Something I’ve come to really lean into this year is that my reading life is going to look different every single year and that that is okay. A decade ago, I could read 200 books a year; that was a time when I had far fewer outside obligations and I had the kind of mental space every evening to knock out 50-100-200 pages of a book. I’m in a completely different season of life now. Between school and being a mom, I’m learning that prioritizing and making space for reading simply looks different. Twenty minutes in the car of an audiobook? Excellent! Fifteen minutes in bed before I inevitable reach for my phone and zone out with TikTok? Also excellent. A day off work where I don’t have to do anything and can lie on the couch and read? A literal dream! Any and all of this is fine in my world, especially given how much reading I do outside of a traditional book. Beating myself up for not reading 100 books in a year is not a nice way to treat myself (and for the record, I’ll get about 90, which is still almost two books per week!).
I like to think of my “best of” list less of a best of and more of a favorites list. These are books that stuck with me or that I had a particularly good reading experience with. This year’s roundup of my personal top ten includes several buzzy books, as well as plenty of books that got little or no attention at all. Half of these books are ones I did on audio, since that is where I am able to get some of my heftier reading in now.
Different this year than almost any other year in my reading life since the start of writing about it is that there are few YA books. I read a lot of YA, but I don’t think as many stuck with me this year as in years past. It’s not that they were bad; it’s that there was little that at this point in the year I either remember or reference or think about. In general, if it’s not been a TikTok book of the moment, then YA in general has been quieter this year. I’ve seen it in my work at Book Riot and across social media more broadly. YA isn’t the hot category unless it’s a trendy title, and that’s not to say there hasn’t been good stuff. Rather, it’s not quite as impactful as it has been in the last decade+. I hope that we’ll see an upswing in those meaty, outstanding literary YA titles again in the coming year.
That said, what’s interesting is a lot of my favorites this year are adult books featuring teen or young adult leads. Crossover reads are knocking it out of the park, and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if more of the voices in those adult-published titles were showing up in actual YA. It’s also a nice reminder how these labels have a purpose for organization reasons but at the end of the day, they don’t necessarily mean anything at all. A good book is a good book, and those who get books into the hands of readers are skilled enough to know precisely how to do just that.
Onto my favorites of the year. Let’s dive on in.
I know nothing about McCurdy or her role as a child actress, so I went into this memoir fresh. I picked the audio as I had access to a review copy as the book began gaining a massive holds list, and frankly, that was the way to go. This story of Jennette’s upbringing, her mother’s several competing mental illnesses and the way they directly impacted Jennette, Jennette’s own challenges with disordered eating and anxiety…it is powerful and incredibly hard to read. But it’s not all doom and gloom. This is a surprisingly hopeful memoir about how Jennette has worked hard to figure out who she is and what it is she wants from her life, despite a lifetime of trauma.
My last assignment for this semester of counseling school was a client case profile, and while I did not pick McCurdy, she was at the top of my list of potential options (and, as it turns out, two or three of my classmates did choose her). She’s going to inspire a lot of folks to do some important internal work with this book.
If you’ve held off on this because of the celebrity aspect, think of this far more as a mental health and mental illness memoir than a celebrity memoir. You’ll hear about the acting stuff, but that’s not the white hot center of this read. Audiobook listeners should go that round, as McCurdy’s voice telling her own story is so, so good.
Speaking of mental health books, I picked this one up on recommendation from my kid’s teacher who said Maté is an author who has done some really thought-provoking work in that space. I ended up listening to this on audio at the same time I was working on a school project on adverse childhood experiences, and the two were in uncanny harmony. Maté wrote this book with his son, and his son does the audiobook performance.
Trauma has been such a buzzword culturally, but it’s not really used correctly. Trauma is a response, not the incident that precipitates it. Trauma lives in the body and the mind, and it’s one of the reasons that it is impossible to separate the body from the mind. They are two intertwined entities that cannot be separated. This book explores the notion of why trauma is important to understand and how the notion of someone being “normal” is a complete falsehood. Our experiences create our responses, and trauma responses are so common across our culture–made even more apparent in individuals coming from any marginalized background or experience–that not acknowledging that is a major oversight. Normal is a lie; we’re all hurting in some ways and understanding, acknowledging, and working with that helps us not only understand ourselves but better engage with each other as complex, complicated people.
