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Amanda’s favorites of 2019

Yes, it’s list time. What follows are my favorite 2019 books that I reviewed here at TLT and excerpts of my reviews. I pretty much exclusively read contemporary fiction, which my list reflects. These are the YA books that most stuck with me this year.  Even though I’m a voracious reader, I’m sure I missed a lot of great 2019 books. I always enjoy reading the many lists that crop up this time of the year, but I also always want more variety and to hear from more people. So here’s my list—will you share yours with us too? Leave us a comment or hit me up on Twitter where I’m @CiteSomething. 

For more of what I liked best this year, check out School Library Journal’s Best YA Books of 2019 list. I was fortunate to be chosen as part of the committee this year and loved rereading books I’d already devoured and loved and getting to discover new favorites.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (ISBN-13: 9780062691316 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 02/26/2019)

Freshly out of the Medio School for Girls, 17-year-old Dani is now the Primera to a promising young politician from a wealthy and respected family. Dani understands her role as Primera, one of two wives in the household, means she will run the home and be her husband Mateo’s equal. She quickly learns that secretive and cold Mateo, who is being groomed to run for president, views her as little more than a personal assistant. She’s not thrilled to be placed with Carmen, an enemy from school, who is Mateo’s Segunda, the second wife. Together, they all live in the heart of the capital, where luxury abounds. Money and power are important in the inner island, and Mateo’s family has both. But not far away, things are very different. Long ago, a wall was built around the inner island, and those suffering on the other side know nothing of the riches afforded to those lucky enough to be inside the wall. Dani knows intimately what life is like there and the risk many take to cross the militarized border that has a shoot-on-sight policy. Now part of the island’s elite, she is appalled at the wealth and resources taken for granted here. Life as a Primera could be extremely dull—be responsible and think of nothing more than supporting your husband—but Dani never gets to experience that.

A tense cliffhanger that reveals secrets and sets up book two will leave readers (me!) desperate to see what happens. This well-written book has great world building, strong characters, and so much intrigue. A smart and engrossing read full of twists and turns. (Full review here.)

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds (ISBN-13: 9780062748379 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 03/05/2019)

This completely enjoyable story asks what you would do differently—or the same—if you got a second chance. Or a third, fourth, or twentieth chance. Jack and Kate are only just really getting to know each other, to fall for each other, when Kate dies from sickle cell anemia. Upon hearing the news, Jack rushes from his house, falls down the stairs, and BAM! time starts over again. Suddenly, he’s back at the party where he first met Kate. Kate is clueless as to who he is (though she has a weird feeling that she already knows him), or that they have somehow respawned, but Jack remembers everything. Jack wonders why he’s reliving this time loop and blows off so much to be with Kate, whose time may or may not be limited in this run. When she dies again, Jack really buckles down, trying to figure out how he is supposed to do whatever it is he’s back here to do. Jack has to figure out what risks he should take and try to foresee what the consequences might be. It’s terrible to lose someone over and over, but he’s determined to figure out how to change that. And it’s not like he has a choice—he keeps getting tossed back through this loop no matter what changes he makes. He starts to wonder if he can save everyone—or, heck, if he can even save anyone.  He’ll make mistakes and different choices each time, but is he doomed to spend eternity living the same few months and always losing Kate?

This is a fun love story that features strong friendships, great parents, humor, and heartbreak. I loved Jack’s voice, the excellent banter, and the complex and caring relationships he has with Franny and Jillian, his best friends. This warm, smart, unique debut will have an easy wide appeal. I suspect, like me, readers will be drawn to it when they spy the great cover and once they start reading it, they’ll want to race through the whole thing and see if Jack can break the loop and find a happy ending. Or an ending, period. Readers who can suspend their disbelief and just go with the time loop premise will love this character-driven look at choices, consequences, and possibilities. I can’t wait to see what else Reynolds writes. (Full review here.)

Heroine by Mindy McGinnis (ISBN-13: 9780062847195 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 03/12/2019)

All it takes is one prescription to kick-start a student athlete’s frightening descent into opioid addiction. After surgery following a car accident, Ohio softball phenom Mickey Catalan is prescribed OxyContin for pain. When she starts to run out of the Oxy she relies on to get through her physical therapy, she gets pills from a dealer, through whom she meets other young addicts. Mickey rationalizes what she’s doing and sees herself as a good girl who’s not like others who use drugs (like new friend Josie, who uses because she’s “bored”). Mickey loves how the pills make her feel, how they take her out of herself and relieve the pressures in her life. Soon she’s stealing, lying, and moving on to heroin. Her divorced parents, including her recovering addict stepmother, suspect something is going on, but Mickey is skilled at hiding her addiction.

