The Best YA Books of 2021
by Laura Lambert
Whatever a year might bring — pandemic or otherwise — one thing is sure: your favorite books will be there for you. These 20 books made 2021 a better, more exciting year. They whisked readers away to rich, fantastical worlds, spun diverse characters and stories, pulled us through twisting plots, and gave us food for thought — and a reason to stay up past our bedtimes.
House of Hollow
“The pervasive feeling of dread builds to a shocking twist,” says Kirkus of the latest book from the author of Our Chemical Hearts, Krystal Sutherland. The story focuses on eliciting powerful feelings from its readers. As Sutherland told Penguin Teen, “I went into the writing of this book without a strict plan for the plot, but a very structured plan for what I wanted readers to feel at each moment.”
The result is a dark, gritty, modern-day fairy tale in which three sisters — Iris, Grey, and Vivi Hollow — mysteriously disappear from a street in Scotland as children. A decade later, one sister goes missing again, and a mystery unfolds.
The Desolations of Devil’s Acre
All good things end, including the popular Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. In the series finale, Jacob Portman and Noor return to Jacob’s grandfather’s house to stop Caul once and for all.
“There are two thematic bells I ring throughout the series: that home is where your family is… and that sometimes you have to make your own family,” Riggs tells Publishers Weekly. “I hope readers take away the idea that, though they might feel isolated and misunderstood now, their people are out there somewhere. Don’t give up; don’t stop looking.”
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a unique piece of historical fiction — the coming out story of 17-year-old Lily Hu, a second-generation Chinese American teen, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, circa 1954. Ms. Magazine calls the bestselling book “The queer romance we’ve been waiting for.”
In the fourth book in the bestselling Graceling Realm series, readers get introduced to Winterkeep — a new kingdom — and five new points of view. At the heart of the book, poignant questions encourage readers to reflect on modern society.
“Winterkeep feels like a book about our world today, albeit with telepathic foxes and shapeshifting heroines,” Krystal Song writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Cashore asks us to examine our relationships and the dynamics within our communities, the ways in which we, too, are complicit in structures of power… In a world ravaged by warfare and environmental destruction, subject to the whims of tyrannical leaders, Cashore asks us what to do when our fairy tales are stripped away. Without a fabled Keeper to protect us, will we become the keepers and protectors of each other?”
The Girls I’ve Been
During a visit to the bank, 18-year-old Nora O’Malley finds herself in a hostage situation alongside her girlfriend and ex-boyfriend. To help everyone survive, she taps into the various personas she developed as the child of a con artist. Kirkus calls The Girls I’ve Been “A captivating, explosive, and satisfyingly queer thriller.”
The Taking of Jake Livingston
In this New York Times bestselling debut novel, 16-year-old Jake Livingston, one of the few black students at a primarily white prep school, sees dead people. In particular, he receives visits from the ghost of Sawyer Doon, a school shooter who took six lives before taking his own. Author Ryan Douglass wields the elements of horror to grapple with modern struggles around racism and homophobia. As Douglass told Diverse Books, “When I started watching horror movies, I felt a sense of connection to the characters who are just scared for their lives, didn’t know what was going on all the time, disoriented, trying to fight for survival, because I felt like that was my life.”
Beasts of Prey
Beasts of Prey, the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy by Ayana Gray, is being developed as a feature film for Netflix. Ekon and Koffi are two Black teens who join forces to hunt a vicious monster that promises redemption for them both. Says Kirkus, “This pan-African story, rife with betrayal and narrated through poetic language that evokes vivid imagery, will ensnare readers, keeping them engaged with its energetic pace.”
American Betiya is a fresh take on first love and interracial romance. 18-year-old Rani Kelkar is the perfect Indian betiya (daughter) who falls for Oliver Jensen, a tattooed, tortured artist. “The novel sparkles with emotional intensity,” says Publishers Weekly. “Its straightforward exploration of race and romance enables Rani to make her own mistakes as she navigates her first relationship.”
Written in free verse, Chlorine Sky is not your typical coming-of-age story. Based on the author’s high school experiences, the book follows Skyy as she emerges from the shadows of her closest relationships. “This book was informed by the kind of people I met while figuring out who I was in the world as a young Black girl growing up in California, specifically the people I let stay around me,” Browne told Shondaland.
