I am a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, and I have the privilege of reading a wide variety of early, middle grade, young adult books each year. I enjoy reading debut novels, works from authors just a few books old, and books from established authors. I take joy in the fact that there’s such excitement in this world of books, and I love its changes, particularly in terms of diversity.
My 2018 involvement with Booklist yielded only three rejected books and forty-seven published reviews. I read many good books and gave starred reviews to the eight that make up this year-end list. The 2018 list is comprised of 6 young adult offerings ranging from cute to psychedelic, from tough love to overwhelming grief, from a road trip of understanding and love to a compilation of essays about hope and strength from YA authors; 1 middle grade historical novel with a contemporary message; and 1 middle grade self-autobiographical novel about the author’s struggle with anorexia.
Why did I give them starred reviews? Simply because each offered something unique above and beyond excellent writing and storytelling skills. If you’re looking for a gift for a young friend or relative, you might find the perfect title here. Giving the gift of a book lasts long after the recipient has closed the cover for the last time.
P.S. While I also read many kidlit books that received deserving stars and accolades from other reviewers, those books are not included in this list. The order in which I list them is by publication date of the review. Enjoy and happy reading!
Celebrating my 2018 starred reviews and looking forward to the 2019 crop of books to read,
BOOKISH BOYFRIENDS: A DATE WITH DARCY
Schmidt, Tiffany (author).
May 2018. 400p. Abrams/Amulet, paperback, $9.99
(9781419728600). Grades 7-10.
REVIEW. First published February 15, 2018 (Booklist).
Sophomore Merrilee Campbell loves to read and believes the boys in books are so much better than in real life. Yet, as a transfer student to an exclusive prep school, she hopes to find a blissful romance with one of the picture-perfect guys there. Monroe Stratford, cast in the school play as Romeo, taps Merri as his girlfriend, leading her to think she could be his modern-day Juliet—that is, until his possessiveness repulses her as much as the headmaster’s gorgeous son, Fielding Williams, seems to be repulsed by her. As her lit class dissects Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the reality of her situation as well as the story she thought she knew, sinks in. Then, when assigned to read and journal about Pride and Prejudice, other truths begin to surface; and like Lizzy Bennet, Merri learns that first impressions aren’t always what they seem. Merrilee is a funny and lovable narrator who is clumsy, prone to awkward situations, and learns first hand how the two literary classics she’s studying parallel her chaotic life. Schmidt ably captures the discombobulation and turn-on-a-dime emotions experienced by many early teens, and surrounds Merri with a believable cast of supporting characters. This contemporary rom-com series starter is a fun introduction to classics for middle-grade readers and younger YAs, wittily making old stories new again.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to Bookish Boyfriends-A Date with Darcy
- The Juliet Club
- The Taming of the Drew
- How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You
THE STRANGE FASCINATIONS OF NOAH HYPNOTIK
Arnold, David (author).
May 2018. 432p. Viking, hardcover, $18.99
(9780425288863). Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published March 15, 2018 (Booklist).
Noah is a rising senior who loves three other things: David Bowie, making real-world connections, and minutiae. Life is good, except Noah dreads returning to the swim team, making a decision about college, and being alone. After leaving an end-of-summer party drunk, Noah feels hypnotized. As a result, he detects slight changes in his family, friends, and external life. The minutiae turn into obsessions, four of which become his Strange Fascinations: a local semi-celebrity musician, who dropped a photo that is now in Noah’s possession; an old man with a goiter, who he sees walking alone every morning; his favorite deceased author, whose words and sketches are codes to crack; and a woman on YouTube, whose video is comprised of pictures she has taken of herself every day for four decades. They are the only things in his life that go unchanged, and he sets out to learn why, making connections he never dreamed of in the process. Highly introspective and strangely fascinating, Noah dominates this surreal story with his complex internal struggles to make sense of external world “ch-ch-ch-changes.” Arnold (Kids of Appetite, 2016) has written an in-your-face validation of the power of real and honest friendship, guaranteed to mesmerize readers and leave them altered.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik
- Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future
- Turtles All the Way Down
THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL
Goo, Maurene (author).
