What does it mean to be loyal to your friends? To respect your parents? In Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard, Pen’s life is governed by the loyalty and respect others demand from her — loyalty to her best friend Colby, even if it means aiding his womanizing; respect to her old-fashioned parents, even if their expectations of who Pen should be don’t match who Pen knows she is.
What does it mean to be a girl? A boy? Despite others assuming at first glance she’s a boy, Pen knows she’s a girl who likes playing video games, doing yard work and (if she ever finds someone who’s interested) dating other girls. However, her mother wants Pen to wear dresses and makeup, learn how to cook and find a nice boy to date, like Colby. Colby wants Pen to be his wingman and help him create the illusion he’s a nice guy to date because he’s friends with a girl, even if she dresses and acts like one of the guys.
It doesn’t matter to Pen that Colby doesn’t stay in a relationship for long, that is until two things happen: One, she meets Olivia, one of Colby’s former flings who’s keeping a secret; two, she gets a girlfriend in Blake, a fellow classmate who Colby was initially interested in dating. These two new relationships force Pen to reevaluate her role as friend and daughter and her understanding of loyalty and respect. She’ll make some hard decisions about the type of person she wants to be as well as the types of people she wants in her life.
Girard captures not only how complicated friendships can become as children grow into teenagers but also how hard it is to struggle with the world’s perception of who you should be and how you should act versus who you know yourself to be. Girl Mans Up is brutally honest from start to finish in its depictions of gender identity, sexuality and bullying as well as the complications that accompany strained family relationships. It’s not an easy book in terms of topic, although it is a quick read, and Pen is a strong, complex character. Readers looking for more books featuring LGBTQ characters and themes should also check out The Other Boy by M. G. Hennessey and Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown.
If you are interested in reading a work of teen fiction, especially one that involves a Victorian tale, horror and feel good story wrapped into one, then try A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby. Within the bustling crowded streets of late 19th century London, a killer, sometimes referred to as Leather Apron but more commonly known as Jack the Ripper, terrorized the town of Whitechapel. Caught in the middle of this chaotic situation are two unlikely characters who must find a way to solve this murder mystery or face its deadly and haunting consequences.
Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man, is a major character, and this story provides insight into how his life may have been during this time period. The physical deformities that he developed as a child caused him to experience much hardship in life that ranged from extreme discomfort to hiding underneath a mask to avoid the often unwanted attention given to him around the streets of London. Despite this, Merrick was able to befriend a doctor named Jonathan Treves, who helped him to have a comfortable stay at the London Hospital until the end of his days. Along with these historical figures, an unexpected friendship develops between The Elephant Man and a young lady named Evelyn, who is hired to be his maid. Having worked as a matchstick girl, Evelyn contracts a disease which eats away at the jaw due to phosphorous exposure. As you can already guess, physical deformities are a prevalent theme throughout the book and the author encourages the reader to reflect on who really is the “monster” in the story.
A teen historical fiction, this is one that not only recreates the terror of Jack the Ripper but is also about being different and finding friendship despite the bleak circumstances. Those with an interest in this time period and subject matter may also want to try The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson or Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco.
Fifty years ago this month, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was published. This classic in teen literature tells the story of young men in two competing gangs, the Greasers and the Socs. Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it is a gritty, raw look at a teenage rivalry which turns deadly.
The novel inspired a 1983 film adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It starred unknown young actors who would go on to great fame, including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio and Matt Dillon.
The Outsiders remains a cultural touchstone. Since 1967, over 15 million copies have been sold. It is a regular required read for middle and high school students and has been translated into 30 languages. According to fanfiction.net, there are 8,100 stories based on the book. And Instagram has more than 300,000 posts which use the hashtag #staygold, an inspiration from a Robert Frost poem that appears in the book.
Hinton was 16 when the book was published and had no idea the impact her novel would have on generations of teens. Hinton told Entertainment Weekly last year, “I was 15 when I started writing the book, but I was even younger when I first started thinking about the story, so The Outsiders has been a significant part of the majority of my life.”
Harry Potter fans will love the magical world of A Shadow Bright and Burning, the first book in Jessica Cluess’ Kingdom on Fire series.
Henrietta Howell can set herself on fire, something only she and her best friend Rook know about. In their world, not all magic is created equal, especially that wielded by a woman. When Henrietta’s secret is suddenly revealed, she expects to be executed immediately. Imagine her surprise when, instead, she is dubbed the prophesied female sorcerer, the key to saving the world from the terror of the Ancients.
