Tag Archives: YA books

My Top Ten Books of the 2020-2021 School Year

This year has been a long one, but one thing that went well is the amount of reading my students and I did. As of today, I have finished 69 books, and I still have about three weeks to go. Find calling a title a “favorite” is difficult for me, I have narrowed down my list to a “top ten.” The order below depends on the day. (I’ve already changed it at least 12 times, and there are other titles I’m reading now that could have made the cut.)

10. Starfish by Lisa Fipps (realistic fiction in verse)



 These are just some the awful nicknames Ellie hears often from an early age, even from her own mother. It seems almost everyone in her life believes her weight is a problem, except her father. Her mother hides her food and makes her try various diets, and even considers bariatric surgery. At school, no one sticks up for her, especially after her best friend Viv moves away. Ellie knows she must follow her self-created Fat Girl Rules if she wants to survive, and she does. Ellie has her pool, where she can be a starfish and just float, a place where she’s weightless. After a particularly horrible incident at school, Ellie’s dad takes her to see a therapist, who helps her begin to heal, as well as use her gorgeous, powerful voice.

I’ll truly never forget Ellie. She’s a beautiful human being, inside and out. An empowering book to teach all readers that size doesn’t matter, as well as how debilitating words can be.

9. Grown by Tiffany Jackson (mystery)

17-year-old Enchanted Jones wants to be a famous singer, so when the legendary R&B superstar Korey Fields sees her audition one night, he immediately takes her under his wing. Months later, Enchanted wakes up groggy with blood all over her, and Korey Fields is lying next to her, dead. What follows is what happened before the murder: an inside look into what Enchanted thought would be her dream come true. Instead, she was sucked into a hell she couldn’t get out of, no matter what she, or her parents, attempted to do.

Another gripping read from Tiffany Jackson! This story was oh so difficult to read, for Jackson doesn’t hold back on the descriptive details when it comes to the horrific abuse Enchanted suffered through. But, this story must be read. It must be shared. Time for some tough conversations about rape culture and older men who prey on teenage girls.

8. We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (historical fiction)

14 Japanese American teens weave a story together, starting three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 14-year-old Minnow begins with the harsh, appalling racism that many Japanese-Americans faced during this time. Soon executive orders are given, and anyone of Japanese decent, including those that look Japanese but aren’t, are rounded up and sent to internment camps. At times, the teens stay strong, for they have each other. Other times, they witness such atrocities that they don’t know how to go on.

This book taught me so much, from the stories, to the photos, to the author’s note. Yes, I knew about the internment camps, but Traci Chee made me feel like I was there. I cried, I laughed, and I even felt anger and shame, for so many Americans committed such horrific acts against their own people.

7. Stamped (for Kids) adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul (nonfiction)

“RACE. Uh-oh. The R-word.” This nonfiction title, which is adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul from Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, tells the 400+ year story of racism in America in a way young readers can understand. My son, who’s 11, and my daughter, who’s 9, both understood the majority of it and had a lot of great questions. By the end, it was my children telling me they learned so much. More importantly, they want to learn more.

6. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (nonfiction)

It began in August of 2019, when the first 20 enslaved African men and women were delivered in Jamestown, Virginia. What follows in 400 years of true African American history, oppression, struggles, and achievements, from the British ships that stole Africans from their homeland to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. This collection of 90 essays and poems–edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain and written by many famous historians, scholars, and poets–tell the real stories. The ones that our white-washed history textbooks left out. “But as the narratives in Four Hundred Souls reveal, Black people have never stopped dreaming, or fighting for those dreams to become a reality.” These stories capture “a spirit of determination,” as Blain stated. These 90 powerful pieces share how much Black people have overcome, as well as how much work still needs to be done.

5. Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden (realistic fiction)

Meet Libby. She is a budding artist who is tired of most people–teachers, classmates, and neighbors–assuming she is a bully just like the rest of her family. In fact, Libby is far from it, and she knows it. To prove this to herself, she uses her artistic ability to make colorful notecards with positive messages on them, and leaves them for others to find. Little does she know that her words set off a chain reaction that will lift up three other kids who need her encouragement at that time.

