Narrowing down my top choices for best YA reads of 2018 felt impossible. This was a year when YA authors in particular, took modern social issues and brought them to light in a stunning array of genres and characters. These books range from fantasy to contemporary, and yet, each one manages to raise awareness and offer a pathway for insightful conversations that today’s teens are faced with. Every one of these books prove that YA fiction is not immature, or irrelevant. It is a genre filled with gorgeous prose, powerful characters, and isn’t afraid to tackle a wide range of serious subjects. Here are my favorite YA reads for 2018!
To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
There were quite a few Little Mermaid retellings this year, but if you only pick up one, make sure it’s To Kill A Kingdom. This novel is more than a retelling. It takes the bones of the old fairy tale and creates an entirely new story. Lira, a ruthless siren royal, obeys her mother, The Sea Queen, without fail. Until one decision places her directly in her mother’s wrath. Her song stolen, if she doesn’t remove Prince Elian’s heart, she’ll never be a siren again. All Prince Elian wants is to live a life of adventure. When a drowning girl offers the key to destroy sirens forever, he jumps at the chance. The only question is, can he trust her? The writing is sharp, the romance is slow and forbidden, and the characters are complicated and confident. Lovers of pirates will swoon over the adventure. Fans of sirens will sing for their unapologetic viciousness. Everyone who loves a plot full of twists, turns, murder, magic and betrayal will rapidly turn pages, delighting in every single one. This is a story of finding out how to seize your own destiny. To find your path, even when it seems predetermined. Filled with just enough snark to soften the bite, To Kill A Kingdom is one of my favorite reads of the year!
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Tackling injustice, prejudice, systemic racism and societal hierarchies in an epic fantasy world is a daunting task. Yet, that is exactly what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut, Children of Blood and Bone. This is probably one of the most hyped books of the year, and it not only stands up to the hype but blows it away. Their magic was stolen, the king determined to keep their people down. Until a chance encounter brings the possibility of magic back. In a race against a fanatic prince, with the entire fate of her people on the line, Zelie has one chance to strike back, or risk losing magic forever. The lush landscape and detailed magical system took my breath away. However, it’s the journey of self-discovery each character goes through, with shockingly different results, that makes this story incredibly captivating. This is a novel that can be dissected and examined on so many levels and can be used to open the doorway to a conversation with teens about current issues. Historical issues of colonialism, slavery, cultures that are conquered. And modern issues of racism, societal bias, cultural disparity. That’s what makes this book so beautiful, so important and one everyone should read.
Sleight by Jennifer Sommersby
For anyone who has ever dreamed of running away with the circus and would love to have a baby elephant as a best friend, this book is for you. Full of magic and secrets, Sleight is hypnotizing and enchanting. Following cryptic clues in a letter her mother left after her unexpected death, we follow Genevieve through her own fears of following her mother’s madness. With each clue discovered and every plot twist revealed, I fell more in love with Genevieve’s determination and bravery. It isn’t easy finding the truth of her past, or the path to her future, and yet, the more she discovers of the world around her, the more she also finds herself. A delightful coming-of-age story combined in a world of magical realism, Sleight doesn’t rely on fantasy to make this story fantastic. Full of vivid history and memorable characters, this book will remind everyone to always go after their dreams, no matter who, or what, stands in your way.
Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
If you love fierce females, get ready to fall in love with Eelyn. A Viking warrior taken by a rival clan, this incredible fantasy immerses us in a world full of brutal savagery and unshakeable loyalty. Sky in the Deep is not for the faint of heart. The battles are vivid, realistic and unflinchingly violent. This is a society where clan hatred drives an endless cycle of war and feuds. It’s easy to see parallels to societies today, and the journey Eelyn goes through to unravel her own inherent biases and beliefs is emotional and empowering. Sky in the Deep will open discussions on cultural hatred, how biases and beliefs are born and carried on through generations, and how we can break those cycles. I absolutely love that we are given the accurate portrayal of women as warriors, especially when historical fantasy tends to lean toward cultures that view women as less superior. Girls are fierce. They are loyal and tough and loving all at the same time. As Eelyn discovers that she can forge her own path, find her own way, I hope girls all over realize they also have the power they need to raise their own battle axes. Sky in the Deep is bold and shows us that strength comes in many wonderfully complex forms.
