My Best Books for Youth in 2021

For 2021, my annual recap of the best books for youth that I’ve reviewed includes one middle grade and six young adult starred reviews in Booklist magazine, plus two middle grade titles in India Currents magazine. While there were many fine books published in 2021, my focus solely is on those I reviewed.

Let’s get into the books! The reviews are listed in the order in which they were reviewed.

Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore

May 2021. 272p. Text, paper
$12.95 (9781922330079).
Grades 7-12.
REVIEW. First published July 30, 2021 (Booklist Online).

Fourteen-year-old Dylan, autistic and synesthetic, is the result of the union between her French mother (whom she adored) and her Guyanese father (who left them). Following her mother’s unexpected death, Dylan grieves and grapples with who she really is and how she believes her father stole her whiteness. She also dreams of going to Paris, where she believes her skin color wouldn’t matter the way it does in Australia. But life has other plans for the deep-thinking girl who hears music in colors, knows people’s secret memories by their eyes, and talks about the magic of water, as her mother’s grieving boyfriend takes her to live with family in the Outback. Emotional and raw, this story of loss, hope, and home is told by Dylan as she looks for and translates signs that may or may not be there, weaving her wants, hopes, and needs into her attempt to understand the world. Her thoughts are heavy for her age, yet Dylan’s misinterpretation of some common phrases (“air loom”) reminds the reader of her frail situation and youth. Debut-author Moore—of Irish and Afro-Caribbean descent and born in Guyana—uses spare, pointed, and poetic language to evoke Dylan’s search for magic in everything, including herself. Dylan is a character of her own making and offers something for everyone who has looked for the good in life-changing experiences.

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You'd Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow

Sept. 2021. 400p. Delacorte
$18.99 (9780525708049).
Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published August 2021 (Booklist).

Everyone in Mill Haven has secrets—even smart, rich Emory Ward, kid sister to the beautiful Maddie and troubled Joey. The night she and Joey were passengers in a car crash that killed Candy MontClair, Emmy thought Joey was just drunk; no one knew the extent of his drug addiction until then. When Joey comes home after months of rehab, their mother instructs Emmy to be with Joey 24/7 to make sure he adheres to the suffocating volume of rules laid out for him. Emmy loves Joey and wants to help him stay strong, but she has her own secret struggles. With the help of unlikely but welcome allies, Emmy’s love and support for her brother remain constant, especially when he feels lost and at his most fragile. Meanwhile, the realities of “ghosties” —homeless and drug addicted people living by the town’s river—are exposed, compel action, and give new meaning to community. Told by Emmy, who courageously begins to shed the labels thrust upon her, Glasgow’s new novel compassionately illustrates the profound power of love and how deeply the opioid crisis and addiction affect families and the towns in which they live. The play Our Town and the author’s own recovery are the inspiration behind this remarkable and engrossing novel of life’s balance and imbalance between struggle and joy.

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Poison for Breakfast by Lemony Snicket

Aug. 2021. 176p. Norton/Liveright,
paper, $17.95 (9781324090625).
Grades 4-8.
REVIEW. First published September 7, 2021 (Booklist Online).

Introspective and instructive, the inimitable Snicket returns with a philosophical and nearly stream-of-consciousness tale about learning he had poison for breakfast. Mr. Snicket takes the reader on a tour of his mental wanderings, tangential correlations, and physical investigations into the possible source of the poison. What the reader gets in return for tagging along is a charismatic voyage into the topic of bewilderment, with detours reflecting on death; books, songs, and movies he doesn’t always name (although he thoughtfully includes notes for each reference at the end of the book); things, places, and people that have wretchedly or fortunately impacted him throughout his life; and the process by which he writes his many books. He ponders signs in a supermarket, goes to a store that sells only one product, and visits a honey farm, and, along the way, he shares recollections of libraries, swimming, and a variety of dislikes and joys. That he reveals many intimate details about himself, sprinkling them liberally through the narrative, may be a sign that he is mellowing in his years (or not). Of course, he includes his famous Snicket definitions to expand readers’ vocabulary, and his trademark voice will continue to tickle readers for generations to come. Watch out for the surprising conclusion! This just may be his finest hour.

Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

Born in a Pandemic, a Children’s Novel Tackles
the Broken Justice System

September 7, 2021

In 2013, multi-award-winning author Padma Venkatraman read an article about Kanhaiya Kumari who had been born in prison in India. When he was too old to remain there, he was sent out into the world alone without his mother. She never forgot about that boy.

