As the calendar speeds toward spring, we’re thinking a lot about healing. As such, many of the YA novels on this list are about exactly that: boarding-school girls facing mental illness head on, grieving teens who find healing through roller derby, and a Peter Pan retelling that’s just dark enough to work. Many of us are feeling exhausted and burned out, and these books serve as both meditations on what it can feel like to overcome hardships and reminders that it’s okay to feel however you feel.
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There’s something about YA set in boarding schools that always calls to me. Maybe it’s the time I spent reading clique-y series like Kate Brian’s Private and supernatural ones like Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, but I found myself curious about Alyssa B. Sheinmel’s The Castle School (for Troubled Girls). Instead of cliques or vampires, though, the book brings us into a world of mystery. Moira is sent to an all-girl boarding school by her parents because she’s dealing with the recent death of her best friend, Nathan, by acting out. Solitary at first, Moira soon learns that there’s an all-boys school not too far from her school, and—perhaps more pressingly—that there’s a mystery lurking at The Castle School itself. The girls whom Moira befriends each come to represent a struggle; by toggling between their perspectives, Sheinmel articulates their individual, internal battles and connect them to broader issues of gender and mental health.
This debut from Monica Gomez-Hira provides a welcome lightness in our complicated times. Carmen wants romance, but instead she’s pushed into the role of a princess, Belle, for a company called Dreams Come True—and, naturally, finds herself working alongside her ex-boyfriend. Carmen is a realistic portrait of a teenage girl: she’s driven and funny, but she’s also insecure and largely unaware of how other people view her. I’d recommend this for anyone looking for a fun read with a unique plot.
Tell Me My Name is a gender-flipped Great Gatsby, but it’s so, so much more than that. Fern is a regular teenage girl planning to spend her summer as she always does—secretly in love with her best friend and wishing she was as rich as the rest of the inhabitants of Commodore Island. But then she meets Ivy, a rich girl newcomer to the island, and everything is flipped on its head. The book moves rapidly and can at times is unclear in its language, but it feels intentional and true to the narrator, who is struggling to find her footing and figure out who she is in relation to Ivy and the rest of the teens on the island.
A book that feels like a blend of Sex Education and The Half of It in the best way, Perfect on Paper introduces us to bisexal teen Darcy, who spends her time offering her classmates anonymous advice via her school locker, Locker 98. Students pop in questions, she answers them via email, and she’s very, very good at it. But when her super-jock classmate Alexander finds out that she’s the one behind the locker, she’s forced to help him get his ex-girlfriend back. Darcy, like many a fictional romance-and- love expert, has her own struggles when it comes to her heart, and finds herself falling for the last person she ever thought she’d crush on. The best part of Perfect on Paper is its treatment of biphobia, as Darcy feels pressured not to date a guy because she’s worried about losing her community. If you’re looking for a good-hearted read with a relatable bisexual lead, this one’s for you.
Evelyn: a desperate young woman trying to save her younger sister from her mom’s abusive boyfriend. Reid: a messy, sometimes coldhearted young woman who tried to escape their small town of McNair Falls, but died in the process. Ashton: Reid’s popular boyfriend. Alternating between the perspectives of Evelyn and Reid, A Better Bad Idea is a book about abuse, distress, and young people trying to escape bad situations. It’s also a reminder that class plays a large role in the choices we’re able to make, and in the perception of what it means to be a “good” person.
Aiden Thomas’s Cemetery Boys was one of my favorite novels of 2020, so I was thrilled to learn that they were working on another project. Now, the much-anticipated Lost in the Never Woods is here, and it’s worth the wait. Wendy is struggling as she mourns the unsolved disappearance of her brother and the resulting fallout among her family. Peter is a dreamy boy who enters her life to help her heal. A Peter Pan retelling, this is a whimsical, eerie tale of a town shrouded in mystery.
Loss, healing, and roller derby? This made Bruised an immediate yes from me. Daya Wijesinghe is grieving the death of her parents, and finds herself through roller derby, and, more so, through the friends and teammates she makes along the way. As they’re honest about their own lives, including their queerness and their struggles, she feels like she can more fully face her own demons. A fast-paced read for people—I know I’m not the only one—who wish they could watch Whip It all day long.