YA and MG Favorites of 2021

I typically read in the adult category more than kid lit, but this year I read 14 young adult and 12 middle grade books, so I thought they deserved their own post. In 2021, the books I read in these categories were primarily fiction, and the eight “5-star rating” books reviewed below (2 middle grade and 6 YA) reflect this. So without further ado …

The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead tells the story of Bea, a girl in New York whose life is complicated. She has eczema, she has anxiety, she divides her time between her parents’ apartments, and her father will soon marry a wonderful man so she’ll have both a new stepdad and a new sister. But, amidst all this change, she has a list of things that will not change to see her through. This middle grade book is full of vivid details and small truths about what it means to be a kid and what it means to grow up. In short, it is absolutely lovely.

Elvis and the World as it Stands by Lisa Frenkel Riddiough is a charming and endearing book for lower middle grade readers. The author weaves a lovely tale from the point of view of Elvis, a calico kitten with a burning desire to reunite with his sister Etta who remained at the shelter when he was taken to his “forever home.” Characters include Mo (a wise and clever hamster), Laverne (an always-on-the-alert goldfish), Clementine (a grouchy cat who you learn to at least understand if not love) and more. The book is about found family and how we come to accept changes in our worlds. The whimsical illustrations are perfect, too!

Again, Again by E. Lockhart has at its heart some staples of YA contemporary novels. The protagonist (Adelaide) has recently been dumped, but feels real connection with someone new. There is a brother in rehab (and a family coping), an art project that must be completed, and lots of dogs. What’s different about this book, though, is that it imagines—in compelling and poetic prose—a variety of ways Adelaide’s story might move forward and explores the implications of these different paths on a young woman on the cusp of so much. I thought the book was inventive, insightful, and beautifully written.

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi tells the story of Jayne Baek, a college student in NYC who is going through a lot. She’s illegally subletting an apartment, she has a horrible sorta-boyfriend, she’s struggling with friends, and she’s hiding a serious eating disorder. Her older sister June (also living in New York) seems to lead the perfect life – until she is diagnosed with uterine cancer, that is. Jayne’s story unfolds in both New York and Texas (where she and June grew up in a traditional Korean family) and is a wrenching, but ultimately hopeful, story of how family can both wound and heal us.

The protagonist of The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe is now called Nora, but her identity has been molded by all the girls she had to play during her mother’s life as a con artist. She learned new things with each persona, and when she finds herself in the middle of a bank robbery hostage situation (along with her girlfriend and ex-boyfriend) she needs to draw on everything she knows to get them all out alive. This book is intricate and propulsive and thoroughly enjoyable.

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold is full of familiar fairy tale elements, but it subverts them in ways both shocking and vital. The book opens as Ama wakes up to learn King Emory has rescued her from a dragon and will take her to the kingdom of Harding where she will become his queen. But Ama doesn’t remember anything from before this moment. And as she learns more about both her betrothed and his kingdom, she becomes increasingly disturbed. This story explores issues of misogyny, rape culture, female empowerment, and self-harm. The prose is haunting and powerful—a mystical and terrifying coming-of-age story.

I’d read Karen McManus’s massively popular earlier thrillers (One of Us is Lying, Two Can Keep a Secret) and I wasn’t sure if the free-standing The Cousins would stand up. It did. In fact, I liked it more than her earlier books, and that’s saying something. The book is (obviously) about cousins, but cousins who have never met and whose parents had all been disinherited by their eccentric mother. The cousins are invited to spend the summer together at an exclusive resort island, and once they arrive, they encounter gossip, intrigue, and dark family secrets. It’s a fun and twisty mystery that I couldn’t put down.

I’m a bit biased about the final entry on this list, The Night When No One Had Sex by Kalena Miller. However, I’m sure this would have been a five-star read for me even if the author wasn’t my daughter. This novel tells the all-in-one-night story of a group of friends who made a sex pact on the night of their senior prom. Needless to say, problems ensue and lead to everything from a sudden trip to the hospital to rooftop conversations to fantasy role-playing to terrible scones. Told from four points of view (plus a hilarious group chat), it is touching and funny and captures the value of enduring friendship and the stress and excitement of anticipating life beyond high school.  

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