May 2018. 368p. Farrar, hardcover, $17.99 (9780374304089).
REVIEW. First published April 1, 2018 (Booklist).
Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin loves her untethered L.A. life, where she lives with her young Korean Brazilian dad. But when a prom prank turns into a brawl, her punishment is the worst she can imagine: working all summer on her dad’s hot, cramped food truck, KoBra, instead of vacationing in Mexico with her mom. As if that weren’t bad enough, overachiever and perennial enemy Rose Carver must also work on the truck as punishment for her part in the scuffle. Clever strategies by Dad lead Clara and Rose to see each other less as adversaries and more as friends. Meanwhile, a Chinese boy named Hamlet expresses interest in Clara and helps her realize that perhaps her old self isn’t the one she wants to embrace going forward. Flip, hip narrator Clara may seem a tad unlikable at first, but readers can’t help but get caught up in her bumpy coming-of-age journey, applauding her increasing attachment to KoBra and her drive to help facilitate her dad’s dream of opening a restaurant. With massive amounts of humor, heart, and soul, this love letter to L.A. and its diversity is a celebration of friends, family, and food trucks.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to The Way You Make Me Feel
HOPE NATION: YA AUTHORS SHARE PERSONAL MOMENTS OF INSPIRATION
Brock, Rose (editor).
Feb. 2018. 304p. Philomel, hardcover, $18.99
(9781524741679). Grades 9-12. 818.608.
REVIEW. First published April 15, 2018 (Booklist).
Hope is something many people struggle to understand, much less achieve, and teens are no exception. In this anthology of 21 essays, 1 short story, and 1 conversation, 24 YA authors pour their deepest emotions into a variety of interpretations of hope. Many write about survival in the current political climate. Others address marginalization or speak to being overwhelmed by a variety of internal and external influences. David Levithan reveals his feelings about today’s politics via a short-short story set at a march complete with pussy hats. Libba Bray shares a harrowing account of the car accident that left her with a prosthetic eye. Atia Abawi opens up about the prejudice she faced while working to become a TV news reporter. Romina Garber’s essay talks about the immigrant experience, perceived pressures, sacrifices, and labels. These and the other 20 authors come from diverse backgrounds that span race, religion, economic class, family makeup and stability, experience, age, country of birth, and sexual orientation. Yet they all overcame obstacles to their dreams through hope. Attitudes and tone differ from one piece to the next, but the essential point is that “hope is a decision,” and one that requires work. This amazing outpouring of strength and honesty offers inspirational personal accounts for every reader who wonders what to do when everything seems impossible.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to Hope Nation
- Life inside My Mind
- Be the One
SUMMER BIRD BLUE
Bowman, Akemi Dawn (author).
Sept. 2018. 384p. Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse,
Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, e-book, $17.99
(9781481487771). Grades 7-12.
REVIEW. First published June 1, 2018 (Booklist).
For Rumi Seto, creating music with her younger sister, Lea, was everything. But when Lea dies in a car accident, Rumi’s life is over, too. Beset by survivor’s guilt, she is plagued by the knowledge that Lea was the outgoing, perfect daughter who was closest to their mamo (mother). When Mamo sends Rumi to live with Aunt Ani in Hawaii, Rumi plunges into bottomless grief, constantly reminding herself that Mamo abandoned her because she loved Lea more. Rumi also mourns the loss of music and feels unable to recapture what she had with Lea, until she meets the two “boys” next door: lovable teen surfer Kai Yamada, who offers easygoing friendship, and gruff 80-year-old George Watanabe, who understands the pain that consumes her. Strengthened by their honest and individual outlooks on life, Rumi plumbs her courage to complete her and Lea’s unfinished song and find the will to live again. Rumi’s narration, fueled by raw and intense emotions, will leave readers breathless. Memories of Lea are smartly unfurled, allowing fascinating glimpses into the sisters’ bond. Bowman, whose Starfish (2017) was a Morris Award finalist, proves again that she isn’t afraid to dive headlong into challenging issues, such as asexuality, grief, resentment, and forgiveness. This beautiful story sparkles as its complex characters dare to find footholds in the seemingly inescapable dark.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to Summer Bird Blue
- We Are Okay
- The Beauty That Remains
- All the Wrong Chords
AMERICAN ROAD TRIP
Flores-Scott, Patrick (author).
