Some people look down on young adult lit. Those people are, shall we say, “full of it.” YA lit is sometimes simple, but more often than not it’s cutting edge in its portrayal of diverse characters and issues for a generation growing up in a very confusing world. Also, it can be just plain fun, full of big dreams and even bigger emotions. Join this week’s book club for a look at some of the new stars of YA.

1. This Is Not a Love Letter by Kim Purcell ($18): Jessie is a white girl from the even poorer part of her depressed, paper-mill town. Chris, her boyfriend, is one of the few black students at their high school; smart, pacifistic, and popular, he’s about to head off to college on a baseball scholarship. But it’s the little things about him she loves, like his dimple, their shared enjoyment of morning “eye crusties,” or the weekly love letters he sent her, each “folded into perfect little airplanes.” Three weeks ago, though, something terrible happened; Chris went for a run by the river, and was jumped and beaten up by a group of guys from their rival high school, an incident that he claims was “about baseball.” Despite a broken rib, he refuses to call the police, asking Jessie to tell everyone he fell.

All of this certainly doesn’t ease Jessie’s fears or their fights about what’s going to happen after graduation, so she asks Chris never to run in the area again, and proposes a one-week break to refocus on the decisions they’ll make for the future. During the break, though, the unthinkable happens: Chris simply vanishes, and Jessie has to help spearhead the investigation. This includes getting the police to actually investigate, and revealing the violence and harassment Chris has faced. Unfortunately, many people don’t want to believe her, and would rather spread rumors about Chris not being as good a guy as Jessie knows he is.

“I don’t care where you went or what you’re doing; I just want to know if you’re okay. We all do. I mean, who does this? I’m starting to feel kind of weird. Desperate, if you want to know the truth. It’s like when I get a mosquito bite. You’re always telling me to leave it alone, but I can’t stop itching until it bleeds. Right now you’re my mosquito bite. Isn’t that romantic?” Unlike Chris’ weekly missives, Jessie’s book-long letter isn’t a love letter; written in the form of a continuous message from Jessie to Chris, it’s a chronicle of her hopes, fears, and guilt over a situation that is anything but clear-cut or easy.

2. The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos ($18): If Jessie’s book is a letter, Macy’s book is a dictionary. Macy, a 15-year-old of Puerto Rican heritage, has to deal with more than most. Her father is in prison, her baby brother was remanded to a foster home by CPS, and her mother, who is “always never” leaving, sleeps with men who express a little too much interest in Macy as well. On top of this, school is no picnic, as Macy struggles with compulsions, ADHD, and a learning disability. She gets in trouble for arguing with her teachers, and crossing out all the words in the history books that she feels have nothing to do with her.

Rather than studying her history book, Macy is more focused on the definitions that make up her life, writing each incident as an entry linked to a word, like the simple-yet-so-complex “Am”: “Am I disturbed? School says I am. Social worker says I am. Teachers say I am. The paperwork with the words Individualized Education Plan (IEP) says I am. ‘Maybe we could get some money for this,’ I hear my mother say, peeling off the IEP paperwork from the kitchen table. She sits down. ‘Your father got some when he busted his knee moving furniture.’ ‘Cha-ching,’ I say. I mean, if being crazy is worth anything we’ll be billionaires.”

The most sympathetic teacher at school, Miss Black, encourages Macy to keep writing; other teachers try their hardest but see her as a bother, unnecessarily aggressive and rude. But what’s a girl to do when the world seems to deserve her fury? “Miss Black, my English teacher, says that to prove your point you have to give many examples,” Macy writes, and between her parents’ behavior, her best friend not talking to her, and her plate’s constant emptiness, Macy has plenty of reasons for her disturbance. Her definitions show that there’s way more to understand beneath each label.

3. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; illustrated by Jim Tierney ($17): Albert’s fascinating fantasy debut is already hitting many best-of lists. “My mom and I lived like vagrants, staying with friends ‘til our welcome wore through at the elbows, perching in precarious places, then, moving on. We didn’t have the luxury of being nostalgic, we didn’t have a chance to stand still. Until the year I turned seventeen, and Althea died in the Hazel Wood.” Alice has lived most of her 17 years as a nomad, traveling around with her mother Ella. They can’t seem to catch a break. Alice has never met her reclusive grandmother Althea, but when her mother receives a letter reporting Althea’s death, Alice recounts, “The news hit me like a depth charge, a knot of pain in my stomach that kept expanding.”

Her mother, though, feels this could change things for the two of them, and it does, but not in the way she hopes for. Yes, they get the Hazel Wood estate, Alice’s lifelong idyllic daydream, but it’s not all well-manicured lawns and pools. In fact, it’s something a lot more sinister. See, Althea was the author of a book of fairy tales that achieved cult-like status for its twisted and dark stories. The Hinterland, where the stories are set, is a harsh and unforgiving world, but at least it’s fictional. Or is it? Alice’s mother disappears, and someone who claims to be from the Hinterland is responsible. All Alice is left with is a message from her mother telling her to stay away from Hazel Wood.

Alice is determined to get her mother back, even if it means having to spend time with biracial geek Ellery Finch, a classmate who’s obsessed with Althea’s stories. What will happen if Alice ventures to the land of a grandmother she’s never visited and an estate she’s never seen? Focusing on the importance of relationships between women, this is a fractured feminist fairy tale for all ages.

What books make you feel all the things? Tag us in your next youthful read @BritandCo.

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