EW talks YA: A brilliant rom-com tops our roundup of impressive new teen tales
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations for the biggest new YA titles. Looking back on May titles, our top pick is a rom-com that doubles as a perfect commentary on these anxious political times. But we’ve got plenty of other great reads to talk about, too. Check out our roundup below, and in case you missed our column from April, we’ve got you covered.
May’s Top Pick: Amelia Westlake Was Never Here, by Erin Gough
Dubbing anything a “#MeToo era” product can often feel reductive —limiting the impact and importance of the movement, while simplifying the given work at the same time — and yet, I can’t help but situate Amelia Westlake Was Never Here within that context.
Using her own high school prank as inspiration, Erin Gough has crafted the perfect YA novel out of a rising tide of resistance sentiment. It’s set at an elite Australian private school that has a lot to answer for: a girls’ swimming coach sexually harassing his students, an English teacher grading on personal biases, a homophobic school board trying to ban same-sex relationships at the annual school dance. Teacher’s pet Harriet Price and anti-establishment artist Will Everhart team up in an unlikely partnership to create Amelia Westlake: an imaginary student who, through a series of antics and cartoons, brings the administration of their elite private school to task. Amelia is there to hold the school’s feet to fire; the hoax gains such traction in the student body that she begins to take on a life of her own beyond Will and Harriet’s efforts.
Amelia Westlake’s pranks are deftly outlined by Gough, and the increasingly harried lengths the girls have to go to enact their aims are never less than entertaining. Amelia’s tactics begin simply, but eventually veer into more daring territory; that they still feel entirely executable by teenagers is a credit to the book’s authenticity. Amelia Westlake has a romantic undercurrent, too, tapping into Harriet and Will’s unlikely but undeniable attraction to each other. The pair bristle at injustices that have happened before and will happen again, a familiar struggle that makes their fight all the nobler.
The novel is a zippy, heady reminder of the power we have inside ourselves to speak truth to power, to lash out at a system that has lured us into a false sense of comfort. It’s particularly meaningful that Gough chooses to combine the already strident outrage of Will with Harriet’s gradual journey from accepting the status quo to actively devising her own plots for change. It gives a potent glimpse at the capacity for acknowledging one’s privilege and taking meaningful steps to try to even the playing field. Gough’s true gift, however, is her ability to take a tale about power, privilege, and protest, and avoid anything that feels polemical or preachy. Instead, she’s crafted a love story steeped in social justice that feels fresh, funny, fierce, and full of hope. —Maureen Lee Lenker
Girl Gone Viral, by Arvin Ahmadi
“I’m not a loser, not a victim, but a girl with a voice.” This declaration by Opal, the fearless 17-year-old cyber heroine of Girl Gone Viral, encapsulates the fiery blend of girl power and tenacity at the forefront of the stylish novel. Much like the tech noir series Mr. Robot, Arvin Ahmadi’s new novel explores the inner-turmoil of a character who’s alienated and conflicted, but whose superior skill of navigating the online world allows her to thrive and exert power where she otherwise has little.
Set in the near future, the thriller follows the teen, a senior at Palo Alto Academy of Science and Technology, as she searches for her father who went missing seven years ago. Determined to uncover the truth about his disappearance, she attempts to track down his elusive business partner, Howie Mendelsohn, but the tech giant manages to evade her.
When afforded the opportunity to meet Howie by entering the Make-a-Splash competition on WAVE, a virtual reality social media site he created, she assembles a group of her gifted classmates and fights for the honor. But what starts as a simple data hack, in order to tip the scales in their favor, quickly spirals into a deeper mystery than they ever imagined.
Opal’s team of cohorts each have their areas of expertise; their ability to weave their skill sets together proves to be one of the story’s central highlights. Much of Ahmadi’s skill lies in his knack for world-building with a level of detail that allows the reader to share in his imaginative visions and uniquely crafted concepts. But Girl Gone Viral is, at times, a bit inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the milieu of the virtual world, making it difficult to stay connected to the emotion that drives the story.
Yet the steady stream of suspense proves constantly engaging. The Down and Across author’s sophomore effort also offers pointed social commentary on how the web has both elevated and hindered the lives of young people while affording some the ability to impact social change – even if it means being subjected to the sometimes-cruel cycle of being an internet sensation. —Justine Browning
We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal
We at EW have been eagerly anticipating Hafsah Faizal’s debut novel, an epic fantasy set in the Middle East. And here’s one of those gratifying moments where I can say it really delivers on all fronts. This book carries social importance — bringing magic and curiosity and complexity to the Arab world is still hardly done in Western pop culture — but beyond that, We Hunt the Flame is just an exciting, surprising read.
The book centers on Zafira, who lives in the increasingly desperate conditions of a caliphate called Demenhur. She saves her community from starvation by acting as the Hunter, with her ability to navigate the Arz, a cursed forest most wouldn’t dare enter. The catch? She dresses up like a man — women are oppressed in this world, and while her actions are life-saving, they aren’t enough to transcend her social conditions.
Demenhur and surrounding caliphates in the kingdom of Arawiya can only be saved by one thing: an artifact that will restore magic to the land. The plot point, admittedly, is familiar. But as with Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone last year and other recent breakouts, it’s within the imagined world that this book feels fresh and alive. Faizal mixes original ideas in her fantasy with motifs of ancient Arabia, populating it with ideas and myths and creations that really pop on the page. And the author further sets apart by really luxuriating in her prose. This is about as lyrical as YA gets; Faizal pulls it off by taking her time, favoring thematic exploration over plot thrills. (“Maybe the tiny lions were merely ornaments, a display of pride for the victory over a man who defied men, only to be slain by women.”)
Flame develops into a romance between Zafira and the man who’s tracking her, Nasir, a killer who serves his autocratic father. Yet from their first interaction, the heat between them proves too scalding to resist. Then: Another, greater enemy makes its presence known — leaving the pair as unlikely, uneasy allies, forced to endure plenty of will-they-or-won’t-they tension. Faizal traffics in story lines that have become staples of contemporary YA, and she gets a little narratively boxed-in by the conventions. I found myself wanting a bit more from her characters, too, the same richness she applies to her setting and its elements. All quibbles, though, for a book that introduces a sparkling new talent in the field. —David Canfield
Bright Burning Stars, by A.K. Small
A.K. Small’s debut novel, Bright Burning Stars, is basically YA catnip: BFF ballerinas at a prestigious ballet academy where they’ve nicknamed the dreamiest male dancer “The Demigod.” But luckily enough Small’s exploration of the ruthless dance world is a lot darker and more nuanced than simply checking out men in leotards (which thankfully it still has plenty of).
The heart of the story is the friendship between Marine and Kate, both top dancers at the academy for wildly different reasons. Those reasons echo deeply into their respective personalities and past traumas. Marine is almost saint-like in her disposition, still mourning for her long-deceased twin brother and fastidious in her commitment to practically existing on air alone. Kate’s the opposite; she’s not only a live wire, one that could spark or snap at anytime, but she’s also a bottomless hole of need (much of which stems from the loss of her mother). She tries to fill herself with dance, drugs, and dudes.
After spending years together, the final year where one dancer will join the corps de ballet, Marine and Kate need to decide if they’re willing to give it their all (and this does mean everything) for The Prize. Small’s attention to detail — the minutiae of Marine and Kate’s lives in the academy — is beautifully written, and both the propulsion of the drama between Marine and Kate and their own demons make this book compulsively readable. Small only leaves you wanting more from her ballet focused world. —Kerensa Cadenas