books and reading

The Best YA Books of 2011

Well, Gentle Readers, the time has come.  It’s time for me to compile a list of the 10 best YA books of 2011.  Criteria were simple: the book must be marketed to YA readers, and it must have been published in the United States in 2011.  Without further ado, here are the 10 YA books that blew me away this year.

1. Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

Listen up: You’re about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew in the Twin Cities – or at least in the wealthy, white, Bible-thumping suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. Our heroine, Esme Rockett (aka MC Ferocious) is a Jewish lesbian lyricist. In her crew, Esme’s got her BFFs Marcy (aka DJ SheStorm, the butchest straight girl in town) and Tess (aka The ConTessa, the pretty, popular powerhouse of a vocalist). But Esme’s feelings for her co-MC, Rowie (MC Rohini), a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick, are bound to get complicated. And before they know it, the queer hip-hop revolution Esme and her girls have exploded in Holyhill is on the line.

I’ve extolled the virtues of Goode’s debut novel on this blog several times before, but it’s worth mentioning again.  I connected with this book in the rarest, purest of ways, and I loved every second of it.  Goode’s representations of faith, identity, and female friendship rang true, and it didn’t hurt that the girls in her story are funny as hell.  If you haven’t read this one, please don’t let the slang-filled summary dissuade you: go get your hands on a copy of this right now.

2. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

Chloe’s older sister, Ruby, is the girl everyone looks to and longs for, who can’t be captured or caged. When a night with Ruby’s friends goes horribly wrong and Chloe discovers the dead body of her classmate London Hayes left floating in the reservoir, Chloe is sent away from town and away from Ruby.

But Ruby will do anything to get her sister back, and when Chloe returns to town two years later, deadly surprises await. As Chloe flirts with the truth that Ruby has hidden deeply away, the fragile line between life and death is redrawn by the complex bonds of sisterhood.

Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls might be one of the most polarizing YA books to come out of 2011.  It seems as though readers either hated it or loved it.  I fell into the second camp, though the book took a while to grow on me.  Rarely has a book gotten under my skin the way Imaginary Girls did.  I was so supremely creeped out while reading it that it was almost a painful process.  However, Suma’s beautiful prose, tight plotting, and compelling story about two sisters whose bond crosses from tight to inappropriate ultimately won me over.  This one is definitely worth a second look.

3. The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt

Drew’s a bit of a loner. She has a pet rat, her dead dad’s Book of Lists, an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese from working at her mom’s cheese shop, and a crush on Nick, the surf bum who works behind the counter. It’s the summer before eighth grade and Drew’s days seem like business as usual, until one night after closing time, when she meets a strange boy in the alley named Emmett Crane. Who he is, why he’s there, where the cut on his cheek came from, and his bottomless knowledge of rats are all mysteries Drew will untangle as they are drawn closer together, and Drew enters into the first true friendship, and adventure, of her life.

One of the most beautiful little books I think I’ve ever read, Reinhardt’s book about a girl, her rat, and her best friend made me want to believe in miracles.  Although it’s definitely not the flashiest book, this is one that stayed with me long after I finished the last page.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.

4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This is an extraordinarily moving novel about coming to terms with loss. The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. . . .

This monster, though, is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth.

Full disclosure:  Before I picked up this book, I had read a bunch about it and didn’t think I was all that interested in it.  Despite the critical acclaim the novel was attracting, I couldn’t seem to muster the enthusiasm required to read it.  But then I started to read it at the gym.  I didn’t leave the treadmill until I finished it (sobbing).  It is absolutely emotionally resonant, true, and beautifully rendered.  It deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it, and if you haven’t read it, you should.  Right now.

5. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Despite my vaguely uncomfortable feelings about the female characters in Whaley’s book (I can’t be the only one, right?), I can’t deny that this book is something really extraordinary.  Literary fiction for the teen set, this book is definitely aimed at a more sophisticated reader.  Those who stick with it, though, will be fully rewarded.  Whaley crafts a story about Cullen and the people whose lives intersect with his that is compelling, fascinating, and a little nail-biting.  Worth it.

6. Shine by Lauren Myracle

When her best guy friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover who in her small town did it. Richly atmospheric, this daring mystery mines the secrets of a tightly knit Southern community and examines the strength of will it takes to go against everyone you know in the name of justice. Against a backdrop of poverty, clannishness, drugs, and intolerance, Myracle has crafted a harrowing coming-of-age tale couched in a deeply intelligent mystery. Smart, fearless, and compassionate, this is an unforgettable work from a beloved author.