Home Is Not a Country
What does home mean to a first-generation immigrant? That’s the profound question at the heart of the aptly named novel, Home is Not a Country, by Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo. In the story, 14-year-old Nima feels caught between the Islamic world she grew up in and suburban post 9/11 America. Says Kirkus, the book “Movingly unravels themes of belonging, Islamophobia, and the interlocking oppressions thrust upon immigrant women.”
Instructions for Dancing
“Black girls fall in love all the time,” author Nicola Yoon told Time. And that’s the premise behind Instructions for Dancing, the latest YA romance novel from the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun Is Also a Star. Seventeen-year-old Evie Thomas feels disillusioned by love. (“That’s the thing all the relationships have in common. They all end,” she says in the book.) But when she finds herself at a dance studio alongside a boy named X, she rethinks everything.
As Good as Dead
Kirkus calls this gripping thriller “Intricately plotted and heart-pounding.” As Good as Dead wraps up Holly Jackson’s acclaimed A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series featuring Pippa Fitz-Amobi. Continuing plot lines and characters from earlier titles, Pip must find out if she’s the newest target of a serial killer.
Take Me With You When You Go
Take Me With You When You Go is the first collaboration between beloved YA writers David Levithan (19 Love Songs) and Jennifer Niven (All the Bright Places). It’s a story about two siblings, 18-year-old Bea and 15-year-old Ezra, who piece together their fractured family through email.
Skin of the Sea
This YA fantasy reimagining of The Little Mermaid draws from Yoruba and West African culture. Simi, a Mami Wata (mermaid), falls in love with Kola, a human boy who falls into the sea from a slave ship. “Skin of the Sea is not afraid to acknowledge the atrocity and horror of the slave ships that Simi and Kola encounter, but it doesn't choose to linger long,” writes NPR. “Instead, the story takes a wider view of the lives of the people who have been uprooted by slavery and the rich and complex cultures they were stolen from.”
They’ll Never Catch Us
Stella and Ellie Steckler are sisters, competitive runners, and the proverbial “us” in the title of this YA thriller. Set in the Catskills, the sisters find themselves caught up in a murder mystery that captivates the entire town. Says Kirkus, “This novel is also a thoughtful examination of socio-economic challenges, the impact of crushing personal secrets, and the ways female athletes suffer under the weight of misogyny, especially when they are aggressively competitive.”
Six Crimson Cranes
Elizabeth Lim reimagined Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans, in this YA fantasy. “The Wild Swans has always been one of my favorite fairy tales — I watched several animated versions of the story when I was a kid, and they’ve stuck with me until adulthood, and since there haven’t been too many retellings of The Wild Swans, I knew I wanted to create my own take on it,” she told Diverse Books. The book draws from a wide range of sources, including East Asian folklore and Rumpelstiltskin. It tells the story of Shiori’anma, the only princess of Kiata, who must save her six brothers after their stepmother turns them into cranes.
What happens at summer camp should stay at summer camp. But in this case, it doesn’t. Esme Randal and Kayla Price were eight years old when they snuck out of their cabin at Camp Pine Lake and did something they swore would stay a secret. Nine years later, they return as counselors in training and must confront what happened that night. Kirkus calls The Lake “An eerie thriller reminiscent of summer horror movies that will keep readers on edge.”
The Gilded Ones
Namina Forna’s gorgeous West African-inspired fantasy epic, The Gilded Ones, took the YA world by storm. Within a day of its release, Netflix had optioned it. It is the coming-of-age story of 16-year-old Deka, who discovers that instead of being an outcast, she is an alaki — an almost immortal warrior with gold running through her veins.
A Queen of Gilded Horns
When asked by Penguin Teen to describe her fantasy duology in just five words, author Amanda Joy says, “Black Girl Magick, family, deadly combat, and Baccha.” In this sequel to A River of Royal Blood, Eva and Issa are two princesses on the run, and the fate of the Queendom of Myre hangs in the balance.
The Electric Kingdom
A deadly pandemic sweeps the globe. Sound familiar? But this pandemic — the Fly Flu — leaves very few survivors. They seek each other out in post-apocalyptic New England, and what they find is life’s most enduring truths — hope, love, beauty, and resilience. This is New York Times-bestselling author David Arnold’s fourth, and most ambitious, novel.