This year was a busy one. I read more than fifty of the books we’ve reviewed or highlighted on the blog, so it took some time to narrow down my list of favorites. Here are a few of the books I enjoyed this year in no particular order.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
HarperTeen [Audrey’s review]
A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Dial Books [Author interview]
Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian–half, his mom’s side–and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.
Darius has never really fit in at home in Portland, and he just knows things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Sohrab introduces Darius to all of his favorite things–mint syrup and the soccer field and a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. He gets Darius an Iranian National Football Team jersey that makes him feel like a True Persian for the first time. And he understands that sometimes, friends don’t have to talk. Sohrab calls him Darioush–the original Persian version of his name–and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.
By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough–then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Little, Brown & Company [My review]
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
The Return by Zetta Elliott
Rosetta Press [Author Spotlight]
After a devastating injury, seventeen-year-old Hakeem Diallo is leaving basketball and his life in Brooklyn behind to spend the summer with his grandmother in Senegal. Three years have passed since the earthquake of 2011 when Keem witnessed his girlfriend’s apparent suicide in the deep. Weeks later he received a mysterious text that led him to believe Nyla might still be alive, but her silence over the years has led Keem to believe that the girl he once loved is gone.
Keem arrives in Dakar determined to put the past behind him, but then Nyla unexpectedly returns and draws him back into her dangerous world. Once trained by The League, Nyla is now a fugitive with a mission to expose their corruption. As Nyla grows more and more powerful, she inspires both fear and awe in others. Keem cannot deny his love for her and yet he fears that Nyla has become a demon. When The League finally hunts Nyla down, Keem’s loyalty is tested. Is he willing to give his life for a girl who is no longer human?
Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick Press [My review] [Author interview]
When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him.
It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.
The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.
From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.
As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?
Down and Across: A Novel by Arvin Ahmadi
Viking Books for Young Readers [My review]
Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. Writing the Great American Novel? Three chapters. His summer internship? One week. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion.
With college applications looming, Scott’s parents pressure him to get serious and settle on a career path like engineering or medicine. Desperate for help, he sneaks off to Washington, DC, to seek guidance from a famous professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of success.
He never expects an adventure to unfold out of what was supposed to be a one-day visit. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life. Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try–all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and who he wants to be.