#1 A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly: Grace Brown's body is discovered, and her murder, which also inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is the framework for this ambitious, beautifully written coming-of-age story set in upstate New York in 1906. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is a waitress at the Glenmore Hotel when Brown is murdered. As she learns Brown's story, her narrative shifts between the goings-on at the hotel and her previous year at home: her toil at the farm; her relationship with her harsh, remote father; her pain at being forbidden to accept a college scholarship. "Plain and bookish,"Mattie is thrilled about, but wary of, a handsome neighbor's attentions, and she wonders if she must give up her dream of writing if she marries. In an intelligent, colloquial voice that speaks with a writer's love of language and an observant eye, Mattie details the physical particulars of people's lives as well as deeper issues of race, class, and gender as she strains against family and societal limitations. Donnelly adds a crowd of intriguing, well-drawn secondary characters whose stories help Mattie define her own desires and sense of self. Many teens will connect with Mattie's deep yearning for independence and for stories, like her own, that are frank, messy, complicated, and inspiring.
#2 Mexican Whiteboy, Matt de la Pena: Biracial Danny Lopez doesn’t think he fits anywhere. He feels like an outsider with his Mexican father’s family, with whom he is staying for the summer, and at his mostly white school, and he wonders if his confusion drove his father away. He also struggles with his obsession for baseball; a gifted player with a blazing fastball, he lacks control of his game. With the support of a new friend and his caring cousins, Danny begins to deal with the multitude of problems in his life, which include his tendency to cut himself, an unusual characteristic in a male YA protagonist. The author juggles his many plotlines well, and the portrayal of Danny’s friends and neighborhood is rich and lively. Where the story really lights up is in the baseball scenes, which sizzle like Danny’s fastball. A violent scene, left somewhat unresolved, is the catalyst for him to confront the truth about his father. Danny’s struggle to find his place will speak strongly to all teens but especially to those of mixed race.
#3 Glass, Ellen Hopkins: In this sequel to Crank (2004), teenage Kristina has overcome her crystal meth addiction and given birth to a baby conceived during a rape. Living with her family in Reno, studying for her GED, and caring for her infant, she feels like she’s drowning “in a deep well of monotony.” Rationalizing that she will “remain in control,” she starts using meth again and realizes that her addiction may be “a forever kind of thing.” Hopkins’ signature style of disjointed free verse is well suited to the voice of a drug-using teen. The lines of text, which zigzag between columns and occasionally form concrete poems, mimic both a high’s flight and crash and Kristina’s swings between crushing guilt and obliterating cravings. The tragic push-pull also plays out in Kristina’s relationships with two men, both users, with whom she experiences (explicitly described) sex, love, and abuse. Heartrending and intimately honest, Hopkins’ novel, based on her own daughter’s experiences, reveals addiction’s brutality but also honors a young person’s capacity to face injurious, life-altering choices with courage.
#4 How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Natalie Standiford:When Bea's professor father takes a new position, she starts her senior year "in a new city at a small private school where all the other kids had known each other since they were three." Bea's wooden compliance with the move (and life's imperfections in general) leads her mother to dub her a robot. Still, Bea manages to connect with Jonah, a prickly fellow insomniac, while also making inroads into the (refreshingly sympathetic) popular crowd. Bea and Jonah bond over a late-night radio show, but their friendship truly starts when Jonah discovers that his brain-damaged twin brother, who supposedly died in a car crash with their mother when the boys were in third grade, is actually alive and institutionalized -- and Jonah enlists Bea's help in bringing his brother back into his life. Standiford realistically depicts both the social intricacies of a small school and the emotional nuances of two dysfunctional families. Her characters are unusually true-to-life as, caught up in the intensity of their present, they fumble toward fully formed identities and fulfilling relationships.
#5 Candor, Pam Bachorz: In the town of Candor, soothing music plays everywhere, and every kid is perfect, well-mannered, and deliriously focused. Of course, that’s because the music is layered with subliminal messages that burrow deep into the subconscious (so deep that leaving Candor without an iPod rigged with supportive music leads to fatal withdrawal). Oscar, son of the town’s founder, is wise to his father’s tricks and runs a black-market counter-message system that helps teens escape Candor’s clutches. His carefully constructed model-son shell and subversive malcontent core get shaken when Nia, who’s as gorgeous as she is rebellious, moves into town. Oscar’s dilemma is clear: keep her in town, where she’ll ultimately become like everyone else, or help her escape and lose her altogether. Enforced conformity is obviously a potent metaphor for teenagers and a terrific seed for a dystopian novel, but readers may have to occasionally make the leap from suspending disbelief to abandoning all logic. Still, there is much to ponder here, and many teens will find more than a few scary reflections from the streets of Candor.