A trigger warning rightfully cautions graphic depictions of drug use. In brutally raw detail, readers see Mickey and friends snort powders, shoot up, and go through withdrawal. Intense pacing propels the gripping story toward the inevitable conclusion already revealed in the prologue. An author’s note and resources for addiction recovery are appended. This powerful, harrowing, and compassionate story humanizes addiction and will challenge readers to rethink what they may believe about addicts. (Full review here.)

Wreck by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (ISBN-13: 9781510739031 Publisher: Sky Pony Publication date: 04/16/2019)

The question becomes what do you do in the time between getting a devastating and terminal diagnosis and actually dying? For Steve, he continues to socialize, help work on the marathon committee, and writes a book of advice to leave behind for Tobin. For Tobin, she tries to bury her heart deep in Lake Superior, which feels like the only way she can keep going and cope with this horrible situation. To complicate matters further, there’s a box in their house that’s haunting her. Inside that innocuous-looking box is pentobarbital, a barbiturate that Steve intends to take a high dose of to end his life, on his terms, when the time is right. And if he’s physically unable to do so on his own, he’s asked Tobin to be the one to administer the medicine.

Yep. Oof.

Undoubtedly, the narrative of death with dignity–that is, the right for terminally ill people to die on their own terms—will create passionate feelings about this book and possibly some controversy. That said, the plot makes it clear why this can be a compassionate act, why someone would choose this option. Steve and Tobin’s story is filled with lots of nuance, empathy, support, and love. This is a moving exploration of mortality, family, and impossibly difficult decisions. (Full review here.)

Love from A to Z by S. K. Ali (ISBN-13: 9781534442726 Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Publication date: 04/30/2019)

All it took was the first few pages, meeting both Adam Chen and Zayneb Malik and seeing their marvels and oddities journals, and I was swept up into the story. I scratched the rest of my to-do list for the day and just read this book straight through. There is so much heart to this book, whether with family or friends or support or passions or convictions. It is full of strong feelings, of passionate convictions, and of complicated characters who don’t always do or say the right thing, but make choices for logical and important reasons. This book is about love, family, and the changes and challenges life throws at us. It’s also about Islamophobia, justice, peace, activism, social justice, civilian casualties of war, righteous anger, and being Muslim. It is SO MUCH about being Muslim. Zayneb was raised Muslim from the start and Adam converted, along with his father, a handful of years ago. Zayneb’s father is from Pakistan and her mother (who also converted) is Guyanese and Trinidadian. Adam is Canadian by way of China and Finland.

There was so much in this book that either I was cheering for (Zayneb repeatedly calling people out for their racism, Islamophobia, white feminism, and cultural appropriation) or marveling (sorry) over (have I read a book set in Qatar before? Have I read a book where there are characters who converted to Islam before?). Despite their bumps along the road, it’s so clear to the reader that Adam and Zayneb were meant to meet and be in each other’s lives. For very different reasons, they both feel so alone, but find more connections than just each other. This is a beautiful, complex, and important book. I hope that all libraries will get this on their shelves and on display. A wonderful story that centers the Muslim experience and shows the power of anger, peace, and connection. (Full review here.)

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (ISBN-13: 9781338306125 Publisher: Scholastic, Inc Publication date: 05/14/2019)

Go order this book now. Request it from your library, buy it from your local bookstore, order it FOR your library, email your media specialist to make sure they know about it, just go. I’ll wait.

Did you do it? I really hope you did, because this is an Important Book. There are not a ton of nonbinary teens yet in YA books. This fact alone makes this book noteworthy. But it’s the fact that Ben’s story is so complex and emotional and that the writing is SO GOOD that really makes this book one that you need.

This is not always an easy book to read, but just know that it gets easier and has a happy ending. And that’s not a spoiler—I think it’s important to know that this book about a nonbinary teen kicked out of their home isn’t a story just full of misery and betrayal. That’s certainly part of the story, and not an unimportant part, but Ben’s story is so much deeper than that. And, thankfully, it’s so much more joy-filled than just that. (Full review here.)

The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos (ISBN-13: 9780062699022 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 05/28/2019)

A desperate search for the truth leaves 16-year-old Ruby Chernyavsky with more questions than answers as she untangles years of family lore and begins to understand that stories have more than one side. Ruby knows that the women in her family, long removed from their ancestral home in the woods in Russia, once possessed powerful magic. Ruby and her sisters grew up steeped in the family lore, stories of this magic, and the reminder to stay hidden and safe. Once in their lifetimes, the women in her family travel ahead to be in the body of their future selves at whatever age they will die. This is called their Time, and whatever they see is inevitable. But when Great-Aunt Polina dies, Ruby and her relatives learn that Polina’s vision was wrong. Ruby, who has seen her Time, must know: Can she alter her fate?

When she falls for a boy with family secrets of his own and begins to confide in her long-absent mother, the stories and folklore become even more complicated. Ruby questions who the real villains are in these passed-down tales. Suddenly everything becomes about finding the courage to determine her own story and what she is willing to lose as she balances choices, consequences, and risks. Podos weaves an intricate plot full of mystery and folklore that will make readers race toward the satisfying but not-yet-tied up conclusion.  (Full review here.)

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi (ISBN-13: 9781250299482 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Publication date: 06/11/2019)

Two high school seniors find their voices and first love in this enemies-to-lovers story told from dual perspectives. Brusque and controlling filmmaker Rachel Recht, a Jewish scholarship student at the prestigious Royce School, wants nothing to do with Sana Khan, cheerleading captain and model human being. But when a literal run-in forces them to work together on a film, their tense relationship morphs into something beautiful and unexpected. As they collaborate, they begin to share their most private feelings. Sana, who is Muslim, reveals that she’s been having a crisis about her future, hasn’t sent her down payment to Princeton, and has secretly applied to a fellowship. Rachel knows she’s NYU-bound if the scholarship funds come through, but her future is in jeopardy if she can’t get this last film finished. Working together on this project about a woman forging her own path could be transformative for both, if only they could stop arguing and misjudging each other’s intentions.

Determined to find success on their own terms, the ambitious girls learn to stand up for themselves as they challenge, support, and infuriate each other. Immensely readable with strong characters and quick, clever dialogue, this romance has real depth. Though there is no question that the girls will end up together, it’s a joy to watch them fumble toward their eventual happy ending. As much about finding yourself as it is about finding love, this smart, feminist story shows that expectations shouldn’t dictate the future.  (Full review here.)

Frankly in Love by David Yoon (ISBN-13: 9781984812209 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 09/10/2019)

Korean-American Frank isn’t sure where he’s supposed to fit in. The child of immigrants, he always feels like he’s not Korean enough, but he’s not fully American. He loves his parents, who are complicated people. He fully admits they’re racist (and have essentially let their daughter, whose husband is black, walk out of their lives because of this). His best friend, Q, is black, and while he feels totally at home at Q’s house, he rarely has him over. He knows when he eventually finds a girlfriend, she should probably be Korean-American, just to make everything easier. Falling for white Brit means lots of deception. When he begins fake dating his Korean-American friend Joy, as a cover, we can see what may happen, but we can’t predict all of the twists and turns that will come with both his real relationship and his fake one.

While this is a love story, it’s also about so much more. Frank spends an awful lot of time thinking about race and where he fits. He talks with his friends about this. He travels in various circles—the AP kids (the Apeys), the Gathering kids—and fits everywhere and nowhere. He is always learning, rethinking, growing. At one point he thinks, “People who let themselves learn new things are the best kind of people.” Mine, too, Frank. When he starts to date Brit, he eventually realizes that he will always be holding her at a distance because he isn’t being his real self with her (whoever his real self is). But dating Joy turns out to be just as complicated when he begins to see all the gaps in life–gaps in time, in generations, in class, in upbringing, in experience. He’s trying to figure out what labels are for him, or if labels are even helpful, which is not an easy task.

I absolutely loved this book. It’s smart, funny, sweet, sad, cute, and thoughtful in all the best ways. (Full review here.)

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus (ISBN-13: 9780525555483 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 09/17/2019)

There is so much to love about this story. Yes, Agnes is sent away when her mother catches her with her girlfriend. She’s shamed and told she’s “nasty” by her mother. But she finds love, support, and acceptance from everyone else in her life. Mabel finds kissing her boyfriend kind of boring, but even just being near her friend Jada makes her all tingly. She’s working out what all this means, but it’s not angst-filled or painful or met with any hate. In Minneapolis, they are surrounded by supportive family and friends, many of whom are queer. And for Agnes, she has Queenie, her grandma, back home in Trinidad, who has always been her closest and most loving person. Queenie fully accepts Agnes for who she is—she always has—and fills with her love, always reminding her of her self-worth and that she’s perfect as she is.

Through the lenses of freedom and love, the characters ruminate on the past, the present, and an eternal future found through cosmic connections. They learn to be uncontained, to love without fear or boundaries, to give themselves the space to figure out who they are. The voices from this stunning debut will stay with readers long after the unpredictable ending. Full of love, healing, strength, and spirituality, this is a story that hasn’t been told before—not like this. Be ready to lose a day once you start reading; Mabel and Agnes will draw you into their worlds and not release their grip on you even after the last page. A lovely story that is sad and hopeful all at once. (Full review here.)