Libby and the three other children are all unique and imperfect, but there’s so much to love about each of them. This powerful book that will encourage readers to pay it forward. My own two children created notecards just like Libby did and posted them around our neighborhood.

4. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee (nonfiction)

Heather McGhee, an expert in economic and social policy, shares why the economy often fails its people. After extensive research into many aspects of it, she found one root problem: racism. Though many of us may not realize it, over centuries, racism has seeped into every aspect of our lives. They’re all interconnected, from public education, to integration, to the housing market. The question is, can we fix this? McGhee argues yes. She introduces the zero-sum policy–the idea that progress for some must come at the expense of others–and proves it wrong. McGhee’s compassionate, yet honest account introduces us to the tremendous challenges our country still faces. Racism has cost us so much, but reminds us that there is reason for hope. We can still prosper together, and honestly, we have no other choice right now. As McGhee says, “We need to refill the public pool of good for everyone.”

3. Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (realistic fiction)

17-year-old Maverick Carter is the proud son of King Lord legend, Adonis Carter. Life in Garden Heights isn’t easy, but Maverick has a smart, beautiful girlfriend, and a cousin who is more like a brother. He doesn’t want to sell drugs, but when he finds out he is a father himself, he doesn’t have a choice. He’s got to provide for his son, for money is tight at home, even with his mother working two jobs. After getting a part-time job at a local store, Maverick begins realizing that being a King Lord is keeping him from being the man, boyfriend, and father he needs (and wants) to be. But you can’t just leave the King Lords, and his part-time job doesn’t pay what selling drugs does. But just when Maverick thinks he has the right plan, a murder in the Garden changes everything.

I finished this book within 24 hours! Maverick’s story is beautiful, powerful, and oh so important. I loved seeing all of the connections to The Hate U Give, and even to another YA author’s book as well (see if you can find it!). You’ll fall in love with Big Mav all over again, and you’ll have that much more sympathy for him when he makes mistakes, and sometimes learns from them.

2. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

Award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson introduces readers to the American caste system, “a rigid hierarchy of human rankings” that’s hidden under race and class. Wilkerson masterfully links our caste system with those of Nazi Germany and India, often showing how the American caste system influenced theirs. She explains the cruel logic of caste, for there must always be a “bottom rung” that’s subjected to little respect, and rarely gets the benefit of the doubt and access to important resources. It’s a cruel system that shows what Black people are truly up against.

Wow. Where do I even start? Wilkerson’s research is quite extensive; she weaves facts in with engrossing stories from real people, like Satchel Paige, Dr. King, people she interviews, and many of her own, showing the numerous ways caste is experienced every single day. Oprah’s right: “This is required reading for all of humanity.”

1. In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (realistic fiction) 

Cash Pruitt lives in Sawyer, Tennessee, a small town filled with gorgeous rivers and rolling hills, but also addiction. He already lost his mother to drugs, and his Papaw is dying from emphysema. The only positive that addiction brought into his life is Delaney Doyle. She’s a scientist at heart who teaches Cash so much about the world. They provide one another distractions, and are each other’s lifelines.

On one of their trips into the wild, Delaney makes a scientific discovery that changes their lives: she earns both Cash and herself full scholarships to a Connecticut boarding school. Deciding to go, Cash can’t help but wonder what this school will do for him. His experience ends up being more than he could ever have imagined.

This book truly has it all! I laughed, cried, and took about eight pages of notes because of all the beautiful language I wanted to save. Jeff Zentner has a remarkable talent for creating realistic, lovely, unforgettable characters. I fell in love with so many of them for the oddest of reasons. Zentner has truly outdone himself, for this is a literary masterpiece. Be sure to grab a copy when it comes out in August.

