2015 has been another great year for YA fiction, with hundreds of talented authors writing interesting, morally complex stories in a variety of genres: the so-called “problem novel”, science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, thriller, horror, mystery, etc. In fact, it’s important to remember YA itself isn’t a genre — it’s simply a term used to designate a target audience, although that audience isn’t just teens: according to a 2012 report by Bowker, more than half of the buyers of young adult books are over 18, with the largest segment aged 30-44. The YA book market is strong, and the quality titles published in 2015 help keep it that way.
I always find it difficult to compile my own personal best books lists — all readers are different, and what is considered a great book by one person may not be to someone else. Whenever someone asks me, “What book should I read?”, my first thought is, “All of them!” But you can’t read every book — a fact I begrudgingly came to terms with a while ago. So I listen to the book buzz, read the trade magazines and professional journals, track the bestsellers list, follow hundreds of authors on Twitter, and just try to keep up with as much excellent writing as I can.
Here are my picks for the 30 best YA fiction titles of 2015 — 15 of which I consider the Best of the Best (marked with an asterisk):
* The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith — Skillfully blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, Smith chronicles the story of Ariel, a refugee who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel’s story is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century…and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow. “Smith is a spiritual heir to Kurt Vonnegut, and that’s especially clear in this novel” (Booklist starred review).
* All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven — When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself — a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. “Niven is a skillful storyteller who never patronizes her characters — or her audience” (Entertainment Weekly).
Audacity by Melanie Crowder — A gorgeously told novel in verse written with intimacy and power, Audacity is inspired by the real-life story of Clara Lemlich, a spirited young woman who emigrated from Russia to New York at the turn of the twentieth century and fought tenaciously for equal rights. Powerful, breathtaking, and inspiring, this is the story of a remarkable young woman, whose passion and selfless devotion to her cause changed the world. “Crowder breathes life into a world long past… Compelling, powerful and unforgettable” (Kirkus starred review).
Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen — When Sarah’s mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to her grandparents. Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family bloodlines, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. “Blending modern-day problems and ancient magical curses, Hellisen’s novel sparkles like a classic fairy tale, even as it plumbs unpleasant truths” (Publishers Weekly starred review).
* Bone Gap by Laura Ruby — The story of Roza, a beautiful girl who is taken from a quiet midwestern town and imprisoned by a mysterious man, and Finn, the only witness, who cannot forgive himself for being unable to identify her kidnapper. Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.”A haunting and inventive work that subverts expectations at every turn” (Publishers Weekly starred review).
* Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman — A captivating, deeply powerful and personal novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page. “This affecting deep dive into the mind of a schizophrenic will captivate readers, engender empathy for those with mental illnesses, and offer much fodder for discussion” (School Library Journal starred review).
* Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge — Set in England after World War I, this is a brilliantly creepy but ultimately loving story of the relationship between two sisters who have to band together against a world where nothing is as it seems. When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry, her sister seems scared of her, and her parents whisper behind closed doors. Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined. “A piercing, chilling page-turner” (Booklist starred review).
The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner — Aaron Rowe walks in his sleep and haunted by dreams he can’t explain and memories he can’t recover. Death doesn’t scare him — his new job with a funeral director may even be his salvation. But if he doesn’t discover the truth about his hidden past soon, he may fall asleep one night and never wake up. “Gardner’s rich novel combines flashes of dark humor, an elusive narrator, and a carefully rendered supporting cast to create profound moments that will linger in readers’ minds” (Publishers Weekly starred review).
Eden West by Pete Hautman — Twelve square miles of paradise, surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence: this is Nodd, the land of the Grace. It is all seventeen-year-old Jacob knows. Beyond the fence lies the World, a wicked, terrible place, doomed to destruction. But something is rotten in paradise. A new boy arrives from outside, and his scorn and disdain threaten to tarnish Jacob’s contentment. Then, while patrolling the borders of Nodd, Jacob meets Lynna, a girl from the adjoining ranch, who tempts him to sample the forbidden Worldly pleasures that lie beyond the fence. This is the story of two worlds, two hearts, the power of faith, and the resilience of the human spirit. “A heartbreaking, uplifting, and fantastic read” (School Library Journal starred review).