As she begins her training, however, Henrietta realizes she is not like the other sorcerers-to-be. Frustrated and alone, she seeks advice from an unexpected friend and learns of a secret that puts everything she believes into question: maybe she is not the prophesied one after all. One thing is certain, Henrietta must do whatever she can to hone her skills and blend in with her fellow trainees. Her life, and the lives of everyone around her, depends on it.
A Shadow Bright and Burning is a great introduction to what promises to be a powerful and enlightening series. Cluess puts an enchanted spin on an age-old tale: triumph in the face of inequality, something readers of all ages can relate to.
Rani Patel In Full Effect is the debut young adult novel by author and child psychologist Sonia Patel, a resident of Hawaii and devout hip-hop enthusiast born to Gujarati parents. The novel follows the life of Rani Patel, a teenager living on the island of Molokaʻi with her mother and father. Rani is similarly devoted to '80s and '90s hip-hop music and shares much of the author’s background and heritage, but even with all of the obvious similarities, Rani is a fully developed character in her own right and should not be written off by readers as a “self-insert” author proxy. We see her grow and change over the course of the book, and to say that Rani Patel In Full Effect chronicles a tumultuous period of the titular character’s life would be putting it mildly. At times, the events and subject matter are downright unsettling — which is important.
Rani Patel is not a typical young adult novel protagonist. She isn’t white, to begin with, or shoe-horned into any particular high school caste, or fighting to save the world. Patel’s novel is, at its core, about trauma, and she does an outstanding job depicting the realities of recovery, if not the time frame. This book pulls no punches, and I respect the hell out of that and enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Sonia Patel is clearly interested in talking about the realities of being a teenager — not an adult’s notion of what that means — and the end product is dark. Very, very dark. But so is that reality, sometimes. Yet through music and the love and support of friends and family, Rani learns how to express what she’s gone through and finally acknowledge that her feelings and fears are valid.
And don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t all darkness. In addition to a cast of characters as culturally rich and diverse as Hawaii itself, Sonia Patel’s narrative is sprinkled through with '90s hip-hop slang and native Hawaiian phrases that let the reader play interpreter (supported by a helpful glossary, of course), and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the poetry and raps that Rani labors over for the entirety of the novel. I would love to see Sonia Patel, who raps herself, drop the Rani Patel mixtape in the future, but the words stand on their own merit on the page and the author’s detailed description of every beat laid down by “DJ Skittles” make it easy for the reader to transport themselves to the pavilion at Pala’au State Park where Rani’s crew performs.
Rani Patel In Full Effect is a refreshing and important addition to the culture of YA novels as a whole. It covers so many bases and demographics normally marginalized by the mainstream that I don’t even know where to begin. Rani herself is an Indo-American teenager, acutely aware of her own sexuality, whose life has been defined by men her entire life, just like her mother and grandmother before her. She fights for native Hawaiian rights with her friends and she strives to be the first woman in her family to get an M.D. Interwoven with Rani’s story, Sonia Patel writes about the crystal meth epidemic that has plagued Hawaii for decades and decries a toxic tourist culture that preys on residents. As far as first books go, Rani Patel In Full Effect is a knockout. You can learn more about Sonia Patel’s writing endeavors and work in child psychology at her website, and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where she will occasionally grace her followers with clips of her rap skills and sick dance moves.
For some, having magic run in your family would be pretty cool; you could heal injuries, conjure light and even talk to the dead. But for Alex, who watched magic drive away her father and distort her memories of her favorite aunt, magic is nothing but trouble and pain. Seeking to escape her family’s struggles, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her magic. But in Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost, rejecting the gifts of your ancestors comes with horrific consequences, and Alex is going to have to work very hard to fix her mistake if she ever wants to see her family again.
The trouble begins on Alex’s Deathday, the day her entire family (living and dead) gather to bestow their blessings on a bruja, or witch, newly come into her power. When Alex damages the cantos they were performing, she calls an entity known as the Devourer, who then steals her family away. To rescue them, Alex will have to journey to the world of Los Lagos, an in-between limbo where nothing is what it seems, accompanied by Rishi, her best friend, and an untrustworthy brujo named Nova. There, she’ll have to face horrific monsters, powerful curses and her own painful memories as she begins to understand not only her role as one of the most powerful bruja in a generation, but also her place in the long tradition of her family.