This is written for a general readership, so if you’re interested in mental health, it’s a great one.
I fell in love with Wilson’s writing and ability to craft young adult voices with Nothing to See Here. I read that one for an Audies committee I was on and even though I’m not a huge fiction-on-audio reader, it just worked.
So it was surprising I put off reading Wilson’s new book for as long as I did. But the reason was being unable to decide between the audiobook or the print edition. I went with print, but I can see the audio of this being just as outstanding. The book beings in a present period when a reporter reaches out to an adult Frankie Budge, but it quickly flashed back to Frankie’s 16th year. It’s summer in small town Tennessee and a weird boy has just moved to town. She and Zeke become friends less because they were into each other and more to keep from becoming bored. And in that forced friendship, the two of them accidentally begin a Satanic Panic in their small town. It is a funny book, but it’s also one full of so much tenderness and truth about what it is to be a teenager in a small town, desperate to have your voice seen, heard, and believed.
There is tremendous crossover appeal to this one, so I won’t be surprised if it sees an Alex Award sticker coming its way. I’d hand it to any teenager looking for a story of realistic misfits and the summer that changed their lives . . . on accident.
Obviously, another buzzy title up there with McCurdy’s, but both of these books have gotten such buzz for a reason. Zevin’s book follows two young adults, Sam and Sadie. They run into each other at a train stop in Harvard, and when Sam reaches out to Sadie, they begin to reconnect slowly to the friendship they had back in their youth in California. Eventually, they decide they’re going to begin to work together and build a video game. That game ends up defining their friendship over the next several decades as they build a video game company and see ups and downs in relationships both within and beyond their dyad.
At heart, this is a very simple book. It’s a friendship story. But because it is so simple, it’s a look at how complex and complicated friendship can be. It’s also a story of race and racism, of romance, and what happens in a culture that becomes obsessed with young talent. Zevin’s writing is immersive, and even though video gaming doesn’t do much for me, I found myself completely pulled into the video game elements of the story. This is another book that is published for adults, but it has great appeal for teen readers; Sam and Sadie’s story begins when they’re college students, flashes back to their teen years, and it grows as they move through their adult years.
In some ways, this reminded me of Joey Comeau’s Malagash, a favorite of mine from a few years back.
I’m so sad this YA survival story has gotten so little attention. It is a phenomenal and terrifying book about a girl raised in isolation by her father. She’s being trained to be a fighter. First and foremost, she’s a chess prodigy, and when she’s unable to be the winner her father demands of her, she’s forced to run. That, plus being trained in hunting, have made her a powerful force. Indeed, she’s prepared for the worst to happen and she and her father will survive when the world comes crashing down.
Didi knows how good she is. How she’s even better than her father says she is. She might be able to outrun even him. Out hunt even him. Survive.
This is an immersive story about the end of the world and about the ways in which grooming actually works–this is a father grooming his daughter to become a pawn in his game. But when she reverses course and chooses to no longer be a pawn in his game but instead put him in checkmate, suddenly, she’s the one who knows how to play the game best.
I read this one and a couple other survival YA stories out this year back to back. Griffin’s stood out.
Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Impostor Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson
I did this one on audiobook, adding it to my TBR as soon as I got through the three-part series on Go Ask Alice on “You’re Wrong About” (you can listen to those here, and guest Carmen Marie Machado is the perfect voice on this!). No matter what you think you know about the person behind the bestselling fake teen diary Go Ask Alice, I assure you that the true story is even wilder than you can imagine. This is a book that offers some incredible context to the life of Beatrice Sparks, the mastermind behind that diary and several others of the era. I was hooked from the beginning and found ways to be in my car just a little bit longer to keep listening. Sparks was a con artist who lied her way to not only the National Book Awards–being on the first ever panel to award the Young People’s Literature honor–but she stole the stories of real teens and profited nicely off them while doing real true harm to those families.
