ArticleReview

Eleven Standout YA Books for Curriculum, Read Aloud, or Classroom Libraries

Young adult literature continues to be fertile ground for an amazing range of books covering almost every subject imaginable. Below are quick reviews of the best eleven books that I read in the past year. These books are appropriate for middle school and/or high school readers. Not all these books were published in 2019, but all are enjoyable to read.

Young adult readers have diverse reading abilities and interests. So, while some of these books might be easier to read and less complex thematically, others may challenge even your strongest reader. Most are in between. Before recommending these books to students, it is a good idea for teachers to read these books themselves. That means hours of guilt-free reading in the shade this summer. Enjoy.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Opening Lines: “I can’t stop remembering the way things were back then. How my father hunted for our food. How he’d hang the deer in the garage to cure and how the deer’s legs would splay out when its belly was sliced open, its hooves pointy like a ballerina’s toes.”

Short Summary: At first, this seems like a book of short stories—really good ones. But halfway through the book, the characters’ lives have started to intertwine. The book takes place in Alaska with some characters trying to make a mark for themselves, some trying to hide or escape, some trapped where they are, and others running away. Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank all suffer the pain of being alive but are all welcomed into the grace of life too—often finding a place where they belong. I could give you more details—about the boy who falls overboard from the ferry or about the girl who is trying to figure out whether her skill as a dancer is more important than her love for fishing—but there is no way this summary can do the book justice. You just have to read it.

Why should I read this book? The sentences are beautiful. The scenes evoke feelings and places. But most of all, this is one of those rare books that captures the truth of the brokenness of the world we live in and also the breathtaking power of grace in our lives.

Who should read this book? High school students will get the most out of it. The more thoughtful and mature a student is, the more they are likely to get out of the book. It would be a good choice for any student who likes realistic fiction. This would be excellent as a read aloud and as an addition to a classroom library. Or, if you read it and think it fits your students, as a text to study with the whole class.

Is this book likely to be challenged? It is possible. It mentions domestic abuse, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy, but this is a book I would fight for. My guess is that you won’t have to, though. Nothing here is extreme, other than the quality of the writing.

Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher

Opening Lines: “The fact that life’s not fair doesn’t bother me. If the universe had distributed the IQ points allotted to my bio family evenly, we’d all dwell at the extreme low end of the range. But it made me ‘gifted’ and the rest of them . . . not so much. That might sound like bragging, but it’s . . . yeah, bragging; but hey, this is my story. If they see it differently, let them tell it.”

Short Summary: Annie has a verbally abusive, shoplifting biological mother, a drug-addicted sister who keeps getting involved with abusive boyfriends, and a toddler nephew named Frankie who is terrified of his life. Annie also has a foster family, friends, basketball teammates, and a book club. And her foster father wants her to stay away from her biological family. But it turns out that isn’t so easy, especially when Frankie disappears.

Why should I read this book? The best books put people who seem real to you, and who you care about, in really difficult situations where you can root for them. And complex problems become even more complex and then somehow work out in a way that is believable and satisfying. This book totally does that. And I would like to tell you about the school counselor and what he does that is amazingly cool, and about how there is reconciliation but also a time for leaving people out of your life, and about how the book made me feel—but you really need to discover this on your own. Instead, I will say these three things. First, you need to read this book. Seriously. You will really like it. Second, your high school class needs to read this book. Third, this book is in the top five books I have read this year.

Who should read this book? High school readers who like to read about sports, difficult relationships, and good people working to solve difficult problems will enjoy this book. This could work for studying in class, as a read aloud, or as a great addition to a classroom library.

Is this book likely to be challenged? Crutcher deals with real-life problems. You’ll find drug and alcohol dependency in this book, abusive relationships, and some vulgar language, just like in real life. But if anyone reads the whole book, I think they will agree that it is a positive book with a redemptive message in the end.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Opening Lines: “It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on). But if I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths” (from the introduction).

Short Summary: What Gaiman does in this book is breathtaking. He breathes new life into classic Norse myths.I was nervous when I began this book because I first encountered the Norse myths in the little library room of my church growing up. I loved the stories and characters. I worried that Gaiman would not be able to capture what I loved about those stories. But he got it exactly. In these pages, Thor is strong and brave but also a bit of a dunderhead—arrogant and easily fooled. Loki is a liar and a sneak, but he usually plays both sides against the middle, so you never quite know what he is up to. In these stories, the Norse gods do not always win. They are not always the strongest or the smartest. And that is what makes them so much fun to read.

