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All YA Fiction Coverage

Delight the teenager on your holiday list with a fabulous graphic novel or gripping true story guaranteed to make them swoon, giggle or gasp.

The Girl From the Sea

For the reader who longs to be carried away on the waves of a fantastical story

In The Girl From the Sea, author-illustrator Molly Knox Ostertag blends myth and realism to create a story about the things we'd rather keep submerged—and what happens when they surface with a splash.

Morgan Kwon is 15 and part of a power clique at her high school that serves as a frothy diversion from her unhappy family life. She's just biding her time until she can move away from her small island town and finally come out as gay. 

One rainy night at the rocky seaside cliffs that are her favorite place to sit and think, Morgan slips on the wet stones and falls into the water. She's rescued by a mysterious girl named Keltie, who is kind of cute, really, and an awfully powerful swimmer, but the instant connection between them threatens all the secrets that Morgan's been carefully concealing from her friends and family. 

Ostertag (The Witch Boy) is an expert at conveying complex emotions and subtly shifting the mood from one panel to the next. Morgan is part of a group text message thread with her friends, which  includes numerous invitations that Morgan declines, at first because of her feelings of loneliness and depression, and later because Keltie is clearly not welcome among the group, even as she and Morgan are tentatively falling for each other. Ostertag initially depicts Morgan's home life with her stressed mom and angry little brother in stark, silent scenes, but as secrets come to light and Morgan's family reach out to one another, there's a warmth to their time together that lifts off the page.

This graphic novel's narrative flows so smoothly that you might find yourself reading it in one big gulp, and its resolution is bittersweet but hopeful. The Girl From the Sea is a wistful romance that will catch readers by the heart.

—Heather Seggel

Passport

For the reader who has always suspected there was more to their parents than meets the eye

"¿Qué está pasando?" Early in her graphic memoir, Passport, author-illustrator Sophia Glock writes that this phrase—which means "what is going on?"—is her mantra at the Spanish-language immersion high school she attends in Central America. The phrase is a lifeline as Glock navigates the usual challenges of teenage life, but it takes on another meaning when Glock discovers that she is the daughter of CIA agents who have been keeping her in the dark. 

Growing up, Glock lived all over the world because of her parents' ambiguous "work." What work is that, exactly? She has no idea. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she receives. Just keep your head down, her parents tell her. Stay safe, and if you can, why don't you let us know what your friends' parents do for a living?

When Glock reads a letter that her older sister, away at college, wrote to their parents, the blanks in her life begin to fill in, though she is too afraid to confront her parents directly. Instead, like any frustrated teen, she exercises her autonomy and starts telling lies of her own. Boys, girls, drinking and partying abound while Glock travels through the gauntlet of adolescence and the tension between her ever-accumulating little lies versus her parents' one big lie threatens to boil over.

Glock's depictions of quiet yet consequential moments, such as when she ponders the choices her parents have made, are especially spellbinding. Her sparse, restrained art style evokes the feeling of a memory play, a recollection both real and ethereal. She renders the entire book in only three colors: shades of a reddish pink, a cold blue and white. Her characters aren't always easily distinguishable from one another, and while that can cause some confusion in the story, the overall effect is satisfying. After all, how much does Glock really know about the people around her? ¿Qué está pasando? In her author's note, Glock concedes as much. "These stories are as true as I remember them," she writes. The CIA's publication review board nixed some of the particulars of Passport before it was published, which makes the details that did end up in the book all the more dramatic.

A deceptively spare graphic novel chock-full of depth and beauty, Passport is an unusual coming-of-age memoir that's totally worth the trip. 

—Luis G. Rendon

★ The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

For the reader who loves spooky castles and fears no gothic terror, not even marauding zombie bunnies

Haley is so exuberantly dedicated to gothic romances that her exasperated teacher orders her to stop writing book reports on Wuthering Heights (and no, she cannot do an interpretive dance about it instead!). After school, Haley sets out for home in the rain, and lo! As she stands on a bridge, dramatically sighing, she sees a man struggling in the dark waters below. She dives in to rescue the floundering fellow, conks out after her exertions and awakens abed in Willowweep Manor, attended by a dour housekeeper named Wilhelmina. Have Haley's period-piece dreams come true? 

