The world of young adult literature continues to turn out some amazing novels and non-fiction with every new year. The following books are the best ones I have read in this past academic year. All are recent, though they span the last five years or so. While there continues to be a flood of good literature, like other media (movies, YouTube, television shows, and social media), vulgar language is becoming more commonplace, as are frank discussions of sexuality and increasing depictions of gender diversity. This is not surprising because one of the things literature has always done is try to accurately represent the world we live in. The following books all have strong themes worthy of discussion in your classroom. In each review, I will include information about content in the book that might result in parental challenges, depending on the school and community you serve.
Illegal, by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano (Jabberwocky, 2018)
Opening lines: “Now. Seahawk inflatable rubber dinghy. Maximum safe load, six people. Currently carrying 14 passengers.”
Genre and format: Realistic fiction graphic novel
Which academic disciplines could use this book? English and history
Quick Summary: Ebo’s brother, Kwame, left during the night. He is traveling on a dangerous journey from the refugee camp where they live to Europe, where he hopes to find their sister, Sisi, and bring her back. Ebo decides to go after him. To do so, he will have to cross the Sahara, evade bandits, and earn enough money to pay for bus rides and boat passage. And all Ebo has going for him is his ability to sing and his dedication to finding his family.
Why should I read this book? This graphic novel highlights the plight of illegal immigrants and refugees as they try to find those they have been separated from and a safe place to live. It does this by bringing us inside the lives, minds, and hearts of two brothers, and the story is both captivating and moving. The art is beautiful, but more importantly, it draws you so deeply into the story that you don’t notice its beauty as you get lost in Ebo’s world. If there is a story that would cause those who dismiss all immigrants as criminals and freeloaders looking for a handout to think again, this is that book. It shows Ebo and his siblings as deeply human and in need of help. Colfer brings a storytelling ability honed on writing the Artemis Fowl books to bear on an important issue of compassion and justice and shows that he can tell that story with seriousness and insight.
Who is this book best for? The short answer to this question is probably “everybody,” but I would say sixth grade and up could probably handle it best. This would fit well with language arts or social studies units focused on global issues. It would also be a great addition to a classroom or school library.
Is it likely to be challenged? I don’t think so, unless a particular parent would see the story as too political. It seems to me, however, that this is the sort of story that Christians need to read.
Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship,” by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt, 2019)
Opening lines: “September 17, 1940. Nighttime. In the mid-Atlantic Ocean, a German war submarine has an ocean liner in its sights. The U-boat commander and his crew have been following the ship all day. They are waiting for the right moment.”
Genre: Historical nonfiction
Which academic disciplines could use this book? History, English
Short summary: During World War II, when London was suffering the effects of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, one strategy to get children safely away from the danger was to send them to Canada in passenger liners. The SS City of Benares left England on a September day in 1940 escorted by British warships. They did not know they were being followed by a German submarine. When the escort ships left, the German U-boat torpedoed them, not knowing there were a hundred children aboard. The children and their caregivers soon found themselves in lifeboats and clinging to bits of refuge in the freezing North Atlantic water. The crew managed to get a distress signal sent. From that point on, it was a matter of survival for the children and a race against time for the rescuers.
Why should I read this book? The story is gripping. The research is strong. And besides humanizing the war, the book helps readers understand some of the difficulties that Britain was facing. The aerial bombing made staying put unsafe, but the submarines made escape an uncertain thing as well. There is heroism in this story, and plenty to grab a student’s attention—but there is also a fair amount of description of Heiligman’s research process which might energize some students to be excited about historical inquiry.
Who is this book best for? Sixth through twelfth graders—anyone who is interested in history, World War II, the evacuation of London, or learning to write a narrative. This would be great for a classroom or school library. It could also be a valuable supplementary reading to a WWII history unit.
Is it likely to be challenged? No.
Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion, 2021)
Opening lines: “In June, the June before Meryl Lee Kowalski’s eighth grade year, she watched the news reports from the Vietnam War: 23 American soldiers in a CH46A Sea Knight had helicoptered in to evacuate marines not far from Khe Sahn, South Vietnam. Their helicopter was hit by enemy fire and went down. Half the men were killed.”
Genre: Realistic fiction
Which academic disciplines could use this book? Primarily English. It could perhaps be used for a history class focusing on the 1960s, since the background of the story reflects what was happening in history at the time, but that is not its primary interest.
Short summary: Meryl Lee and Matt are both lost. Meryl Lee’s best friend died in an accident, and in an attempt to get her away from all the memories in her community, her parents have sent her to a boarding school where she feels very much out of place and without a home.
Matt has been on the run for most of his life. Stolen away from his parents at a young age and forced to work for a criminal gang, Matt only had one friend in the world. When that friend was killed by the leader of the gang, Matt stole a cache of money from the gang leader and has been on the run ever since. Every time he settles down and begins to feel part of a community, the gang leader’s men find him, and Matt knows that those he loves are in danger.
Both Meryl Lee and Matt are taken under the wing of the quirky headmistress of the school along with her friend (and aging suitor), a fishing boat captain. Meryl Lee is trying to fit in, find her purpose in life, and deal with the fact that her parents are separating. Matt can feel the danger from the gang getting closer. But both of them have found in each other a reason for staying put and fighting back.
Why should I read this book?: Gary Schmidt consistently delivers spellbinding stories that explore interesting themes. This book looks at how individuals contribute to and are blessed by communities, how a family can be a different thing for different people, and, at its root, what each person’s moral responsibility to change the world involves. It’s easy to sympathize with the characters, the story is consistently gripping, and the writing is brilliant and intriguing. This book has joy and sadness and hope and grief and vision in it.
Who is this book best for? While I think strong middle school readers would enjoy it, Just Like That seems best for high school students. This book has enough going on in it that it could easily be the focus of a whole class unit or could be considered in literature circles. It would be a great read-aloud book for high school English classes (for ten minutes every Friday, for example) or a good choice for a classroom or whole school library.
Is it likely to be challenged? I wouldn’t think so. But if it were challenged, this book is worth fighting for. Your students need to read this.
Bill Boerman-Cornell is a Professor of Education and English at Trinity Christian College. He has written two books: Graphic Novels in High School and Middle School Classrooms, and Using Graphic Novels in the English Language Arts Classroom. You can follow his book reviews at bookcommercials.wordpress.com and see what he has been reading lately at Instagram bbc_onbooks.