In three new young adult novels, one a debut and the others by veteran award winners, the settings matter as much as the captivating protagonists.
Boston University writing teacher Kathryn Burak’s first novel, “Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things” is a lyrical and erudite tribute to Amherst’s most famous resident.
Teenager Claire has suffered so much in her short life that she has become “accustomed to the Dark” as Emily Dickinson wrote. Her mother committed suicide and her best friend, Richy, went missing within months of each other. She and her professor father move to Amherst for her senior year of high school where her English assignments draw the attention of handsome student teacher Sam Tate. Claire finds inspiration for her writing by sneaking into the Emily Dickinson house. However, when Claire accidentally steals Dickinson’s dress, her crime becomes a catalyst for friendship, romance, and healing.
The many coincidences surrounding the mystery of Richy’s disappearance distract from Burak’s elegant writing. Nonetheless, this is a contemplative novel that should be read as deliberately as a poem.
“Safekeeping,” the newest title from MacArthur genius award and Newbery medalist Karen Hesse, is a heartfelt survival story constructed of text and Hesse’s own black-and-white photos.
Vermont teen Radley Parker-Hughes had been volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti, but when the American president is assassinated she returns home to a country ruled by emergency law. Radley’s stalwart parents are not there to meet her at the airport, nor are they in Brattleboro after she makes the long walk home, living off of dumpster food and sleeping in the woods to hide from the police and other people. Radley decides to leave her empty house behind, taking only a few possession and some of her famous photographer mother’s images, and escape to Canada. On her journey, she meets and befriends sharp-edged Celia. Once across the border, the pair scramble out a living: stealing from gardens, hiding in an abandoned school house, and relying on gifts left by a benevolent neighbor, “Our Lady of the Barn.” There they wait: Celia for her painful memories to subside and Radley for the moment when she can see her parents again and her regrets will finally be quieted.
Hesse’s America is different from the broken nation portrayed in other recent YA novels. This one is messier: more like our present world, more in the tradition of Orwell than “Hunger Games”; its plausibility makes it scarier. Children of New England will appreciate how she has rendered the familiar strange: Manchester, N.H. is a ghost town, Route 101 is a fraught obstacle course, and Canada becomes a mystical haven.
Some pages have all the qualities of a well-done picture book: the image and the words together tell the story. However, there are some parts that are jarringly disconnected (for instance, a close-up of cauliflower when the girls are devouring raw broccoli). Nonetheless, all of Hesse’s photos have a haunting quality to them, a sensation of loneliness, and an appreciation of unexpected beauty that gives insight into Radley’s mind.
This story is permeated by a quiet, contemplative quality. Readers are right there with her as Radley discovers her strength, the importance of connection, love, and the best version of herself. “Don’t waste your precious life with regrets and sorrow,” Our Lady of the Barn advises her. “Find a way to make right what was wrong, and then move on.” Ultimately, Radley does just that.
Maggie Stiefvater’s books keep you up late even on weeknights; they can even make you miss subway stops and bump into people on the sidewalk. “The Raven Boys,” the Printz-honor winning author’s latest novel and a series opener, does not disappoint.
Sixteen-year-old Blue Sargent is the only non-psychic in her rural Virginia household of women. When her mother, aunts, and friends warn her that if Blue kisses her true love he will die she does not doubt them. Despite her rule to stay away from “raven boys,” privileged students from the Aglionby Academy, Blue finds herself caught up with four of them after she takes part in a St. Mark’s Eve ritual where she meets a boy who will die within the year. Could he be her true love? Is there any way to prevent his death?
All of Blue’s raven boys, to quote Walt Whitman, “contain multitudes.” Gansey is the kind of guy who could charm conversation out of a mannequin; he’s a natural leader and able to maintain a perfect façade even when wracked with uncertainty. Ronan is self-destructive and angry. Adam is a smart scholarship student who desperately wants to be so much more than he is. And Noah is a “smudgy” boy with a secret. As Blue observes, “There was something hungry about all of the boys.”
Gansey’s hunger comes from his quest to find Glendower, a Welsh nobleman whom he believes was buried in the mountains of Virginia along ley lines, conductors of magical energy. Legend has it that whoever awakens him will be granted a request. However, Blue and the raven boys are not the only ones with an interest in rousing the ley lines, and their mission becomes a pulse-quickening matter of life or death.
“Now, it was real. Magic existed, and Adam didn’t know how much that changed the world.” After a final showdown in the woods, where the ley line’s power becomes violently clear and the recovery of Glendower a real possibility, Blue and the raven boys discover that magic changes everything.
Chelsey Philpot, a book review editor at School Library Journal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.