Since my life is YA lit, the YMAs (Youth Media Awards, presented at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference) are kind of like my Oscars/Emmys/Academy Awards all rolled into one. The William C. Morris Award is given by YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association) and “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” There were so many excellent YA debuts this year that I don’t know how the committee managed to narrow it down, but I thought it would be fun to pick my own favorite debuts for the Morris finalist this year. A few people asked for my picks, and after much deliberation I came up with this list before they officially announced the finalists last Thursday. Here are my picks, organized by publication date. Book descriptions are from Amazon.com.
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a
professional musician — not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder
still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of
fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life.
With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town
for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for
two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys
headed for the California gold rush.
Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to
their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when
they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn
out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new
setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not
many places to hide on the open trail.
My thoughts: I love Lee’s lyrical prose and the relationships between all of her characters. It was great seeing a part of history I don’t read about often from the viewpoint of a Chinese-American girl.
Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out — without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.
Incredibly funny and poignant, this twenty-first-century coming-of-age, coming out story — wrapped in a geek romance — is a knockout of a debut novel by Becky Albertalli.
My thoughts: The voice and characterization really make this book. It is at times hilarious and at times heart-wrenching, but what struck me the most was how authentic and complex every relationship (friendships, siblings, parents, and of course the romance) was. This was also one of those right book for the right reader at the right time reads for me — I’d been wanting to read it for a while, and finally got my copy at a time when I was really stressed and looking for a fun, light read. Albertalli delivered, and I’m so glad the Morris committee agreed.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier — and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined — and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
My thoughts: Though dark, this book is also filled with hope. The writing is gorgeous, the setting intriguing, and the plot gripping. I love recommending this to older teen and adult readers who are looking for dark fantasy.
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again — but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.
When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.
Why does happiness have to be so hard?
My thoughts: This book packs a huge emotional punch. I love that it takes place in the Bronx, with lower-income minority characters that I’d like to see more of in YA fiction. A lot of my library’s patrons would identify with Aaron and his friends, and I’m quick to recommend this to the right readers.
What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler*
Critically acclaimed memoirist Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice, takes an unflinching look at what happens to a small town when some of its residents commit a terrible crime. This honest, authentic debut novel — inspired by the events in the Steubenville rape case — will resonate with readers who’ve ever walked that razor-thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.
The party at John Doone’s last Saturday night is a bit of a blur. Kate Weston can piece together most of the details: Stacey Stallard handing her shots, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early. . . . But when a picture of Stacey passed out over Deacon Mills’s shoulder appears online the next morning, Kate suspects she doesn’t have all the details. When Stacey levels charges against four of Kate’s classmates, the whole town erupts into controversy. Facts that can’t be ignored begin to surface, and every answer Kate finds leads back to the same questions: Who witnessed what happened to Stacey? And what responsibility do they have to speak up about what they saw?
My thoughts: I would love to lead a discussion with high school teens about this book. There are so many great things happening in this book — discussions of consent, examinations of feminism and rape culture — and the writing itself is gorgeous. I’ve seen a few other librarians mention this as a favorite “quiet” book from 2015 (an excellent book that isn’t getting the buzz they feel it deserves). I really hope it reaches more readers. I know I’ll be recommending it.
*I’m not 100% sure this would qualify as a finalist, since Hartzler previously published a YA memoir. However, this is his first work of YA fiction.
I’ll admit, I haven’t had a chance to read all of the finalists yet, but I’ve heard good things about all of them. And I was VERY close to putting Conviction on my own list, so I’m thrilled to see that it made the committee’s cut!
December is the month of lists, and I think it’s easy for writers to get discouraged when their books aren’t on all the lists they’d like them to be. Just remember that reading is hugely subjective. Only one of my choices for the Morris finalist appeared on the list, but I’m still going to recommend all five of the above to friends and library patrons who I think would like them.
That said, what books would you choose as finalists for the Morris Award? What are your favorite books of 2015?