The Best Books of 2016 – YA!
2016 was a watershed year for me when it comes to Young Adult fiction. Prior to this year, I’d thought of the YA genre as a sludgy cesspool of second-rate prose, a place where talentless authors pander to the insecurities, inexperience, and near-cosmic megalomania of the average teenager – a genre, in other words, that could make somebody like John Green a wealthy, beloved literary icon. And I wasn’t wrong to think that – but in 2016 somebody (dammit, Francina!) finally got through my head a key concession: YA, like all other genres, is a spectrum. 95% of it is might be crap, but the remaining 5% will be worth the reading-time even of people who aren’t teenagers. So in 2016, I started looking for YA that might actually please me (recalling, as I should have recalled much earlier, how often it’s done so in the past), YA that was actually excellent. These were the best of what I found:
10. Spartak: Rising Son by Steven Coulter (Jubilation Media) – I admit I was attracted to this book initially by its, um, striking cover art – but Steven Coulter’s debut turned out to be a lot more than just a pretty face! This fast-paced story set in a dystopian future that bears a great many disquieting similarities to our present day stars a young hero named Spartak Jones and rips along with scarcely a pause and such sure-footed action sequences that you won’t notice the smart social commentary until after it’s got its hooks in you. An amazing debut.
9. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Disney-Hyperion) – The little boy at the center of this astonishing story was born in a refugee detention center in Australia; he’s never known any other home, but his imagination teems with exotic worlds – he’s a natural storyteller, born into a world that’s concerned only with survival. I was struck most by the subtle ways Zana Fraillon ups the surreal aspects of her fairly simple plot until the whole thing seems to resonate on a semi-mythical level.
8. The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane (Skyscape) – The setting of this novel – a summer camp for “at-risk” teens exhibiting the whole textbook range of social and psychological pathologies – initially seems much too hackneyed to yield anything heartfelt, and yet Rebekah Crane makes it work, drawing readers into the story of Camp Padua through the reactions of her main character Zander, one of the best-drawn and most-memorable characters on this list.
7. The Bombs That Brought Us Together by Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury) – There are lots of echoes of John Crowley in this gripping novel about teenager Charlie Law, who lives in Little Town, which is carefully ordered but which borders a realm called Old Country where things are very different. When Charlie meets a young refugee from Old Country, the two worlds begin to collide in ways that I found both convincing and ultimately moving.
6. The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner (St. Martin’s Griffin) – “Moving” certainly describes this story about young Kyle Donohue, who watches the smoldering Twin Towers on the morning of September 11. When he’s hurrying across the Brooklyn Bridge trying to reach the city, he encounters a little girl covered in ash and wearing battered costume-angel wings, and the odd, unpredictable relationship that unfolds from there is spellbindingly done.
5. The Boy Who Killed Grant Parker by Kat Spears (St. Martin’s Griffin) – When Luke Grayson, the main character in this strange, powerful meditation on identity, is exiled for his sins to live with his preacher father in rural Tennessee, he comes directly into contact with a bully named Grant who’s managed in one way or another to bully the entire town. The confrontation between Luke and Grant, and its startling, gradually-unfolded aftermath, is the dramatic payoff of this remarkable read.
4. The Fixes by Owen Matthews (Harper Teen) – Like so many books on this list, the heart of Owen Matthews’ novel is a spiky, troubled friendship, in this case between harried, well-meaning Eric and enigmatic Jordan, who at first encourages Eric to let go of some of the anxieties caused by his overbearing father but then gradually starts encouraging more questionable behavior. It’s a familiar YA plot, but Owen Matthews writes it with terrific energy, making the whole thing memorably fresh.
3. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Delacorte Press) – In some ways, this is the weakest entry on this list, mainly because it rests more than the others in the lingo of standard broad-appeal YA. But Nicola Yoon’s story, about cool, logical Natasha and pressured, repressed Daniel, quickly rises above its lazier tendencies and becomes a completely winning story of first love.
2. Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven (Knopf Books for Young Readers) – This sleek, professional little novel is also built along familiar lines: Libby Strout, once known to the tabloids as “America’s Fattest Teen,” enters high school carrying burdens of grief and insecurity, and there she meets Jack Masselin, whose strut and charisma hide burdens of his own. But as with a few books on this list, this one rises above its predictable premise and delivers a genuinely moving tale.
1. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse) – The dilemma of this crackling good book, by an easy margin the best YA novel of the year, is one familiar from the daydreams of many a bullied high school student: young Henry Denton holds the fate of the world in his hands – literally. The aliens who abducted him have presented him with a doomsday ultimatum for all life on Earth, and Henry is fighting to find reasons to avert it. His family life is in shambles, and his personal life hasn’t begun to recover from the suicide of his boyfriend – and in jangly, addictive prose, Hutchinson (whose The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley was also mighty good) makes the whole odd story pull together beautifully.
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