My Best Books for Youth in 2020

My Best Books for You in 2020

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.

This year—The Year That Shall Not Be Named—was a slim year for Booklist and me because of a revised review request on my part and a self-imposed hiatus that began toward the end of October. Of the 35 books assigned to me, I rejected 4 for various reasons and reviewed 31 good-to-outstanding books, yielding six starred reviews. Two of the titles included here were reviewed in 2020, but they published in January 2021. Close enough!

As I look over the titles to which I gave starred reviews, I am reminded that they had two things in common. First, as always, the writing and storytelling are excellent. Second, the challenges met by the protagonists are relatively, if not completely, unique in that nothing was the same old, same old, run-of-the-mill conflicts. These often were subjects rarely spoken about freely or situations in which the protagonist did nothing wrong (not really) yet found herself entangled in lies and assumptions not easily dispelled. In short, none of the starred reviews is for the faint-of-heart sensitive reader, yet they speak to topics that cry out for examination and discussion.

The starred reviews are listed in the order in which they were reviewed.

Finding Balance by Kati Gardner

Finding Balance by Kati Gardner
May 2020. 344p. Flux, paper, $11.99
(9781635830521). Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published February 15, 2020 (Booklist).
(Note: Publication was moved from May to September 2020)

Like Jase Ellison, Mari Manos is a cancer survivor. Unlike Jase, however, Mari lost one leg to the disease. Both teens are close during summers at Camp Chemo, but when Mari transfers to Jase’s exclusive Atlanta West Prep, he freaks. No one there knows his medical history, so instead of welcoming Mari, he rudely pretends not to know her. Mari’s life at AWP grows more miserable as Jase’s girlfriend spews hurtful comments about Mari’s economic status and disability. As a result, Jase struggles between maintaining his reputation and supporting Mari. Nevertheless, a connection between the two remains due to their shared reality of being misrepresented and misunderstood. Separate events unfold that force Jase to rethink his survivorship and independent Mari to ask for help, and when Jase’s mother announces that her annual fundraiser gala will benefit Camp Chemo, both teens must take control of their truths. A cancer survivor herself, Gardner skillfully presents day-to-day survivor challenges within a society that makes assumptions rather than educating itself about less prominent aspects of disability—for example, why a young woman might choose crutches over a prosthetic that would make her look “normal.” Plenty of heartbreak and joy shape this compelling story, as do reminders to find balance in our own lives. Readers who enjoyed Gardner’s debut, Brave Enough (2018), will demand this novel.

Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Finding Balance

Little Universes by Heather Demetrios

Little Universes by Heather Demetrios
Apr. 2020. 480p. Holt, $17.99
(9781250222794). Grades 10-12.
REVIEW. First published March 1, 2020 (Booklist).

Hannah and her adoptive sister, Mae, are opposite but symbiotic. When tragedy takes their parents in their senior year, the girls’ lives are battered by chaos. Before they can grieve fully, they are uprooted from the California coast to Boston, and despite having a devoted family, unresolved issues travel with them. Hannah is addicted to pain pills, a habit acquired after having an abortion. Mae believes she’s the only person responsible for her sister’s welfare, a role that could be to the detriment of her own dreams. Secrets revealed after their parents’ deaths create additional obstacles to healing, forcing both girls to struggle with an unsure future. Yet, as events try to pull them apart, they fight to reconnect. Told via alternating first-person POVs, Hannah’s and Mae’s lives are viewed through different ­lenses—Hannah’s is emotional and poetic, while Mae’s is focused and scientific. Exploring love and rejection, rape and abortion, death and grief, and addiction and sobriety in a world that disappoints, perplexes, and astonishes, this is a gripping story for more mature readers. Demetrios (Dear Heartbreak, 2018) utilizes an introspective narrative with sparse dialogue to offer thoughtful reflections on questionable relationships, raw emotions, and internal stresses, all while illustrating that blood ties aren’t necessary for deep, enduring sisterhood. 

Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Little Universes

  • Exit, Pursued by a Bear
  • Starfish
  • I Have Lost My Way

What Unbreakable Looks Like by Kate McLaughlin

What Unbreakable Looks Like by Kate McLaughlin
June 2020. 336p. St. Martin’s/Wednesday, $18.99
(9781250173805). Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published June 1, 2020 (Booklist).