Mayfly by Jeff Sweat
Get ready to be transported to a future that is terrifying. Mayfly drops us into Ell Aye, a Los Angeles where children run the world because the adults are all dead. A plague, sudden, severe and long-lasting caused all the adults to die and ensures that no one lives over the age of eighteen. This is a post-apocalyptic dystopian that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The world building and language is incredible, bringing to life a reality readers will recognize and yet find entirely changed. Mayfly is imaginative, thrilling, immersive and intense. The plot twists are shocking and the ending is jaw-dropping. Mayfly is The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies, yet it is so much more. It’s smart, with an exploration of how myths and legends are created from clues of the past. Exploring these references with teens is a fascinating way to examine our own legends, myths and understanding of history. This is a stunning example of how we can use stories to teach teens about culture, society, history and more, in ways that spark creativity and imagination.
LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff
One of the things I love about smart science fiction is the way in which it explores our present in the context of the future. LIFEL1K3 does exactly that. Kristoff tackles the consequences of climate change and the complex enormity of artificial intelligence in this Mad Maxx meets Pinocchio post-apocalyptic world. A freak event brings the hatred of a puritanical group after Evie, and while running from them, Evie and her bestest, Lemon Fresh, discover an android boy that they think is beyond saving. Instead, they find themselves running from more enemies they ever imagined existing and unraveling secrets they never dreamed possible. The friendship between Lemon Fresh and Evie is refreshing and awesome. The writing is visceral and poetic, catchy and raw. This book is about first love, how tender and brutal it can be. But it’s also about friendship and self-discovery. Plus, it has robots. Who can say no to that?
These Rebel Waves by Sara Raasch
Pirates. An inquisition. A small country battling for independence in the face of a powerful monarchy. These Rebel Waves almost reads like a story plucked from the annals of our own history. Instead of making the novel seem contrived or predictable, it gives the reader solid ground to feel fully immersed in this world without relying on external world building or narration. The result is to be mesmerized and transported completely while being able to get to know the three main characters intimately. These Rebel Waves is more than a rich, fantasy adventure. There’s complex politics, both in the monarchy and the burgeoning democracy, that gives the story a deeper examination on the various dynamics of power and control. To add another layer of texture to these conversations, Raasch adds in magic, giving the inquisition an external focus and making the world all the more intricate. This is a fantastic story to open the dialogue on world history, governments, religion, oppression and stigma with teens. It has shocking twists and unexpected turns that keep readers engaged and on their toes until the very last page. Now we all have to wait for the sequel.
When Elephants Fly by Nancy Richardson Fischer
When Elephants Fly is a beautiful, tender, coming-of-age story that tackles some very daunting topics. Lily lives torn between a traumatic past and an uncertain future, terrified that she will follow the family history of mental illness. But when a baby elephant bonds with her, she realizes she has to make a choice. Whether to truly live her life, embracing all the uncertainty, or remain closed off, alive but not living. There is so much to love in this book. It isn’t just the journey we go on with Lily. It’s about recovering from the wounds of our past and finding the courage to face our future. It’s about realizing that the things worth doing are risky, and sometimes hurt, and there is no guarantee for anything. When Elephants Fly is about finding yourself, but also realizing when to fight for people or things that can’t. This is a story about bravery, love, forgiveness and hope. The messages of acceptance, friendship, and above all, finding the life you want to live is spectacular and breathtaking. When Elephants Fly will make you feel. It will make you think. Most importantly, it will open the door to a wide range of conversations highly relevant to teens today.
Dream Country by Shannon Gibney
An incredible journey, where historical fact is woven into the story to create a “fictional canvas of fact,” Dream Country follows five generations of one family searching to find their place and their freedom in this world. It’s a story of how we carry the wounds of our past forward into our future. Gibney shows us in raw, unflinching detail how racism looks. How it feels. How it stems and grows, from one group of people to another, blossoming and breeding, hate fueling and feeding hate, from one generation to the next. This story is emotional. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s real. Without understanding the pain of our past, how can we possibly grasp the difficulty in our present? Gibney answers, we can’t. This is a book for teens who have ever felt marginalized. Who have ever felt that they don’t fit, they don’t belong, that they aren’t enough. For anyone that has ever wanted to understand. The deep exploration of very real topics stemming from this story will be ones that stay with you, long after these pages end.