Turns out, Haley has indeed been inadvertently catapulted into a world much like those in her beloved books. There's a castle (complete with "baleful catacombs" and an on-site ghost) and verdant moors, as well as three handsome brothers—stoic Laurence, brooding Montague and vacuous Cuthbert—who took her in after she saved Montague from drowning.

But Haley soon discovers another side to Willowweep. It's a gasket universe, a liminal space between Earth and an evil dimension laden with a substance called bile that destroys everything in its globby, neon green path. Can Haley help the brothers fend off the encroaching forces of darkness before it's too late? 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is a hoot right from the get-go, but when everyone bands together to defend the manor, author Shaenon K. Garrity's tale becomes ever more hilarious and exciting. Humorous metafictional quips fly hither and yon as the characters take up arms, squabble over strategy and realize they've got to break a few rules (and defy a few tropes) if they want to prevail. 

Christopher Baldwin's art is full-bore appealing. He has an excellent command of color: Brooding browns underlie characters' stress while sky blues highlight Haley's growing confidence. Facial expressions are little comedies unto themselves, including horses who side-eye Cuthbert's silliness, and slack-faced bile-addled bunnies who adorably chant "Destroy." 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor celebrates and satirizes a beloved genre while encouraging readers to defy the rules and become the heroes of their own stories.

—Linda M. Castellitto

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.

The best young adult books of the year offer nothing less than revolution—revolutionary ways of seeing, of writing, of imagining, of moving through the world. They've kindled our hearts and filled them with warmth and hope when we've needed it most.


10. The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros

Set against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, The City Beautiful is a gorgeous, disturbing, visceral and mystical experience.

9. Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

McCoy's spectacular novel never offers easy answers. It's a layered and vulnerable exploration of everything that makes a heart beat—or break.

8. The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

Like the contrasting flavors in a strawberry basil pie, Capetta's frothy confection melds a journey of self-discovery with a quest to repair broken hearts.

Watch our interview with A.R. Capetta about 'The Heartbreak Bakery.'

7. Me (Moth) by Amber McBride

In this surprising and expertly crafted novel in verse, two teens travel through a landscape haunted by history, memory and spirituality.

6. The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

Sharpe combines hardscrabble swagger, enormous grief and teenage noir into a heart-wrenching, perfectly paced and cinematic thriller.

5. A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

Williams-Garcia's mesmerizing portrait of slavery in antebellum Louisiana is a multigenerational saga that brilliantly depicts the rotting heart of Southern plantation life.

4. City of the Uncommon Thief by Lynne Bertrand

This is genre-defying fiction at its finest, a sprawling work of precise storytelling that sticks the landing and knows no fear.

3. When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Gilbert captures the intensity and electricity of the end of adolescence in this astonishing book that expands what the entire category of YA literature can be.

2. Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Lo's beautiful, brave work of historical fiction is as meticulously researched as it is full of raw, authentic emotion.

1. Switch by A.S. King

As she explores the spectrum between isolation and connection in this deeply personal novel, King creates an unsettling but emotional resonant tale for our own unsettling times.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

The 10 best YA books of the year are truly revolutionary reads.

Cas, the younger lord of the Oliveran fortress city of Palmerin, is no stranger to death. Mysteriously abducted near the Oliveran border in the midst of war with the neighboring kingdom of Brisas, he watched from afar for three long years as thousands fell to brutal violence and thousands more to a pestilence that ravaged the land. The plague's only mercy is that it allowed Cas to escape his cruel captors. All Cas wants now is to return home, reunite with his older brother, Ventillas, and make up for the years he's lost—but death still stalks the younger lord of Palmerin.

