In the spring of 2014, I attended a book tour event in which Ann Patchett interviewed her friend and fellow critically acclaimed writer Elizabeth McCracken. (If Ann Patchett ever tires of writing books and championing independent bookstores, I would be the first person to subscribe to her longform interview podcast, by the way. She’s a brilliant interviewer, warm and witty and full of insight.) I don’t recall the question posed by the audience member, but I’ll never forget part of McCracken’s response.
She said that a writer spends their entire life writing their first book, and unless they take an exceptionally long time to write their second, they’ll never have that much time to spend on a single manuscript ever again. It’s that build-up, that special kind of anticipation, that lends debut novels their unique shine. A debut novel is truly something new, from a voice we’ve never heard before, a gift someone has spent years crafting just for us. Here are 15 YA debuts I can’t wait to unwrap in 2020.
Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
Wednesday | January 21
When I worked at Mike’s Movies, the last independent video store in downtown Boston, my favorite movie to play on the big wall of TV screens on a Saturday morning was You’ve Got Mail. It has a great soundtrack (important for when you can’t really watch the movie because you’re helping customers), wonderful dialogue (not to mention Tom Hanks’ Godfather impersonations) and features one of the best (if extremely rose-tinted) representations of working retail ever committed to film. So when I came across Emma Lord’s Tweet Cute and realized it was a YA homage to You’ve Got Mail (which, yes, sticklers, I know is itself a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 The Shop Around the Corner; I worked in a video store, remember?), I promptly added it to my TBR.
All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace
Imprint | February 4
It’s been hard to miss the buzz around All the Stars and Teeth. From its jaw-dropping cover to its endorsements from some of the biggest names in YA fantasy, Adalyn Grace’s swashbuckling debut novel has been everywhere. Promising a flawed but ambitious heroine, dark magic, mysterious pirates and a unique seafaring setting, only time will tell if All the Stars and Teeth will become one of the biggest books of the year—but if the buzz surrounding it gets any louder, it’ll be deafening.
The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper
Bloomsbury | February 4
Okay, full disclosure: I’ve already read this one, and I think it’s one of the best books I’m going to read all year, and I’m putting it on this list because I want you to anticipate it and I hope that you’ll agree with my opinion when you read it. Phil Stamper’s The Gravity of Us is everything I want from a contemporary realistic YA novel. Stamper tells a complex, unpredictable story with a unique hook (Cal’s dad gets picked to join the first manned mission to Mars, but the astronauts and their families have to agree to be part of a reality show that NASA relies on to garner public support and funding for the mission); populates the book with a cast of characters all as nuanced and flawed as the protagonist; adds a romance that feels emotionally grounded but also totally swoon-worthy; and tells the whole thing through an authentic and memorable first-person narrative voice. It was quietly, un-ostentatiously wonderful, and I catch myself smiling every time I think about it.
Can’t get enough YA? Check out our lists of the most anticipated YA releases of 2020, as well as our guide to all the YA sequels and series titles coming in 2020.
If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley
Katherine Tegen | March 3
I love a good metaphor-made-literal. See: Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, which takes the concept of the physical changes we all undergo during adolescence to terrifying new extremes. See also: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the central conceit of which is, “What if high school were actually hell?” Promising to take a similar approach, Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Could Fly tells the story of a girl dealing with domestic violence while her small Pennsylvania town is invaded by thousands of crows.
Witches of Ash & Ruin by E. Latimer
Freeform | March 3
From “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” to Lily Anderson’s Undead Girl Gang to Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, not to mention younger millennials and Gen Z’s rediscovery of Hocus Pocus, it’s safe to say that witches are back—if they ever really went anywhere. E. Latimer’s Witches of Ash & Ruin is an enticing new addition to the YA witch canon with an Irish setting, magic informed by Celtic mythology and a cover that’s giving me distinctly 1980s-era Stephen King vibes.
Anna K by Jenny Lee
Flatiron | March 3
Since it launched in the spring of 2016 with Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl, Flatiron has quickly made a name for itself by publishing some of the best and most boundary-pushing YA around, from fantasy blockbusters including Caraval and The Hazel Wood to achingly authentic contemporary novels like Aftercare Instructions and I’m Not Missing, all shepherded to shelves under the steady and savvy hand of editor Sarah Barley. With Jenny Lee’s Anna K, Flatiron is trying something new: A sprawling, dishy YA retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, set in the glittering world of Manhattan’s wealthy elite. I’ve gotten an early peek at this one, and I have to tell you: What I read was utterly delicious.
