The 2020 Nerdy Book Club Awards: Young Adult Literature (Day One) Announced by a Convention of Nerds
2020 was a year like no other—the global COVID-19 pandemic has altered every aspect of American life, including dramatic shifts in how young people attend school and teachers and librarians serve their communities. Access to books and technology remains a pressing concern in many places and educators and families must work together to provide young people with continuous access to high-quality, relevant, and engaging reading material. At this time of year, when a flood of Best Books of 2020 lists scroll across our screens, never 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. Nerdy Book Club stands with all of you striving to increase 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 their academic and social development.
Lists of recommendations can be useful resources when identifying and evaluating titles to include in library collections or offer for independent reading. This year’s 2020 Nerdy Book Club Awards Young Adult Winners include a wide range of voices, topics, time periods, and styles—something for every teen in your life. Check out previous 2020 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!
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
High school juniors Tavia and her “play sister” Effie live together and attend high school in Portland, Oregon. They struggle with boys and mean girls like many teens. But they also struggle with hidden, mythical parts of themselves that compound their intersectional identities of being Black young women. Tavia, a siren in a world that targets sirens and justifies their murder, must hide who she is through a network of people who help shield her. Effie, whose mother died and whose grandparents allow her to live with Tavia’s family so she doesn’t feel isolated, spends two weeks every year living as a mermaid as part of the local Renaissance Faire, continuing the role she had played alongside her mother, one of the faire’s storytellers.
This book faces violence against Black women head on, in all its forms from murder to microaggressions. The book weaves magical identities with the harsh realities of being Black teen girls today and how they and their varying family structures are perceived by dominant cultures. Intertwining the stories of being mythical beings with Black girl magic, disability, feminism, and racism, author Bethany C. Morrow invites readers into a fantasy world that offers a sharp critique and awareness of contemporary American life. Readers will find themselves both enchanted and challenged to consider how stereotypes and prejudice affect everyone. Classroom scenes invite readers to consider how issues are framed and how assignments are structured in even the most “progressive” schools, offering a view of schools as co-creators and enforcers of structural oppression.—Jennifer Ansbach
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
One way to measure how much I enjoy a book might be to see how often I recommend it. Another might be the versions of it I own. Such is the case for this book. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas was a book club selection for my Quarantine Book Club, as we call it, a few weeks back. Knowing my time before the holiday was limited, I purchased the book on audio. For several hours while wrapping, I listened to the story of Yadriel. My heart ached for him. I never thought about how gendered the Latinx culture could be and what a struggle that could be for some kids. Then the plot deepened. Yadriel’s cousin, Maritza, helps him to perform a ritual to prove his worth to his family. The ritual has the unintended consequence of bringing the ghost of Julian, a recently deceased boy from his school, to Yadriel and Maritza. Julian’s irreverent attitude,Yadriel’s kind heart, and Maritza’s bravery, made me want to read faster and faster. So I did what any book lover would do, immediately purchased the ebook. The pages raced by as I followed this trio’s journey, my heart breaking at times, laughing out loud at others. As I swiped to turn the last page, I made a quick decision. This was a book I had to own, had to place in my classroom for other students to meet these three wonderful kids. And so, that’s how I came to own three different versions of Thomas’s Cemetery Boys the audio book, ebook, and a print copy. I highly recommend you join me in purchasing at least one. This is not a story to miss.—Katherine Sokolowski
Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram
“You deserve people in your life who make you happy, Darius. No matter what. Just remember that. Okay?”
Wise words from Darius Kellner’s mother in Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great Deserves Better, the companion novel to the award-winning Darius the Great is Not Okay. Darius is back from Iran and seems to be in a great place. He is on the varsity soccer team, has his first boyfriend, landed an internship at Rose City Teas, and with the help of his supportive family and teammates isn’t allowing bullies to bring him down. But Darius soon discovers that life’s highs and lows often happen simultaneously. His parents financial struggle leaves them both exhausted and less engaged while his father’s depression is exacerbated. Darius feels powerless to help his younger sister navigate the complicated nuances of racism when she suffers microaggressions at school and her teacher seems oblivious. He likes Landon but is uncomfortable with his insistence to take things beyond kissing. Puzzling feelings for a teammate muddle the situation until Darius must decide what he wants and deserves. Khorram expertly balances consent, toxic masculinity, and intersectionality with the insecurities of a thoughtful teen trying to figure out life. Darius is once again the character we need and don’t see often enough. He’s honest, heartfelt, funny, willing to be vulnerable and strong. And don’t worry, the tea talk is impeccable and (almost) as great as Darius.—Abby Harrison
Dear Justyce by Nic Stone
In her follow-up to Dear Martin, Nic Stone takes readers into the juvenile court system, following Quan, who, through coercion, confessed to killing a white cop. As readers follow Quan across the book, they realize that Quan did not actually commit the murder, but through fear, admits to commuting the crime. While incarcerated, he begins to write letters to Justyce, the protagonist of Stone’s first novel who wrote letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. after being incarcerated himself. Justyce and Quan met in their younger years, growing up in the same impoverished neighborhood. Quan’s mother’s abusive boyfriend, Dwight, gains control of the family’s finances, and as a result, Quan begins stealing because of Dwight’s financial mismanagement. In addition to food, Quan steals other things, too, eventually landing him in several juvenile detention centers. Upon his release at 15, he is asked to join a gang, Black Jihad. Martel, Black Jihad’s leader, is empathetic to Quan’s experience, and upon learning of Dwight’s abuse and financial mismanagement, Martel has Dwight killed. One day, while Quan is at Mattel’s, cops arrive, and it is here that the white officer is killed. Soon after, officers arrest Quan, take him to prison, where his correspondence with Justyce begins. Justyce believes in Quan’s innocence and vows to help him.
