THE 2021 NERDIES: YOUNG ADULT FICTION (PART ONE) ANNOUNCED BY A CONVENTION OF NERDS

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At this time of year, when “Best Books of 2021” lists pop up daily, we educators and community members cannot forget that it doesn’t matter which books win awards for best children’s and young adult literature if young people never see the books in their schools, libraries or homes. National efforts to censor books in school libraries and classrooms are limiting students’ access to books and restricting librarians and teachers’ ability to offer current, relevant books for kids to read. Nerdy Book Club stands with the creators of these books and their readers. Nerdy Book Club stands with all of you striving to increase and broaden young readers’ access to books in your communities. Putting books into kids’ hands continues to be one of the most powerful ways we can positively influence young people’s academic, emotional, and social development. 

Recommendations like the Nerdy Book Club Awards lists, taken from experienced readers and educators, can be useful as one resource when identifying and evaluating titles to include in library collections or offer for independent reading. Nominations for the Nerdy Book Club awards come from scholars, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, editors, families and other readers of books for children and teens. The 2021 Nerdy Book Club Young Adult Fiction award winners include a wide range of voices, lived experiences, topics, historical time periods, formats and writing styles—something to entice every teen. Check out other 2021 award lists for more young adult recommendations in the graphic novels, poetry and novels in verse, and nonfiction categories.

Congratulations to the authors and publishers of these outstanding stories. Let’s all do what we can to get these books to kids! 

Thank you to the volunteer reviewers who have offered their enthusiastic opinions about each title on Nerdy’s YA Fiction Awards list this year. We will feature the second half of the list in tomorrow’s post.

A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia 

Quill Tree Books

It is easy to get caught up in the drama of an 1860s failing Louisiana plantation, controlled by 80-year-old Madame Sylvie Guilbert, still rooted in the social class hierarchy of her native France. Never mind that she never returned to France after leaving at age thirteen. Appearances mean everything to her. So much so, she insists on sitting for a portrait by a famous French artist her family cannot afford. She hopes this extravagance will secure her status in the parish and family legacy. As the story unravels, the false veneer dissolves and we see the true legacy of this family–a history of inhuman treatment of enslaved people, a staunch adherence to a crumbling power and social system, and years of abuse and rape intertwining slave owners and the enslaved in a destructive coupling inflicting damage for generations.  

Throughout A Sitting in St. James the narrator asks the reader for patience. Patience to hear the full history of the story, patience for that history to unfold properly and truthfully, and patience that something small can be the root of something very great. That patience is more than rewarded with Rita Willams-Garcia’s rich language, complicated, flawed characters, and exceptional research in this 2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner. If we are brave enough to listen to her honest storytelling, she reveals a path forward toward equity and justice by demanding we confront the true legacy of racism and marginalization in America. This is a hard, important, and beautiful read. —Abby Harrison 

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Levine Querido

For Nina’s life so far, she’s led a fairly normal childhood, with only one thing really sticking out for herself: a story that her great-great-grandmother told her before she passed away that she has never been able to decipher save a few phrases. But when extenuating circumstances drives one of those phrases, “animal people” into her life in the form of Oli, a cottonmouth boy from another world, she may finally be able to figure out the mysteries of her past, as well as help heal Oli’s friend, and a piece of their long separate worlds. Fans of mythology may appreciate this novel for the way the author weaves Lipan Apache folklore into their story.–Bryson Minnich

Ace of Spades by  Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé 

Feiwel & Friends

Imagine a world where you uncover a web that is spun so finely around you that you have no way out?  You cannot breathe.  You cannot trust.  You cannot succeed.  You must question who to trust, what to say, and what to believe because what you thought was in your control, turns out to have never been.  You are nothing but a pawn in a game meant to destroy you because no matter what you do, Aces knows all, Aces will destroy you.  Such is the incredible story that unfolds in Ace of Spades, one of my most favorite reads of 2021, and while, at first, a reader may think that what happens for our two protagonists could never happen in real life, it is when you realize what the systems stand for that you realize that it has and it does, we just call the systems by other names.  A brilliant debut, an edge-of-your-seat page-turner that is sure to hook so many readers, a truly unput-downable book; Ace of Spades deserves all of the accolades it has gotten and then some.–Pernille Ripp  

Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saénz

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Nearly a decade after readers were first introduced to Ari and Dante, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World picks up right where we left off. It’s the summer before senior year and both boys are working to figure out who they are and how to exist in 1980s Texas. Over the course of the school year they learn what it means to love each other and to love themselves in a works that is too often cruel and intolerant. Benjamin Alire Saenz’s writing is as poetic and lyrical as always and his gentle meditations on growing up and learning to love to will speak to all readers.–Sarah Mulhern Gross

Blackout: A Novel by  Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon

Quill Tree Books

A blackout has occurred in New York City on one of the hottest summer days, forcing the characters in this collection of short stories to decide what is most important to them, offering opportunities for second chances. From a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend to new love to revealing a life-long love to choosing self-love, each story celebrates hope and perseverance, and with that the joy of being young, black, in love and finding your way in the world.

