Best YA and Middle Grade Books of 2016

All year long I’ve shared my reads with you, but now we get to get down to the good stuff: the best books of 2016. In order to make the lists manageable and catered to your interests, I’m breaking down the year’s best reads into three categories: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Middle Grade/Young Adult. One thing to note: my Best Of lists consist of the best books I read in 2016, but is not limited to books published in 2016. Okay then, let’s talk kid lit!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Young Adult

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

When I read the last sentence and closed this book, I took a deep breath. I knew it would take me some time to come to terms with it (in the best way possible). If you had asked me at different points in the book what I thought, I would have given you three different answers. In the first third of the book I was slightly confused and more than a little worried. Both the format and the writing style took some getting used to. Told from the perspective of twins Noah and Jude, the story alternates both in narrators and timing. Noah tells the before, when the twins are 13 and everything they know about life and each other seems to be changing. Jude narrates the period 3 years later, after their world is torn apart. Nelson has the uncanny ability to write straight from a teen’s brain. It was confusing at first, but once I dialed into it, I loved it. This was my pick for book club and I was feeling anxious that I’d made a terrible choice! In the middle of the book, after getting used to the writing style and getting deeper into the story, I was hooked. And the last third of the book? I couldn’t stop. It’s been a long time since I was so absorbed in a story that I knew I couldn’t sleep until I’d finished the book, but that’s exactly what happened with I’ll Give You the Sun. I literally gasped out loud at one point, and was sorely disappointed that, at 1 in the morning I didn’t have anyone to talk about the book with! I sobbed at the end, as Noah and Jude make each half of their story whole in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to remake their world.

Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys

Salt to the Sea taught me about an epic historical event I knew absolutely nothing about (and I bet you don’t, either). In this historical fiction novel for young adults, we learn about the terrible tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Arranged by the Germans, the ship was to be salvation for over 9000 German refugees fleeing the Soviet army. Instead it was sunk by Russian torpedo, resulting in the largest loss of life in a single ship history. And I’d never even heard of it. Told in alternating viewpoints as several characters make their way to the ship, it’s a riveting and heartbreaking story. It came highly recommended and I now know why. It’s marketed for teens (and content makes it best for 14 and up), but it’s so solidly written and researched that any fan of historical fiction, regardless of age, will enjoy it.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Teen crushes, Dolly Parton, small town Texas, and an over-the-top beauty pageant … what more could you ask for in a delicious YA book? I stole this one from Elena’s book shelf and devoured it faster than one of the red candy suckers hunky Bo leaves for Willowdean in her locker. Willowdean is used to not fitting in and she’s fine with it. Being the overweight daughter of the town’s former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet winner is Willowdean’s claim to fame, and she’s happy to not draw any more attention to herself than that fun fact already does. The pageant is her mom’s thing, who’s gone from crown-winner to crown-giver as the head of the pageant. Willowdean is comfortable in her own skin and in being the sidekick to her cute best friend, until the attention of Bo and a rift with her BFF leave her unsure about everything. She can think of only one way to get her confidence (and maybe her best friend) back: entering the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. Willowdean and the charming characters of Clover City, Texas won me over in the first few chapters. This book deserves a tiara of its own!

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Jessie is floundering. In less than two years her life has been turned upside down. Her mother died. Her father eloped to a widow he met online. And now, in an effort towards new beginnings, her father moves them from Chicago to LA to live with their new family. It’s all going wrong and Jessie can’t fit in to save her life. Then she gets an email from someone calling themselves Somebody/Nobody (SN). SN seems kind and helpful, offering to be Jessie’s guide to her new school and everyone in it. But should she trust SN? Does SN really have her best interests at heart, or is this just another cruel trick played by classmates? Things get complicated as Jessie begins to have feelings for SN, just as she’s getting a small foothold on her new life.

This is exactly the kind of YA I love: smartly written, but not too serious; funny, but not silly. I’m also finding I have a new appreciation for books set in LA now that I’ve been there. I took this book to the beach with me and it was perfect for reading in short bursts in between sunning and swimming.

