Every year, it feels more difficult to declare any group of books for teens to be the “best,” particularly when considering the appeal to an adult audience. Best for whom? Best at what? Nevertheless, in a field crowded with superlatives, these ten stand out. Whether through quality prose or the flawless execution of an ambitious premise, they elevate themselves from “best in breed” to “best in show.”
Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Drowned Cities. Little, Brown. 2012. 434p. ISBN 9780316056243. $17.99.
There is a black pool of mad at the center of Bacigalupi’s companion to the 2011 Printz Award– winning Ship Breaker—mad at the unacknowledged impact of climate change, the exploitation of children, and an American political system more intent on tearing itself apart than knitting our nation forward. The rage is highly motivating, building a world and a narrative that never loses focus. Mahlia is an orphan of a (future) Chinese peacekeeping effort, living in the jungle outskirts of our nation’s former capital. She and her companion, Mouse, attract the unwanted attention of local warlords when they rescue Tool (part golem, part super-soldier). The plotting is tight, propelling the reader forward into a hopeful conclusion that does not betray the story’s angry origins. A standout in a crowded field of dystopic futures.
Bray, Libba. The Diviners. (The Diviners, Bk. 1). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2012. 608p. ISBN 9780316126113. $19.99.
Sparkling, sexy, and smart are words that can describe most every book by the multitalented author of the Printz Award–winning Going Bovine (2009). Add big and creepy, and you have a start on describing this first book in supernatural trilogy set in the Roaring Twenties. Ohioan Evie O’Neill thinks it’s just jake when she is “banished” to the care of her distracted uncle, the curator of a New York City museum dedicated to the study of the occult. The creepy part? A series of ritual murders leads them to Naughty John, a long-dead religious fanatic who just may be trying to bring about the end of the world. Throw in a numbers runner, a wide-eyed Socialist, a follies dancer, and an early-day cyborg, and you have a one-of-a-kind setting peopled by some of the most engaging characters this (or any other) year. Most satisfyingly, while the book is clearly the start of a larger piece, the complete story arc does not leave the reader on the ledge, just hungry for more. A big book that somehow feels too short.
Hartman, Rachel. Seraphina. Random House Books for Young Readers. 2012. 480p. ISBN 9780375866562. $17.99.
There is more to Seraphina Dombegh than meets the eye. A talented musician, she joins the court of the kingdom of Goredd as its assistant music mistress. Goredd has been in uneasy peace with a neighboring kingdom of dragons, which mastered human transfiguration generations ago. Even in their human form, dragons are Vulcan (as in Spock)-like in their observation and distaste for messy human emotions, preferring to keep themselves in ard, a detached and orderly mental state. Secretly a half-dragon herself, Seraphina finds that her position in court puts her uncomfortably close to the escalating tensions between the two kingdoms, and her own emotions churn a bit whenever Lucien Kiggs, the fiancé of the crowned princess, comes into view. Filled with adolescent yearning, this world-building, intelligent series opener gave this reader a reason to love dragon stories again.
Hoose, Phillip. Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. Farrar. 2012. 160p. ISBN 9780374304683. $21.99.
I knew this book as having an impact on me when I caught myself watching shorebirds as I never had before. As he did in The Race To Save the Lord God Bird in 2004, Hoose examines an avian subject in a way that gives the reader new respect. While that book chronicled the tragedy of extinction, in Moonbird, this book uses a single living bird as the lens through which we are introduced to a threatened species. Tagged B95, the “moonbird” is a red knot of the subspecies rufa, a shorebird that annually migrates from South America to the Canadian Arctic; he has flown enough miles in his 20-year lifetime to have gone to the moon and halfway back. His survival is all the more amazing because during his lifetime, his species’ numbers have been reduced by 80 percent owing to human activity. A haunting story of survival against the odds, beautifully illustrated and including profiles of the scientists racing to save this species before it is too late.
King, A.S. Ask the Passengers. Little, Brown. 2012. 293p. ISBN 9780316194686. $17.99.
“Every airplane, no matter how far it is up there, I send love to it.” Ask the passengers: Astrid’s love is a powerful force; lacking any acceptable outlet for it in her small Pennsylvania town, she gives it away to the sky. Astrid, her best friends, her parents, and her sister all live their own kind of lies, and the only honest thing she knows is how she feels when kissing Dee, a girl who works with her. Astrid’s sharp, first-person narration is a poignant combination of armor against loneliness and a longing for connection. This contemporary fiction, from an author who just gets better with every book, is a testament to the transformative power of self-love.
