September 12, 2022

Best of the YA bestseller lists: 2022

As we enter the final stretch of 2022, it’s time to look back on all the amazing books that became bestsellers this year—as if our TBR stacks weren’t tall enough already!

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Romania 1989: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s longtime leader, has told the world that Romania is a land of bounty, and the world believes him. But Cristian Florescu, who lives with his parents, sister and grandfather in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, knows the truth. Gray, lifeless buildings line the streets, and food scarcity, unreliable electricity and constant paranoia are part of daily life under Ceaușescu’s regime.

Cristian is a high school student who dreams of becoming a writer, but the Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, have other plans for him. Called to the principal’s office one day, Cristian is greeted by an imposing member of the Secu. Under threat of blackmail, Cristian agrees to become an informant and to report on the American diplomat whose apartment his mother cleans.

As Cristian begins his double life, he starts to doubt everyone around him, even his closest friends and family. Glimpses of the world outside Romania stir feelings of confusion and curiosity and leave Cristian reeling as he tries to make sense of the contradictory truths he is uncovering about his country. All the while, Romania rushes toward revolution.

Part espionage thriller and part bildungsroman, Ruta Sepetys’ fifth novel, I Must Betray You, focuses on a lesser-known aspect of Cold War history and provides a window into the chilling reality of 1980s Romania, the dictator who fooled the world and the events that led to his downfall.

The novel is a master class in pacing and atmosphere. Much of the book unfolds slowly, creating a foreboding sense of rising tension, until the dam suddenly breaks. Months of caution and paranoia cascade into a frightening series of bloody protests.

As a writer of historical fiction, Sepetys’ greatest strength is her dedication to research. The novel’s diaristic tone and its laser focus on one boy and one country’s story don’t leave much space for the broader context of historical communism and Marxist ideologies within the narrative, though copious endnotes are packed with tales from Sepetys’ research trips across Romania, photos from the period that offer profound visuals and plentiful source notes.

“When we don’t know the full story, sometimes we create one of our own,” Cristian writes in the novel’s final moments. “And that can be dangerous.” I Must Betray You makes its potent message clear: If the truth sets us free, its power comes from how we choose to wield it.

Ruta Sepetys’ new novel is an atmospheric and masterfully paced historical thriller set during the end of the regime of a dictator who fooled the world.

In the summer of 2020, amid an unending news cycle of fear and death, millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest the murders of not only George Floyd but also many other Black people by police officers. In Ain’t Burned All the Bright, award-winning author Jason Reynolds and artist Jason Griffin portray this claustrophobic spiral from the perspective of a young boy.

The book begins in medias res: “And I’m sitting here wondering why / my mother won’t change the channel,” the narrator says, “and why the news won’t / change the story.” In sections titled “Breath One,” “Breath Two” and “Breath Three,” the narrator’s seemingly mundane desire to change the channel transforms into fearful imaginings of his family being consumed by smoke, water or illness.

Reynolds’ words are spare, scattered in brief lines or, occasionally, single words filling an entire page in thick, powerful letters. The narrator shifts between the minutiae of everyday life, as when his “sister talks to her homegirl / through the screen of her phone,” and the things that complicate it: “and they talking about a protest.” On the opposite page appears the most carefully rendered image in the whole book, a detailed portrait of George Floyd.

Griffin’s diaristic collage art is the linchpin of the book. Dynamic and visceral, it is composed with paint, pencil and notebook paper, as well as with Reynolds’ text itself, which Griffin has printed and cut out in small strips of short phrases and placed into each spread. Griffin incorporates Reynolds’ stark but carefully chosen words into larger scenes of fires, floods, houses and skies, creating a surreal experience across the book’s more than 300 pages. He skillfully juxtaposes vast spaces of black and white with color and texture; canvas tape and speckled paint make images feel urgently three dimensional, while the blank spaces feel expansive. Many of the illustrations recall the densely saturated colors and silhouette figures of artist Kerry James Marshall.

In the book’s final pages, Griffin depicts a large leaf growing out of a pot, its delicate green reaching the top of the page. The image calls to mind a poem written by Ross Gay in the year after Eric Garner’s death. In “A Small Needful Fact,” Gay writes that Garner, whose final words were “I can’t breathe,” worked in horticulture for New York City’s Parks and Recreation Department, where he might have planted seedlings, which “continue / to do what such plants do . . . like making it easier / for us to breathe.” As it ends, Ain’t Burned All the Bright doesn’t offer any platitudes, and the narrator still wants to change the channel. But he does, despite everything, remember to breathe.

Dynamic and visceral, Ain’t Burned All the Bright artistically portrays the claustrophobia of the summer of 2020 from the perspective of a young boy.

It’s the 15th century, and the grim shadows of Portuguese slave ships loom over the Atlantic Ocean. The divine orisa Yemoja, prevented from destroying the ships by ancient magical law, instead uses her power to transform seven humans into mermaidlike beings called Mami Wata. They are tasked with collecting the souls of enslaved people who die at sea—whether by jumping overboard or being murdered by their enslavers—so they can be blessed on their journey home to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator.

Simidele is proud to serve Yemoja as Mami Wata, but she still feels an irresistible pull toward the wisps of memories she can recall from her former life as a human. When Simi chooses to save the life of a boy thrown overboard from one of the ships, she sparks a conflict between powerful orisas. The only way Simi can save herself, Yemoja and the other Mami Wata is by finding two magic rings and petitioning Olodumare for forgiveness. Adekola, the boy Simi rescued, offers to help her find the rings, but her fondness for him holds dangers of its own. Yemoja warns her that if she ever acts on her love for Adekola or any other human, Simi will dissolve into seafoam.