Elysium Girls by Kate Pentecost
Disney-Hyperion | April 14
The reason we like genre, the prevailing wisdom goes, is that what we actually want from a story is predictability. We like—we even crave—formula and stability from our narratives, and genre conventions provide this. That’s all well and good, but sometimes what I actually want is something like Elysium Girls. Is it a Western? There’s a horse on the cover, but it’s made of metal, so is it science fiction, maybe steampunk? Possibly, but the description on the back of my advance copy mentions goddesses and magic (fantasy?), Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl (Western again? maybe dystopia?). Regardless of genre, I’m fascinated by an author who would combine all of these seemingly disparate elements in one book, and eager to discover how they all come together.
The Silence of Bones by June Hur
Feiwel & Friends | April 21
I love historical fiction that makes me rethink moments in history I think I know well—World War II, for example—but I also love historical fiction set in times and places about which I know very little that leaves me hungry to learn even more. Ruta Sepetys’s most recent book, The Fountains of Silence, set during the reign of Franco in Spain, was a book like this, and June Hur’s The Silence of Bones promises to be another. Set in Korea in 1800, it’s the story of a teen girl who’s been indentured to the police department, who gets caught up in the investigation into the murder of a noblewoman when the inspector she assists is accused of having committed the crime. Historical fiction and a twisty mystery? Sign me up.
Don’t Call the Wolf by Aleksandra Ross
HarperTeen | April 28
Do you ever think about what books you would read again for the first time if you could wipe them from your memory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style? High on my list would be Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a book I inhaled four years ago on the beach and have spent years hoping other books might live up to. Hope springs eternal, and Aleksandra Ross’s Eastern European-inspired Don’t Call the Wolf (the title comes from the Polish expression, “don’t call the wolf out of the woods”—a version of the English “let sleeping dogs lie”) looks promising. It’s the story of a shapeshifting forest queen who teams up with a washed-up dragon slayer to save her kingdom from an evil horde, and a number of early reviews have commented on Ross’ exquisite prose.
The Life and Medieval Times of Kit Sweetly by Jamie Pacton
Page Street | May 5
A heroine who works at a Medieval Times-esque themed restaurant in which only men are allowed to be knights (and of course knights are paid more), so she swaps roles with her brother, hides her gender, performs in the show, reveals herself at the end of the show, goes unanticipatedly viral and Trouble Ensues? This is everything I didn’t know I wanted from a contemporary YA novel in 2020, full stop.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Page Street | May 12
Two girls enter an entrepreneurship contest; both start henna businesses and the competition is fierce—until the sparks between them turn to romance. Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Wars was apparently pitched as Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets When Dimple Met Rishi, and tells its story through the intersectional lens of a lesbian Muslim protagonist. Is it May yet?
I Kissed Alice by Anna Birch
Imprint | May 26
Rhodes and Iliana are competing against each other for a scholarship at their exclusive prep school, unaware that online, they’re collaborators on a popular fan fiction graphic novel—and they’re beginning to fall for each other. You’ve Got Mail meets Fangirl? Yes, a thousand times, yes.
Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith
HarperTeen | May 26
Confession: I’ve never read The Outsiders or seen the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation. But even I know that the phrase “stay gold” is an allusion to the book widely considered to be among the earliest and most influential YA novels ever written. Titling your YA novel Stay Gold is akin to titling your comedy of manners A Truth Universally Acknowledged or your picture book The Wild Rumpus: It’s making a very big promise to the reader on which your book needs to deliver to succeed. I, for one, admire that kind of nerve, and look forward to discovering whether Stay Gold measures up.
Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles
Wednesday | June 2
You need to know three things in order to understand why Where Dreams Descend appears on this list. First, you need to know that it was pitched to publishing editors as The Phantom of the Opera meets Moulin Rouge. Second, you need to know that I know every single word of every single song in both of those musicals. Third, you need to know that I am not even a little bit sorry about the space that knowledge takes up in my brain, space that perhaps might be more usefully occupied with knowledge of, say, how to parallel park, how to make a roux without burning it or where I put my keys (the phantom of the opera is, indeed, there inside my mind). If you, like me, enjoy singing along with silly love songs and the music of the night regardless of actual musical ability, Janella Angeles’ Where Dreams Descend looks like it’s going to be exactly our kind of book.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
Tor Teen | June 2
Sirens might be my favorite underutilized mythological entity in YA, but Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water looks like it’s going make big strides in remedying that. Set in an alternate Portland, Oregon, where sirens are real, the book’s heroine is a siren who struggles to keep her identity a secret amid rising tensions between sirens and humans following a high-profile siren murder trial. I can’t wait to dive in (pun intended).