Best Young Adult Books 2021 | SLJ Best Books

Malinda Lo’s National Book Award-winning Last Night at the Telegraph Club, the blockbuster Blackout, and Angie Thomas’s latest are just some of the 25 YA titles that made our Best Books of 2021. 


Young Adult

Abike-Iyimide, Faridah. Ace of Spades.
Feiwel & Friends. ISBN 9781250800817.
Gr 9 Up –When the secrets of two prep school seniors are exposed to the school community via anonymous text messages, they must work together to figure out who is targeting them and why, before things turn deadly. This debut thriller addresses systemic racism, structural white supremacy, microaggressions, class distinctions, and LGBTQIA+ identities.

Bhuiyan, Tashie. Counting Down with You.
Inkyard. ISBN 9781335209979.
Gr 8 Up –Karina, a Bangladeshi American academic superstar, and Ace, a rich white bad boy, engage in a fake relationship that turns out to be very real in this opposites-attract rom-com. The tender love story features candid discussions of mental health, parental expectations, and double standards.

Boulley, Angeline. Firekeeper’s Daughter.
Holt. ISBN 9781250766564.
Gr 9 Up –When Daunis Fontaine finds herself at the center of a far-flung criminal investigation, she has to confront her own family’s past and embrace being a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) to discover the truth. Daunis is an Indigenous Nancy Drew in this perfectly plotted mystery with a focus on life in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, and on the Ojibwe reservation.

Clayton, Dhonielle & others. Blackout.
HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780063088092.
Gr 9 Up –Powerhouse authors Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon intertwine tales of romance over the course of a New York City blackout. Love is represented in many forms—sizzling and sweet—and these resonant entries featuring different Black characters will have readers longing for summer nights and first love.

Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones.
Delacorte. ISBN 9781984848697.
Gr 7 Up –Deka bleeds not red but gold, the color of impurity, during her village’s Ritual of Purity. Because of this anomaly, she is offered an opportunity to join an army of alaki, near-immortals with rare gifts, fighting for the emperor. This debut YA fantasy presents issues of social justice and is full of action and surprises.

Gray, Ayana. Beasts of Prey.
Putnam. ISBN 9780593405680.
Gr 9 Up –Two Black teens must work together as they enter the magical Greater Jungle in search of the Shetani, a vicious monster that has terrorized their village for nearly a century. This debut YA fantasy has memorable characters, an expansive world, and tons of adventure.

He, Joan. The Ones We’re Meant to Find.
Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781250258564.
Gr 9 Up –In a future world ravaged by climate change, sisters Cee and Kasey will do anything to get back to each other in the wake of Cee’s disappearance. Sisterly love is leveraged against the greater good in this gripping and eerily plausible sci-fi thriller.

Jackson, Tiffany D. White Smoke.
HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen. ISBN 9780063029095.
Gr 8 Up –Mari has moved with her family to the Midwest for a fresh start from her past substance abuse. Immediately, she finds the neighbors and the house unsettling. As Mari discovers more about the house’s history, she begins to believe that it is haunted. Combining the eerie racial overtones of Get Out with elements of classic ghost stories, Jackson’s novel will leave readers thinking long after the last page is turned.

Jean, Emiko. Tokyo Ever After.
Flatiron. ISBN 9781250766601.
Gr 8 Up –When Izumi finds out that her father is the Crown Prince of Japan, she is thrust into the world of the Imperial Court, a family that is not the most inviting, and a royal guard that may steal her heart. Part Princess Diaries, part Crazy Rich Asians, Izumi’s story is decadent coming-of-age romantic fiction.

Lee, Victoria. A Lesson in Vengeance.
Delacorte. ISBN 9780593305829.
Gr 9 Up –Upon returning to her exclusive boarding school, Felicity has to confront her own dark past and the Dalloway School’s infamous history with witchcraft. When her offer to help the mysterious and charismatic Ellis Haley research her novel turns deadly, Felicity will have to decide if she should reject or embrace her own darkness. An atmospheric blend of suspense and gothic horror centering queer characters makes this novel a notable addition to the dark academia canon.

Levithan, David & Jennifer Niven. Take Me with You When You Go.
Knopf. ISBN 9780525580997.
Gr 8 Up –Ezra wakes one morning to find that his sister, Bea, is gone. No longer able to handle the abuse of their stepfather and the neglect of their mother, Bea leaves home to find their father. Meanwhile, Ezra remains in their abusive household and tries to survive with the support of his boyfriend and his sister’s ex-boyfriend. Told through emails between the two, this tale of siblings dealing with abuse and an unsure future will not disappoint fans of realistic fiction.

Lo, Malinda. Last Night at the Telegraph Club.
Dutton. ISBN 9780525555254.
Gr 9 Up –As Lily, a Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s, starts to think more seriously about her professional future, a friendship with white classmate Kathleen grows into romance. This novel about first love, sexuality, intersectionality, and self-actualization is meticulously researched and deeply felt.

