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.” [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

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.