Tracey S. Hodges
Reading across genres can be a meaningful experience for teens that allows them to learn about different life experiences while finding the types of stories that specifically draw them in. Identifying the types of stories they enjoy, whether that be fantasy, contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, or nonfiction, can cultivate a lifelong love of reading and motivation to find new books of interest. The nine diverse books reviewed in this column are sure to engage teen readers.
Chaos Theory. Nic Stone. (2023). Crown.
While trying to text his ex-girlfriend during a fateful night of heavy drinking at a party, 18-year-old Andy Criddle accidentally contacts 16-year-old Shelbi Augustine, and without knowing who each other is, they continue to text. Aware that he has had too much to drink, she makes him promise not to drive. Andy gets behind the wheel anyway and crashes his car. He again texts Shelbi and confesses what he did, though he still does not know who she is. Once they meet in person, they begin texting regularly and confide their personal struggles (Andy’s alcohol addiction and Shelbi’s bipolar disorder and social anxiety). As they begin spending time together, Shelbi presents Andy with a list of rules about how to interact with her if they are to be friends. The most important rule is that he cannot fall in love with her. However, they do fall in love with each other. But as they are still battling their own mental health problems, high family expectations, and social pressures, author Nic Stone (who in a note tells readers that this is the book she wanted as a teen dealing with her own mental health issues) gives Chaos Theory a hopeful but realistic ending. This beautifully crafted story shows how everyone deserves to be loved, understood, and supported—an important message with the rise in teen mental health concerns. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction - Romance
The Davenports (The Davenports #1). Krystal Marquis. (2023). Dial.
The Davenports are a wealthy, elite Black family living in 1910 Chicago. The family’s patriarch, William Davenport, is a former slave turned businessman who amassed a fortune as a manufacturer of carriages. This narrative, based on the fortunes of one of a small group of prosperous Black families in the decades after the Civil War, follows four teens connected to the Davenport family as they navigate societal expectations and romance. Olivia, the older Davenport daughter, is ready to fulfill her duty by marrying well, and Helen, the younger Davenport sister, is interested in working as a mechanic on cars not in marriage. The narrative also follows Ruby, Olivia’s best friend whose family wants her to marry into the Davenport family, and Amy-Rose, a maid in the Davenport home, who is determined to own her own business (and dreams of the impossible, marrying John, the heir to the Davenport fortune). Krystal Marquis’s romance novel includes multiple love triangles to complicate relationships further as it examines issues related to class, race, and gender during this period of American history. (Gr 9-12) Historical Fiction - Romance
In Limbo. Deb JJ Lee. (2023). First Second.
In this graphic memoir, artist Deborah (Jung-Jin) Lee explores issues of immigration, family dynamics, identity, and mental health with expressive illustrations and minimal text. The result is a powerful coming-of-age story of a Korean American who emigrated at the age of three from South Korea and grew up in New Jersey. For Deb, everything feels overly challenging. Teachers cannot pronounce her Korean name, she is bullied for her looks, and her mother is verbally and physically abusive. In high school, her grades are not good enough for her family, and she struggles to maintain friendships. As tension builds, her mental health deteriorates, culminating in a suicide attempt. She describes this period of her life as being “in limbo.” Lee’s engaging storytelling addresses questions of family, heritage, and belonging that are realistic and relatable for teens. (Gr 9-12) Memoir in Graphic Novel Format
My Flawless Life. Yvonne Woon. (2023). Katherine Tegen.
Hana Yang Lerner is a problem-solver and fixer. Using her charm from a life in politics as daughter of a senator and her ability to camouflage into any persona, she is hired by wealthy classmates at her prep school in Washington, DC, to do everything from standing in for a student at a college meet-and-greet event to having drug-related citations removed from school records. How did she get into this business? Her father’s involvement and subsequent conviction in a hit-and-run accident shook her family to its core, destroyed their reputation, and ruined them financially. Now, Hana has nothing to lose. When she is contacted by Three, a mysterious client with a problem, Hana is not sure she wants to commit to fixing it, but she cannot refuse the promised fee—and her life gets even more complicated. This twisty and layered thriller holds readers in suspense as they are propelled to read on wanting to know the truth about Hana’s father and the identity of Three. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction – Thriller
Play the Game. Charlene Allen. (2023). Katherine Tegen.