“When the pandemic hit,” Venkatraman wrote on librarian, educator, and writer John Schu’s blog, “I returned to a draft of [a young boy’s] story that I had written and set aside. As the world entered a ‘lockdown’ I was drawn to this character who had spent his whole life locked up … I wrote and rewrote during the pandemic.”

The result is Born Behind Bars, the powerful and instructive middle-grade companion novel to her fourth book, The Bridge Home. She continues to explore child homelessness; families of choice and birth; and caste, religious, and cultural differences. But this time, she also examines a prejudicial and broken justice system and how it affects children.

Kabir Khan, our bright young narrator, was born in prison in Chennai and is a child of dualities. His mother is a low-caste Hindu trapped in a system that imprisoned her for a theft she didn’t commit, and his father, whom he has never met, is a Muslim who wed his mother secretly because of their religions. Kabir also is bilingual, speaking Kannada (his parents’ language) and Tamil. And having grown up in confinement, he dreams of the freedom of the outside world based on what he sees on TV and hears in his mother’s stories.

At age nine, he suddenly is discharged to a man who claims to be his uncle. Kabir has two resolute goals despite having little bits of information. He must find his father—whose letters stopped soon after he wrote from Dubai—and his grandparents who never knew their son married a Hindu. Then, he was sure he would be able to secure his mother’s release.

Once living on the streets of Chennai, Kabir is assisted by a homeless Kurava-gypsy teen named Rani who has a sharp wit and even sharper survival skills. She takes a liking to Kabir and, with her parrot, joins him on his quest to locate his family. Their journey from Chennai to his father’s hometown of Bengaluru proves challenging, but Kabir’s fluency in two necessary languages comes in handy. For all the obstacles and inhospitable people Kabir and Rani encounter, they remain steadfast because there are kind-hearted, generous people that propel them forward and give them hope. As a storyteller for children, Padma Venkatraman is masterful, writing honestly about the realities of life, turning just the right phrase to set the reader firmly in Kabir’s worlds—in prison and outside. Her precise writing brilliantly sets the stage for every step Kabir takes.

For example, there is no doubt that Kabir was raised in dreadful conditions. “The stench of the toilets is as strong as a slap in the face,” he tells us. “Water trickles out of the rusty tap.” “The pale orange stream of water.” And when the small fan in the cell stops, Kabir says, “I feel like a grain of rice boiling in my own sweat.” In contrast, he tells us he dreams of blue skies “bright as a happy song,” and stepping in “a river of cool, clear water.”

Early in the book, one of Kabir’s prison “aunties” comments that Kabir is “almost twice as old as he should be to still be living here.” I asked Venkatraman about that.

“The rule in India,” she explained, “is that children are usually sent out of prison at age six to a relative or an orphanage.”

The school for homeless children connects The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars. Venkatraman didn’t plan for that to happen, but as she wrote on Schu’s blog, “… as I followed [Kabir] on his journey, a character from The Bridge Home reappeared—to my great joy (because readers from all over the world had asked me what happened to the characters from The Bridge Home).”

Rani’s experiences at the school show respect for alternative learning pathways and cultural needs, and I wondered if schools like that were common in India and who ran them.

“There are state-run schools and private schools run by charities,” Venkatraman told me. “Both can be tough places or wonderful places, depending on who the director and teachers are. The schools in my book are modeled on places I’ve actually seen.”

Venkatraman is the personification of the empathy and compassion she strives for in her writing, and she genuinely cares about those on whom the children in The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars are based. Author’s Notes in each book offer additional information and resources, but there’s always more to share.

“There are links on my website to some charities that I think are doing good work in case readers feel they want to contribute to causes that fight against hunger, homelessness, and other kinds of social injustices in India and in our own country,” she added.

She was true to herself when she shared with me, “I think of my books as packages of empathy, NOT entertainment. I hope every work I’ve created makes readers/listeners ask questions and think deeply and take positive action in the world, even if that’s just something small. I don’t try to provide answers—just hope that there’s greater understanding that there may be many different equally valid or nuanced answers to important questions—and by asking them, we may increase our compassion.”