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

More like This is What Fluffy YA Fun Looks Like. Smith’s book read like a modern-day version of my tween/teen daydreams: Quiet girl-next-door strikes up flirty (yet completely anonymous) relationship with boy via email, thanks to one mistyped character in an email address. Boy, who happens to be world-famous teen-heartthrob, figures our where girl lives and convinces the producers of his next big movie to film on location in girl’s small town. Will they fall in love in real life? Can they survive jealous friends, meddling agents, and keep their relationship under wraps? OH, THE DRAMA. But it totally works and I loved it. Elena loved it, too.

Middle Grade

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

You guys, I did it! I finally read Harry Potter! I don’t know why I waited so long, but you can bet it won’t take me as many years to read the rest of the series. I read the first book as my pick for “A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF” in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. Both Mike and the kids have been begging me to read the books for years. Since finishing the first book, I also got through The Chamber of Secrets by listening to the audio version on our way to the beach. The audio versions, narrated by Jim Dale are fantastic. My goal for 2017 is to finish the series (I’m on Book 4). I’m hoping if I finish them next year and I’m very, very good, I’ll earn myself a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2018!

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Mysterious, nuanced, sad and relatable … those are just a few of the words that come to mind after finishing When You Reach Me. I read this aloud to Eli, and we both found ourselves wanting to read just one more chapter to get us closer to figuring out the many mysteries in Miranda’s life. Will her mom win the $20,000 Pyramid? What’s up with the Laughing Man? Why does her best friend, Sal, suddenly want nothing to do with her? And most troubling, who is leaving letters for Miranda and what will happen if she ignores them? I remember Elena trying to read this one on her own in 4th or 5th grade and declaring it “too creepy” to finish. It does have a dark side, but when read aloud and given the opportunity for discussion I think it’s perfectly appropriate for 3rd grade and up (although Eli did groan at the mention of kissing).

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

I want to give Vanderpool all the gold stars for writing a book that manages to grapple with tough subjects (autism, PTSD, grief, and adolescence) beautifully through relatable and endearing characters. Jack Baker is adrift in his new boarding school in Maine. A grieving Midwest boy struggling to fit in, he finds a friend in the most unlikely of boys, Early Auden. They set out together on the Appalachian Trail together for very different reasons, learning valuable lessons about friendship, trust and the deepest kind of love. I read this aloud to Eli and we were both hooked. He loved the plot line of two boys on a quest, while I swooned over some of the best writing and dialogue I’ve found in a middle grade book.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

I’ve never read anything like this Newbery Medal Winner by Kwame Alexander. Written in verse,  a genre that I would typically pass over. But it came highly recommended, and I thought the topic (basketball) would appeal to Eli. We both loved it. It made us laugh, think and talk about some tricky issues regarding relationships, and cry. Alexander tells the story of twins Josh and Jordan. They both love basketball and they’re fantastically good at it, thanks to passion, genetics and the coaching of their father (a former professional player). Junior high brings big changes to the boys and their relationship: girls, competition, rivalry and worries about their father’s health. Their struggles and their story would be compelling on its own, but the writing style takes it to another level. I’d recommend this book to just about anybody (I bet the audio version would be fantastic!), but I’d enthusiastically put it in the hands of reluctant young male readers.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo is a master at writing books for children that adults will love. She’s also extremely gifted at writing books that make wonderful read-alouds. Despereaux the mouse may be small (even if his ears are extremely large), but he is mighty and brave when it comes to his love for the Princess Pea. Nothing can stop him from rescuing her – not the deep, dark dungeon, the rats, the butcher knife, or his own family’s betrayal. But it’s in the journey in which he learns what’s really important: love, loyalty and soup. Eli wasn’t captivated by the first couple of chapters, but I urged him to give it a few more nights of reading … and he was hooked. We especially love the character of Miggery Sow. Not only is she fun to read as a narrator, but she speaks to the heart of what all children want: to be heard and seen.

What did you and your kids read and love in 2016?

Best YA & Middle Grade Books of 2016

 

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My Favorite Online Resources for Pretty Much Everything

When it comes to living in this digital age, it can feel like a modern-day Dickens novel:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”

We have access to so much information (The best!), and yet how do we sift through all of it to get what we need? (The worst!) How do we figure out which resources to trust and which are full of nonsense? We have everything at our fingertips, and yet when we really need help, answers, advice or inspiration, it can feel like nothing quite fits.

