survive in the face of incredible odds. She doesn’t come from a family of survivalists; she’s just an ordinary high schooler which makes her journey of survival relatable and realistic. California really is always bracing for “The Big One” and is in a constant state of dealing with natural disasters so this book is a nice speculation on what that might look like if or when it happens.
This is perfect for fans of survival stories like Dry by Neal Shusterman, Ashfall by Mike Mullen, and Be Not Far From Meby Mindy McGinnis.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Swoon Reads / Macmillan
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
Yadriel’s family may have accepted his name change, but they still don’t treat him like a real brujo. Determined to prove himself to everyone by completing a sacred ritual, he accidentally summons the spirit of Julian Diaz, high school “resident bad boy”, instead of his cousin Miguel. Yadriel and his best friend/cousin Maritza race to discover what happened to Miguel while trying to convince Julian to let Yadriel set his spirit free to complete the ritual, but the closer they get releasing Julian, the more Yadriel realizes maybe he doesn’t want to do that after all.
Cemetery Boys is emotionally resonant, honest and upfront about the specific pain and struggles of being a trans teenager and the tension of being a teenager whose family’s expectations and presumptions about them are not always in line with who they are. The chemistry between Julian and Yadriel is tender and natural, and both the Latinx and trans representation are engaging and expository and without voyeurism or sensationalism. Deep character development of individual characters and of the relationships between characters enhance the suspense of the mystery, and for a book dealing with death, ghosts, malignant spirits, and murder, Cemetery Boys is at its core an extremely happy and uplifting story.
Look to authors such as Awaeke Emezi, Kacen Callender, and Anna-Marie McLemore for other transgender or gender non-conforming narratives; these types of stories are still too few and far between and hopefully Cemetery Boys will have more excellent company in years to come. The Shadowshaper Cypher series by Daniel José Older has parallels in Latinx representation in a fantasy setting, and Zoraida Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas series includes LGBTQ-diverse characters along with Latinx magic.
— Allie Stevens