Stone’s gripping sequel pulls readers into the story quickly, engaging us with stories of humanity. Deftly, she weaves Quan’s story with Justyce’s fight for justice. Those who read and loved Dear Martin will be equally compelled by Dear Justyce. Suspense and action are present, but it is the fight for justice that compels. Stone confronts the prejudice of police work and the discrimination against Black boys and minorities in the American justice system. I learn so much from Nic Stone’s writing. You don’t want to miss this one.—Travis Crowder
Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
To call Daniel Nayeri’s novel/memoir merely a refugee story about a boy from Iran who finds himself trying to survive middle school in Oklahoma is shortsighted. Nayeri weaves in Persian myth and the power of storytelling throughout utilizing a loose format that moves back and forth from the present to the past. Khosrou (or Daniel, as he comes to be called in America) utilizes the age-old myth of the 1,001 Nights and its narrator, Scheherazade, to lead the reader through the story.
What makes this novel so profound is what Nayeri is not saying. “The stories aren’t the thing. The thing is the story of the story. The spending of the time. The falling in love…All the good stuff is in between and around the things that happen.” (301)
While I found the author’s personal story fascinating, I was drawn in by the connections he made between his experiences, Persian myths and Western culture. How his successes and failures molded and made him who he is today and what is truly important caused me to stop and think about where I come from and the stories that have been told about my ancestors.
Everything Sad is Untrue will appeal to those who are drawn to reads that are multi-layered. thought-provoking, along with hours of ruminating (always a good thing according to the author).—Kelly Vorhis
Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez
If you would have told me that 2020 would have me listing a soccer book as one of my favorite books of the year, I would have laughed uproariously. After all, how could a book about soccer really capture my heart? And yet, Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez did exactly that. Steal my every waking thought, lingering long after I finished the last page, and has been one of my most recommended books of the year. What is there not to marvel at from this story of Camila and her rise to capture her own rightful place in the world of soccer, of football as the rest of the world knows it. A story that follows not just the determination of one girl and her dream but also allows us, the readers, into a world drenched in machismo and knowing your place, while still wrapped up in the love of Argentina as only an #OwnVoices author can give to the world? I started this book on a Sunday, hoping to at least read a few pages but remained within the book as the light faded, the kids asked for dinner, and the day disappeared. Would her resilience be enough when the powers surrounding her failed to overwhelm her? This is a book to be savored, to be googled as you learn more about Argentina, and one to hold close to your heart s you pass it on to readers everywhere that need a peek at someone’s dream in order to inspire their own. The world needs more books like this one but for now I am just so grateful that this one exists.—Pernille Ripp
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
“And if I love him hard enough, maybe, just maybe, I can keep the dark side away.”
No one writes books quite like Tiffany D Jackson. Giving voice to black girls who have been exploited and discarded, Jackson’s heroines are complex, flawed and very often blamed for their own trauma. From the opening pages of Grown, it’s clear that seventeen year old Enchanted Jones, (who wakes up in a penthouse suite, covered in blood and completely alone except for the body of murdered pop star Korey Fields), has been through something terrible. And yet, as the details of what led up to his death unfold, Enchanted is victimized over and over again by the press, Korey’s fans and even her own friends and family who question whether or not she somehow “asked for” what happened to her. Readers of Jackson’s other books will not at all be surprised by the fact that while the murder is introduced to us on page one, it’s not fully solved or explained until the very end. However, while the mystery of what actually happened to Korey Fields may keep readers engrossed in the story, it’s the bigger questions about holding adult men accountable for their actions with teenage girls (no matter how grown they appear or act) and about why cries for help from some communities are answered far more quickly than others, that will keep readers thinking about Grown long after the last page is turned.—Jennifer LaGarde
Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed
I have always had a love of wondering about the stories left unshared. I can entirely relate to the need to find answers and to go on a deep dive of research to find them. So it’s no surprise that I love Samira Ahmed’s latest novel. Khayyam is a 17 year old American-French-Indian-Muslim girl spending some time with her family in Paris on their annual trip while attempting to figure out how to recover from potentially tanking her shot at her dream college with an essay outlining what she thought was a great find for art history – all while worrying over some potentially unwelcome developments in her relationship with a boy at home. Her story and thoroughly modern voice is intertwined with the lost story of Leila, the woman who is at the heart of a poem by Lord Byron and a series of paintings by Delacroix. The narratives begin to overlap as Khayyam and a descendent of Alexandre Dumas begin to unravel some of the allusions and mystery about Leila. I loved being able to learn along with Khayyam and Alexandre and I look forward to sharing this adventure with my students!—Cindy Minnich
Not So Pure and Simpleby Lamar Giles