Sept. 2018. 336p. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $17.99
(9781627797412). Grades 8-12.
REVIEW. First published August, 2018 (Booklist).
Despite living in near poverty, Teodoro “T” Avila’s dream is to change his life during his junior year of high school. Fueled by a blossoming romance with Wendy Martinez and abstinence from video games, T’s goals are to better his grades, get into college, be with Wendy, and make something of himself. He partners with his best friend, Caleb, and things start to look up. But when T’s older, near-legendary brother, Manny, comes home from Iraq with extreme PTSD, T’s focus is split between maintaining his studies and monitoring his brother’s safety. Without warning, Xochitl, their forcefully passionate sister, tricks Manny and T into a summer road trip designed to help Manny heal. Many sacrifices and tough decisions are made, but they’re consistently underscored by compassion. Told via T’s honest, engaging, and often-naive voice, the story openly explores mental illness spawned by war and how the illness affects family members and those around them. Teodoro is a likable, eyes-wide-open narrator, and there is no question that his life, like so many others, is messy and filled with open ends. This powerful story also reminds readers that the paths to their dreams may have to take detours but are still attainable. Fans of Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014) will want to read this.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to American Road Trip
- The Impossible Knife of Memory
- I’ll Meet You There
Gratz, Alan (author).
Oct. 2018. 288p. Scholastic, $16.99
(9781338245714). Grades 4-7.
REVIEW. First published September 15, 2018 (Booklist).
Okinawa native Hideki is 13 when American forces storm his Pacific island during WWII, and he and his classmates are pressed into service by the Japanese army. They are given two grenades and told one is to kill the American “monsters” and the other is to kill oneself afterward. Ray, 18, is a Marine enlistee fresh from a farm in Nebraska and about to enter his first battle. Both boys share the fear of the unknown, the primal need to survive, and a wish that the unnecessary death and destruction were done with. Hideki and Ray see battle up and down the island, using their wits and adrenaline to stay alive, but when they meet, the war changes for both. Told by both young men, the story is gripping from start to finish as each encounters ambushes, engages in battle and experiences its devastating aftermath, and mourns the plight of innocent civilians caught in the middle. Impossible to put down, the story unapologetically demonstrates how war affects people emotionally and physically. Some terminology used for accuracy (per the author’s notes) and graphic descriptions may upset some readers. However, it is not without heartwarming and hopeful moments, especially as Hideki realizes that he possesses untapped stores of courage. Action fans will have this flying off the shelves.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to Grenade
- Soldier Boy
- No Surrender Soldier
THE YEAR I DIDN’T EAT
Pollen, Samuel (author).
Feb. 2019. 400p. Yellow Jacket, $17.99
(9781499808087). Grades 6-9.
REVIEW. First published December 15, 2018 (Booklist).
For 14-year-old bird enthusiast Max Howarth, life is a challenge not only because he has family issues but also because he’s anorexic. He thinks about food 16 hours a day, and despite all the knowledge he has about his illness, its grip grows increasingly tighter. His journal—addressed to “Ana,” whose voice taunts him at every turn—is filled with his most intimate feelings about himself and the people and events in his life. Max’s journal entries alternate with the narrative and teem with questions and emotions he can’t otherwise express. One devastating emotion he wrestles with is loss. He feels his eating disorder is alienating him from his best friends. He also blames himself when his older brother moves out of the house and his parents’ relationship shows signs of crumbling. It takes the attention of a new classmate, Evie, to bring Max’s spiraling situation into focus and force him to decide to save his life. Max is a thoughtful, appealing narrator to whom readers will relate, and his story brings attention to an illness most commonly associated with girls and older teens or adults. This no-holds-barred debut novel based on the author’s own experiences as a tween will be a significant addition to any library’s middle-grade or teen collection.
Booklist editors recommend titles similar to The Year I Didn’t Eat
- The Art of Starving