It was a year of countless great books in the categories of young adult and middle-grade fiction and nonfiction, buoyed not only by content but by that all-important publishing mark of sales. "The children’s and Y.A. category grew by more than 196 percent in August," according to an Association of American Publishers report, outpacing adult literature sales by leaps and bounds. But even prior to that news there were signs this was shaping up to be an unprecedented year of Y.A., what with growing numbers of adults reading the books (helped along by the popularity of The Hunger Games, of course) and growing numbers of people writing about that trend (including here, in this column). NPR Books' summer poll of the year focused on Y.A., identifying 100 of the greatest teen novels ever. Of course, as with any list, there were plenty of people with differing opinions, and the ensuing debate was highly charged as to not only which books should take top honors but also which books even counted as teen reads.
As part of our Year in Review at The Atlantic Wire, we're honoring the many Y.A. and middle-grade books that mattered to our Y.A for Grownups column all year, this time with the help of an array of writerly and book-loving folks, including authors Eliot Schrefer, Ally Condie, Ruta Supetys, Andrea Cremer, and R.L. Stine, among others. It was hard to narrow down all the fantastic reads this year, and though Brooklyn librarian Rita Meade asked us, "Can I just say that since I'm a librarian, books are like my children and I couldn't possibly pick a favorite?" (we said yes), somehow we had to come up with a way to pay homage to the many books we loved. Hence, our awards categories. This is not to say these books don't all feature excellent prose, page-turning suspense, finely wrought realistic scenarios, powerful characters, or tearjerking power—nor that those listed below were the only ones that did—but these were the 33 books we most connected with in 2012, paired with what we see as their stand-out quality.
1. Best Prose. The Raven Boys, by Maggie Steifvater (Scholastic). As Tobias Carroll, managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, told us, Siefvater's "is a heady piece of work; there are smart observations about class intermingling with Big Ideas about destiny and history." (He recommends it for readers of "most anything by Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison," what with her "nicely surreal touches, and a couple of impressive structural moves that work damn near perfectly." Additional good news: It's only the first in a series. "Only time will tell how well some of the longer-term plotting pays off," he says, "but for now, I am well and truly hooked." Eliot Schrefer, author of the 2012 National Book Award finalist Endangered, seconds Carroll's pick, saying "Stiefvater has a gift for making her scenes specific and vivid. For young adult readers who have grown numb to fantasy conventions, this novel is gorgeous and intelligent and—best of all—original."
Honorable Mention to Fever, by Lauren Destefano (Simon & Schuster). Tahereh Mafi, author of Shatter Me and the forthcoming Unravel Me, says "Destefano writes like a true poet and lets her characters lead, never apologizing for the choices they make. This second installment is just as beautiful and haunting as the first."
3. Most Worthy of Our Tears. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Penguin). As Schrefer puts it, "Two teens with cancer fall in love. You will not make me cry, Mr. Green. You will not manipulate my emotions, Mr. Green. You will… wait, I’m crying. And I didn’t feel manipulated at all." This is my own personal favorite for the year as well, and all I can say is, read it, read it, read it. It is pretty damn near perfect, with moments both funny and heart-wrenching, sometimes both at the same time, and I second Schrefer's opinion: You do not feel manipulated, because it's simply not manipulative. Veronica Rossi, author of the Under the Never Sky trilogy, adds, "Green can make you laugh and cry in the span of a sentence and he’s at his very best in Stars. An unforgettable read." And Sandie Angulo Chen of Teen Lit Rocks agrees, too, saying, "My favorite book of the year is, like most serious readers of young adult literature, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Anyone who misguidedly claims that adults should only read adult books has never had the unmitigated joy and heartbreak of reading the expertly crafted, transformative words of Green's characters Hazel Grace and Augustus ... It's almost a shame that the novel came out in January, because it set the bar so impossibly high for the rest of the year."
Honorable Mentions to The Probability of Miracles, by Wendy Wunder (Razorbill Reprint) and Second Chance Summer, by Morgan Matson (Simon & Schuster). Sara Shepard, author of Pretty Little Liars, calls Miracles "an equally joyful and heart-wrenching look at illness, hope, and what it's like to work at Disney World. Definitely one of my favorites of the year." Of Second Chance Summer, Angulo Chen says, "I'm going to spread the love and give props to another realistic contemporary novel that tackles issues of cancer, love, and loss: It's about 17-year-old Taylor's last summer with her dying father in the summer home their family hasn't visited in several years. Matson authentically captures the overwhelming nature of grief and attempting to make the best of one final season as a complete family. Like The Fault in Our Stars, there's humor and romance and so much heart."
6. Best Not-Dystopian Read. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books). "I liked it mainly because it's not dystopian," says R.L. Stine of Goosebumps and Fear Street fame. "Also, it's peculiar, the characters are wonderful, the story is mysterious, and it has something to say."