Why should I read this book?

  1. Gaiman is an excellent storyteller.
  2. He is drawing from the original manuscripts—the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. That might not mean much to you, but these are the first written versions of these stories and they preserve the stories the way they are meant to be told.
  3. It is, essentially, a short-story collection in which every story has the same characters. It’s fun to read.
  4. Since Marvel’s Avengers movie series came out, every one of your students knows Thor and Loki. This is a great way to get them reading but also to get them to start to see that the stories they love are direct descendants of the classics.
  5. Bottom line: These stories are really fun to read—they have all the standard things you love in a story: desire, danger, deception, greed, loyalty, treason, power, love, hate, and more.

Who should read this book? Middle school students with a high level of interest in this area would love this book and could handle the vocabulary. High school students are probably the better audience in general. And readers who like fantasy fiction are more likely to connect with the book.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

Probably not. There is no explicit sex, vulgar language, or exaggerated violence. I suppose some might argue that they don’t want their child reading about another religion, but I would argue that these are not religious stories—they are more like a combination of folk tales and superhero stories. I cannot imagine anyone using these stories as the basis for worship.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Opening Line: “This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through the wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying” (from the prologue).

Short Summary: No one expected the University of Washington rowing crew to win anything. They were not from out east, where rowing crews like Harvard and Princeton had had decades of training and experience. They weren’t even from California, which at least seemed slightly more plausible. But the ragtag group of loggers’ sons, penniless scholars, orphans, and others had the advantages of an excellent coach, an amazing boat builder, and a love for what they did. They managed to win on both the west coast and the east coast and, eventually, to make it to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. In this book we get to know the members of the team, find out about their lives, and come to care for them so much that by the time they get to the Olympics, we are at the edge of our seats.

Why should I read this book? I am not a sports kind of guy. I don’t follow football. This is not supposed to be my kind of book, but I absolutely loved it. Brown does a great job of making the time period and the atmosphere come alive. The boys in the boat are fascinating, and you can’t help rooting for them with all your might. This book will really grab some of your students. Also, you’ll find a theme of persistence in the face of adversity and sometimes even unfair treatment. And I learned a lot about the sport of rowing. There is far more to it than I ever could have imagined. (And the audiobook version is excellent too.)

Who should read this book? This is actually a book for adults and was not specifically written for a young adult audience, but it will catch an extremely wide range of interests. It would be great for your classroom library, great to read aloud, and it would work well for a nonfiction literature circle (or even for whole-class study).

Is this book likely to be challenged? I wouldn’t think so. One character smokes and there are a few moments that glorify drinking and hint at partying behavior, but such references are vague. Most of the characters are upright young men.

Last Pick by Jason Walz

Opening Lines: “Three years ago—864 days, to be exact—billions of people between the ages of 16 and 65 were whisked away from us. And now this planet is lousy with aliens.”

Short Summary: Wyatt and Samantha are twins. Their parents were taken by aliens and now Sam and Wyatt are living in their old house, stealing food from the aliens, and trying to survive. Wyatt has high-functioning autism and has been cataloguing all the different aliens on the planet, their weaknesses and strengths. This is helpful to Sam as she slips in and out of alien warehouses, taking canned goods and sharing them with the elderly and the children who have been left behind. But the aliens are starting to take an interest in eliminating Sam and Wyatt. The other humans, though, know them both only by their code name, Bird One, and think of them as the leaders of the resistance. All Sam and Wyatt really want, though, is their parents back.

Why should I read this book? Plain and simple, this is just a really good story. Sam and Wyatt both have their own skill sets, but they work really well together. The aliens are depicted as vile but also as driven by a variety of different motivations. Some are lazy, vain, self-important, bureaucratic, or bungling. Walz has built a world that is believable on some level while simultaneously funny and entertaining.

The illustrations are neither overly like a caricature nor overly realistic. This book occupies the same space as superhero comics (though without the capes and muscles): just realistic enough to draw you in but unrealistic enough to be really fun. Also, this graphic novel presents a realistic portrayal of someone with autism and does so in a way that displays his value.

Who should read this book? Middle school readers are probably the target audience, but I would guess that high school students would also enjoy it. The protagonists are sixteen, but you assume they will age in the sequel. There are strong male and female characters in the book.

Is this book likely to be challenged? No.

Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson

Opening Lines: “It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache. This is what I was dreading.”

Short Summary: Melinda is beginning her freshman year at Merryweather High School. The summer before, she was assaulted at a party and called the police. Now she is being completely shunned—utterly locked out of every social interaction. This is the story of her deep struggle to survive and the story of what happens when she begins to find her voice.