So that’s my top ten of this school year. I would love to hear what others are reading (and loving), so please share your favorite(s) in a comment below.

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 19th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.


Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

persepolisIn honor of ALA’s recently released 2014 Banned Books List, I can’t help but recommend the second most banned book Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.   Persepolis was one of the three graphic novels that made the top ten list this year. The book is criticized for its use of gambling, offensive language, and political viewpoints as well as for being “politically, racially, and socially offensive” and for having “graphic depictions.” In reality, this graphic memoir isn’t afraid to tackle the horrifying and at times comedic realities of growing up in a community faced with political turmoil. After all, Satrapi wanted readers to recognize that Iranians are normal people, just like everyone else. They enjoy music and parties and clothes; the difference is that the characters in Persepolis are living during the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi begins her narrative at six years old, relaying the stories of every day life as the Shah’s regime is overthrown, the Islamic Revolution takes hold, and the war with Iraq destroys her community.

What I love most about Persepolis is its ability to attract my reluctant readers, particularly my students who would otherwise steer clear of the international shelf in my classroom library. These students are drawn to the simple black-and-white cartoons and the rebellious teen protagonist. They love her quirky sense of humor and her obsession with American music icons like Michael Jackson. Like many of our students, she is an angsty teen coming of age. The difference is that she grows up during political conflict and war. Her world is changing around her, war has becomes standard, and she, as a teenager, is attempting to find normality in completely abnormal circumstances. But it’s Marji’s ability to navigate this morbid world and go through complex transformations that make her come alive on the page.

I tend to use graphic novels towards the beginning of the year when my students are becoming acclimated to analyzing writer’s craft (or even when they need a refresher on it). Oftentimes students are more in tune to looking at the details of drawings than of writing; they find it easier to pick out the eccentricities of images yet rarely do they question why the artist made the choices they did. Graphic novels give them the opportunity to do just this.

I have students work in small groups to analyze the artistic decisions of the illustrator. For example, in Persepolisthe scene to the right, Marji has been taken into custody by the Women’s Branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, a group in charge of monitoring women’s wearing of the veil. When they stop to study the images, students notice the repetitive stern expression of the guardian and the way Marji’s face appears to melt into squiggly lines as the frames progress. They notice the transition of the lines surrounding the word bubbles from smooth curved lines to sharp zig-zags. They recognize changes in font size and effects as well as the underlying narrative strand at the bottom of the frame that shows internal dialogue. As they analyze these details, they also begin questioning the choices that lead to the depictions of these conversations and emotions and what they ultimately mean in the context of the story. By the end, the graphics take on a more complex tone. The images come alive, the artist’s intentions become clearer, and they have immersed themselves in a new lens that allows them to take a second look at literature.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Panic by Lauren Oliver

ReelReading2Many of my female students love her Delirium series, and I am happy to say that maybe even some of my guys will take on Panic, Lauren Oliver’s newest title.

The topic is FEAR.

I haven’t read very far, but I have read enough to know I like this narrative voice. I especially like that I can share it with my students by using this video where Lauren Oliver reads them the first chapter.

Cannot get any cooler than that.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Summer YA Book Trailers

20130207-190708Pinterest, I love thee!

I didn’t think I would, but when my daughter told me that people were refurbishing and painting “old and ugly furniture like you have in the house, and you can learn how to do it on Pinterest,” I took a peek.

Yeah, ideas galore. (I even took my daughter’s advice, and who knew I could paint such beautiful furniture?)

But, here’s the thing:  There are boards for almost Everything. Even Summer Reading ideas for YA.

Oh, yes, please!

So, #ReelReading will take a break until school starts up next fall, and in the mean time– go check out this awesome board. I’m sharing it with my students next week.


Reel Reading: A Child Called ‘It’

20130207-190708.jpgI’d love to get my students to do some of this cool typography. Since they will be making their book trailers this week, I wanted to show them this option for their creations.

I’ve had great success getting even the most reluctant readers to read A Child Called ‘It’ by Dave Pelzer.

