Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
As autumn's chill creeps in, we look to five new YA releases that will both haunt you and bewitch your heart.
Serious, pensive and heartfelt, these novels will reward the reader with unusual — and important — perspectives.
We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds
Avery barely remembers her grandmother, Mama Letty. So when her family moves from D.C. to Bardell County, Georgia, to be with her while she dies of cancer, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Avery and her mom haven't even visited since Avery was a toddler — and it's pretty clear that it's because her grandmother is a bitter, unpleasant woman. At least Avery is able to make new friends — and maybe her cute next door neighbor Simone could be even more than a friend.
But the longer Avery spends in Bardell, the more she begins to think that there are a lot of secrets being kept from her. Her grandmother's secrets, her mother's secrets, and the deep-rooted secrets of Bardell's racist past and present. When it comes down to it, Avery may have to choose between making a comfortable new life for herself and speaking truth to the hurts that have torn her family apart.
It's not that common for a Young Adult novel to tackle a teen's relationship with a grandparent, and it's even rarer still for that grandparent to be a complex character rather than either a kindly fount of love and wisdom or a villain. Mama Letty isn't kindly and she isn't a villain — and while she has wisdom, she's not entirely sure Avery should have it. The way their relationship develops is the heart of this book. We Deserved Monuments gives us a complex and deeply injured family, and shows a path to healing.
A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo
Malinda Lo returns to the timeline of her National Book Award winning novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, for another moment-in-time snapshot of queer community and self-discovery. A Scatter of Light takes place 60 years later, when the Supreme Court has just legalized gay marriage.
Aria planned to spend the summer break before college in 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 leave her with a lot of time to dwell on things she'd rather not think about.
Until she meets her grandmother's gardener, Steph. Steph isn't like anyone Aria has met before. Openly queer and intensely charismatic, Steph introduces Aria to a whole community of queer artists and activists. Aria had always assumed she was straight, but her burgeoning feelings for Steph make her question how well she really knows herself after all.
Full of yearning, ponderances about art and what it means to be an artist, and self-revelation, A Scatter of Light has a simmering 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 within it, is so much bigger than it seemed.
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh
Salama lives in a city ravaged by war. She was a normal Syrian girl, studying to be a pharmacist and living with her family. Now she spends her days at the hospital, where she has been promoted to emergency surgeon as she desperately tries to save her neighbors from the horrific injuries caused by bombs and shootings. With most of her family dead or imprisoned, she returns each night to her pregnant sister-in-law, who Salama swore to protect.
But all the trauma has 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 purchase passage to safety for herself and her sister-in-law. But then then she meets a boy intent on filming the atrocities happening to their country and showing them to the world. Between her longing for the life she's lost, the hope of escape, and the pain of leaving everything behind, Salama isn't certain how to choose the right path.
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow paints a brutal portrait of the atrocities of war and the way that a regular life can be so quickly and completely ripped away by violence. Salama's situation is harrowing, and she is relentlessly brave in the face of it. This is a book that looks trauma directly in the face — and knowing that going in, I picked it up with some trepidation. I was not expecting to race through it, clutching the pages, desperate to know what would happen next. It is a masterful portrait of the horrific cost of oppression and violence, and gives a compassionate face to an ongoing crisis that is responsible for immeasurable human suffering.
The Whispering Dark by Kelly Andrew
After almost dying as a child and becoming deaf as a result, everyone has treated Delaney like she's made of glass. No one expects her to win a scholarship to a renowned university, let alone to be invited to join a 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 that whisper to her from beyond it, but she is ready to prove that she is just as capable as any other student.
But there's one person she can't seem to convince: Colton, the TA assigned to her most important class. Colton is the wunderkind of the neo-anthropology department — a boy who can slip between worlds as if it costs him nothing. But Colton has a secret. The reason our world has so little hold on him is that as a child, he died and left it. Then a little girl named Delaney brought him back. She doesn't recognize the boy she resurrected, and has no idea of the terrible danger she is in once she falls back into his orbit.
There are a lot of tropes at play in this pensive debut — the lonely girl with a connection to death, the aloof boy who hides his true feelings, the university with a secret society that attempts to unravel the mysteries of the occult. What makes The Whispering Dark unique is Delaney's specific way of observing the world and interacting with it. Delaney's way of moving through the narrative as a person with a distinctive way of processing information has an almost dream-like quality at times, keeping her at a remove while simultaneously rendering all the details of her world in sharp relief. I'd never met anyone quite like her on the page before, and I eagerly immersed myself in her senses.
Bone Weaver by Aden Polydoros
Toma lives hidden away in the deep forests of the Kosa Empire with her adoptive family of upyri — undead revenants that everyone considers to be monsters. But Toma knows better, dedicating her days to mending their deteriorating bodies with her embroidery and surviving in the wilderness. Her quiet existence is shattered when a young tsar on the run from a revolution turns up on her doorstep, injured and in need of help. When her upyr sister is kidnapped by the men hunting him, she and the tsar must join forces and journey into the heart of the empire to save her sister and get the tsar to safety.
Along the way, they meet a charming young man who has the power to draw magic from the earth itself. Accused of witchcraft, he joins them in their flight. But soon these three young people realize that rather than running away from persecution, they must run toward the hope of ending it together.
Slavic culture has become a popular inspiration for YA fantasy in recent years, but Bone Weaver stands out. The folkloric creatures in its pages don't feel like pop interpretations, but rather like authentic renditions of something ancient that speaks to the way that humans interact with the world. Sometimes books that draw from this source material fail to dig below the surface of fur-lined cloaks and dark forests to truly understand the complexity of the way religions and folklore mingle in this part of the world. In his lauded YA debut, The City Beautiful, Polydoros showed how adept he is at taking history and myth and spinning it into something believable and true. Though Bone Weaver is imaginary world fantasy, the real history behind it is treated with the same deep respect and consideration.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.