* The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones — When Evan’s father dies suddenly, Evan finds a hand-bound yellow book on his desk—a book his dad had been reading when he passed away. The book is the diary of a Japanese soldier stranded on a small Pacific island in WWII. Why was his father reading it? What is in this account that Evan’s grandfather, whom Evan has never met before, fears so much that he will do anything to prevent its being seen? “Wynne-Jones achieves an extraordinary feat: he illuminates the hidden depths of personalities and families through a mesmerizing blend of realism and magic” (Kirkus starred review).
The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough — Flora and Henry were born a few blocks from each other, innocent of the forces that might keep a white boy and an African American girl apart; years later they meet again and their mutual love of music sparks an even more powerful connection. But what Flora and Henry don’t know is that they are pawns in a game played by the eternal adversaries Love and Death, here brilliantly reimagined as two extremely sympathetic and fascinating characters. “Brockenbrough never sugarcoats the obstacles facing Henry and Flora’s love — whether human prejudices or supernatural manipulations — in this inventive and affecting novel” (Publishers Weekly starred review).
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick — Timeless, beautiful, and haunting spirals connect the four episodes in this mesmerizing novel from Printz Award winner Sedgwick. Each of the characters in these mysterious linked stories embarks on a journey of discovery and survival; carried forward through the spiral of time, none will return to the same place. “At once prosaic and wondrously metaphysical, Sedgwick’s novel will draw teens in and invite them to share in the awe-inspiring (and sometimes terrifying) order and mystery that surround us all” (School Library Journal starred review).
* The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz — Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself — because maybe a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of — a woman with a future. “A memorable novel from a captivating storyteller” (Booklist starred review).
Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan — Watch out, ex-boyfriends, and get out of the way, homophobic coaches. Tiny Cooper has something to say — and he’s going to say it in song. Filled with honesty, humor, and “big, lively, belty” musical numbers, this is the no-holds-barred (and many-bars-held) entirety of the beloved musical first introduced in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the bestseller by John Green and David Levithan. “A welcome addition to progressive library collections, this unapologetic gem will encourage teens’ discussion of a sensitive topic and potentially broaden their understanding of the meaning of tolerance” (School Library Journal starred review).
* I Crawl Through It by A.S. King — This groundbreaking work of surrealist fiction will mesmerize readers with its deeply affecting exploration of how we crawl through traumatic experience — and find the way out. Four teenagers are on the verge of exploding. The anxieties they face at every turn have nearly pushed them to the point of surrender: senseless high-stakes testing, the lingering damage of past trauma, the buried grief and guilt of tragic loss. They are desperate to cope, but no one is listening. “At once a statement on the culture of modern schools as well as mental health issues, this novel is an ambitious, haunting work of art”(School Library Journal starred review).
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff — The planet Kerenza is attacked, and Kady and Ezra find themselves on a space fleet fleeing the enemy, while their ship’s artificial intelligence system and a deadly plague may be the end of them all. Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents — including emails, maps, files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more — Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes. “Ambitious, heartbreaking, and out-of-this-world awesome” (Kirkus starred review).
Infinite In Between by Carolyn Mackler — A striking novel that chronicles the lives of five teenagers through the thrills, heartbreaks, and joys of their four years in high school. Zoe, Jake, Mia, Gregor, and Whitney meet at freshman orientation. At the end of that first day, they make a promise to reunite after graduation. So much can happen in those in-between years… “The story unfolds by year and month; each month contains short chapters from one or more teen’s perspectives. Mackler keeps all five story lines clear, absorbing, and integral to the larger story of friendship, perseverance, and hope” (Publishers Weekly starred review).
Kissing In America by Margo Rabb — When she falls for a boy who moves to California without any warning, sixteen-year-old Eva and her best friend, Annie, set off on a road trip to the West Coast see him again, confronting the complex truth about love along the way. “Rabb’s funny and big-hearted second novel is bursting with resonant themes of love, death, family, art and identity, fully embodied in a diverse cast of wonderfully fallible and entertaining characters” (New York Times Book Review).
