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Updated by Jen Blair on Dec 14, 2021
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Jen Blair Jen Blair
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Best Young Adult Books 2021

These are my favorite young adult books that I read in 2021.

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

In the Wild Light - Jeff Zentner

As I have stated before, Mr. Zentner, you owe me a box of Kleenex. No author consistently makes me cry harder. A book about grief, friendship, and family that will make you feel all the feels.

From the publisher:
Life in a small Appalachian town is not easy. Cash lost his mother to an opioid addiction and his Papaw is dying slowly from emphysema. Dodging drug dealers and watching out for his best friend, Delaney, is second nature. He's been spending his summer mowing lawns while she works at Dairy Queen.

But when Delaney manages to secure both of them full rides to an elite prep school in Connecticut, Cash will have to grapple with his need to protect and love Delaney, and his love for the grandparents who saved him and the town he would have to leave behind.

Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton

Blackout - Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon
Who are your favorite authors? These six women are definitely some of mine. And for them to write six separate, but interwoven, love stories? Forget it. I’m IN. Now I just need to find time to read it AGAIN.

From the publisher:
A summer heatwave blankets New York City in darkness. But as the city is thrown into confusion, a different kind of electricity sparks...

A first meeting.

Long-time friends.

Bitter exes.

And maybe the beginning of something new.

When the lights go out, people reveal hidden truths. Love blossoms, friendship transforms, and new possibilities take flight.

Chlorine Sky by Mahogany L. Browne

Chlorine Sky - Mahogany Browne

A gorgeous and powerful novel in verse about one girl’s discovery of her own worth. “If they box you out, make a new box.”

From the publisher:
Picked on at home, criticized for talking trash while beating boys at basketball, and always seen as less than her best friend, a girl struggles to like and accept herself.

Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Firekeeper’s Daughter - Angeline Boulley

The best combination of true-crime thriller and one young woman’s journey to understand her Native family traditions as well as her white family’s past. You hear about this book a lot. Because it’s just that good.

From the publisher:
Daunis, who is part Ojibwe, defers attending the University of Michigan to care for her mother and reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation of a series of drug-related deaths.

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I’ve Been - Tess Sharpe

Nora and her friends get caught up in a bank robbery gone wrong. What the bank robbers don’t know, is that Nora has been training for the long con her whole life. Do NOT mess with Nora.

From the publisher:
Nora O'Malley's been a lot of girls. As the daughter of a con-artist who targets criminal men, she grew up as her mother's protégé. But when mom fell for the mark instead of conning him, Nora pulled the ultimate con: escape. For five years Nora's been playing at normal. But she needs to dust off the skills she ditched because she has three problems: #1: Her ex walked in on her with her girlfriend. Even though they're all friends, Wes didn't know about her and Iris. #2: The morning after Wes finds them kissing, they all have to meet to deposit the fundraiser money they raised at the bank. It's a nightmare that goes from awkward to deadly, because: #3: Right after they enter bank, two guys start robbing it. The bank robbers may be trouble, but Nora's something else entirely. They have no idea who they're really holding hostage . . .

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love With the Universe - Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

Snarky bickering, swirling mysticism, respect and love for nature and culture, all lead to Moon’s discovery of her true self outside of her relationship with her twin sister. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I laughed and cried. Hard.

From the publisher:
When her twin sister reaches social media stardom, Moon Fuentez accepts her fate as the ugly, unwanted sister hidden in the background, destined to be nothing more than her sister’s camerawoman. But this summer, Moon also takes a job as the “merch girl” on a tour bus full of beautiful influencers and her fate begins to shift in the best way possible.

Most notable is her bunkmate and new nemesis, Santiago Phillips, who is grumpy, combative, and also the hottest guy Moon has ever seen.

Moon is certain she hates Santiago and that he hates her back. But as chance and destiny (and maybe, probably, close proximity) bring the two of them in each other’s perpetual paths, Moon starts to wonder if that’s really true. She even starts to question her destiny as the unnoticed, unloved wallflower she always thought she was.

Could this summer change Moon’s life as she knows it?

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon | Goodreads

Instructions for Dancing - Nicola Yoon

Nobody believes in romance more than Nicola Yoon. Nobody writes better romances than Nicola Yoon. But this ending? You’re not ready.

From the publisher:
Evie Thomas doesn't believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything--including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he's only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it's that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli

Kate in Waiting - Becky Albertalli

What happens when you and your best friend share everything and now you just want something for yourself? Theater geeks, annoying family members, adorable dogs, and witty, loyal friends abound. This is why we love Albertalli.

From the publisher:
Contrary to popular belief, best friends Kate Garfield and Anderson Walker are not codependent. Carpooling to and from theater rehearsals? Environmentally sound and efficient. Consulting each other on every single life decision? Basic good judgment. Pining for the same guys from afar? Shared crushes are more fun anyway. But when Kate and Andy's latest long-distance crush shows up at their school, everything goes off-script. Matt Olsson is talented and sweet, and Kate likes him. She really likes him. The only problem? So does Anderson. Turns out, communal crushes aren't so fun when real feelings are involved. This one might even bring the curtains down on Kate and Anderson's friendship.

Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson

Love is a Revolution - Renee Watson

Nala lies to get what she wants. But now that she has it, she starts to question who she is and what kind of human she wants to be. The relationships in this book are heart-rending, but true with young women who are wise and powerful beyond their years.