7. Most Lyrical. Small Damages by Beth Kephart (Philomel). "National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart's stunning prose delivers a feast of a novel," says Ruta Sepetys, author of the best-selling Between Shades of Gray and the upcoming Out of the Easy. "Kenzie is 18. Her boyfriend is bound for Yale yet Kenzie is bound for Spain, where she will quietly deliver their baby, give it up for adoption, and then return as if nothing happened. At least that's what they had planned." (I loved this one, too.)
8. Most Wise. Every Day by David Levithan (Knopf). "This book—about someone who wakes up in a different body every day—should have been terrible," says Schrefer. "But instead it’s wonderful. The real attraction is the pearls of wisdom Levithan (confession: my editor) drums up about how novelty and reliability are both essential qualities of love, the sickness and the cure." Bonus points: Awesome cover.
9. Best Conclusion. Beautiful Redemption, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Little Brown). "A beautiful, powerful conclusion to an epic saga. I'm sorry to see it end, but what a way to go," says Mafi of the last book in the Beautiful Creatures series.
10. Most (Literally and Figuratively) Magical. Born Wicked, by Jessica Spotswood (Putnam). Nightshade author Andrea Cremer's top pick of the year involves "forbidden witchcraft, a feisty heroine, and smoldering romance: how could anyone resist this novel? A mesmerizing re-imagined historical setting and compelling characters make this tale of magic, love, and sisterhood my favorite Y.A. read of 2012!"
11. Most Deftly Handled. My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher (Little, Brown). "Ten-year-old Jamie Matthews tries to make sense of his twin sister's shocking death," says Sepetys. "Desperately real and heartwarming, Pitcher beautifully handles a difficult topic while capturing Jamie's innocent voice with sheer perfection."
12. Most Important. Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick (Balzer + Bray/Harper Teen). Schrefer says, "McCormick not only takes her readers into a foreign place (Cambodia), but also another time (the 1970s while the Khmer Rouge was in power). The result is a transporting and harrowing work that is instructive, cathartic, and emotionally real. What struck me most was the surprising last section, when our main character finds his new life in America nearly as daunting as the one he left behind."
13. Most Swoony. My Life Next Door, by Huntley Fitzpatrick (Dial). This is a favorite of mine as well; it's incredibly page-turning and romantic and fun. As Melissa Walker, author of Unbreak My Heart and other teen novels, explains, "This debut is sun-kissed and dream-filled, with one of the most realistic romantic builds of the year between Samantha and Jase, the boy who's always been right next door. If you haven't swooned in a while, this one'll do the trick." It's so goooood.
14. Best Stories to Keep Telling (or Reading). In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz (Penguin). "Not only is this book gloriously gory and fast-paced (perfect for reading aloud!), it is also beautifully written and full of unexpected and heartwarming moments," says Ally Condie, author of the Matched trilogy. "Gidwitz is such a fine storyteller, he made me feel like one too (my kids kept begging me for 'one more chapter' before bed)."
15. Best New Fantasy. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (Random House). WORD Brooklyn's Jenn Northington says, "Hartman manages to do something unique and exciting with the most common fantasy ingredients of all time (medieval setting + dragons)." Plus, "it's the start of a series, which means more of an already great thing!"
16. Best Read for Highly Literate Children. Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick). Recommended by In a Glass Grimmly author Adam Gidwitz, it's "a Victorian Gothic adventure, featuring a dying witch, a murderous puppeteer, and three very real, very brave children. The characters and the world are as rich as those created by Charles Dickens, but the tale is paced to take your breath away."
17. Most Page-Turning. Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma (Simon Pulse). "Told in alternating first person narratives, Suzuma delivers the desperate and shocking love story of siblings Lochan and Maya," says Sepetys. "Forbidden is a skillfully crafted beautiful disaster that is impossible to put down."
Honorable Mention for Angelfall, by Susan Ee (Amazon). Rossi says, "This story about angels in a post-apocalypse was compulsively readable. Surprising, action-packed and darker than most of what’s out there." (It's got a gorgeous cover, too.)
19. Best Slow Read. Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin (Little, Brown). Says Condie, "A book to savor, from the stories-within-the-story to the lovely illustrations, this gem of a tale is a worthy companion to Lin's award-winning Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."
20. Most Memorable/Re-readable. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion). "Everyone has been talking about this book, and rightly so—Wein has created something truly special in her characters, who live on long after the final page," says Condie. "The story is full of wonderful reveals—both those that are expected in the sense that you feel you know the characters and so you recognize the truth of what they do, and also those that are shocking and shattering in a masterful way."