* The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell — Abe Sora is going to die, and he’s only seventeen years old. Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), he’s already lost the use of his legs, which means he can no longer attend school. Seeking a sense of normality, Sora visits teen chat rooms online and finally finds what he’s been longing for: friendship without pity. “Benwell’s deeply moving story is visceral in its answers to this question and psychologically acute in its portrayal of a dying teen and his loyal friends. Its shattering ending is sure to engender discussion among readers” (Booklist starred review).
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera — In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again — but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. “A beautiful debut novel…[Silvera] manages a delicate knitting of class politics through an ambitious narrative about sexual identity and connection that considers the heavy weight and constructive value of traumatic memory” (New York Times Book Review).
Mosquitoland by David Arnold — When she learns that her mother is sick in Ohio, Mim confronts her demons on a thousand-mile odyssey from Mississippi that redefines her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane. “There is no shortage of humor in Mim’s musings, interspersed with tender scenes and a few heart-pounding surprises. Mim’s triumphant evolution is well worth the journey” (Publishers Weekly starred review).
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt — Jack, 12, tells the gripping story of Joseph Brooks, 14, who joins his family as a foster child. Damaged in prison, Joseph wants nothing more than to find his baby daughter, Jupiter, whom he has never seen. When Joseph has begun to believe he’ll have a future, he is confronted by demons from his past that force a tragic sacrifice. “Readers will not soon forget either Joseph Brook or this spare novel written with love and grace” (Kirkus starred review).
The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness — A bold and irreverent novel that reminds us that there are many different types of remarkable. What if you aren’t the Chosen One? The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever? What if you’re like Mikey, who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school…again? Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life. “Fans of madcap humor and satire and those seeking more thought-provoking alternatives to the usual fare will appreciate this unique and clever take on a familiar trope” (School Library Journal starred review).
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older — Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears…well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on. “Readers…will find plenty to like in the unique fantasy elements, entertainingly well-wrought characters, and cinematic pacing. Smart writing with a powerful message that never overwhelms the terrific storytelling” (Booklist starred review).
* Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli — Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out — without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met. “Albertalli’s sensitive, incisive novel expertly gets at the complexity of identity, the difficulty of change, and the importance of growth” (Booklist starred review).
* Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo — Six dangerous outcasts, one impossible heist as Bardugo returns to the setting for her bestselling Shadow and Bone series. Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price — and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams…but he can’t pull it off alone. “The whirlwind pace, along with some witty banter, burgeoning romance, and high-stakes action, makes this series opener a surefire crowd-pleaser” (Booklist starred review).
* The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond — A gentle visionary coming of age in the shadow of the shipyards of northern England, Dominic Hall is torn between extremes. On the one hand, he craves the freedom he feels when he steals away with the eccentric girl artist next door, Holly Stroud—his first and abiding love—to balance above the earth on a makeshift tightrope. On the other hand, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to the brutal charms of Vincent McAlinden, a complex bully who awakens something wild and reckless and killing in Dom. “Almond’s rough, beautiful world of books and ships, sinners and saints is a lyrical reminder of how, when we lose our equilibrium, art can redeem us” (New York Times Book Review).
* The Truth Commission by Susan Juby — This was going to be the year Normandy Pale came into her own. The year she emerged from her older sister Kiera’s shadow. But it hasn’t worked out that way, not quite. So Normandy turns to her art and writing, and the “truth commission” she and her friends have started to find out the secrets at their school. It’s a great idea, as far as it goes — until it leads straight back to Kiera, who has been hiding some pretty serious truths of her own. “Juby’s bright dialogue and vivid, appealing characters draw readers along as the three young artists navigate truths both light and dark, discovering themselves in the process” (Horn Book starred review).
* The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma — On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries. “With evocative language, a shifting timeline and more than one unreliable narrator, Suma subtly explores the balance of power between the talented and the mediocre, the rich and the poor, the brave and the cowardly — and the unpleasant truths that are released when those scales are upset” (New York Times Book Review).
* X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon — Co-written by Malcolm X’s daughter, this riveting and revealing novel follows the formative years of the man whose words and actions shook the world. X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today. “A satisfyingly complete, never simplistic story of one young man’s journey through trouble to the promise of a life of purpose and meaning” (Booklist starred review).
In our next post, I’ll list our picks for the best YA Nonfiction of 2015…stay tuned!