At At 17, Poppy is one of Mitch’s “flowers,” whom he keeps at a motel and sells for sex on a secret website. When rescued from a life as a trafficked teen, Poppy has a choice: escape the hospital where she’s recuperating or live with her aunt and uncle, who want to help her become Alexa—Lex—again. She chooses her family and begins the difficult journey to recovery. She makes friends who are supportive, but trust remains an issue, and obstacles impede her pathway. For every step forward, “Poppy” reminds Lex that she doesn’t deserve anything good in her life. At school, she is sexually assaulted by the boy she’s dating and his friends. She’s also afraid that her pimp will learn where she lives and kidnap or kill her. Lex’s protracted progress is heartrending and moving, but with her support system’s constant love and reassurance, she gains internal strength and finds her voice. As a narrator, Lex is frank and reliable. Her history is one of manipulation and exploitation, but eventually her story becomes one of hope and confidence. Drugs, physical abuse, rape, and death appear through the story and are tough to absorb; however, graphic depictions are avoided. This shines a light on a little-talked-about topic that involves teens. 

Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to What Unbreakable Looks Like

  • The Way I Used to Be
  • Afterward
  • Girl in Pieces
  • All the Rage
  • Speak
  • Trafficked

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew
Sept. 2020. 416p. Candlewick, $18.99
(9781536215038). Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published
September 1, 2020 (Booklist).

Frankie is a bright, friendly physics aficionada who is obsessed with astronomy the way her girlfriends are with boys. Her best friend, Harriet Harry) loves to tease Frankie’s lack of interest in romance by calling her a nun, which their other friends laugh off. When Frankie takes up with Benjamin, engages in her first sexual experience, and discovers her menstrual blood on his fingers, she is embarrassed despite Benjamin taking it in stride. Then memes about Frankie, sex, and her period go viral, making her the victim of slut shaming. She can only imagine Benjamin is the culprit because no one else knows what happened. Frankie’s life goes to hell, and only after she gathers the courage to talk with her parents about the incident does she reclaim power over it, propelling her to discover who was behind the memes, fight back, and regain her good name. Many important issues are addressed in this novel-in-verse, and each is tackled with honesty and without sensationalism: the complexities of friendships, maturity, and solid parental support; the painful toxicity of cyberbullying and slut shaming; the thrill of one’s first boyfriend and first sexual experience. This is, at its core, a must-read novel of empowerment that attempts to normalize periods and offer strength to the innocent who find themselves the center of viral humiliation.

Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Blood Moon

  • Red Hood
  • Exit, Pursued by a Bear
  • Easy Prey
  • #scandal

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club By Malinda Lo
Jan. 2021. 416p. Dutton, $17.99
(9780525555254). Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published November 1, 2020 (Booklist).  

For 17-year-old Lily Hu, San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s is home to her community and culture. However, despite having friends and loving parents, she struggles with a sense of belonging. Rather than fixating on boys, like her friends, Lily dreams of working at the Jet Propulsion Lab (where her aunt works) and traveling to Mars. Slowly, Lily realizes that more than her life goals are in play here, as she recognizes that she is attracted to women rather than men. That includes Kath, the other girl in her math class, whose goal is to fly airplanes. After the two connect over an ad for a male impersonator at the Telegraph Club and begin frequenting the establishment, Lily’s life changes forever. Fearful of exposing her feelings and of her family being labeled Communists (as a result of the Lavender Scare), Lily is faced with hard decisions about herself and those she loves. Writing beautifully with a knowing, gentle hand that balances Lily’s unease and courage, Lo presents a must-read love story in an uncommon setting: the midcentury queer Bay Area at a time when racism, homophobia, and McCarthyism held tight grips on the citizenry. The author’s notes are a wealth of historical information and discuss the seed from which this alternately heart-wrenching and satisfying story grew.

Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Last Night at the Telegraph Club

  • Pulp
  • The Downstairs Girl
  • Like a Love Story
  • Someday We Will Fly

Every Single Lie by Rachel Vincent

Every Single Lie by Rachel Vincent
Jan. 2021. 352p. Bloomsbury, $17.99
(9781547605231). Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published December 1, 2020 (Booklist).  

Months after dealing with her father’s overdose death, Beckett Bergen regrets a hasty breakup with her supportive boyfriend, Jake. Then she discovers a dead baby in a gym bag in the girls’ locker room at school. Beckett becomes a suspect despite being merely a witness. She becomes the target of vicious rumors that spread not only through her small Tennessee community but also nationwide via a new Twitter account that seems—to Beckett and her police detective mom—to know too much about the investigation. Beckett wants to clear her name and find the baby’s parents, but everyone around her could potentially be the guilty party, which results in missteps along the way. As Beckett narrates, the identities of the baby’s parents are revealed in real time. Along the way, she also discovers how easily rumors are embellished with unfounded opinions and learns the truth about her family’s tattered reputation. Clues and omissions of truth make this a razor-sharp mystery that speaks critically about the cruel corners of social media and small-town biases. Issues include alienation, post-war PTSD, painkillers and addiction, shaky family bonds, and the fragility of friendships. Beckett’s decisions drive the plot, leading her and the reader through enough twists and turns that there is no way to stop turning the pages.

Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Every Single Lie

  • Before I Let Go
  • Broken Things
  • Sadie

In addition to the Booklist reviews above, I gave a Shout Out! to a book in a series for younger readers, and I reviewed two young adult titles for India Currents Magazine. All three are worth another look.

Rebel in the Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander

Shout Out!
Rebel in the Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander
(The Library of Ever Book 2)
April 28, 2020. Macmillan. 224 pages.
$16.99 hardcover; also available in digital format.
Grades 3-7.

The plucky and curious Lenora has returned, and it is with no less determination to fight the Forces of Darkness and find the absolute truth than in her previous adventure, The Library of Ever (2019).

This time, our heroine is a year older (12) and still focused on, well, everything that crosses her path, is thrust into her trust, and is requested of her. From the moment she returns to the Library, she can tell that something is more than exceedingly amiss. Her own badge has disappeared. Librarians of her acquaintance exit the Library, tearfully telling her that they’ve been fired but that the Library needs her. Malachi, the ten-foot tall Chief Answerer has been demoted to Assistant Answerer.

Armed with her trusty notebook, Lenora is tasked with finding the answer to a presumably easy question for a patron: What is the world’s largest number? Recalling that “Knowledge Is a Light,” Lenora’s lost badge reappears, now indicating that she has been promoted to Second Apprentice Librarian.

In her search for the answer to the question, Lenora meets a young girl who is referred to as “Princess” but chooses to be called “Lucy” because she hates her real name. (Oh, dear. Imposed names can be frustrating, can’t they? Yes, they can if one doesn’t know who else shares one’s name.) Oh, and Princess/Lucy/Hated Real Name’s father is the Director of the Library who is changing everything and not for the better. (Since taking over the Library, the Director has seen fit to remove “many unnecessary and expensive books in order to make the Library a more exciting and entertaining experience…” by replacing books with his own.)

Together, Lenora and Lucy (who loves her father but not the people around him) embark on a journey to the Googology Department, where they learn what the word “googol” means and that a “nine-year-old named Milton Sirotta invented the term.” (As the story continues, we all learn that googol certainly isn’t the largest number, so of course, the search for the largest number goes on, and what a search that is!)

Along the way, Lenora and Lucy encounter myriad characters and situations that demand clear thinking and a reliance on their abilities, knowledge, and resourcefulness to not only answer the questions posed but also save the Library and its patrons from certain destruction. Fortuitously, Lenora is asked by another patron for help with his entry into a glider building contest, and this alliance will prove beneficial for Lenora, Lucy, and the Library. We learn about Zenodotus, the first head of the Library of Alexandria, “the greatest library of the ancient world, founded in Egypt long ago,” whom Lenora determines must be found. They grapple with the ancient city of Cahokia, a suspicious-acting koala, a multi-tentacled alien named Rosa, and a time travel experience in which history may or may not have been changed (you’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself). Their experiences incorporate concepts dealing with mathematics, aerospace, history, and personal strength of being.

The bottom line securely remains, “Knowledge is a light.” And in the words of Malachi, Lenora’s mentor, “Throughout history, that light has at times burned very dimly, and nearly even gone out, while in other times it has blazed up gloriously.” Keeping this close to her heart, Lenora discovers she can empower herself and those around her, resulting in a massive push to regain and restore the Library to its former bright glory.

However, this entry to the series, certainly, cannot be where the story ends, for Lenora has much more to give, as do libraries. She must be allowed to carry on and shine a light on knowledge! I can’t even imagine what a third installment of the series will entail!

As with the first book of the series, Alexander’s chronicling of Lenora’s journey is filled with stimulating information, clever scenarios and challenges, and copious amounts of good words for young readers to learn and use. The writing is engaging from the first page, and Zeno’s care to keep the intrigue flowing is well paced and second to none. All libraries that cater to younger readers would be remiss in not including both books in their collections, for The Library of Ever and Rebel in the Library of Ever encourage imagination, curiosity, self-empowerment, and the sheer wonderment of the world around us. “Rebel” is another love letter to libraries everywhere and a case for supporting our libraries in any way we can.