See? Isn’t all that letter and word movement cool?

If students like the topic of abuse (which I don’t quite understand), they might also like Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. I haven’t seen the movie, but this trailer looks like it’s pretty well done.

Maybe next time I’ll look for happy topics.

Sheesh, Amy. This is depressing stuff.

Reel Reading– Zombie Lovers Beware

20130207-190708I hate a love/hate relationship with zombies. I love the man and boys in my house who love “The Walking Dead;” I kind of hate that the whole zombie deal has infected their thinking as to what makes good entertainment on Sunday night. Nevertheless, my guys love it, and I spend the evenings on the downstairs couch with a good book, usually about anything but zombies. Usually.

Then, I got this zombie-project idea from a colleague, and I must admit, I am a bit fascinated. My students are, too. Two book trailers that got our attention this week? The Enemy by Charlie Higson and Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry.


Do you know of other zombie books students love?

Whew! It’s (Still) Monday! What Are You Reading?

Heather and I talk a lot about our work, and we talk a lot about what to write on this blog. We set goals. We schedule posts. Sometimes we do okay, and sometimes we simply (or not so simply) let the demands of school and home and family get in the way of what we really want to do here. In an attempt to DO BETTER, we are going to join the It”s Monday! What Are You Reading? meme.

If you look at the Book Journey blog, you can see the original idea, but really, it’s all about sharing books and outlining a weekly plan for reading. Our stacks of To-Be-Read Piles rival any of yours, but this is a little different. We’re actually going to commit to what we are reaching to read during any given week. By doing so, we can show our students that readers have a plan. Readers know what they will read next. It’s not just a willy-nilly wandering through the stacks of a library. (My students think this is the same as having a plan.)

Our friends over at Teach Mentor Texts host their own version of It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? with their focus on #kidlit — book reviews and suggestions for children’s literature from pictures books to all things YA. We’re going to tag along here for a while.  So. . .

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I love dystopian novels:  Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and this is a genre that lots of teens enjoy reading. Of all YA books, I’ll choose dystopian over any other. Three of my favorites, all of which are the first in a series (added bonus with kids and reading) and have been around awhile:

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Matched by Allie Condie

Divergent by Veronica Roth

This past week I read the ARC of Revolution 19 by Gregg Rosenblum. Interesting. Not quite 13667361as engaging as some others. The concept is I-Robot–ish. Robots have taken over society in an attempt to save humans from themselves. The character development was pretty good:  three siblings and a couple of friends. I guess the thing that weakened the appeal was the dialogue. I thought it was boring–real as in what kids actually say to their parents and one another but boring. Overall, I give it three of those five gold stars.

This week I am reading another ARC:  The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist. I am not positive it’s dystopian, but I have a pretty good idea based on these last few sentences from chapter one:

15721645“We heard Irene and stopped whispering. She came in, turned out the light, and bet over each of our cots in turn. First Isobel, then Caroline, then Eleanor, then me, leaning close to my face and whispering. ‘Go to sleep, Veronika.’

Then she pushed the spot behind my ear, with a click, like always, and I did.”

What’s next? I plan on tackling the pile of dystopian books I haven’t read yet. Some students are helping me sort and categorize the book shelves in my classroom. For now, we have labels taped around the whiteboard rails around the room and stacks of books beneath them. The dystopian stack is the tallest right after Teen Angst. I’d rather not tackle that stack for a while, but that’s just me rebelling against the teen angst I deal with every single day.

I’d love to know your favorite dystopian reads. Please leave your book suggestions in the comments.

If You Can Talk About a Book, You’re Not an Average Kid

I wish the library had a door that had one of those big misting foggers. You know, the ones at Six Flags in the summer where the water gently washes over all the sweat and grime of a hot day at the park? I’d like a mister to wash away all the negative feelings my students have about books–or at least dilute it, so I have a chance to baptize the kiddos into the wonder of the written word. So far they fight me like they are scared of water.