When he finally arrives in Palmerin, Cas—who was presumed dead—is met with chaos. A slippery assassin threatens the lives of the Oliveran royal family, who have fled the plague-ridden capital and taken up residence in the Palmerin Keep. As he enlists the help of Lena, a court historian and half-sister to the king, Cas realizes that the only path to tranquility will be to find the would-be killer. 

Makiia Lucier's fourth novel, Year of the Reaper, is a fast-paced, fantastical mystery that's rife with courtly intrigue and twisty secrets and rooted in nuanced depictions of personal and societal trauma. As Cas and Lena work together to identify the assassin, a wellspring of secrets begins to burble forth, engendering mistrust among the characters and threatening to break the tenuous peace between kingdoms. Lucier's nimble plotting creates an ever-widening spiral of doubt that drives the story irresistibly forward. 

Set in a fictional land inspired by Spain in the late Middle Ages, the novel resists getting bogged down in overly expository world building, which can easily become dry. Instead, Lucier spends time refining small details such as local delicacies, colorful textiles and scents that give dimension to the kingdom of Oliveras and enrich the plot. War and plague have left deep scars, but the people of Oliveras are lively and engaging despite the terrible things they've endured. 

Lucier is particularly adept at portraying relationships. Cas and Ventillas' brotherhood is complex; love and trust are foundational to the pair's conversations, but resentment and suspicion seep in slowly through invisible cracks. Similarly, Cas and Lena's budding romance is believable because of their genuine friendship, which Lucier develops through harrowing adventures and intimate, convincing dialogue.

Year of the Reaper is quick to enthrall, with enough of an echo of the COVID-19 pandemic to be frightening. Seasoned fantasy readers will be beguiled by its unusual setting and Lucier's graceful sidestepping of cliches common to the genre. Though its conclusion leaves some threads untied and may not satisfy readers who prefer to have all their questions answered by the end of a book, Year of the Reaper is an emotionally immersive and consistently compelling read.

Year of the Reaper is a fast-paced, fantastical mystery that’s rife with courtly intrigue and rooted in nuanced depictions of personal and societal trauma.

What if the events in the fairy tales you heard as a child didn't really happen that way at all? This is the question posed by Martha Brockenbrough's Into the Bloodred Woods , a savage spin on happily ever after. 

The novel takes place in a mythical kingdom ruled by a king, his gold-spinning queen and their twin children, Ursula and Albrecht. Ursula, a serious and thoughtful princess, can transform into a bear, which gives her tremendous physical strength. She dreams of the day that she will become queen and can free other shape-shifters from the oppressive rules that limit their freedom. Cruel Albrecht fancies himself an inventor, but his horrifying creations often involve unwilling test subjects. When the king dies, his kingdom is divided between the twins until Albrecht invades Ursula's half, usurping his sister's land. To save her people and protect herself, Ursula must destroy her brother or die trying.

Brockenbrough offers a thoroughly feminist novel that reimagines many well-known fairy tales. In her versions, Little Red Riding Hood falls in love with the wolf, while Hansel and Gretel are kidnapped by Albrecht and forced into servitude. Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella and the Pied Piper are also referenced, but Brockenbrough reconfigures their stories so that they're far less Disney and far more Grimm.

Toward the end of the novel, a character muses, "Why was it a crime to be more than one thing? Why could people not be exactly who they chose to be in the world? Who was harmed when people lived their own truths?" It's a striking moment that will resonate with teens who have asked themselves similar questions about their own world. As potent an allegory as the fantastical stories upon which it draws, Into the Bloodred Woods reminds readers of the power such stories hold—and of their own power to rewrite them.

This savage spin on happily ever after offers a thoroughly feminist allegory as potent as anything the Brothers Grimm dreamed up.