Already earning well-deserved starred reviews, Born Behind Bars with its spirited, unforgettable characters and heart-twisting, revealing conflicts will stay with young (and old) readers long after the final word is read. Perfect as a read-aloud at school or a read-together at home with parents, it is a life-enriching book that inspires empathy and compassion and stimulates discussion and action.

Sugar Town Queens by Malla Nunn

Aug. 2021. 320p. Putnam,
$17.99 (9780525515609).
Grades 7-12.
REVIEW. First published September 15, 2021 (Booklist).

Fifteen-year-old Amandla has always set her sights on leaving Sugar Town, a slum outside Durban, South Africa. However, her future is difficult to imagine, as she knows only three things about herself: she does well in school, her father (whom she never met) was Black, her mother is white. When her mother returns from one of her secret trips to Durban, Amandla finds a note and a wad of cash, prompting her to investigate where her mother goes. What she discovers is family she never knew about and a history she couldn’t have imagined. Rather than leaning on a clichéd rags-to-riches story, Nunn grounds her tale in Amandla’s convictions and embrace of her life and neighbors in Sugar Town. Complexities of race and racism in Mandela’s freed South Africa are handled with realism and strength, both in Sugar Town and the sudden dichotomy of Amandla’s life. Abandonment, poverty, parental illness, friendship, first love, unexpected allies, and sexual harassment are some of the topics woven into the whole, but it is the resilient community that is front and center in Nunn’s uncommon and detailed setting. Readers will cheer Amandla as she discovers who she is and where she came from in this captivating book.

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The Corpse Queen by Heather R. Herrman

Sept. 2021. 416p. Putnam
$18.99 (9781984816702).
Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published November 5, 2021 (Booklist Online).

In 1850s Philadelphia, Molly Green, 17, grapples with the supposed suicide of her best friend at the orphanage. Abruptly, Molly is sent to live with a wealthy aunt she never knew existed. Her aunt, it turns out, is the “Corpse Queen,” the woman who traffics in cadavers for a medical school run by Dr. LaValle. In exchange for her luxurious new living situation, Molly is to accompany her aunt’s assistant each night to retrieve bodies, helping to deliver and prepare them for the doctor. Molly’s new activities foster an interest in medicine and friendships with sex workers in a cabaret, all while area murders of young women at the hands of “The Knifeman” increase. Despite a few close calls, Molly is determined to end his killing spree before she becomes his next victim. Stylishly smart and macabre, the story tempers grisly occurrences with Molly’s feminist attitudes and unflagging concern for the poor and the young women populating the city. While some scenes concern dissection and gruesome murders, others sparkle with class-defying friendships and warmth. Part mystery, part thriller, and part family discovery, this is a delicious horror story from which the reader can’t look away.

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How to Find What You're Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani

New Novel for Younger Readers Explores Interracial Marriage and Anti-Semitism
November 8, 2021

In 1967, twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg’s life is full of turmoil like the world around her. The release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album may be a highlight but protests, hippies, and war fill the news. Personally, her life is inundated with massive changes she doesn’t know how to fix. In How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, inspired by her own family story, Newbery Honor winner Veera Hiranandani paints a complex picture of a pre-teen girl navigating her life as it falls apart one issue at a time.

Ariel adores her eighteen-year-old sister Leah and leans on her as she grows up in one of the few Jewish families in a town in Connecticut. She also helps after school in the family’s Jewish bakery and is pressed to believe that the bakery will be her future. But the world is changing, and so is Ariel’s life. 

Leah swears Ariel to secrecy before she introduces her boyfriend, a recently naturalized citizen from India named Raj Jagwani. Raj is a polite and friendly college student, and Ari enjoys the attention he pays her. However, when Leah brings him home for dinner, Max and Sylvia Goldberg are upset because, they tell Leah, he’s not Jewish. Shortly thereafter, Leah and Raj elope, leaving a letter for her parents. To the Goldbergs, it doesn’t matter that Loving v. Virginia repealed all U.S. laws against interracial marriage that year. She is dead to them.

Meanwhile, Ariel is harassed under the radar by a classmate who uses anti-Semitic slurs that neither fully understands. She struggles with handwriting legibility despite how hard she tries. Her mother says she’s lazy, and her classmates think she’s slow. Miss Field believes Ariel has dysgraphia, and Ariel’s mother assumes and rejects the notion that her daughter needs special education. However, with the encouragement of her teacher, Miss Field, Ariel discovers a new mode of expression through poetry. 