Del Rainey has had a crush on Keira Westing since kindergarten. In an attempt to spend more time with her, he volunteers for a youth project at church not knowing he has just taken a pledge of purity and committed to an abstinence program. Del and his best friend Qwan have quite the reputation for being players, so this decision shocks both Del and those around him. But, Kiera is single for the first time in years and he is determined not to miss this opportunity to finally make his move. As the program progresses, Del does get to spend time with Kiera. But, that’s not all. He also forms unexpected friendships with the other Purity Pledgers, is forced to face past mistakes and personal biases, and learns important lessons about double standards and toxic masculinity. In Not So Pure and Simple,, Del and others in the cast of relatable characters grapple with relationships, faith, expectations, sexuality, and the conflicting messages received from their parents, peers, mentors, and media. The timely novel invites readers to think, ponder perspectives, and start conversations. A great story, an important book. Pure and simple.—Jill Bellomy
Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly
Imagine retelling an old tale, one of a young princess about to become queen, an evil stepmother, a magic mirror, a hunstman, and seven mysterious men in the wood into one where the motives and poison in question are far different than we recall. This is the tale of Sophie, the young princess who is told time and again from nearly everyone she knows that no one will respect her as a ruler because she is too kind, too willing to extend mercy; according to her stepmother, only men have the luxury of being kind and commanding respect. These poisonous words have kept Sophie from even trying to prove that kindness is strength until she is helped by seven strangers and she rises up against a foe even more frightening than the ones she’d known. I loved both the allusions to the original story and how this diverged into a story of being able to rise above the expectations of others into what we know we are capable of becoming and doing.—Cindy Minnich
Thank you to all of the folks who agreed to write reviews for this wonderful slate of books! Look for the second round half of the Nerdy Book Club Awards: Young Adult Fiction announcement in tomorrow’s post!
Jennifer Ansbach is a lifelong reader and book lover. She loves introducing her high school students to new titles. You can often find her on the sofa curled up with tea and a book. Her book Take Charge of Your Teaching Evaluation: How to Grow Professionally and Get a Good Evaluation is out now from Heinemann. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark working at the intersection of YA literature and social justice. You can reach her at @JenAnsbach on Twitter.
Jill Bellomy is the librarian at Highland Park Middle School. She has served on the Caldecott Selection Committee, YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Committee, and is Chair-elect of the Texas Association of School Librarians and a member of the steering committee of the North Texas Teen Book Festival. Jill lives in Dallas with her husband, two pugs, and a cat.
Travis Crowder is a 7th grade language arts teachers in western North Carolina. He is the author of Reflective Readers: The Power of Readers Notebooks and co-author of Sparks in the Dark. On http://www.teachermantrav.com, he blogs about reading, writing, and thinking in his classroom. You can also follow him @teachermantrav.
Abby Harrison is the Head Librarian at Greenhill School. She has served on the Morris Award Committee and is a member of the 2021 YALSA Alex Awards Committee. She spends her time pushing books to students, faculty, friends, and her own kids. She lives and bakes in Dallas.
Jennifer LaGarde is a lifelong teacher and learner with over 20 years in public education. Her educational passions include leveraging technology to help students develop authentic reading lives, meeting the unique needs of students living in poverty and helping learners (of all ages) discern fact from fiction in the information they consume. Jennifer teaches courses on Emerging Literacies, School Library Management, Information Literacy in the Digital Age and Young Adult Literature for Antioch and Rutgers Universities. She currently lives, works, reads and drinks lots of coffee in Olympia, Washington.
Donalyn Miller has taught upper elementary and middle school English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas for almost two decades, and currently works as an independent literacy coach, consultant, and teacher & reader advocate. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read, including The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild, and Game Changer!: Book Access for All Kids (co-written with Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer reading initiative #bookaday and co-founded The Nerdy Book Club. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.
Cindy Minnich is a high school teacher in Central Pennsylvania who delights in introducing her students to books they’ll love.
Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) helps students discover their superpower as a former 4th and 5th, but now 7th grade English teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin. She opens up her educational practices to the world on her blog http://www.pernillesripp.com and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that has connected millions of students. She is an internationally known educational speaker and also the author of several education books, with her latest release titled Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. Look for Pernille surrounded by her four amazing kids, lovely husband and with a book in her hand.
Katherine Sokolowski has taught for over twenty years and currently teaches seventh grade in Monticello, Illinois. She is passionate about reading both in her classroom and also with her two sons. You can find her online at http://readwriteandreflect.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter as @katsok.
Kelly D. Vorhis teaches high school 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.