The internet is obviously not one-size-fits-all, and I can’t claim that I’ve got it all figured out. However I do feel as if over the years I’ve been able to curate a list of trusted sources on the internet. I’m able to rely on these sites for the areas of my life in which I most often seek information. I recommend them so often to so many different people I thought it would be handy to have them all in once place.

As a reader, I hope you find at least one resource in this post that makes your information-loaded life just a little easier or brighter. I’ve included a brief description of why I love the particular site, as well as a link to an example of the kind of useful information that makes them so wonderful. And if you happen to stumble on this post and you’re responsible for creating the great content on the resources listed below? Thank you so very much! You make my life easier and brighter! Enjoy.

The best online resources for media, travel, fashion, food and home. These are my favorite places to turn online for advice and inspiration.

WHO I TURN TO ON THE INTERNET FOR ADVICE ON:

Movies, Shows, Apps & Media for Kids

Common Sense Media: I’ve been using this site for years, and it’s never let me down. Wondering if that latest release in theaters is too scary for kindergartners? Have fond memories of The Goonies, but wonder if language could be an issue? Search movie titles on Common Sense Media and they’ll give you detailed information on it all: consumerism, sex, violence, language and more. I’ve also used it to check out video games before purchasing them for Eli. Beyond reviews, the site is also a wealth of information and inspiration for how you can use media wisely in your family. I don’t subscribe to many newsletters, but I do receive the newsletter from CSM and almost always find something relevant and useful.

Example: The New Guide to Managing Media for Tweens and Teens

Books (For Kids)

Brightly: This lovely site, launched last year in partnership with Penguin Random House, is another bright spot in my inbox. The site is full of advice, inspiration and book recommendations to help parents grow lifelong readers. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teen, you’ll find something of interest here. I’m always finding titles, old and new, to add to Elena and Eli’s reading lists. I especially enjoy the Brightly newsletter. Not only does it link to new content on the site (and you can tailor the newsletter for the age and stage of your own readers), but they always include some interesting links from around the web.

Example: 10 Books for Kids Who Only Want to Read Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Books (For Grownups)

Modern Mrs. Darcy: I’m relatively late to the MMD bandwagon, but now that I’m on it I wonder how I lived without her! I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s book recommendations for sure, but I love her writing about life and motherhood as well. Her site is very well organized, and her reviews are thorough and extremely helpful. I also highly recommend her new podcast, What Should I Read Next? It’s always entertaining and down-to-earth, and it never fails to send me to my To Be Read List to add yet another title.

Example: 11 Books That Are Better in the Spring

MomAdvice: You can find all kinds of great content on Amy Allen Clark’s blog, but for years she’s been my go-to resource for book recommendations. If she gives something 5 stars I know I need to read it! Amy reads lots of new releases, many before they’re published, so if you like to stay on top of the latest reads you’ll especially appreciate her reviews. I also enjoy her interviews with authors and tips for getting more reading time in a busy life.

Example: February 2016 Must-Reads

Travel

Pinterest: I know that it seems as if Pinterest would be a classic information-overload trap, however I find it extremely useful in planning trips. I can’t think of any other online resource where you can find so many unique resources for travel, whether it’s across the world or in your own city. My tip is to use keywords judiciously when searching. For example, instead of typing in “New York City,” type “New York City with Kids,” or “3 days in New York City,” or “Where to eat in Chinatown.” That will help both narrow down your results as well as home in on what’s most important in your travel experience. I always advise that you search as specific as possible, and if that doesn’t get the results you want then broaden your search.

Example: My Pinterest boards, of course! (I recently organized my travel boards to make them easier to search.)

Trip Advisor: I always turn to Trip Advisor when researching hotels and restaurants. I love all the filters: you can search by location, amenities, best for families, cost and more. Once you have your search parameters set you can sort them by their ranking or price. I don’t typically book my hotels through the site (I’ve always been able to get the same deal or better by calling the hotel directly), but it helps narrow down the choices to my top few and then I go from there. You can also search your destination for top restaurants and things to do. I find the reviews on Trip Advisor to be very thorough and helpful.