This collection of six stories is unique in the fact that the first story, “The Long Walk,” is broken into five ‘Acts’ woven throughout the book interlinking the remaining stories through a complex array of characters. The setting of New York City is vast and readers are given a glimpse of just how small it can be as each story begins to link the characters, culminating with the final story, “Seymour and Grace.” I enjoyed each one of the stories in this collection and I won’t spoil the ending as I hope you’ll want to read through all six stories and then go back through them again to figure out how all the characters are connected like I did.–Kelly Vorhis

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

Balzer + Bray

For readers who loved The Hate You Give and also those who are new to Garden Heights, author Angie Thomas gives us a prequel with Concrete Rose, the background narrative of 17-year-old Maverick Carter. He balances his struggles with staying in a gang (for which his imprisoned father was a leader) or going straight by attending school and having a job, taking care of his infant son with an absent mother (the on/off girlfriend of his best friend, King), and nurturing the rocky and challenged relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa. Thomas presents a story of growth, resilience, and doing whatever it takes to take care of your family. This a must read book for anyone wanting to follow a powerful and redemptive journey.–Julia Reynolds

The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Henry Holt

For 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine, life is a constant balancing between two worlds, whether it’s between her heritage of her white mother and Ojibwe father; her hometown or Sugar Island, the reservation where her father’s family lives; or attending the local college or going to the state university. This thriller sees Daunis folded into an FBI investigation after witnessing a murder, and the taut plot keeps the pages turning. The struggle of identity and finding one’s place in the world is grounded in the specificity of Native issues. 

Perhaps most important is this book is written by an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and the text weaves the language of the Ojibwe with English throughout, often offering a translation in italicized English. The audiobook is especially strong because the reader can hear the Ojibwe language spoken. 

This compelling novel is an excellent choice for those looking for suspense, but it also showcases themes about the role of family and culture for both individuals and communities, the strength of women, and what it means to know someone.–Jennifer Ansbach

Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press

This is a collection – of artwork, of fragments of stories, of glimpses from different perspectives on the themes of friendship and time and love, and grief. There are threads that tie each of these vignettes together – both the ones created with pencil and paper and the ones crafted from words – are about connection and hope, but they are not all obvious to our conscious mind from the beginning any more than we can completely appreciate the mirrored images repeated in a kaleidoscope without turning it a few times in our hands.–Cindy Minnich

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner 

Crown Books for Young Readers

Warning: this book will make you ugly-cry in the best way. Cash lives in a small town in Tennessee with his grandparents. He lost his mother to an opioid addiction, but his grandparents have raised him as their own. He’s always assumed he will spend his life stuck in the same place, but when his best friend Delaney makes an incredible scientific discovery Cash’s entire world changes. Delaney secures a full scholarship to an elite East coast boarding school for herself and Cash. Following Delaney is terrifying not just because it means moving across the country and entering what feels like a new world; accepting the scholarship means leaving behind Papaw who is dying of emphysema.

While Cash struggles to fit in at school while staying connected to his grandparents, he connects with the teacher leading the poetry class he somehow ends up in and discovers the poetry he carries in his heart. Zentner’s writing is lyrical and poetic, full of a sense of place, and over and over his words hit me like a punch in the gut. The characters in this book will burrow into your heart and you will find yourself dog-earring page after page. A blend of science, poetry, and nature with plenty to say about family, friendship, grief, and love,  In the Wild Light is a powerful book full of heart. 

Look for the second half of the 2021 YA Fiction Nerdies in tomorrow’s post!

Jennifer Ansbach (@JenAnsbach), a high school English teacher and proud member of NCTE & ALAN, loves books and can usually be found reading books or talking about reading books. She is currently working on her American Studies dissertation on young adult literature and social justice at Rutgers University-Newark.

Sarah Mulhern Gross is a National Board certified teacher at a STEM-focused high school in NJ. She has degrees in English and biology, because science+humanities will save the world some day!

Abby Harrison is the Head Librarian and Upper School Librarian at Greenhill School. She has served on the Morris Award Committee and the Alex Awards Committee. She spends her time pushing books to students, faculty, friends, and her own kids. She lives, reads, and bakes in Dallas, TX.

Bryson Minnich is a high school sophomore from Central PA. 

Pernille Ripp is just a Danish educator trying to create change in the US educational system by thinking out loud, writing a lot, speaking a lot, and teaching her own 7th graders in Oregon, WI–out in the United States.  Her thoughts can be found at pernillesripp.com

Kelly D. Vorhis teaches English in Nappanee, Indiana, and loves learning alongside her students every day. She can be found on twitter and Instagram @kelvorhis. Most days she is never far from a cup of coffee, her journal, and a book.

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