A tonne of great YA books have been released over the last 12 months. It would be impossible to shortlist some and rank them to find ‘the best’ because there were so many gems, excellent in their own distinctive ways. Instead, I’d like to highlight ten that I find still circling around in my head months after I read them. This list is kept deliberately spoiler-free, for your future reading pleasure.
On the Come Up, Angie Thomas
You can’t help but feel for Bri as she struggles to maintain her school grades while coping without the basics like light, heat and food after her mother loses her job. Hip hop is her creative outlet, it’s the only legacy from her dead father and her only hope of escaping the grinding poverty of her life. The book asks some important questions about the power structures in the music industry, the lack of women in hip hop and what it means to be authentically yourself.
Kick the Moon, Muhammad Khan
Ilyas is having a really tough year. GCSEs are looming, his father wants him to join the family business and surviving in South East London means pretending to be tough. Then he makes friends with a girl in detention and adds a new burden to his load. She’s caught the eye of a local bad boy and defending her means making an enemy. The plot twists are numerous and I appreciated that it deftly tackles toxic masculinity.
Oh My Gods, Alexandra Sheppard
A girl moves to London with her unusual family. Unusual because they’re Greek Gods pretending to be regular humans. Things don’t go as planned and chaos ensues. Sheppard’s novel operates at the pink-candy-floss level of fun, it’s wonderfully imaginative but also very touching as we watch the girl grieve for her dead mother via regular letters that will never be read.
“The cumulative effect is like being eviscerated with sharp-edged words”
With Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo
Emoni Santiago is a high school senior with no money and a baby to care for. Her sensible side tells her to ignore her school’s new culinary arts class and accept the new limitations in her life, but her huge passion and talent for cooking make it impossible for her to give up her dreams. This book left me hungry (the food descriptions are epic) and feeling thoroughly inspired.
The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta
This is one of those stories that looks simple but turns out to have layers and layers of depth for the reader to explore. The main character, Michael, is a mixed-race, gay teen trying to challenge the expectations the world has of him. The story is told in verse which gives it a captivating rhythm even as it tackles thorny issues.
Let Me Hear a Rhyme, Tiffany D. Jackson
Jackson takes us back to 90s Brooklyn. A young rapper is murdered. His best friends concoct a plan to preserve his memory and share his talent by creating a new (fake) persona for him and getting a record label to sign him and release his album. It’s audacious and wholly riveting.
Crossfire, Malorie Blackman
The world Blackman presents in the fifth instalment of her celebrated Noughts and Crosses series is disturbingly close to our own. Politics is nasty and dangerous, the media no longer reports news, just opinion and soundbites. Albion has a Nought Prime Minister for the first time ever but after he is framed for murder he turns to a Cross friend for help. Blackman has never pulled her punches in this series and Crossfire is no different. Brace yourself.
Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday, Natalie C Anderson
I read this book with one hand over my mouth, sometimes in horror, other times in distress. It’s beautifully written but the cumulative effect is like being eviscerated with sharp-edged words. Abdi is forced by the CIA to become a child soldier/spy with Al Shabaab in order to save his family. It’s a deal with the devil. Even as he reports back to the Americans on Al Shabaab’s activities, he feels himself turning into a monster amidst the atrocities he is forced to participate in. Eventually, he escapes but now he must deal with the things he has done and stay ahead of two powerful, heartless organisations who want to exploit him.
Love from A-Z, SK Ali
Zayneb’s teacher won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are. When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, Zayneb is sent to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar for spring break. There she meets Adam, a boy hiding his multiple sclerosis diagnosis from his family. They are both playing roles, hiding their real struggles from their families, but they find they can be honest with each other. This is a sweet romance with very powerful themes.
Imprison the Sky, A.C. Gaughen
It’s the second in a series but introduces a new main character so actually reads like a standalone. Aspasia is a slave who can control the water and wind. Her skills have enabled her to become captain of her own pirate ship. When she learns the whereabouts of her long lost family, she goes on the run, frees other slaves, and barely stays ahead of her former master who is determined to hunt her down. The world-building is beautiful, Aspasia is powerful yet vulnerable and the stakes are as high as they can get. I was enraptured.