Córdova expertly blends Latin American traditions, Latinx culture and urban fantasy to create a fresh, richly detailed story filled with diverse characters, but Labyrinth Lost isn’t just about magic. Alex’s physical journey may take her through the twisted wonderland of Los Lagos, but her emotional journey requires her to work through her fears and anger in learning to accept her family’s love and acceptance.
Fans of the book should know this is the first of the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy, although there’s no publication date yet for the second book. Readers who enjoyed Daughter of Smoke and Bone or When the Moon Was Ours should consider giving Labyrinth Lost a try.
Crooked Kingdom is Leigh Bardugo’s second near-perfect and engaging venture into the city of Ketterdam, and her fifth foray into the world first introduced in her bestselling Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising). I’ll freely admit that the Grisha trilogy was not my cup of tea at all, but Six of Crows (Bardugo’s first book in the duology of the same name) was easily my favorite read of 2015. Ketterdam, the cosmopolitan capitol city of Dutch Republic-inspired Kerch, is a vibrant combination of Amsterdam, Las Vegas and New York; a bustling hub of education, trade and crime. It’s in the Barrel—the lascivious, indulgent entertainment district of Ketterdam— that Kaz Brekker’s gang of criminals, outcasts and misfits find themselves reeling from the events of the previous book. The Six of Crows duology is not two stories, but one long epic told in two parts.
The greatest strength of both books is easily the characters, but that’s more a testament of how fully realized and interesting they are than it is a condemnation of any other aspect. As the glue and primary motivating force of the narrative events, Kaz is somehow equal parts sympathetic and unsettling and is easily the best teen protagonist I’ve ever encountered.
Six of Crows has a split focus, however, with every chapter focusing on the perspective of a different character. I’m not usually a fan of this technique, as in my experience there are always some weaker characters that drag down the flow and only leave you longing for the chapters of characters you enjoy. I’m happy to report that Leigh Bardugo proved me wrong. Not one of these six perspectives is any less enjoyable or dynamic than the others. The story slips between them easily and feels completely natural, and Bardugo weaves the different threads of this narrative together seamlessly.
The first book is, in essence, a heist story with a fantasy twist, but as fans of the genre know, a good heist story doesn't end when the job does. There are always betrayals, broken hearts or some other complications that throw a wrench into the plan. Crooked Kingdom is no exception, as we see Kaz’s gang playing defense for the majority of the book in a definite departure from Six of Crows, where they successfully pulled of the biggest heist in the Grishaverse’s history. The second book is about survival , though Kaz Brekker wouldn’t be Kaz Brekker if he couldn’t spin a profit out of the situation. It’s fitting that Crooked Kingdom takes place on an island that worships the god of trade and deals, since nothing is without a price, not even the reader’s enjoyment of the book. By the end it exacts a heavy toll on the audience, and I found myself tearing up more than once.
I would (and do) recommend the Six of Crows duology to anyone and everyone, not just readers who enjoy fantasy, crime novels or teen books. Crooked Kingdom is my favorite book of 2016, just as its predecessor occupied that spot in 2015. These books truly do contain something for everyone, and I was disappointed to discover that this would not be another trilogy. Fortunately, I get the impression that Leigh Bardugo is far from done with the Grishaverse or Kaz’s Crows. You can keep up with her work and learn more about her worlds on the Leigh Bardugo website and, trust me, she’s very worth following on Twitter.
And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich is a psychological teen thriller that captures the author’s talent for the spooky and terrifying. The sequel to The Dead House, this novel takes the reader into the depths of something very sinister, and will scare the pants off of anyone who picks up this book. At times visually poetic, Kurtagich creates a world full of mystery and proves that the true meaning of terror may exist in the darkest corners of our imagination.
With a knock — more like a loud bang — two sisters mysteriously arrive at the front door of an estranged relative known as “Crazy” Aunt Cathy. After years of abuse, 13-year-old Silla and 4-year-old Nori have run out of options and make a daring escape in search of a safe haven. Far away from civilization, Silla quickly realizes that there are many secrets buried within what is known as “La Baume,” and that they are very much alone and very much cursed.
If you don't mind a decent scare or are interested in something that isn't wrapped up with a pretty ribbon, this is for you. For those who just can’t get enough of horror and suspense, you may also want to try The Forest of Hands and Teeth, or listen to Odyssey Award-winner, Scowler.