Lanagan, Margo. The Brides of Rollrock Island. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780375869198. $17.99.
Only the sea witch Misskaella can draw the woman from the seal, bringing forth beautiful creatures irresistible to the men of tiny Rollrock Island. No one is more feared than she whose particular brand of magic shapes life on the island for generations. Two-time Printz Honor winner Lanagan wields her own brand of magic, telling stories that occupy the place between the real world and the one just a small step outside of it. Here the grit and cold of island life is mixed up in the magic of transformation as its men—who will pay anything for a sea bride—eventually force the natural women of the island into self-imposed exile. Seven different perspectives, spanning more than 50 years, plumb the depths of the selkie myth. A masterly exploration of magic, sex, rebirth, and love that transcends human borders.
Levithan, David. Every Day. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307931887. $16.99.
Meet A. Every day, A wakes up in the body of another teen A’s age: boys and girls from every race, creed, preference, and walk of life. Then A meets Rhiannon and falls in love; now A will do anything to spend time with her. Our protagonist faces an almost impossible dilemma: how do you build a relationship when every day you occupy a different physical self? A is almost jaded regarding the breadth of teen experience, but in this he is as naïve and awkward as a newborn colt trying its legs, which results in a wholly unique narrative voice. As he struggles to make a connection in the margins of others’ lives, A’s story tackles larger ethical questions and, at its conclusion, becomes a meditation on life’s purpose and love. An author known for literary feats—check out the poetry in The Realm of Possibility (2004) and the “definitive” form of last year’s adult book The Lover’s Dictionary)—Levithan always digs for emotional truth, where in lesser hands the book might have just been an intriguing premise.
Pratchett, Terry. Dodger. HarperCollins. 2012. ISBN 9780062009494. $17.99.
Despite the allusion to Dickens’s famous pickpocket, Pratchett’s Dodger is a tosher with a heroic soul, not one to shirk his obligations or play fast and loose with his loyalties. At the start of this alternate historical fiction, Dodger rescues a damsel in distress and it thus brought to the attention of journalist Charlie Dickens and his friend Henry Mayhew. His attempts to aid the young woman draw him further into the political intrigues of his day and into contact with such notorious figures as Sweeney Todd and Benjamin Disraeli. Fans of Dickens will smile at the many references to Oliver and Pip, but the real joy of this departure is the hopeful attitude that prevails throughout. Whether he is picking through the sewers of London, outsmarting a crazed killer, or soaked in horse piss, Dodger maintains an infectious sweetness and enthusiasm that makes for easy reading indeed. Artful fun.
Sheinkin, Steve. Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Flash Point: Roaring Brook. 2012. 266p. ISBN 9781596434875. $19.99.
So often, the best nonfiction is described as “reading like fiction”—meaning it makes a subject come alive in a way that keeps a reader eagerly turning the pages. Here we are treated to not one but three such stories, each more gripping than the last. The first focuses on the development, another on the dissemination, and the third on the destruction of nuclear technology. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project Team, understood better than anyone how this weapon would change the course of the future. Harry Gold, a nondescript lab assistant, spied for the Soviet Union for decades, feeding them the team’s secrets. And Knut Haukelid, a Brooklyn-born Norwegian resistance fighter, went behind enemy lines and destroyed the German’s heavy water plant. Sheinkin, winner of both the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for The Notorious Benedict Arnold (2010), does not fuss up his books with much in the way of ornamentation, letting the writing speak for itself. This writing stands up to the very best on the adult history shelves.
Wein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. Hyperion. 2012. 352p. ISBN 9781423152194. $16.99.
“I am a coward,” begins the confession of a spy taken behind enemy lines in the bitter middle of World War II. English-raised Julie (“Verity”) was caught when she looked the wrong way crossing the street in Vichy France and now confides to the reader that she will say anything to end the torture of her interrogation. Her lengthy admission tells the story of two best friends who would never have met under other circumstances—one a spy and the other a pilot, one an aristocrat and the other the granddaughter of a Jewish mechanic—and the events leading up to her capture. Just as Verity’s story concludes, a second narrative exposes the truth and the lies contained therein and cements the tragedy of two forever-friends forced by war to make the most difficult of choices. Part narrative double helix, part historical spy novel, and, in the end, a loving tribute to the heroism of young resistance volunteers, this literary high-wire act is impossible to appreciate in one reading. Unforgettable.