A final note:

If you didn’t get around to buying The Library of Ever, purchase that, too! Both books would make tip-top superlative gifts for the younger readers in your lives, and they’ll admire you for the well-bred gesture.

Thanks to Imprint/Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for the ARC in exchange for an honest, straightforward, sincere, and forthright review.

10 Things I Hate About Pinky by Sandhya Menon

10 Things I Hate About Pinky by Sandhya Menon
July 2020. 368p. Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, $18.99.
Grades 8-12.  
Jul 3, 2020 |

If you’re ready for summer reading fun, Sandhya Menon’s latest young adult novel, 10 Things I Hate About Pinky, features an ocean of fun and a mountain of love. The novel is the second companion book to her wildly successful When Dimple Met Rishi.

Pinky Kumar, the unicorn-haired, unapologetic social justice warrior, is spending the summer at the family place on Cape Cod with her parents, aunt, uncle, and perfect cousin, Dolly. Her mother—a high-profile lawyer whose nickname in West Coast legal circles is The Shark—ironically declares Pinky guilty before proven innocent regarding everything. Plus, Pinky sees her cousin as competition and no wonder. Dolly is known as a wholesome and generous humanitarian who never gives her parents trouble (like Pinky) or makes bad decisions (like Pinky), and Pinky’s mother never fails to freely criticize each of Pinky’s faults.

Meanwhile, Samir Jha’s pathway to becoming exactly the attorney he wants to be is unencumbered by virtue of by-the-book, precise planning. However, when he arrives for Day One of his summer internship at a prestigious D.C. law firm, he learns the internship has been canceled. His life’s plan is shattered in one promising-turned-lousy morning.

Distraught, Samir texts his best friend who in turn, texts his friend Pinky. Samir’s a colossal nerd and Pinky disregards the message. Soon afterward, The Shark accuses Pinky of burning down the shed with some random summer boyfriend, and Pinky impulsively blurts out with her (truthful) denial that she already has a boyfriend (not currently). Trapped by her own lie, Pinky knows she’ll either have to admit the truth or … wait a minute! She realizes Samir may prove to be the answer. Pinky convinces Samir to come to Cape Cod for the summer and pretend to be her boyfriend by promising she’ll get her mother to give him a winter internship.

With Samir’s arrival, myriad obstacles and trials while maintaining the fake relationship around her family propel the story. Pinky also uncovers a secret about Dolly, rescues a baby opossum that she treats as a pet, and finds the fake dating issue to be more than she bargained for. With her signature upbeat writing, Menon has produced yet another enjoyable novel with a strong-willed female protagonist seconded by a likable young man. Plus, this time she has included an applause-worthy subplot concerning positive environmental activism fueled by Pinky, accompanied by Samir and Dolly.

Like all of Menon’s young adult offerings, the happy ending is suitably earned. Her characters, each striving to solidify their place in the world, their families, and their relationships, experience the gamut of victories and failures required to shoulder the weight of responsibility as they mature into adulthood. They also embrace the sheer joy of youth as well as the angsty bits that are often seated in misconception, withheld information, and internalized competition where none truly exists.

Despite being the third book in the “Dimpleverse,” each book stands alone on its own merits. Fans of Menon’s earlier books will love 10 Things I Hate About Pinky and discover there are 10 times as many things to love about her.

Books and e-novellas in the “Dimpleverse” by Sandya Menon:

  • When Dimple Met Rishi
  • There’s Something About Sweetie
  • 10 Things I Hate About Pinky
  • As Kismet Would Have It (e-novella)
  • Love at First Fight (e-novella)

Hungry Hearts by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond, eds. 
June 2019. 353p. Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, $19.99.
Grades 8-12.  

All right, all right. This book was published in 2019, I read it in 2020, and I wrote a mini-review for India Currents magazine for December 2020. I loved this compilation, and the coordination that must have gone into getting this together had to have been similar to herding goldfish. (Well, you can’t always expect writers to snap to it or meet deadlines or follow directions all the time.) Somehow, the editors, who also contributed a story each, have managed to create a cohesive setting called Hungry Town Row.

Hungry Town Row is a place where 13 interconnected young adult short stories are set with mom ‘n pop eateries featuring cuisines from around the world. Recurring characters populate the stories as they experience family, love, and magic plus delicious food made with heart. #ownvoices YA authors S. K. Ali, Adi Alsaid, Rin Chupeco, Elsie Chapman, Jay Coles, Sara Farizan, Sangu Mandanna, Sandhya Menon, Anna-Marie McLemore, Phoebe North, Karuna Riazi, Caroline Tung Richmond, and Rebecca Roanhorse team up to produce mouthwatering stories.