YA FICTION: Fall 2020

There are ten books listed here.  Each of these stories reveal the tensions and struggles of adolescent characters being true to themselves their convictions and their dreams. Any two of these titles could be matched up not only because the protagonists might have something in common with each other, but each bring meaning to the word ‘resilience’.   Three titles are centred around characters in prison, each falsely accused of crimes they did not commit. Three titles feature Black characters.  Three titles deal with classism.  Three titles are sequels.  All titles deserve 4 stars. And how exciting to be able to post a list that has new titles by three favourite CANADIAN authors (Deborah Ellis, Heather Smith, Eric Walters). One title is a poetry anthology gem by Naomi Shihab Nye.


CLASS ACT by Jerry Craft 

BE KIND / BE FAIR/ BE YOU are the opening words that greet readers to this companion book to Newbery Medal winning book New Kid.  The setting is the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School, and the central Black characters Drew and Jordan feel pressures mount as they come to feel isolated amongst his privileged classmates. A visit to their friend Liam’s ‘mansion’ forces Drew and Jordan to see the divide and things come to a head when the school establishes the SOCK committee (Students of Color Konnect). Drew worries, “Everyone is always so confused… No one is happy just being who they are./ It’s like we all have the way we want people to think we are…/ And then we have our real selves.”  This 13 chapters in this book could easily be transformed into 13 episodes of a television series about black adolescent lives, about class, opportunities and pressure to pretend that everything is just fine. Another excellent title that many African American  students will identify with and non-black students will grow from in order to be kind, be fair and be you.


Nira is  “the kid pulling down A’s, and who wants a little freedom to be who she wants to be.” (p. 270)Nira Ghani has dreams of having a career playing the trumpet. Her talent and dedication indicate that she is on the way tao fulfilling her dream. But Nira is a brown girl living in a Guyanese family and her parents have different dreams for their smart daughter “The number one rule is to obey your elders. The number two rule is to check your individuality at the door.”(p. 72) She will go to university and become an important doctor. Many adolescents who feel pressured by being smothered by their parents expectations will identify with Nira.  Many readers who struggle to navigate true friendships or a budding romance or find a place in the world will identify with Nira. Many readers will find a strong fictional model who is true to her convictions. And many will find comfort in the cups of tea served by Grandmother Ghani.  This novel is the recent winner the Amy Mathers Award for Young Adults (TD book awards). 

THE GREATS by Deborah Ellis

This novel is about Jomon, a  troubled youth in Guyana , who because of a neglectful father, and the death of his mother,  doesn’t seem to think that life is worth living.  One night, after winning a school competition, he runs through the streets of Georgetown, crashing a liquor-store window. He is caught, put in jail and further questions ‘what’s it all about’.  Throughout the story, Jomon encounters ghostly ancestors, each who had committed suicide and who appear to tell their stories and give Jomon strength. The appearance of a Megatherium (a giant  sloth) who escaped from the Museum adds a  dimension of mystery and perseverance to the story. But this book is more than a story about a desperate teenager. Deborah Ellis brilliantly weaves in narrative of A troubled teenager, a prehistoric sloth, ghostly grandfathers to help readers gain understanding of suicide and mental health. Royalties from teh sale of The Greats will be donated to Mental Health Without Borders. 


The author, mentored by Jason Reynolds has given Young Adolescent readers an emotional coming of age story, that is well-crafted in free verse style. Ada lives under the thumb of her Nigerian family’s expectations but is desperate to make her own life choices, especially as a new student at historically Black college. Chapters take us through Ada’s journey as a freshman and sporadically includes events from her life in grade school experiences are woven throughout. Most poems appear as one page and the format seems to strengthen the contemplative introspective nature of the character. “How am I supposed /to know who I am /I don’t really know where /I’m going but I’m trying to figure it out.” Ada is not a happy person, mostly because she can’t be true to herself (as a lesbian) and her dreams (as a dancer). In the acknowledgements, Candice Iloh sends a message to her readers: “Thank you for constantly reminding me of the kids in all of us who just want to be felt, heard, seen, loved and supported.”

EVERYTHING COMES NEXT: Collected and New Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (Poetry)

A treasury of over 150 poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, “an open-hearted singer who believes in poetry’s verbal power to bring us together and care for each other, to recognize our sorrows and our sufferings, to heal our wounds and treasure our solituteds. She is one of our necessary poets of hopefulness’ (from the preface by Edward Hirsch, p. 5). The anthology is divided into three sections: The Holy Land of Childhood; The Holy Land That Isn’t; People Are The Only Holy Land

Excerpt from “Valentine for Ernest Man”

          poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

           they are sleeping. They are the shadows

           drifting across our ceilings the moment

           before we wake up. What we have to do

           is live in a. way that lets us find them. 