Sadie by Courtney Summers
Sadie is simply stunning. We are taken on a journey in two parts. One, through the eyes of Sadie, looking to find the man responsible for killing her sister. And the other, a podcast, told after Sadie disappears, hoping to find her. Gripping and full of suspense, this novel is heartbreaking. If you don’t listen to the audio version, which is mesmerizing, make sure you listen to the podcast episodes because they bring this story to life in such a unique way. This story feels real because it is real – Sadie may be fictional, but to quote the book, “Girls go missing all the time.” Sometimes there are happy endings. More often than not, there aren’t. Yet, for all the tragedy and heartbreak in this story, at its core, this is a message about love and hope. Summers doesn’t tell us that revenge makes trauma better. It doesn’t change the past. But through justice, through caring, you can change the present, thereby, changing the future. This isn’t a story that is going to leave you with answers, but it will spark a dialogue. Given the climate of issues in society today, it’s a dialogue we need.
Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer
In this fantastic debut, Schaeffer explores the dark side of what makes a villain. Nita dissects supernatural creatures so her mother can sell their parts on the black market. She doesn’t like what her mother does, but it’s the only life she knows. But when her mother brings home a boy, and he’s alive, Nita decides she’s reached her limit. Her decision to free the boy doesn’t come without consequences. Kidnapped and on the other side of the dissection table, Nita has to decide what kind of monster she’s willing to become in order to save herself. YA novels that explore the darker side of morality are so important when they’re well done. We can learn how to find the good within ourselves by acknowledging the darker side we all have buried inside. Good people can do bad things, and conversely, bad people can do good things. This is a complex conversation that we don’t find often since heroes and villains tend to be clear-cut. By shifting the focus to a supernatural world, Schaeffer gives us the ability to find the mirrors of our own society and examine these complicated ideas of morality without pointing fingers or making it personal.
Beneath the Citadel by Destiny Soria
Beneath the Citadel is a dark fantasy caper full of rebellion with an incredibly diverse cast of characters. Cassa and her friends are the last hope of a rebellion long thought dead. In one, final desperate attempt, they try to infiltrate the citadel to prove their lives aren’t determined by the prophecies the high council rules by. Except, things don’t go according to plan, and they find themselves trying to stay one step ahead with no one to trust. Threats close in from all around, and by the time they figure out the truth, it may be too late. The thing I love about this book is that Soria doesn’t stick to the traditional hero/heroine tropes. These characters are uniquely themselves, and make decisions the way struggling teens actually would. They aren’t entirely selfless and are scarred from the traumas of their past. Yet, this struggle is what makes this an engaging coming-of-age story. In addition to dealing with child abuse, PTSD, parental death, panic attacks and facing their own sexuality, these characters offer a vivid, realistic and diverse landscape that most teens will be able to relate to.
Words We Don’t Say by K.J. Reilly
This spectacular contemporary novel brings to light several mental health and social issues, such as homelessness, PTSD and grief. Joel Higgins writes text messages he knows he can’t send. Messages to his best friend Andy, who isn’t here anymore. To the girl of his dreams, Eli, who doesn’t know he loves her. And to Principal Redman, who probably wouldn’t appreciate the texts anyway. But with the help of an English teacher who refuses to stop pushing boundaries, a new kid determined to be his friend, and the vets at the soup kitchen he volunteers at, Joel begins to learn how to embrace his grief and learn from his pain. Easily one of the best books of the year, Words We Don’t Say reads like a modern-day The Catcher In The Rye. Reilly tackles some heavy issues, and makes them relatable through Joel’s own grasp and understanding. But most importantly, the message that your pain, your trauma, your experience, is perfectly valid, even in the face of someone else’s pain, is one every teen needs to hear. Words We Don’t Say is deep, and emotional, and a book you can read again and again.