But things turn worse when Ariel accidentally learns that her parents’ bakery is in financial trouble, and they have to sell it. Without the bakery, Ari worries about what her parents will do, where they’ll all have to live, and if they move, whether Leah will be able to find them. 

The novel offers plenty for readers aged eight to twelve (and for adults) to unpack and discuss, for many of Ariel’s challenges resonate today: her internal grappling with loyalty to her sister and her parents; her meeting discrimination and othering head-on; and realizing she must fight for what she believes is right. Pre-teens often feel they have no power within the family, and true to course, it is Ariel who attempts to bring her family together. In this, Hiranandani fittingly takes the realistic path, allowing for tears, anger, awkward emotions, resistance, halting relief, and a few revelations. 

Effortlessly woven into the story as shared references of the time are the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial and religious prejudice, and xenophobia. Hippies, protests, and the Summer of Love round out the historical background. Readers will feel included in Ariel’s second-person narrative as she absorbs the world around her, large and small, questions what she doesn’t understand, and finds her voice as part of a white religious minority in mid-twentieth-century America. 

Hiranandani delivers authenticity as she draws on events and situations from her life, including her parents’ objected-to interracial marriage in 1968. Raj Jagwani, an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, will resonate with those whose parents or grandparents were part of the India-to-America relocation closely following the 1965 Immigration Act. To some generations, these are memories, but young readers will find commonalities with their 1967 counterparts and the challenges they face because Hiranandani checks all the boxes and hits all the right notes. 

Here's to Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

Dec. 2021. 480p. HarperCollins/Quill Tree
$19.99 (9780063071636).
Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published December 1, 2021 (Booklist).

Ben Alejo and Arthur Seuss are back in this sequel to What If It’s Us (2018), picking up two years later when both are in college and comfortable being out. Ben is in an undefined relationship with Mario Colón, a creative-writing classmate who helps Ben embrace his Puerto Rican heritage. Arthur is in a sweet relationship with classmate Mikey McCowan, who is returning to Manhattan to intern off-Broadway with a well-known LGBTQ playwright-director. New York City may be a big place, but it’s a small world in which the two exes cross each other’s paths courtesy of old friends Jesse, Dylan, and Samantha. Every chapter ups the stakes for a happily-ever-after ending, but which couple or couples will be triumphant? Coauthors Albertalli and Silvera carefully present the boys’ lives, allowing them to mature through successes and failures, pursue their creative passions, and make their own decisions while flanked by old friends and supportive parents. Ben’s and Arthur’s conflicted feelings while apart and together are front and center. All characters retain their unique voices and personalities, even though they’ve aged; they are the people readers expect them to be as they navigate coming into their own. The story works as a stand-alone, but purists will insist readers start with book one to experience maximum Ben and Arthur. 

High-Demand Backstory
The return of this authorial dream team comes with an automatic patron waiting list, so stock up.

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The Nobleman's Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks by Mackenzi Lee

Nov. 2021. 464p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen
$18.99 (9780062916013).
Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published December 15, 2021 (Booklist).

Following his beloved mother’s suicide, Adrian Montague—a Lord-to-be who suffers from acute anxiety—receives her personal affects. Focusing on the broken spyglass she carried with her every day, he is compelled to learn why she specifically left it behind the day she died. Adrian sets out to learn the truth about the spyglass’ significance, and his search for expert assistance leads him to a merchant who turns out to be “Monty” Montague, the brother he never knew existed. The two set off on perilous adventures from London to Rabat, Porto, Amsterdam, and Iceland, searching for answers to the questions that plague Adrian, reuniting with Felicity along the way. They encounter wrathful pirates, shattered promises, tempests at sea, life-threatening injury, interminable days of darkness, and joyful days of light. Series fans can expect another wonderful round of exciting journeys, unique personalities, surprising historical details, beautiful romance, and scrutiny of social-justice issues here. Adrian emerges as the most complex of the siblings as he searches for control over his mental illness. Clever sarcasm and humor balance his darker scenes, mental melees add depth of character, and perceived magic and ancient myth reveal his self-disruptive mind. In this final entry of The Montague Siblings series, emotions run tantalizingly high, characters from the previous books reappear, and loose ends are gracefully tied up in a fulfilling denouement.

Both A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
were best sellers. Odds are this will be, too.