Why should I read this book? This is the graphic novel version of Anderson’s powerful novel Speak. It is a wonderful adaptation. It isn’t exactly the same experience. The regular-text novel perhaps immerses the reader more completely in Melinda’s mind, but the graphic novel version lets you see her moving through a world in which students don’t acknowledge her. Somehow those visuals (the whole book is done in black, white, and grey) convey the despair and the uncaring ambivalence, as well as the awakening outrage and acknowledgement that this is not her fault. It is a powerful book.

Who should read this book? As the book deals with date-based assault and shunning, it is best for high school students. This could easily be a part of an English curriculum, but it would also be a good fit in either a classroom library or a school library.

Is this book likely to be challenged? It certainly has been challenged as a textbook, and I have no reason to suspect that the graphic novel version would be any different. Parents might object to discussions of sex but perhaps more likely to the way this book drags the ugly truth about sexual assault out into the light.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Opening Lines: “Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest. I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.”

Short Summary: Wade Watts lives in the world of 2044, where he has to hide in a van because the high-rise trailer park where he lives in a crowded apartment is unsafe. The world is pretty messed up, but Wade lives most of his life online in the OASIS, a virtual reality world where, as Parzival, he is on a quest to solve a contest developed by one of the creators of OASIS. Somewhere in the hundreds of worlds are challenges that will lead him to the greatest prize ever. Parzival is good at what he does, but he has a lot of competition, including his best friend, a girl he is in love with, and countless drones working for an evil corporation.

Why should I read this book? This is a book you can completely fall into. Cline’s worlds are believable, his good characters are sympathetic, and his bad guys are nicely evil. I love that Parzival has good friends to support him and that the good guys care about the contest for reasons other than material gain. Part of the idea of the contest is that James Halliday, the trillionaire who sets up the contest, is obsessed with the 1980s, so all the challenges involve ’80s trivia, ’80s videogames, or have some other connection to the ’80s. This adds a dimension of humor for those familiar with enough ’80s reruns and movies to get the references.

Who should read this book? With both male and female protagonists, this would be a good choice for any high school reader who likes action, relationships, and a bit of science fiction. It would be a great read aloud, but it could also be worthy of study by a literature circle or a larger group. This would work well for English class and could also be interesting for any class looking at the interaction of technology and society.

Is this book likely to be challenged? I would think that unlikely.

Rebound by Kwame Alexander

Opening Lines: “Looking Back / It was the summer / when Now and Laters / cost a nickel / and The Fantastic Four, / a buck. / When I met / Harriet Tubman / And the Harlem Globetrotters. / It was the hottest summer / after the coldest winter ever, / when a storm shattered / my home / into a million little pieces / and soaring above / the sorrow and grief / seemed impossible. / It was the summer of 1988 / when basketball gave me wings / and I had to learn / how to rebound / on the court. / And off.”

Short Summary: Charlie’s dad has died of a heart attack. Charlie’s mom is doing her best to hold things together. And Charlie hides in comic books and dreams of basketball glory. When Charlie and his friend Skinny steal some return bottles off an old lady’s porch and his mom finds out, things start to change for Charlie, but things may not be as bad as he thinks.

Why should I read this book? It’s simple. Read this book for page 414. Seriously. No, don’t read page 414 first. It won’t mean anything to you. Read the whole book first, and then when you come to page 414, it will hit you upside the head in the best way possible. If that isn’t enough to convince you, the poetry in this book is excellent, and the story and characters are wonderful. And the relationship between Charlie and this girl named CJ is delightfully satisfying.

Who should read this book? Students as young as fifth or sixth grade will like this book, but so will high school students.

Is this book likely to be challenged? Only by someone who has no heart, no awareness of justice, no interest in people, and wouldn’t know a good story if it dunked a basketball on their head.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Opening Line: “This is how I feel every single day of my life, like I’m falling without a parachute.”

Short Summary: Jordan Banks is twelve, and he is starting the year at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School. For the first time, Jordan is one of only a few African American kids in his school, and he is soon dealing with misunderstandings, macroaggressions, and assumptions—mostly by drawing cartoons in his notebook. This results in a smart and funny book that uses humor and references everything from Middle Earth to the Fantastic Four, allowing the reader to sympathize with, laugh with, and understand Jordan.

