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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.

Sourcebooks Fire Week: When Are We Going to Stop Policing Girls Bodies? by Laura Bates

Today for Sourcebooks Fire week we have an excellent post by author Laura Bates. Laura Bates is the author of the forthcoming The Burning, a book which blew me and The Teen away when we read it. It’s a really solid addition to the canon of feminist YA titles and I look forward to everyone reading and talking about it.

Teenage girls’ bodies are under siege. Across the country and around the world, girls are being sent out of classrooms or sent home altogether because schools believe that a glimpse of their knees, or their collarbones, or shoulders, or (shock horror) a sliver of their bra strap is so unacceptable that it must be punished. Again and again, girls who are trying to learn are told that their education must suffer because “boys might get distracted” or “it’s not fair on male teachers”. But if you’ve got a school where boys are looking up girls’ skirts or male teachers are made to feel uncomfortable by the fact that teenagers have knees, then I’ve got news for you: the girls are not the problem.

Thankfully, girls are fighting back. “I am not a distraction”, one campaign powerfully points out. It feels like a very modern battle cry – a roar of frustration from girls in the 21st Century who are furious that their education is being compromised and nobody is listening. But this isn’t a modern problem.

Several hundred years ago, a wave of witchcraft trials swept across the world, and thousands of people (mostly women) were executed for a crime that doesn’t really exist. The witchcraft craze was sexist: it saw women as powerful and dangerous, their sexuality and bodies as something to be policed, and public hysteria a means to control them. They used a tool called a ‘scolds bridle’ – a metal torture device fitted over a woman’s head like a cage, with a sharp blade forced into her mouth to cut her tongue if she spoke. Women were forcibly, violently silenced. In other words, prejudice had devastating real-world consequences.

But how much has really changed? Having body parts isn’t a crime either, but we are still punishing girls for it. And it’s strange how we don’t seem concerned about boys’ knees or shoulders being on display.

Accused ‘witches’ found themselves trapped in an impossible situation. Forced into freezing cold water, they were considered innocent if they drowned, but if they floated they must have been saved by the devil or used their magic powers, so they were ‘proven’ to be witches and often executed. They were damned either way. And the same remains true for girls today. They live in a world that sends them a million pressurizing messages about their bodies, their clothes, their sexuality. Everything from music videos to magazines to television to social media bombards them with the message that their bodies are the sum-total of their worth. And then they arrive at school to have those same bodies shamed, censored and stigmatized. We’re taught that we only have value if we are ‘sexy’. Then we’re punished and shamed for being ‘too sexy’. You’re either a slut or you’re frigid. There’s no way to win. In the 17th Century, ‘witches’ were forced to wear a hair shirt and stand in front of the church congregation to be publicly humiliated. In the 21st Century, schools have ‘shame suits’ instead.

Women who were accused of being witches were tortured by being kept awake for days at a time. Thrown into jail cells, they were pricked with a long needle whenever they tried to fall asleep in a barbaric process called ‘waking the witch’. There was no escape, no break, no let up. Today the bars of those cages are virtual, but they exist all the same. There is no escape from the relentlessness of social media, from the painful pricks of hurtful comments and online abuse, flooding in 24 hours a day. In its own way, it is a new form of torture. And just like those brutal, centuries old techniques, the consequences can be fatal. 

The double standards back then were breathtaking. Men were terrified of women’s sexuality, with surviving records of witchcraft trials often making reference to fornication with the devil, or women who exerted strange and powerful control over men, making them act in ways they claimed not to be able to control. It might sound laughable now. But really, we are still making the same excuses for men: still punishing girls for boys’ transgressions. Girls who are harassed or even assaulted at school are repeatedly told they were ‘asking for it’ – blamed for what they were wearing, or where they were, or how they behaved. But we will never fix this problem unless we focus on perpetrators instead of victims. We’ve tried policing girls’ bodies for 400 years. It hasn’t worked. Isn’t it time we tried something else instead?

About THE BURNING by Laura Bates

A rumor is like fire.

Once a whore, always a whore.

Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Anna’s a slut.
We all know it’s true.

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 debut novel 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.

“In The Burning, Bates challenges us all to think deeply and critically about a lot of issues surrounding teen girls… Definitely recommended.” – Teen Librarian Toolbox

“A painfully realistic, spellbinding novel.” – Shelf Awareness

Book Review: The Burning by Laura Bates

Publisher’s Book Description:

A rumour is like a fire. You might think you’ve extinguished it but one creeping, red tendril, one single wisp of smoke is enough to let it leap back into life again. Especially if someone is watching, waiting to fan the flames …

New school.
Tick.
New town.
Tick.
New surname.
Tick.
Social media profiles?
Erased.

There’s nothing to trace Anna back to her old life. Nothing to link her to the ‘incident’.

At least that’s what she thinks … until the whispers start up again. As time begins to run out on her secrets, Anna finds herself irresistibly drawn to the tale of Maggie, a local girl accused of witchcraft centuries earlier. A girl whose story has terrifying parallels to Anna’s own…

The compelling YA debut from Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project and bestselling author of Girl Up.

Karen’s Thoughts:

The Burning is very much designed to be feminist literature that ties in several issues of today – slut shaming, revenge porn, female sexuality and reproductive rights – and links them to historical issues of the past, including witch burning. There was a time when my teen patrons couldn’t read enough books about witches and the witch trials of the past and I would have loved to have had this book to hand to them. It deftly draws a distinct line between the fervency of the witch trials to the patriarchy and the ways in which we try to repress, control and then shame female sexuality.

This book is set in Scotland and Anna and her mom have just moved to escape the intense slut shaming and bullying that Anna was receiving online and in real life. Soon after her father passed away Anna found herself in love, at least it felt like love, and over time with some grooming and intense pressure and emotional coercion, Anna shares some nudes with her boyfriend. When he asks for me she refuses and he retaliates by leaking what she has already shared in an act of revenge porn.

Revenge porn has been defined by the government as “the sharing of private, sexual materials, either photos or videos, of another person without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress.”

Source: Psych Central https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-is-revenge-porn/

While in her new home and new school, Anna begins researching for a local history assignment and learns of Maggie, a woman who appears to have been accused of witchcraft. Anna develops a strong interest in and seems to have an even stronger link to this young woman, and the parallels between what the two have been and are going through are inescapable.

Because the Internet is forever, Anna soon finds herself once again being tormented by her past. And as her torment escalates, she is drawn even more deeply into the web of history surrounding Maggie. The two events are weaved together and used to talk about the ways in which we have tried to control, shame, and eviscerate young girls who dare to embrace their sexuality. The Burning doesn’t fail to point out, either, the double standard that we hold for girls and boys when it comes to bodies, sex, or sexuality.

Issues touched on include the historical witch trials, sexting, revenge porn, deepfakes, reproductive rights, bullying, slut shaming, and LGBTQ representation. There are frank discussions about sex, nude photos, and pornography in this book, though I think they are all obviously necessary to the book and handled well.

There’s a lot to unpack and discuss in The Burning, which isn’t surprising given the author’s previous work and writings. Laura Bates is an unabashed feminist who founded the Everyday Sexism project in 2012. In The Burning, Bates challenges us all to think deeply and critically about a lot of issues surrounding teen girls. Towards the end of the book several characters make radical choices and powerful statements that made me cheer. Definitely recommended.

This book will be released April 7th, 2020 from Sourcefire Books. I read an ARC of this book and immediately handed it over to my teenage daughter so that we can talk about it.