Claudie Durand is 18 years old and knows that she will never marry. She will be useful and dependable, but nothing more. Her father decided this when Claudie was young, after her mother abandoned their family to join a religious order. Claudie's beautiful younger sister, Mathilde, will marry and begin her own life, while Claudie will take over running the family inn. But when the French Revolution finally reaches the northwestern region of Brittany and the revolutionary army destroys Claudie's village, both Claudie's and Mathilde's plans for the future disappear in the smoke.

The two sisters, the sole survivors of their village, are thrust into the resistance efforts of a group called the Legion. Together, Claudie and Mathilde make their way toward the Breton capital of Rennes and then to England, joining forces along the way with a resistance leader known only as the Rooster of Rennes. Claudie's intelligence and capability propels them forward, and as she grows closer to the cause—and to the Rooster himself—Claudie finally begins to recognize her worth.

In The Diamond Keeper, Jeannie Mobley (The Jewel Thief) thrusts readers into the midst of the French Revolution, vividly illustrating the horrors of war. Claudie is an appealing protagonist who brings historical events to life for readers as they follow her journey from France to England and her transformation from indifference and insecurity to passion and confidence. Claudie's romance with the Rooster of Rennes is endearing, if a bit predictable, and it's enjoyable to see Claudie discover her own strength as she repeatedly saves the day, not to mention the Rooster's life.

More poignant is the evolution of Claudie's relationship with Mathilde. Claudie has served as a maternal figure for Mathilde since both girls were very young. Mathilde, it seems, recognized Claudie's potential long before Claudie ever did, and as Claudie's emotions toward Mathilde shift from resentment and envy to respect and even admiration, readers will be moved by the new and more mature bond of sisterhood that forms between them.

The backdrop of the French Revolution will pique the interest of young history buffs, and Claudie's leadership will make the book a hit with readers who've questioned their self-worth, their purpose or their path.

This adventurous tale, set during the French Revolution, is grounded by an appealing protagonist and a touching portrayal of sisterhood.

On the rocky cliffs near their cottage in the Scottish Highlands, Rowenna witnesses her mother Mairead's death at the hands of a gruesome sea creature. Afterward, she mourns not only the loss of her mother but also her only chance to learn how to master and control the magical craft they share. But the morning after Rowenna rescues a stranger named Gawen from a storm, Mairead miraculously returns, rosy-cheeked and claiming to have rejected her craft entirely.

Although her grasp of the craft is merely rudimentary, Rowenna can tell that whatever has come back from the sea is not her mother; it's not even human. The monster steals Rowenna's voice and curses her brothers and Gawen, transforming them into swans. To break the curse, Rowenna sets off for the city of Inverness, where she's heard of a wise woman who might be able to help her before the monster's curse becomes permanent and her whole village succumbs to its malevolence.

Laura E. Weymouth's A Rush of Wings is an immersive retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Wild Swans." Weymouth's writing is rich with sensory details, lush descriptions and prose that often feels like poetry. She creates a beautiful world that straddles the line between the real and the unreal. Here, the sea teems with otherworldly creatures, the wind speaks to women, and magic seems truly possible. Although Weymouth's story has plenty of high stakes and horrifying villains, she tells it in an unhurried, intimate way, balancing heart-pumping battles with hushed, hopeful conversations.

Rowenna is an unusual fairy-tale hero who is curious about the limits of her abilities yet hesitates to use their full potential when doing so would harm others. She recognizes that her lack of control makes her weak but also fears what could happen should she become more powerful. Some characters believe her to be naive, while others accuse her of deceit, but Rowenna recognizes the complicated, contradictory aspects of her own identity and longs to bring them into balance.

It's easy to lose track of time while reading A Rush of Wings. It's a mesmerizing story with wonderful ambiance that asks readers to question their preconceived notions of heroes and villains. Readers looking for something both fresh and familiar are sure to enjoy this powerful retelling.

In the world of this lush, poetic retelling of “The Wild Swans,” the sea teems with otherworldly creatures, the wind speaks to women and magic seems truly possible.

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