I don’t get it. My students are 14 years old. When have they ever been exposed to books enough to know that they hate them? Couldn’t be those evil slacking middle school teachers, could it? The ones some of my colleagues complain about: “What do they DO in middle school? These kids don’t know a thing!” Or, maybe the problem goes back to elementary: “If we don’t get this book read, we won’t get to play outside.” Hmmm.

Now, before teachers in lower grades than me get in a tizzy, let me be clear:  I KNOW you work your tired feet to the achy-breaky bone. I am sure at the end of the day, you are as weeping weary as I am. I am quite simply trying to figure this reading thing out. There has to be a reason why my freshmen hate books.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and here’s what I think:

1. My kids only think they hate books. They don’t really hate them because they haven’t read enough to know if they like to read or not.

2. My kids think that reading is not cool. The experiences that they’ve had with books in the past have not been positive enough to make them risk the “nerd” factor in high school.

3. My kids will never love books if I (and teachers like me) don’t show them that there’s something to love between the pages.

4. My kids are lacking reading role models. Few in their families are readers, so they have no idea of what a reader does, or what she says.

This is where my job gets real. Real life can change for my kids, if I can get them to read.

How do I present scenarios that show the advantages readers have over non-readers? How do I introduce them to stories that mirror life and non-fiction that expands their world? Because their world is often the 10 square blocks in which they go to school, shop, play, and live.

First, I have to talk about books. I have to talk about books ALL THE TIME. Seems like for the past two years I’ve started off the year quite well. I line my whiteboard shelves with new YA titles and hold one up for a book talk every day for the first two weeks. Without exception, every book I’ve introduced is in a kid’s hand by the end of the day. Why do I stop? Why do I let the testing trolls make me think that practicing other skills is more important that independent reading? I must stop their incessant mutterings.

Next, I have to hold students accountable for their reading. I’ve tried Let’s Read the Most Books Contests between classes. They don’t care. I’ve tried threatening “If you don’t read, you’ll fail.’ They don’t care. I have to somehow change my idea of accountability. It’s not like I ever have to record a grade because a kid read a book. Wouldn’t it be better if I just found out that a child enjoyed reading it?

A teacher friend suggested I conduct Book Chats like she does. While the majority of the class reads silently, she asks one student at a time to come sit in the “blue” chair where she asks specific questions about the book they are reading. She says students clamor for the opportunity to have one-on-one time with her. I see the value in this. In my classes of 30 plus students, the teacher-to-student ratio prohibits much individualized talk. I bet I can learn a great deal about my students if I sit and talk with them. Maybe saying we’re talking about books is how I’ll give myself permission to take the time. And maybe through these conversations, kids will come to know that reading is cool because if you can talk about a book with a teacher, you’re not just an average kid.

Finally, I need to read more. Seems funny because I read ALL THE TIME. Ask anyone who knows me. I just don’t read the kinds of books that my students will get lost in: those urban settings with real-life teen scenarios. I work with teens all day, I don’t really want to read about their [drug, sex, gang, crime] lives outside of school.

But I will.

I will if it will help me match books to students’ interests. I will if it will help me show kids that books can help them solve their problems. I will if I can get kids to stop saying they hate books.

Honestly, I wish I would have had a teacher who loved books as much as I do. Maybe I did, but she never invited me to have a chat about reading. She never showered me with book ideas or helped me see myself through the voice of a character. I would have camped out in that blue chair and counted the minutes until we could talk.

Who knows? Maybe my plans are too simplistic. Maybe the classroom library I’ve built will continue to gather dust, and my head will get mushy with too many teen stories, but guess what? There is no magical misting device that’s going to wash away students’ negative feelings towards books. There’s nothing that’s going to convince them that books contain knowledge and learning and friends. If my students are going to have a chance at all of learning to love books, it’s going to have to be me talking about titles and chatting about characters.

I am up for the challenge, and it begins now: I’ve got 55 new YA books in the trunk of my car. It’s time to get reading!

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