Why should I read this book? We live in a time where tensions run so high about racial relations that teachers and students alike are scared to address it in any way in class. But as Christians, we should understand that people of every culture are our brothers and sisters, we can’t afford to avoid the topic. This book does a fabulous job of using humor to broach important topics in a way that is non-threatening and provides openings for excellent discussions.

Who should read this book? OK, yes, the protagonist is in middle school. But high school teachers can’t let that stop them from considering using this book. It is just too good to ignore. It would be great to study as a class. Because it is a graphic novel, it is not a good choice for a read aloud, but it would be a great addition to a classroom or school library.

Is this book likely to be challenged? It isunlikely. The only basis I can imagine for such a challenge would be if parents are opposed to students discussing or learning about multicultural communication.

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Opening Lines: “C’mon, get behind the wheel. Now step on the brake. Ease it into drive. Alright, good. Now slowly take your foot off the bra—Jeepers Crow!”

Short Summary: In this powerful autobiographical graphic novel, Jarrett lives with his grandpa and grandma. His mom is a drug user, and his father a mystery. As Jarrett struggles to figure out himself, his family, and what he should do with his life, his mom comes in and out of the picture, but his grandparents, though quirky and opinionated, remain a constant and loving presence.

Why should I read this book? Krosoczka has written well over thirty graphic novels and has become a master of the format. It is easy to pass over his Lunch Lady series as entertaining fluff (though I would argue it is more than that), but he pours himself into this memoir. His early years with his mom are heartbreaking, his elementary years with his grandparents are slowly restorative, and his high school years are tumultuous, chaotic, and ultimately affirming.

Who should read this book? It is probably most ideal for high school students who will be able to understand the complexity of it. This book could be used in an English class, perhaps paired with another regular-text memoir. It could also be used in a P.E. class to show how health choices have major effects on family and community. And it would be a great addition to any high school library.

Is this book likely to be challenged? I wouldn’t say it is likely, but it is possible. Krosoczka’s grandparents are chain-smokers, the book talks about heroin dependency, and there is some vulgar language. Anyone willing to read to the end, though, will find it uplifting and will discover that the overall point of the book is that drugs erode community and responsibility and that family is where you find these things—two powerful and positive messages.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Opening Lines: “I might have to kill somebody tonight. It could be somebody I know. It could be a stranger. It could be somebody who’s never battled before. It could be somebody who’s a pro at it. It doesn’t matter how many punch lines they spit or how nice their flow is. I’ll have to kill them.”

Short Summary: Before her dad died, Bri and her famous dad used to write raps together. Now Bri has just had her first big success with a rap battle. She could be on the edge of something big. Bri has promised her aunt Pooh that she can be her manager. But when her father’s old manager (who is still connected but may have cheated her father) offers to help her make it to the big time, Bri is torn. Bri inhabits a very different world than did the main character of The Hate U Give (Thomas’s previous best-selling novel), but the common theme is that both girls get a chance to find their voices and discover how powerful those voices can be.

Why should I read this book? This book is an impressive follow up to The Hate U Give. While in the first book, the main character was trapped between a suburban world and a black neighborhood world, Bri is trapped between who she is and the way the world wants to see her. While this book is often trotted out as an important story for black adolescent girls, the fact is that its message about finding your voice and holding on to that voice in the face of market forces and a culture that wants to see you only one way is a message that is both timeless and universal.

Who should read this book? This book would be best for high school and would be a good choice for a classroom library or the focus of a literature circle. It seems best suited for an English class.

Is this book likely to be challenged? There is a lot of vulgar language so, yes, I would not be surprised if it was challenged in some communities.

Works Reviewed

Alexander, Kwame. Rebound. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak: The Graphic Novel. Illustrated by Emily Carroll. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018.

Brown, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Penguin, 2013.

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. HarperCollins, 2019.

Crutcher, Chris. Losers Bracket. Greenwillow Books, 2018.

Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. Norton, 2017.

Hitchcock, Bonnie-Sue. The Smell of Other People’s Houses. Ember, 2017.

Krosoczka, Jarrett J. Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction. Scholastic, 2018.

Thomas, Angie. On the Come Up.Balzer + Bray, 2019.

Walz, Jason. Last Pick. First Second, 2018.


Bill Boerman-Cornell is a professor of education at Trinity Christian College. His research focuses on young adult literature and how to use graphic novels in the classroom. He co-authored the book Graphic Novels in High School and Middle School Classrooms (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Dr. Boerman-Cornell’s next book, Using Graphic Novels in the English Language Arts Classroom, co-authored with Dr. Kim, will be published by Bloomsbury this September. He blogs about books at bookcommercials.wordpress.com.