The best young adult books of 2019, picked by the editors of Publishers Weekly.
Angel Mage by Garth Nix
Nix builds a Dumas-inspired world filled with angelic legions in this sprawling fantasy that loosely echoes The Three Musketeers. A unique magical system based on angel summoning and icons, deft and inclusive characterization, and an affectionate rendering of Dumas’s style will delight fans of swashbuckling romance.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
In 1890 Atlanta, Chinese-American Jo Kuan lives secretly in abolitionists’ quarters underneath the publisher of a failing newspaper. After overhearing their wish for an “agony aunt,” she offers her services anonymously, voicing her thoughts in a cleverly written column that addresses many forms of prejudice. A captivating novel that celebrates the strengths and talents of marginalized people in any age.
Gravity by Sarah Deming
This gritty, uplifting story follows Gravity Delgado, who begins boxing at age 12 and is preparing for the 2016 Summer Olympics by age 16 while navigating familial and social matters. Deming gives readers a thrilling firsthand look inside a boxing ring while offering the layered tale of a dedicated, formidable young woman.
Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable, illus. by Ellen T. Crenshaw
In 2004, Amanda’s life is full of comfortable constants, but an overheard conversation and a mysterious letter set her on the path to uncovering a family secret just as she begins to explore her sexuality. Venable and Crenshaw create a remarkably full picture of Amanda’s life and the overlapping relationship dynamics. A queer coming-of-age story that earns its powerful emotional impact.
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake
In a strong debut loosely based on Twelfth Night, 16-year-old party girl Violet’s family splinters after her brother Sam’s suicide attempt. Violet is exiled to Lyric, Maine, where she gains interest in the history of her ancestors, the town’s much-celebrated founders. Drake’s funny, character-driven novel considers themes of mental illness, family history, and love.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Laura Dean is a terrible girlfriend, but Freddy loves her and has no idea how to stop perpetuating her part of their cycle. A largely queer and physically and ethnically diverse cast inhabits this graphic novel vision of Berkeley, and its exploration of toxic relationships and social dynamics at the cusp of adulthood is, like its characters, sharp and dazzling.
Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh
In this contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, 15-year-old Plum Blatchley is the quiet, introspective foil to her dramatic, excitable sister, 18-year-old Ginny. Thornburgh’s exploration of the power of social comedies and books by and about young women is a funny, beguiling story of sisterhood, burgeoning self-awareness, and first love.
Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve
In this tale set in a version of 1997 Salem, Ore., Z, 14, has just begun to acknowledge their genderqueer identity when they become a custodian-less zombie, facing slow degeneration as anti-monster sentiment across Salem reaches a fever pitch. Schrieve conjures intricate magic vital to the plot, pushes the book’s leads to grow amid the book’s ratcheting tension, and provides incisive social commentary via monster-tale tropes.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
In Michigan, Filipino-American high school senior Jay Reguero is struggling to decide what to do with his life when the sudden death of his cousin sends him to the Philippines in search of answers. Matters of justice and identity take center stage in this glimpse into the life and death of a fictional victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Carnegie Medal–nominee Emezi makes their young adult debut in this compelling, nuanced tale of a transgender, selectively nonverbal girl named Jam and the monstrous figure that finds its way into her allegedly utopian universe. Emezi’s direct but tacit story of injustice, unconditional acceptance, and the evil perpetrated by humankind forms a nuanced tale that fans of speculative horror will devour.
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson
In this powerful memoir told in free verse, Anderson delves into her past and that of her parents, using language alternately raw and lyrical. Exploring the impact of silence on truth, she also describes how the memory of her rape finally spurred her to write and to become an activist against censorship and rape culture. Her potent words and willingness to shout her message demand action.
Slay by Brittney Morris
When black teen Kiera Johnson creates a virtual reality game called Slay, she must keep her identity as its developer secret. But the massively popular game’s existence is threatened after a dispute results in a player’s murder, and a new player emerges, forcing Kiera to wager the game’s control in a duel. Morris’s tightly written debut explores gaming culture, safe spaces, and the diversity of the African diaspora.
Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia by Marc Favreau
Favreau weaves vivid, succinct accounts of the U.S.-Soviet relationship into his tension-inducing spy stories, which range from the 1940s to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Chapters cover a well-chosen selection of spies, defectors, double agents, and moles in the West and behind the Iron Curtain, illuminating each side’s motivations and raising complicated moral questions about this riveting, timely topic.
Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliott
This collection of poems, each told from the perspective of Joan of Arc and the people and objects central to her life, creates a remarkable portrait of a legend who continues to fascinate. Employing poetic forms prevalent during Joan’s era, Elliott fashions a gripping narrative that addresses themes of gender identity, class and vocation, and innocence and culpability, bringing fresh nuance to an oft-told story.
The Waning Age by S.E. Grove
Emotions have dried up in this stripped-down sci-fi noir novel in which people “wane”—lose their ability to experience feelings—ever earlier. When Nat’s little brother Cal is identified as a late waner and taken in for testing, she determines to help him, even without the ability to feel traditional love. In Grove’s rich near-future world, a Raymond Chandler–style narrative meets questions of ethics and technology.
We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett
Revna’s father is serving life in prison for stealing military scrap to fashion her prosthetic legs, so when an officer witnesses the 17-year-old practicing banned magic, she fears a similar fate. Inspired by the Night Witches, real WWII Soviet fighter pilots, Bartlett’s electrifying feminist fantasy uses keenly wrought characters, harrowing action sequences, and economical worldbuilding to explore the human cost of war.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
In this stunning sophomore novel from National Book Award– and Printz Award–winner Acevedo, Afro–Puerto Rican and African-American Emoni Santiago, a high school senior, lives in Philadelphia with her grandmother and two-year-old daughter, balancing school, work, and motherhood, and working to develop her cooking abilities. With evocative prose and realistically rendered relationships and tensions, Acevedo’s depiction of young adulthood is at once universal and intensely specific.