Interwoven in here is the panic over LSD, Satan, and how the Mormon Church helped create the environment perfect for books like this to find a widespread audience.
Again: even if you “know” the story, this book will leave you with more twists and turns than you can imagine. Listening to the 3-part podcast series will be your appetizer to the main course that is this book.
Look: we need more lessons on media and information literacy. Yasmin’s book–which has an amazing audiobook production–is a must-read covering the differences among misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation, while offering practical tools and insight into how to most smartly engage with media and social media. As someone who does this work and considers myself pretty savvy (I do have a librarianship background, after all!), I picked up a lot more knowledge from reading this.
There’s no bias here. And that statement will ruffle some feathers because of course there’s bias in everything. But I’ll let that statement stand, as Yasmin does a great job of saying it and explaining it, too. There’s no bias here.
This is a YA nonfiction title, but it is more than appropriate for middle school and adult readers, too.
I love Wong’s writing and her work in the disability space more broadly. This memoir is necessary reading for anyone wanting to know what it is like to grow up at the intersection of being marginalized and being disabled. But, in her trademark humor and snark, Wong rejects the idea she should be anyone’s hero or anyone’s inspiration. Rather, she demands action alongside her and fellow activists.
One of my favorite parts of this memoir is its setup. It’s highly designed, reading more like a scrapbook with art and creative storytelling elements than what might be expected with an adult memoir. It captures the spirit of Wong’s voice and points, while being a real visual experience in and of itself. There’s a really well balanced mix of essays showcasing the breadth and depth of Wong’s experience.
It’s hard for me to think about the fact this book came out this year. It seems like it has been out a lot longer, but that might be because it’s a book I have been thinking about since I finished reading it back in January or February.
At 16, Sara Foster runs away from her northern California home. She’s been care taking for her younger brother after the early death of her mother, especially because her father is hot and cold and not reliable. But after her best friend and former girlfriend is found in the lake, dead, the next in a long line of people to be pulled from the water in a similar condition, Sara knows she needs out. She quickly befriends a guy with a car, they participate in an activity that leaves both of them haunted to make a little cash, and they head south toward LA. It is not an easy trip, and when they run out of money before making it to the city, they each take up a job, hoping to have enough for dinner. Eventually, Sara works her way out of the situation, abandoning the guy, and making a name for herself in the LA bar scene at the infamous Yerba Buena, a high-profile restaurant with a well-known chef.
Emilie is from the LA area and grew up with her parents and older sister, who is in and out of her life, as she wrestles with addiction. Emilie has always wanted the kind of life her Creole grandparents had, one filled with community and with adventure. The problem is, Emilie has no idea what she wants to do with her life–she’s on her fifth college major and going no where. So when she takes a job as a flower designer and ends up at Yerba Buena doing their table arrangements, she could never imagine what the position would hold for her: beginning a long affair with the famous restaurateur. She has feelings for him and enjoys the attention he shows her, a girl who is messy and lost and adrift in the world. But when Emilie discovers she’s his side piece, that he has a whole family and life outside their relationship, she calls it off and finds herself once again drifting.
When Sara and Emilie reconnect, both of them a little lost, broken, and struggling to build lives from the broken pieces of their past, it seems like immediate chemistry. But then Sara is cold in a way that surprises Emilie and things look bleak. . . then Sara gets the chance to explain, and the two of them find incredible comfort, recognition, and love with one another.
This is a beautiful, emotional character study of two young women trying to figure themselves out. It’s romantic and challenging, in that it invites the reader inside these lives while also keeping readers at the same distance with which Emilie and Sara keep themselves from others (and, initially, one another). There is a lot of fabulous stuff here about those messy years that are true and authentic, and the emotional realities of navigating life as a newly independent adult are authentic. It’s well paced and engrossing, the perfect kind of literary novel that refuses to be what one would consider a typical literary novel. There’s a lot to dig into when it comes to language, to imagery, to symbolism, but it doesn’t detract from giving these characters fully-considered arcs or lives.