BARRY SQUIRES: FULL TILT by Heather Smith (death loss and remembrance) (YA)What a character Finbar Barry Squires is, the kind of guy who unnerves parents and teachers because of his temper but endears himself to them too because if his wise, witty way with words.. After watching the Riverdance video twice Barry has a dream to gain fame by joining The Full Tilt Irish Stepdancers, famous throughout St. John’s. The book is funny, not only because of Barry’s rascally irreverent ways but by the cast of characters he encounters (a caring grandma, the school principal, an old British Rocker named Uneven Steven, a gang of geriatrics in the local nursing home and great friend named Saibal and an adorable baby brother named Gord. This was a book that made me laugh out loud but take caution, Smith punches you in the heart with a tragic event in the family. This novel has excited me to a) read any new Heather Smith publication as soon as it comes out b) take another trip to St. John’s Newfoundland.

DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone

Nic Stone’s powerful book Dear Martin tells the story of an Ivy-League black student named Justyce who becomes a victim of racial profiling. In this sequel, Justyce McAllister is at Yale University, while Quan Laquan Banks who grew up in the same areas as Justyce, sits behind bars in a youth detention centre, detained for a crime he didn’t commit. Quan has experienced family troubles, and is caught in a web where a policeman is killed by a gun with Quan’s prints on it. Once again, Stone, illuminates racism in America flawed practices of the American Juvenile system as the character reflects on what he could have done, should have done, and will do in the future.  The book, which certainly could be read as a standalone,  features multi-modal text formats – letters, narratives, transcripts, free verse poetry and chapter structure add to the dynamism of Stone’s style.  This is a novel for today – and tomorrow!


Eric Walters tells us that many of the things he’s written about are from his life. His most recent novel, seems to be one of the most personal.  In the opening chapter, Robbie’s father awakens his son in the middle of the night and claims that he is dying. But thirteen-year-old Robbie is used to his father’s neurotic ramblings but still wonders what will happen to him, if his father does leave him (Robbie’s mother died when he was young).  Chapter One invites readers to cheer for Robbie, hoping that he’ll come through a life of poverty and a life of being alone when his father  has been known to disappear for days. Enter Harmony, a saucy girl, a foster child, who enters Robbie’s classroom and Robbie’s life. Readers cheer on their friendship and their reliance on each other. I mauy be wrong, but I think, Walters uses more dialogue in this novel than his previous books and through these conversations we come to know about true friendship, about resilience and hope.  Another terrific novel from Canadian children’s literature hero. 

PUNCHING THE AIR by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (of the Exonerated Five) (Free Verse)

Amal Shahid has been wrongfully incarcerated for throwing a punch now sits in jail, filled with despair and rage. A white boy lies unconscious in a hospital and a white court is building a case for what they ‘think’ occurred.  Add Punching The Air to  the list of strong recent novels  about racial profiling (e.g, The Hate You Give; All American Boys, Dear Justyce, Ghost Boys).  Poetry and Art bring Amal some salvation and for readers, Zoboi’s lyrical verse, inside-the-head thoughts add punch to a hard-hitting story of our times. Zoboi was fortunate to pair up with Yusef Sallam who at fifteen-years sold was wrongly convicted with four other boys in he Central Park jogging case. In 2002, their sentences were overturned.  This novel is not fictional biography but Salaam contributes truth and hip-hop poems and inspiration of how art can inspire and perhaps comfort. 



LONG WAY DOWN by Jason Reynolds; Art by Danica Novgorodoff (graphic novel)

In 2017, Jason Reynolds wrote an explosive free verse novel where events take place over sixty seconds when Will Holman ride down in an elevator, on his way to take revenge for the murder of his brother. On each of the seven floors on the ride going down, Will encounters ghosts from the past who challenge him to question whether he should use the gun hiding in his pants to be another teenage  ‘killer’.  When it was first published, the book deservedly won a batch of awards. This new publication is a graphic adaptation of the original Long Way Down. Imagine a graphic novel with free verse narrative. Danic Novgordodoff has created explosive expressionist images to bring new powerful meaning to Reynolds’ narrative.  This is a staggering publication, worthy of  awards. Astonishing!

Announced on October 30, 2020