Skin of the Sea is an inspired take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” that blends West African religion and history in an immersive adventure. Simi travels across sun-soaked sands and into cold ocean depths, through dense forests and into harsh volcanic strongholds. In luscious prose, debut author Natasha Bowen beautifully paints sensory details that often trigger Simi’s returning memories. Past and present lace together in these flashbacks, sparked by the familiar color of someone’s eyes or the scent of a homemade meal. Bowen’s rich descriptions are also well suited to conveying the breathtaking grandeur of the many gods, goddesses, spirits and creatures whom Simi and Kola encounter on their quest.

From the outset, the stakes are high for both Simi and Kola. Each new challenge highlights the heroes’ courage in fighting for the ones they love even as they also work to heal from the cruelty and trauma inflicted upon them by enslavers aboard the deadly ships. Skin of the Sea painfully entwines love and sacrifice to create a story as powerful and majestic as the sea itself.

This inspired take on “The Little Mermaid” blends West African religion and history in a story as powerful and majestic as the sea.

Daunis Fontaine’s post-high school life is nothing like the one she imagined. A lingering injury paired with feelings of familial duty has dashed her dreams of playing hockey for the University of Michigan. Drugs have ravaged her community, including the nearby Ojibwe reservation where her deceased father’s family live but where she will never truly belong, as the ramifications of being a biracial, non-enrolled member of the tribe are vast and consequential.

The first few chapters of Firekeeper’s Daughter unfold slowly. Debut author Angeline Boulley takes her time establishing the complex web of characters in Daunis’ life and the complications of a tightknit community made up of both Anishinaabe (Indigenous people) and Zhaaganaash (white people). The book kicks into high gear with a literal bang after Daunis witnesses a horrifying murder. Despite her grief and wariness, she decides to go undercover for the FBI, using her knowledge and connections to help them uncover who is pumping meth into the community, and who is to blame for the steadily increasing body count.

Make no mistake, Firekeeper’s Daughter is, at times, brutal. Boulley’s depiction of abuses experienced by Native women, including sexual assault and murder, is unflinching. However, these scenes never feel casual or cheap. Instead, Boulley, who is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the book is set, writes with honesty, empathy and a clear awareness of the epidemic of violence experienced by the vast majority (more than 80%, according to the Indian Law Resource Center) of Native women.

Though Firekeeper’s Daughter contains gripping action sequences and gasp-inducing twists, it’s Daunis’ mission of self-discovery, which begins as a low and steady growl and grows to a fierce, proud roar, that has the most impact. Her introspective revelation of self-worth acts like a healing salve for the novel’s violence and darkness. Though it both shocks and thrills, in the end, what leaves you breathless is Firekeeper’s Daughter’s blazing heart.

Firekeeper’s Daughter’ author Angeline Boulley shares her favorite part of writing mystery books.

Though it both shocks and thrills, in the end, what leaves you breathless is Firekeeper’s Daughter’s blazing heart.

To foster a fruitful discussion about race in America, begin with an essential resource like Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. It “is not a history book. . . . At least, not like the ones you’re used to reading in school.”

A “remix” of Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the book begins by dividing racial thought into three categories—segregationist, assimilationist and anti-racist—and clarifying that a person can articulate thoughts from more than one category in the span of a day and can certainly change camps over the course of years or a lifetime. It then follows the trail of racist and anti-racist ideas as they have challenged each other across history, from the first-known written record of racist ideas in 15th-century Europe to the arrival of Europeans on North American shores, all the way through contemporary American society.

This may sound like an epic feat for a slim volume written for young readers—and it is. More than merely a young reader’s adaptation of Kendi’s landmark work, Stamped does a remarkable job of tying together disparate threads while briskly moving through its historical narrative. Employing his signature conversational tone, Reynolds selects key names to dwell on, revealing complex motivations behind their actions and diving fearlessly into their contradictions.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Go behind the scenes of Stamped with Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.

This Book Is Anti-Racist
Once readers have been introduced to Stamped’s thorough overview of the history and modus operandi of racist and anti-racist thought, the next steps are self-reflection and action. Turn to This Book Is Anti-Racist, written by Tiffany Jewell and illustrated by Aurélia Durand. It’s a handbook for how to be an anti-racist in a racist world, with neatly organized sections that guide readers through its mix of theory and practice.

First, Jewell encourages readers to explore their own identities and to consider how we all “carry” history. Next, she offers a guide on preparing to act against racism, including strategies such as disruption, interruption, calling in and calling out. Finally, she invites readers to consider how to work in concert with others through allyship, spending privilege, self-care and more. At the end of each section, journaling and writing activities help to solidify and personalize the content.

Jewell uses a mixture of facts and personal anecdotes to illustrate each concept. Her text speaks directly to young people and acknowledges their limitations—as well as their great potential—in a world where many decisions are made by adults. She is honest about the discomfort and risks involved in taking action against racism and encourages readers to reflect and prepare before they do so.

Durand’s colorful artwork depicts wonderfully diverse groups of young people, and it combines with Jewell’s intentional use of inclusive language to provide a safe and inviting way for teen readers to reflect on the world’s issues and their place in solving them.

Two books confront the history of racism in America and provide a road map for teens to take action.

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