What could have been a preachy, issue-driven novel in a lesser author’s hands becomes one of the  most compelling, heartbreaking stories of the year.  I remember reading this, being blown away by it, and forcing it into the hands of my much-more-skeptical younger sister on a camping trip this summer.  While she claimed to not like it as much as I did, she devoured the novel in about a day.  Full of flawed, realistic characters and a dark portrait of the rural south, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed.

7. Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Obviously, something went terribly wrong. Genetic mutations have festered, reducing human longevity to twenty-five, even less for most women. To prevent extinction, young girls are kidnapped, mated in polygamous marriages with men eager to procreate. Sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery, a recent victim of this breeding farm mentality, has vowed to break loose from its fetters; but finding allies and a safe way out is a challenge she can only hope she will survive.

The thing about Wither is that it could easily be like so many of the dystopian series that are popping up all over the place.  In fact, when I first started Wither, that’s pretty much what I thought.  But then I let myself stay in DeStefano’s world, and I started to realize that Wither offers much more than many of its peers in the dystopian genre: richly-drawn characters and absolutely gorgeous prose that never feels overwrought.  Whereas many books being marketed to dystopian fans seem to lack character development, Wither offers it in spades.  No character, however minor, is neglected.  That kind of attention to detail is worth taking a look at.

8. Blood Red Road by Moira Young 

Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That’s fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother Lugh is around. But when a monster sandstorm arrives, along with four cloaked horsemen, Saba’s world is shattered. Lugh is captured, and Saba embarks on an epic quest to get him back.

Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the world outside of desolate Silverlake, Saba is lost without Lugh to guide her. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is what Saba learns about herself: she’s a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. And she has the power to take down a corrupt society from the inside. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization.

Perhaps closest thing to replace The Hunger Games-shaped hole in many readers’ hearts is Blood Red Road, the first in a planned trilogy.  Part dystopian adventure, part science-fiction epic, this novel has a lot going on (probably a little too much): giant sand worms, hovercraft ships, sibling rivalry, undeniable attraction, etc.  Moving along at a whip-fast speed, Young’s novel about Saba (a seriously kick-ass heroine) is just enough adventure and fun to keep readers riveted.  I really liked this one.

9. Stay With Me by Paul Griffin

Fifteen-year-olds Cece and Mack didn’t expect to fall in love. She’s a sensitive A student; he’s a high school dropout. But soon they’re spending every moment together, bonding over a rescued dog, telling their secrets, making plans for the future. Everything is perfect. Until. Until. Mack makes a horrible mistake, and in just a few minutes, the future they’d planned becomes impossible. In this stark new reality, both of them must find meaning and hope in the memories of what they had, to survive when the person they love can’t stay.

I’m not going to lie: this is not an easy book to read.  It’s clear from the start that life is not easy for Cece or Mack, and that things are definitely going to get worse.  But there’s something so compelling about the story that Griffin tells in Stay With Me that it’s impossible to stop yourself from rooting for these characters who continually mess up their lives.  It’s a beautiful love story, full of drama and heightened emotion that marks first love (especially in adolescence), but there’s also a lot of grittiness to the story.  Complex, well-written, and full of characters who will stay with readers for a long time.

10. Tighter by Adele Griffin

When 17-year-old Jamie arrives on the idyllic New England island of Little Bly to work as a summer au pair, she is stunned to learn of the horror that precedes her. Seeking the truth surrounding a young couple’s tragic deaths, Jamie discovers that she herself looks shockingly like the dead girl—and that she has a disturbing ability to sense the two ghosts. Why is Jamie’s connection to the couple so intense? What really happened last summer at Little Bly? As the secrets of the house wrap tighter and tighter around her, Jamie must navigate the increasingly blurred divide between the worlds of the living and the dead.

A twisty little retelling of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, Griffin’s novel about an au pair whose perceptions of the world are already suspect before she starts seeing ghosts is one of the most entertaining novels I read all year.  Brilliantly paced and absolutely surprising, this is a book best read either on the beach or right around Halloween.  You won’t be disappointed.

There are other books that could have easily  made this list.  What did I miss?  What do you think belongs on this list?  Talk back, folks.


3 thoughts on “The Best YA Books of 2011

  1. It’s amazing to me how different YA readers are! While I’ve only read 3 of the books listed none would make my personal best of YA list. But that’s okay! I love that so many different people are passionate about so many different books. Now I just have more books I obviously need to read.

    1. It is amazing how differently people read and love books. I struggled with this list–and I feel like if I were to revisit this list in a year’s time, I might not choose these books again. I think it has a lot to do with where a reader is in their life at a given time.

      Also, because I only selected books published in 2011, I had to leave out a few of my absolute favorite reads of the year.

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