McBride, Amber. Me (Moth).
Feiwel & Friends. ISBN 9781250780362.
Gr 8 Up –Moth, sole survivor of a car accident that killed her family, and Sani, a Navajo boy with an abusive stepfather, take a road trip to the Navajo reservation where Sani’s dad lives. As they drive, Sani tells Moth the origin story of the Navajo, and Moth opens up about her grandfather, who taught her hoodoo. This emotional, educational debut novel in verse builds to a beautiful ending.

McLemore, Anna-Marie. The Mirror Season.
Feiwel & Friends. ISBN 9781250624123.
Gr 8 Up –Ciela, a pansexual Mexican American girl, and Lock, a white boy who is new to the community, were raped at the same party. Ciela pursues a friendship with Lock to help them work through their trauma. This lyrical book, full of magical realism and layered characters, is an honest and frank look at consent, power, and the aftermath of assault.

Mafi, Tahereh. An Emotion of Great Delight.
HarperCollins/Harper. ISBN 9780062972415.
Gr 9 Up –In Persian, Shadi means “full of joy,” but Shadi’s life is filled with personal sorrows because of her father’s failing health, her brother’s recent death, and the ongoing harassment the Muslim community is facing in 2003. Trapped in a morass of grief and isolation, Shadi will have to reclaim her right to happiness and peace if she wants to move forward and pursue a tentative romance. Mafi’s lyrical prose fills this spare story with pathos and optimism.

Mangle, Bethany. Prepped.
S. & S./Margaret K. McElderry. ISBN 9781534477506.
Gr 9 Up –All Becca wants to do is find a way out of her survivalist community and live a typical life postgraduation. When her father is in a tragic accident and her community becomes even more extreme, it will take everything Becca has to save herself and her little sister. A compelling glimpse into a fringe lifestyle that will have readers anxiously veering between dread and hope.

O’Donoghue, Caroline. All Our Hidden Gifts.
Candlewick/Walker. ISBN 9781536213942.
Gr 9 Up –Maeve hopes that her uncanny knack for interpreting an old deck of tarot cards will be her ticket to popularity at school. Then her former best friend Lily draws a mysterious card before she goes missing. Maeve must delve into the origins of the cards and her own culpability in the disappearance and, with help from Lily’s genderqueer sibling and new friends, try to get Lily back. Original fantasy elements brilliantly combine with mysticism and folklore for an inventive series starter.

Selznick, Brian. Kaleidoscope.
illus. by author. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338777246.
Gr 6 Up –Every spin of the kaleidoscope fragments one story while bringing another into focus with vignette-like explorations of connection and loss. This illustrated collection combines abstract art and short stories as a variety of characters meditate on grief and love.

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been.
Putnam. ISBN 9780593353806.
Gr 9 Up –Held hostage with her ex-boyfriend and current girlfriend during a bank robbery, Nora must use skills learned from years spent with her con artist mother to plan an escape. The book alternates between the current robbery and past scams her mother orchestrated, with the two suspenseful plotlines building to a thrilling conclusion.

Thomas, Angie. Concrete Rose.
HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780063056534.
Gr 9 Up –In this prequel to The Hate U Give, readers learn the backstory of Mav, Starr’s father, and the tough decisions he had to make about fatherhood, relationships, and gang life. With complex characters, sensory language, and high emotional stakes, this book expands on the intricate worldbuilding of Garden Heights and its residents.

Vasquez Gilliland, Raquel. How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe.
S. & S. ISBN 9781534448667.
Gr 9 Up –Moon, a Mexican American photographer, has always played second fiddle to her social media influencer twin. But accompanying her sibling on a cross-country bus trip results in a journey of self-discovery. This poignant coming-of-age story deftly weaves first love, religion, emotional abuse, purity culture, and familial jealousy into a rich narrative.

Velasquez, Elisabet. When We Make It.
Dial. ISBN 9780593324486.
Gr 8 Up –Sarai, a Puerto Rican teen growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, struggles with poverty, her Mami’s mental illness, the gentrification of her neighborhood, and more. Through the poems in this debut novel in verse, Sarai finds her voice as she asks questions and learns to celebrate herself.

Watson, Renée. Love Is a Revolution.
Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781547600601.
Gr 7 Up –Nala hopes to have her first brush with summer romance and finds a possible partner in civics-minded Tye Brown. To impress him, the Black girl tells a few lies about her own activism. Watson’s novel features a young woman comfortable in her own skin but who still struggles with self-love. The honest prose is laced with humor, poetic language, and heart.

Williams-Garcia, Rita. A Sitting in St. James.
HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780062367297.
Gr 9 Up –In this stunning portrayal of a white French family who will do anything to maintain their iron grip around the necks of the enslaved Black people on their antebellum Louisiana plantation, Williams-Garcia has crafted an intense saga. Masterly characterization, nuanced machinations, and incisive language are on full display in this novel that also sheds light on current conversations about race and power.

Yoon, Nicola. Instructions for Dancing.
Delacorte. ISBN 9781524718961.
Gr 7 Up –Evie, a romantic turned skeptic, develops the ability to see the beginning, middle, and end of people’s love stories when she sees them kiss. Meanwhile, she is falling in love with X, her partner in a ballroom dancing competition. This romance that centers on a Black love story is sure to pull on readers’ heartstrings.

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