Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
As the chill of fall sets in, we turn to five new YA releases that will both haunt you and spell your heart.
Serious, thoughtful, and sincere, these novels will reward the reader with unusual and important perspectives.
We deserve monuments by Jas Hammonds
Avery barely remembers his grandmother, Mama Letty. So when her family moves from DC to Bardell County, Georgia to be with her while she dies of cancer, it doesn’t make much sense. Avery and her mother haven’t even visited Avery since she was a toddler – and it’s pretty clear that’s because her grandmother is a bitter, disagreeable woman. At least Avery is able to make some new friends – and maybe her pretty neighbor Simone could be even more than a friend.
But the more time Avery spends at Bardell, the more she begins to think there are a lot of secrets hidden from her. The secrets of his grandmother, the secrets of his mother, and the deep-rooted secrets of Bardell’s racist past and present. In the end, Avery may have to choose between building a comfortable new life and telling the truth about the wounds that tore his family apart.
It’s not that common for a young adult novel to tackle a teenager’s relationship with a grandparent, and it’s even rarer for that grandparent to be a complex character rather than a good source of inspiration. love and wisdom or a villain. Mama Letty isn’t nice and she’s not a villain – and while she has wisdom, she’s not quite sure Avery should have it. How their relationship develops is at the heart of this book. We deserve monuments gives us a complex and deeply hurt family, and shows a path to healing.
A dispersion of light by Malinda Lo
Malinda Lo reflects on the timeline of her National Book Award-winning novel, Last night at the Telegraph Club, for another instant snapshot of queer community and self-discovery. A scatter of light takes place 60 years later, when the Supreme Court has just legalized same-sex marriage.
Aria planned to spend summer vacation before college at Martha’s Vineyard with her best friends, but that plan is ruined when a topless photo of her is shared without her permission. Being shipped off to California to stay with her artist grandmother isn’t a punishment, but it does give her plenty of time to dwell on things she’d rather not think about.
Until she meets her grandmother’s gardener, Steph. Steph is not like anyone Aria has met before. Openly queer and intensely charismatic, Steph introduced Aria to an entire community of queer artists and activists. Aria had always assumed she was straight, but her budding feelings for Steph make her wonder how much she really knows herself after all.
Full of nostalgia, reflections on art and what it means to be an artist, and self-disclosure, A scatter of Light has a quivering intensity that makes it hard to put down. Lo knows how to write characters that jump off the page and feel like real people, from their quirks and interests to their flaws and shortcomings. This book feels like a portal to a very specific time and to that feeling of finishing high school and realizing that the world, and your place in it, is so much bigger than it seemed.
As long as the lemon trees of Zoulfa Katouh grow
Salama lives in a city ravaged by war. She was a normal Syrian girl, studying to become a pharmacist and living with her family. Now she spends her days in the hospital, where she has been promoted to emergency surgeon as she desperately tries to save her neighbors from horrific injuries from bombs and gunfire. With most of her family dead or imprisoned, she returns every night to her pregnant sister-in-law, whom Salama has sworn to protect.
But all trauma comes at a cost, and Salama begins to hallucinate a man who pressures her to flee Syria, and when she resists, torments her with visions of suffering. It’s enough to push Salama to buy a passage to safety for her and her sister-in-law. But then she meets a boy determined to film the atrocities happening in their country and show them to the world. Between her longing for the life she lost, the hope of escaping, and the pain of leaving it all behind, Salama isn’t sure how to choose the right path.
As long as the lemon trees grow paints a stark portrait of the atrocities of war and how normal life can be so quickly and completely ripped away by violence. Salama’s situation is heartbreaking and she is relentlessly brave in the face of it. This is a book that looks trauma directly in the face – and knowing that upon entering, I picked it up with some trepidation. I hadn’t expected to be running through it, clutching the pages, desperate to know what was going to happen next. It is a masterful portrayal of the horrific cost of oppression and violence, and puts a compassionate face on an unfolding crisis that is responsible for immeasurable human suffering.
The Whispering Dark by Kelly Andrew
After she nearly died as a child and became deaf, everyone treated Delaney like she was made of glass. No one expects her to land a scholarship to a renowned university, let alone be invited to join the new department of neo-anthropological studies, which explores the existence of parallel worlds. Delaney may be afraid of the dark and the strange voices whispering to her beyond, but she’s ready to prove she’s as capable as any other student.
But there’s one person she can’t convince: Colton, the TA assigned to her most important class. Colton is the prodigy of the neo-anthropology department – a boy who can slip between worlds as if it cost him nothing. But Colton has a secret. The reason our world has so little hold over him is that as a child he died and left it. Then a little girl named Delaney brought him back. She does not recognize the boy she resurrected and has no idea of the terrible danger she finds herself in once she falls back into his orbit.
There are a lot of tropes at play in this thoughtful start – the lonely girl with a connection to death, the aloof boy who hides his true feelings, the college with a secret society trying to unravel the mysteries of the occult. Which makes The Whispering Darkness unique is Delaney’s specific way of observing and interacting with the world. The way Delaney moves through the narrative as someone with a distinctive way of processing information has an almost dreamlike quality at times, keeping her at a distance while simultaneously rendering every detail of her world into relief. I had never met anyone like her on the page before, and passionately immersed myself in her senses.
Bone Weaver by Aden Polydoros
Toma lives hidden in the deep forests of the Kosa Empire with his adopted family of upyri – undead revenants that everyone considers monsters. But Toma knows better, devoting his days to repairing their deteriorated bodies with his embroidery and surviving in the desert. Her peaceful existence is shattered when a young tsar fleeing a revolution shows up at her doorstep, injured and in need of help. When her upyr sister is kidnapped by the men tracking her, she and the Tsar must join forces and travel to the heart of the empire to save her sister and bring the Tsar to safety.
Along the way, they meet a charming young man who has the power to draw magic from the land itself. Accused of sorcery, he joins them in their flight. But soon these three young people realize that instead of fleeing the persecution, they must run towards the hope of ending it together.
Slavic culture has become a popular inspiration for YA fantasy in recent years, but bone weaver stands. The folkloric creatures on its pages don’t sound like pop renditions, but rather authentic renditions of something ancient that speaks to how humans interact with the world. Sometimes books that draw on this source material fail to dig beneath the surface of fur-lined coats and dark forests to truly understand the complexity of how religions and folklore intertwine in this part of the world. . In his YA-acclaimed debut, The Beautiful City, Polydoros has shown how adept he is at taking history and myth and turning them into something believable and true. However bone weaver is the fantasy of the make-believe world, the real story behind it is treated with equal respect and consideration.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.