Best is, of course, a subjective term, but a reflection on what you’ve read at the end of a given year will tell you a number of things.
Like which books make you smile when you think about them. Which books you wish you could shove into other people’s hands immediately. Or which books would make for the best comfort reread. And of course, which books absolutely destroyed you, in the best way possible.
These are the books that helped make my 2021, and I’d love to hear what made yours!
The City Beautiful
I blurbed this book as an author, calling it “the haunting, queer Jewish historical thriller of my darkest dreams,” and truly, I can’t sum it up any better than that. Set at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, it stars Romanian Jewish immigrant Alter, who’s just trying to get by while making enough money to bring his mom and sister over to America.
But when a murderer targeting Jewish teen boys strikes close to home, and Alter’s body gets invaded by the vengeful spirit of the newest victim, he’ll have to find the killer if he ever wants to get his life and body back. (For another great queer historical from 2021, check out National Book Award Winner Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, set in Chinatown in the 1950s.)
When We Were Infinite
There are two kinds of YA readers: those who know Gilbert is one of YA’s best authors right now, and those who haven’t read her yet. Of course, part of devouring her work is letting your soul simply be sucked out of your body, one painful breath at a time, but isn’t that why we read?
This newest absolutely beautiful contemporary stars Beth Nakamura, who’s trying her best to keep her tight-knit group of friends together, even if it means never getting to share her true romantic feelings with one of them. But when she witnesses him—Jason—being abused at home, the entire group has to shift dynamics to keep him safe, making Beth consider just how much she’s willing to sacrifice for his place in her heart and her life. (For another excellent emotional contemporary involving abuse and its effects on a group of friends, check out Tonight We Rule the World by Zack Smedley.)
It Goes Like This
If a YA Daisy Jones and the Six with an all-queer band sounds like your jam, you just might love this debut as much as I do. It follows the four former members of Moonlight Overthrow, who’ve scattered in different directions since their monumental implosion. While Eva continues to relive the glory anonymously in their fandom, and Gina and Celeste pursue even greater fame, Steph’s fallen completely off the map.
But when a storm destroys their hometown, Steph convinces them to reunite for one last show to raise money to rebuild it, forcing them to confront everything from a brutal romantic breakup to what it means to have once been a girl band when one of you no longer identifies as a girl. (Another great pick for music lovers? The anthology Battle of the Bands, edited by Lauren Gibaldi and Eric Smith. Yes, it’s exactly what the title suggests, and it’s delightful.)
Ace of Spades
This debut thriller stands up with the best of them, alternating perspectives between two overachieving Black teens at an otherwise all-white prep school who suddenly find themselves the targets of blackmail. At Niveus Academy, Chiamaka has always been a star, and Devon has always known that his dream future lies at Julliard. But when both face a blackmailer determined to take them down, they’ll have to work together to keep everything from spiraling wildly out of control.
But can they, or is this an enemy far too big for them to face? (For some other great thrillers from this past year, check out The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe, The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, and The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, sequel to the fabulous The Inheritance Games.)
Related: 7 Popular Book Series for Teens
The Heartbreak Bakery
Capetta has one of the widest ranges in YA, with gorgeous books spanning from romantic murder mystery to contemporary fantasy to sci-fi, and most recently landing here, with a speculative romance that’s every bit as warm and delicious as the baked goods sprinkled throughout.
When apprentice baker Syd goes through a breakup and puts all those Feelings into baked goods, the clientele has no idea what they’re in for. Turns out, Syd baked some magic in there, and now relationships are getting ruined left and right. Syd needs to figure out how to make things right and also figure out other Feelings…for a certain very cute bike messenger. (For another great lightly fantastical romance, albeit a much less fluffy one, check out The Mirror Season by magical realism maven Anna-Marie McLemore.)
Don't Hate the Player
I may not be a gamer, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of this esports romance between Emilia, an underground pro on a stellar team, and Jake, who recognizes her at a competition and threatens to blow her perfect high school life apart. Besides having an absolutely adorable romance, all the best parts of gaming are there, from action scenes to the fantastic social dynamics of the group chat.
Combine that with a great voice and thoughtful commentary and you’ve got a serious winner. (For more great contemporary romance from this past year, check out Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli, A Pho Love Story by Loan Le, and Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa.)
The (Un)popular Vote
This one’s for all the politics nerds out there—the teens who are passionate about student government and clubs like Model UN in particular—and definitely for fans of the Netflix show The Politician. It stars Mark Adams, a congressman’s son who’s starting over stealth at a new school but finds himself soaring into the spotlight when he decides to run against a bigoted classmate for student body president.
Now Mark has to walk the extremely fine line of showing everyone who he is without showing anyone another part who he is, all in the name of running a strong campaign. But as he makes closer friends, finds love, and runs the risk of being outed anyway, his priorities shift, too. (For more great trans YA set in high school that also deals with both extracurriculars and coming out, check out Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve and The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons.)
Keep Reading: 32 New YA Books to Read in 2022