From the publisher:
When Nala Robertson reluctantly agrees to attend an open mic night for her cousin-sister-friend Imani's birthday, she finds herself falling in instant love with Tye Brown, the MC. He's perfect, except . . . Tye is an activist and is spending the summer putting on events for the community when Nala would rather watch movies and try out the new seasonal flavors at the local creamery. In order to impress Tye, Nala tells a few tiny lies to have enough in common with him. As they spend more time together, sharing more of themselves, some of those lies get harder to keep up. As Nala falls deeper into keeping up her lies and into love, she'll learn all the ways love is hard, and how self-love is revolutionary.

Pumpkin (Dumplin', #3) by Julie Murphy

Pumpkin - Julie Murphy

It’s a book by Julie Murphy so you don’t need to know anything else, because she is the master of vivid characters, sense of place, with joy that pops off the page, even when the story is about difficult subjects.

From the publisher:
Waylon Russell Brewer is a fat, openly gay boy stuck in the small West Texas town of Clover City. His plan is to bide his time until he can graduate, move to Austin with his twin sister, Clementine, and finally go Full Waylon so that he can live his Julie-the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music-Andrews truth.

So when Clementine deviates from their master plan right after Waylon gets dumped, he throws caution to the wind and creates an audition tape for his favorite TV drag show, Fiercest of Them All. What he doesn't count on is the tape getting accidentally shared with the entire school. . . . As a result, Waylon is nominated for prom queen as a joke. Clem's girlfriend, Hannah Perez, also receives a joke nomination for prom king.

Waylon and Hannah decide there's only one thing to do: run-and leave high school with a bang. A very glittery bang. Along the way, Waylon discovers that there is a lot more to running for prom court than campaign posters and plastic crowns, especially when he has to spend so much time with the very cute and infuriating prom king nominee Tucker Watson.

Waylon will need to learn that the best plan for tomorrow is living for today . . . especially with the help of some fellow queens. . . .

Tokyo Ever After (Tokyo Ever After, #1) by Emiko Jean

Tokyo Ever After - Emiko Jean

This fizzy, funny, and captivating book is one of the most perfect reads from last summer. Izumi appears to be a shallow American teen, but she is a fiercely loyal, good-hearted, caring feminist. And a princess. And there will be a sequel!

From the publisher:
Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in--it isn't easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. Raised by a single mother, it's always been Izumi--or Izzy, because "It's easier this way"--and her mom against the world. But then Izumi discovers a clue to her previously unknown father's identity...and he's none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess.

In a whirlwind, Izumi travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn't all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight.

Izumi soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself--back home, she was never "American" enough, and in Japan, she must prove she's "Japanese" enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairy tale, happily ever after?

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire - Joy McCullough

Em’s sister is a rape victim. Their family is a family of writers who always deal with difficult situations through words and their writing. But what if their words create more trauma? How can this family heal when there are no consequences for the actions of others? Yes, it’s hard. But you need this book in your life.

From the publisher:
Em Morales's older sister was raped by another student after a frat party. A jury eventually found the rapist guilty on all counts--a remarkable verdict that Em felt more than a little responsible for, since she was her sister's strongest advocate on social media during the trial. Her passion and outspokenness helped dissuade the DA from settling for a plea deal. Em's family would have real justice. But the victory is short-lived. In a matter of minutes, justice vanishes as the judge turns the Morales family's world upside down again by sentencing the rapist to no prison time. While her family is stunned, Em is literally sick with rage and guilt. To make matters worse, a news clip of her saying that the sentence makes her want to learn "how to use a sword" goes viral. From this low point, Em must find a new reason to go on and help her family heal, and she finds it in the unlikely form of the story of a fifteenth-century French noblewoman, Marguerite de Bressieux, who is legendary as an avenging knight for rape victims.

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

What Beauty There Is - Cory Anderson

Are children responsible for the mistakes of their parents? A harrowing, violent, heart-in-mouth ride that you will not be able to shake.

From the publisher:
Winter in Idaho. The sky is dark. It is cold enough to crack bones. Living in harsh poverty, Jack Dahl is holding his breath. He and his younger brother have nothing—except each other. With his father incarcerated and his mother addicted to opioids, Jack faces a stark choice: lose his brother to foster care or find the drug money that sent his father to prison. He chooses the money. Ava Bardem lives in isolation, a life of silence. For seventeen years Ava’s father, an abusive and merciless man, has controlled her fate. He has taught her to love no one. Now Victor Bardem is stalking the same money as Jack. When he picks up on Jack’s trail, Ava must make her own wrenching choice: remain silent or speak, and help the brothers survive. Choices. They come at a price.

When You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris

When You Look Like Us - Pamela N. Harris

When a girl goes missing, does her past behavior matter? If she’s the girlfriend of a drug dealer and she’s disappeared before, is she worth looking for? The police don’t think so, but her brother, Jay, does.

From the publisher:
When you look like us - brown skin, brown eyes, black braids or fades - everyone else thinks you're trouble. No one even blinks twice over a missing black girl from public housing because she must've brought whatever happened to her upon herself. I, Jay Murphy, can admit that, for a minute, I thought my sister Nicole just got caught up with her boyfriend'a drug dealer - and his friends. But she's been gone too long. Nic, where are you? If I hadn't hung up on her that night, she would be at our house, spending time with Grandma. If I was a better brother, she'd be finishing senior year instead of being another name on a missing persons list. It's time to step up, to do what the Newport News police department won't. Bring her home.

White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson

White Smoke - Tiffany D. Jackson

So creepy. I don’t like horror, but I like everything Tiffany D. Jackson has ever written. Including this scary (to me - probably not to you) story of a haunted house that wants this family to leave. Now.

From the publisher:
Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone.

But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.