Video games, murder, and clashes with police collide in Charlene Allen’s fast-paced mystery that is sure to give teens a lot to talk about. A young Black student named Ed, a video game creator with sights on winning a competition, is killed by Singer, a police officer, and four months later, Singer is murdered in the same location. To honor his friend, VZ, the protagonist of this story, plays Ed’s game and enters it in the contest. The video game illuminates parallels with the current real word murder investigations. At the same time, VZ’s friend, Jack, is identified as a prime suspect in the murder of the police officer. The teens find support and comfort in each other and their community, which provides them with safe spaces to break away from the trauma of the murders and investigation. Today’s teens will find the dialogue of this novel that weaves the solving of a murder mystery with current societal issues rich and authentic. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction – Mystery
The Severed Thread (The Bone Spindle #2). Leslie Vedder. (2023). Razorbill.
In The Bone Spindle (2022), a reimagining of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale, Fi and her sidekick, Shane, are tasked with finding Prince Briar Rose and breaking his sleeping curse with a kiss. Once the prince is awakened by Fi’s kiss, however, the Spindle Witch immediately curses the entire land of Andar. In this sequel, Fi, Shane, and Briar must travel across the land to find a mysterious book filled with the code that can break the spell. The stakes ramp up as the three battle witches and witch hunters to try to save Andar. The trio also has to decide if they can trust Red, Shane’s love who turned on her but who may hold information that can lead them to the book. In a world of curses, Fi also learns more about her own Butterfly Curse that could destroy Prince Briar Rose and Andar. Woven throughout this second story are ties to literature, queer romances, and the discovery of true identity that will leave readers eager for the final book in Leslie Vedder’s complex trilogy. (Gr 9-12) Fantasy
Sun Keep Rising. Kristen R. Lee. (2023). Crown.
Seventeen-year-old B’onca is dealing with the reality of being a single parent with a child to raise without having enough money. She is trying to complete her high school credits, working to pay rent, and considering post-high school plans. B’onca is both working and attending summer school when her ex-boyfriend and father of her daughter, Mia, is killed, and his family begins threatening to seek custody of the baby. B’onca knows that even working several jobs, she cannot afford either raising her daughter or the legal fees. B’onca is approached to help with an illegal scheme to earn money. She thinks it will be a one-time thing, but when the money is good and gives her hope, she may take the risky behavior too far. Author Kristen R. Lee offers teens a story of single motherhood, poverty, and the desperate measures people will take to support those they love the most, topics that are often not explored in young adult literature but are realities facing many young people. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction
There Goes the Neighborhood. Jade Adia. (2023). Hyperion.
What would you do to preserve your neighborhood? Best friends Rhea (Black), Malachi (Black), and Zeke (Latino) are faced with this question when Zeke’s family receives an eviction notice after a 60% rent increase. It is clear that gentrification is coming to their South LA neighborhood. Wanting to preserve their community, Rhea devises a bold plan to start a fake gang, SOSI, to deter developers. Her plan starts out innocuously with tagging and internet posting but soon goes awry as the nonexistent gang is accused of being involved in drug deals, murder, and extortion in the neighborhood. The teens are not at fault, but someone is committing crimes and blaming them. The trio of friends shift their focus to “Who is behind all of this?” Trying to answer this question may cost them their friendship, their neighborhood, and even their lives. At the same time, Rhea and Malachi are trying to figure out if they want to take their friendship to a romantic relationship, and they worry about how it will impact their friendship with Zeke. This compelling mystery intertwined with romance and plenty of BIPOC representation will keep teens engaged and motivated to read. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction - Mystery
We Don’t Swim Here. Vincent Tirado. (2023). Sourcebooks Fire.
Black teenager Bronwyn Sawyer’s dad relocates the family to his childhood home in rural Hillwoods, Arkansas, to care for her dying grandmother. He hopes Bronwyn will reconnect with her cousin, Anais, and extended family who still live in Hillwoods. Almost immediately after moving, Bronwyn, a competitive swimmer, discovers that not only is there no swim team, the school and town’s swimming pools are drained and the lake is off limits. Bronwyn begins seeing shadows and having scary visions related to the lake. Why can’t she go swimming? Why does she remember her cousin telling her that being in the lake would burn? Even more strange, the kids at Hillwood’s high school seem to follow secret rituals but will not tell her what they are doing or why, and there is a rumor of the revengeful the spirit of a girl murdered by drowning who seeks to possess one of the students. This engrossing novel, told from the alternating perspectives of Bronwyn and Anais, tackles issues of racism and the dangers of overlooking the past. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction – Horror
Tracey S. Hodges is the Owner of The Empowering Advocate LLC, an educational research and coaching business ( https://empoweringadvocate.com )
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).