Katherine Jacobs of Roaring Brook Press seconds this choice: "My favorite book of the year (and the very best thing I've read in a long time) is Code Name Verity. The writing is superb, the characters are vivid, and the story is exciting, surprising, and ultimately heart-wrenching," she says. "For weeks I couldn't think about it without tearing up. It's also completely different from anything else being published right now: it's historical fiction with no fantastical element and there's no love story. I finished it and went straight back to the beginning to read it again." Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone, adds, simply, "Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity wrecked me." (In the best way, of course.) Watch the trailer here.
21 and 22. The Retelling Award. For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund (HarperCollins) and Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson (Harper Teen). For Darkness is "a clever dystopian retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion," says Condie. "Peterfreund's world is fully realized and well-imagined." Margot Wood, who takes photos of imagined Y.A. covers, says of Tiger Lily, "Leave it to Jodi Lynn to take a story as sweet and playful as Peter Pan and make it gut-wrenching. This book, even though it's a 'retelling,' is completely original and wonderfully re-imagined. It takes a lot of the fantasy out of the story and replaces it with raw emotions and extremely realistic characters. Also, I applaud any young adult novel that can intertwine social commentary into a fantastical storyline without making being awkward about it. This is just a beautiful story."
23. Best Complicated Romance. The Difference Between You and Me, by Madeleine George (Viking). Walker describes it as such: "Two girls who are total opposites—combat boots dating kitten heels—share a secret love and find themselves on different sides of a political battle in their town. George's writing hits the heart in all the right places, questions of self-discovery are raised and handled deftly. Oh, and the kissing scenes are Hot."
24. Best Reality Check. Something Like Normal, by Trish Doller (Bloomsbury). Says Walker, "Just back from a tour in Afghanistan, Travis has to reframe his life with family, friends and a girl he used to know while his experiences in the Middle East play in his mind. Rough moments blend with tender ones to give this story a solid core of angst and healing with no easy fixes." Rossi calls this book "a nuanced portrayal of a young Marine’s struggle to readjust to life at home after serving in Afghanistan. Honest and beautifully told, I enjoyed every page."
25. Best Goth. Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House). Bardugo says it's "a charming, chilling gothic that totally took me by surprise. Now I spend my days stalking Sarah Rees Brennan's tumblr for news on the sequel," she says.
26. Best Book About Mean Girls. The List, by Siobhan Vivian (Scholastic). Shepard says, "Teenage cruelty is a well-mined topic, but Siobhan's pitch-perfect take on stereotypes, impressions, and the intensity of high school had me hooked." (I loved it, too, down to the twist ending.)
27. Best New Middle-Grade Series. Commercial Breaks, by P.G. Kain (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster). Walker calls this one "fast, funny and filled with insider details that make young readers feel like part of the crazy casting world. This series is like a reality TV show that's off the rails in a good way."
28. Best Middle-Grade Author to Re-read. Frances Hardinge. Bardugo says, "I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I'd never read Frances Hardinge before this year, but I just discovered her middle-grade fantasy, A Face Like Glass [out this year from Pan Macmillan], and I intend to snap up all her earlier books."
29 and 30. Favorite Follow-Ups. Hallowed, by Cynthia Hand (Harper Teen) and Crossed, by Ally Condie (Dutton). Mafi Hallowed calls "gorgeous and full of emotion. An excellent follow-up to what was one of my favorite debut novels of 2011." Of Crossed, she says, "Ally's writing is lovely, poetic, and charged, even in this last installment. I can't wait to see what she does next." (Reached is out now!)
31. Most Cinematic. Under the Never Sky, by Veronica Rossi (HarperCollins). "A fresh, innovative look at a post-apocalyptic world," says Mafi. "So artistically imagined; it's a cinematic debut."
32. Best Historical Fiction. Between Shades of Grey, by Ruta Sepetys (Speak). "Not since I read The Book Thief have I come upon another historical fiction novel that's had me so riveted," says Shepard. "Touching and powerful."
33. Best Y.A. Fiction About Politics and More. Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore (Dial). WORD Brooklyn's Molly Templeton says it best: Cashore "set the bar for her books pretty high with Graceling, but Bitterblue is bigger and better, and what I love about it‚ beyond the politics, the careful treatment of the question of what a country does to recover from a terribly brutal ruler, and the curiosity about how a person learns to lead and to tolerate what's been done by those who led before—is the way it's a book about love in so many forms. Love for a country, for a people; first love; careful love and complicated love; love of work, of adventure, of learning. Cashore's heart is on her sleeve and her story is a coming-of-age tale thick with political intrigue, magic, and secret codes. I love this book so much now that I can only imagine how passionately I would have felt about it when I was 15."
If we didn't pick one of your favorites, share it below, please. There was just so much good in Y.A. and kids literature this year ... we think this bodes well for 2013.