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.
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
Publication Date: February 4, 2020
When Kingston James saw a dragonfly land on his brother’s casket, he knew his brother was showing him he wasn’t truly gone. King constantly searches for his brother’s dragonfly to talk to; seeing the dragonflies always helps. Before his death, Khalid overheard King’s best friend Sandy confide a secret and pushed King to end the friendship over it. Now Khalid is gone, Sandy is missing, and King is alone and realizing he has the same secret.
With King and the Dragonflies, Callender brings to life the rural south. King is a sympathetic character, struggling to cope with the loss of an older brother he idolized while also coming to terms with his own sexuality and how his brother would have felt about it. The friendship between Sandy and King is realistic and raw and the struggles they experience as they try to reconnect their friendship are well-developed. This novel also deals with serious issues like sexuality, child abuse and racism without losing a feel of hopefulness. Sandy’s struggles with his abusive father are candid and his fear is tangible without venturing into the graphic details so the book remains appropriate for younger teens.
Give this book to readers who enjoy books where the main characters are coming to understand their sexuality or gender like Rick by Alex Gino or books where the main characters have experienced loss and are learning how to cope like Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake and The Whispers by Greg Howard.
Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew
Walker Books / Candlewick Press
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
Astronomy buff Frankie has her first intimate encounter with her crush Benjamin — and gets her period. They agree that it’s only blood, but then a cruel meme goes viral and what was a tender experience becomes a sordid joke. Frankie is faced with an increasingly hostile social media environment that spills into the real world. As the online shaming intensifies, who can Frankie trust?
This approachable novel in verse captures the fierce bonds and betrayals of female friendship and as well as the uncertain intensity of first love. As the public humiliation expands from her high school through Frankie’s community, and out into the Internet, Blood Moon explores the shame placed on girls around menstruation and their own sexual desire, and by the end, offers an inspiring feminist response.
For teens interested in issue-oriented realistic fiction or novels in verse about shame, sexuality, and bullying, such as 500 Words or Less by Juleah Del Rosario, The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven, Saving Jazz by Kate McCaffrey, and The Whitsun Daughters by Carrie Mesrobian.
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Simon Pulse / Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 11, 2020
It’s been three years since Sia’s mother was deported to Mexico; three years since Sia’s mother tried to cross the desert back to the border; three years since Sia’s mother disappeared without a trace. Righteously angry at the small town sheriff who called ICE, Sia seeks solace in her best friend Rose, her comforting father, the cute new boy at school, and her abuela’s spirit who whispers that her mother is still alive. So Sia lights candles in the desert every full moon to guide her mother home. And one night, Sia sees mysterious lights in the sky–lights that look very much like an alien spaceship–and things will never be the same again…
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything blends issues-driven realistic fiction with science fiction and a touch of magical realism. Sia is a brown girl living near the US southern border, under stress from all that situation implies. She also talks to the spirit of her dead grandmother, sees the world as it relates to Latinx mythology, and has a very close encounter with alien life. This shouldn’t work–but it does, thanks to Sia’s captivating narration delivered in short punchy chapters, well-paced organic worldbuilding, a strong sense of place, and lively dialogue. The genre-defying mix is charming, thought-provoking, and delightfully unexpected.
Recommend this book to fans of Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star and Zoboi’s American Street, which also tackle issues of immigration and deportation. All Of Us With Wings is another story incorporating Latix mythology, and Lobizona combines both immigration issues and Latinx folklore. Fans of All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater and Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore who are looking for more magical realism in the desert will be drawn to Sia Martinez.
What Goes Up by Christine Heppermann
Greenwillow Books / HarperCollins
Publication Date: August 18, 2020
Jorie’s father is a cheater and her mother is living in a self-imposed obliviousness that frustrates Jorie. That pent up rage comes to the surface as Jorie finds herself in a college boy’s dorm room after an epic party comprised of details she just can’t remember–with the possible exception of the way Ian, her ex-boyfriend, looked at her. Using mushroom spores (a la Chris Drury) to create art and poetry, Jorie pours out her heart, all while working to navigate her own complicated relationship with Ian.
This title is a beautiful blend of art, science, and heart. The use of mushrooms as a metaphor for the relationships in Jorie’s world is unique. Art enthusiasts will be fascinated by Jorie’s muse, British artist Chris Drury, and the use of spore printing as a medium. Jorie’s frustration with her father’s infidelity and her mother’s seeming obliviousness is palpable and realistic, and yet the ending is hopeful and as messy as real life as Jorie works to process her own behavior and relationships.
Readers seeking poetry by the same author will enjoy Poisoned Apples: Poems for You My Pretty with the caveat that Poisoned Apples is a collection of poems with a feminist theme rather than a novel in verse. Fans of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey will find this a little more tame, but equally as engaging.
Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers / Hachette
Publication Date: June 6, 2020
Her whole life, Agnes has been a faithful, obedient follower of the Prophet. She knew that the “Outsiders” were wicked, immoral people who would someday burn in hell, and that women were less pure than men and had to be guided and controlled with extra rules and the wisdom of the patriarchs. But when her brother Ezekiel gets sick and only the medicine of an “Outsider” keeps him healthy, she begins to question all that she has been taught. Eventually, she realizes she and her brother must leave their beloved community to survive, but when she does, she discovers the world outside is in chaos from a strange, deadly epidemic threatening to destroy the world.
McWilliams’ gripping story of a crisis of faith in a bleak dystopian landscape is surprisingly full of hope. Agnes is a heroine for the ages, brave, questioning, but true to herself. Her sister Beth is as interesting of a character as Agnes—much less holy but equally endearing and every bit as strong as her sister. While condemning the damaging control of a patriarchal cult like the one Agnes and Beth escape, McWilliams still finds space for the mystery of faith as well as the saving potential of science.
Give this to readers who appreciate the exploration of religion and faith in books like The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. Fans of stories about dystopian cults like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village may appreciate this story of girls taking charge of their own spiritual lives.
Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
In 2032, everyone has a chip embedded in their arm to track undocumented immigrants. After fleeing war-torn Columbia seeking refuge when Vali was younger, her Papi has already been deported, and the rest of the family is living in Vermont. Mami and Vali both have counterfeit chips in their arms to help them pass immigration checks. When Mami’s chip malfunctions and she is taken away by the Deportation Force, Vali and her little brother Ernie go on the run cross country to seek sanctuary with family in California.
This near future issue-oriented dystopian hits close to home, depicting violent extremes of immigration policies and a glimpse into a possible future America. Vali’s fear, desperation, and pain are both palpable and gripping. Readers will sympathize with her plight as she encounters many obstacles and hazards while trying to keep herself and Ernie alive and safe as the plot intensifies. While certainly a heavy topic, there are also flashes of hope for the siblings. Content warnings are advised for physical, gun, and sexual violence; racism, loss of parent, death, and deportation.
Readers seeking more stories featuring immigrants trying to find their place will find common ground in Samira Ahmed’s Internment and also in We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez.