Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Take 5: The Last 5 Best YA Books I Read in 2020, YA fiction round 2

We started with YA. Last week I dove into nonfiction. Last week was all about Middle Grade. And today we end where we began, with another round of Teen/Young Adult fiction.

The Burning by Laura Bates

Publisher’s Book Description:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month!

What happens when you can’t run or hide from a mistake that goes viral?

This powerful young adult novel by the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project is a necessary book every young adult needs.

A rumor is like fire. And a fire that spreads online… is impossible to extinguish.

New school. Check.
New town. Check.
New last name. Check.
Social media profiles? Deleted.

Anna and her mother have moved hundreds of miles to put the past behind them. Anna hopes to make a fresh start and escape the harassment she’s been subjected to. But then rumors and whispers start, and Anna tries to ignore what is happening by immersing herself in learning about Maggie, a local woman accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. A woman who was shamed. Silenced. And whose story has unsettling parallels to Anna’s own.

From Laura Bates, internationally renowned feminist and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, comes a realistic fiction story for the #metoo era. It’s a powerful call to action, reminding all readers of the implications of sexism and the role we can each play in ending it.

Karen’s Thoughts: In the song Mad Woman off of the Folklore album by Taylow Swift, Swift reminds us that they use to call women who stood up for themselves mad and burn them as witches. That is an underlining theme in The Burning as well. Anna and her mother leave to start a new life and it’s clear that something has happened. Over time we learn that Anna’s dad has died and in her grief, she developed an unhealthy relationship with a boy who shares her nudes with others. Her fresh start doesn’t go well when new people find those nudes and more. At the same time, Anna is researching for a local history project and learn about a historical woman in her new town who was burned for being a witch because she had a child out of wedlock. There is a lot going on in this book: mothers and daugthers, friendships, social media, feminism and more. But it’s all woven together in a really solid story that made me rage and then rejoice.

Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus

Publisher’s Book Description:

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

Karen’s Thoughts: Why do seemingly good people engage in horrific acts of violence? This is one of the main questions that Kraus tackles in this ultra violent novel that explores the depth of grief and loss and mixing in a bit of psychological manipulation and toxic masculinity. Nothing is ever as it seems in Bent Heavens and then there a mindblowing twist that turns everything on its head.

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?

Karen’s Thoughts: The prom novel is a tried and true staple of teen/young adult fiction. And here we get a joyful prom novel starring a Black main character that will make you laugh, make you cry, and warm your cold, dead 2020 heart. It’s everything you want in a ya novel and more.

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Publisher’s Book Description:

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

The story that I thought

was my life

didn’t start on the day

I was born


Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white.

The story that I think

will be my life

starts today


Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it?

With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both.

Karen’s Thoughts: A moving look at contemporary issues regarding systemic racism and the criminal justice system by someone who all too sadly knows about it from personal experience. Told in verse, this is such a moving and uncomfortable read. I love that it demonstrates the healing and expressive power of art while taking us on this journey. Like some of the best books out there, it takes an uncomfortable look at hard truths and it’s not always an easy read, but it’s a moving and necessary one.

We Are Not from Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Publisher’s Book Description:

A ripped-from-the-headlines novel of desperation, escape, and survival across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña have no false illusions about the town they’ve grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Though their families–both biological and found–create a warm community for them, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the three teens know they have no choice but to run: for the border, for the hope of freedom, and for their very lives.

Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico with their eyes on the U.S. border, they follow the route of La Bestia, a system of trains that promise the hope of freedom–if they are lucky enough to survive the harrowing journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and the desperation that courses through their very veins, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know that there’s no turning back, dangerous though the road ahead might be.

In this powerful story inspired by real–and current–events, the plight at our southern border is brought to painful, poignant life.

Karen’s Thoughts: Jenny Torres Sanchez is one of the best authors you’re probably not reading and this book is hands down her best one yet. It’s a ripped from the headlines Own Voices story about a group of teens fleeing Guatemala and trying to get to the sanctuary of the United States. We start out with an in depth look at their lives at home, to get an idea of what, exactly, they are fleeing and then take the harsh journey with them. This is such a painful book to read, and terrifying in its stark depiction of real life for so many, which is why it’s one of the best and most important books of our time. Well written, moving, and sadly necessary for our current times, everyone should read this book.

And there you have it, 20 of the best books I read in 2020. What do you think of my list? What books are on yours? Let’s talk about it in the comment.

Book Review: Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus

forest with reflection in lake and man silhouette; Shutterstock ID 418079275; Title: –

Publisher’s Book Description:

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

Karen’s Thoughts:

Every once in a while, you read a book that leaves you stunned. This was one of those books for me. It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that there were a couple of moments while I was reading this book that I sat the book down and ran out to the garage where The Mr. was working and said, “Holy crud, you won’t believe what just happened.” It was mind-blowing, jaw dropping and stunningly fascinating, in truly dark and twisted ways. I’m still thinking about this book days later.

If you’re not familiar with Daniel Kraus, he writes super dark YA that is like Stephen King on steroids. Rotters is about a young boy who goes to live with his dad who is a grave robber. Scowler is about the very true terror of domestic violence. Kraus is also the man behind the middle grade Trollhunters series, which you can see on Netflix (Thing 2 has watched the entire series). So he’s not all dark all the time, but his YA is very dark. And glorious.

Liv is dealing with the loss of a father who has the distinguished honor of being the town laughingstock, having claimed to have been abducted by aliens. He’s now missing, but no one believes he has been abducted by aliens and Liv is learning to live with the truth that he is probably dead. Then she discovers a creature that may just prove her dad wasn’t crazy after all. Now in possession of this creature, Liv and her childhood friend Doug takes matters into their own hands to try and clear her father’s name and what happens next is truly stunning. And disturbing.

In Bent Heavens, Kraus explores the nature of violence and asks one of the age old questions that come up frequently in horror and science fiction: just who, exactly, are the monsters? The answer to that question involves some very truly unsettling scenes. And although the answer to that question will surprise no one, the path Kraus weaves to get us there is unlike anything I’ve read in YA for quite some time.

Like truly great literature, Kraus challenges his readers to step into the darkness and confront the bitter truths of human nature. Along the way, he weaves a visceral tale that pulls back the current on small town politics, mental health stigmas, violence, grief, and anger. It’s a wild, uncomfortable and challenging ride through the darkest parts of human nature, and it will punch you in the gut. It touches on some other important and timely topics that I can’t mention here because I don’t want to give too much away. But everything that happens does so for a reason and readers will not be disappointed. It’s some great craftsmanship and storytelling.

I need you to read it so we can talk about it. Highly recommended.

This book comes out February, 25, 2020. I read a digital arc for this review.