Fashion Advice

The Mom Edit: Fashion blogs are tough, and so very personal. Everyone’s style, life circumstances, age, budget and body size are so different, making it impossible to say one fashion site is THE one for you. I’ve subscribed to dozens, and this is the only one that’s stayed. I think that’s because Shana uses a team of moms as contributors, meaning you’ve got several different body types and styles to pick from. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff on here I would never wear, but the Mom Edit team often gives me ideas for ways to wear what I already have or ideas of a few pieces I could add that would take my style up a notch. The Dressing Room Selfies posts are my absolute favorites. (FYI, if you’re looking for Capsule Wardrobe inspiration, Mom Advice has that covered really well.)

Example: Athleta Dressing Room Selfies

Cooking

America’s Test Kitchen: I wrote a round-up post last year about why I make dinner and how I use different resources to make meal planning and meal prep easier. These suggestions were featured in that post, along with some others. I did want to post a quick update on America’s Test Kitchen. I recently received a full subscription to the website (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.) and it’s been a game-changer. I still love and will never give up my cookbooks, but having the entire ATK archive in one place? Fantastic. If you’re looking for a huge resource of well-researched recipes in just about every category you can imagine, ATK is your one-stop shop. Consider me a life-time subscriber.

The Kitchn: The recipes on The Kitchn are top notch as well, but I also appreciate the extras on the site: tips on kitchen organization, meal planning, and just general advice on all things food related.

Example: How I Use Google Sheets for Grocery Shopping

Serious Eats: Serious Eats, despite the name, doesn’t take itself as seriously as ATK or The Kitchn. That doesn’t mean I don’t pin at least 20 recipes a month from their site! As I mentioned in my New York City post, their city food guides are fantastic, too. I especially love anything written by J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt for The Food Lab Series. Many of his well-researched recipes have become Meal-Plan All-Stars.

Example: Bar-Style Tortilla Pizza

Home Management and Design

Apartment Therapy: Apartment Therapy is also the home of The Kitchn, and I love them both for their clean, concise articles. There’s a ton of content on AT, and I probably only read less than 25% of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not adding value to my home life. They’ll often run a series of posts that are helpful in cleaning and organizing your home, such as the January Cure. I appreciate that they feature real homes that people of all walks of life live in, which gives me practical and useful inspiration for my own home.

Example: Living Room Geometry: the Basics of a Well-Balanced Room

Design Mom: I mentioned Design Mom in one of my book review posts, after reading Gabrielle Blair’s book How to Live With Kids: a Room-by-Room Guide. Like Mom Advice, Gabrielle’s blog is so much more than one thing (in this case, design), but this is an area where her content really shines for me. Her weekly series “Living With Kids” is always so interesting! I hate to pigeonhole this blog into one category, as I save and use the information from so many of her posts in my daily life … it’s a good one.

Example: Living With Kids

It’s your turn! Tell me about a resource you consistently turn to on the Internet and how it’s most helpful in your life.

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Same Old Song, Different Dance

Last week Elena and I found ourselves sitting across from a cheerful fellow. Eager to shake my hand, he introduced himself as the man who would see us through to Elena’s graduation from high school. He’s her high school counselor, and we were there to schedule her freshman classes. He must be completely immune to the look of panic in parent’s eyes at this first introduction. I can assure you it was there, and it didn’t phase him one bit.

Preparing for high school as a parent

I’ve long been a fan of the mantra “The days are long and yet the years are short.” Lately, however, I feel a strong urge to change it up a bit: “The days are short and the years are even shorter.” I’m not upset to find myself here, in my 40s with a high schooler. It’s how this parenting thing works, after all, and it’s much better than the alternative of not making it to this point in one piece. I just want to make sure we get through this next phase in one piece, too. I want to do it well, ensure smooth sailing, and make sure we don’t want to claw each other’s eyes out when it’s all said and done. Basically, I want complete and utter control of the situation, which isn’t how this parenting thing works.

Parenting a teenager feels like learning choreography to a dance where the moves keep changing. Up up left back. Repeat. No! It’s up up left front! God, mom! (Cue eye roll and annoyed sigh.) Even when you get it right, you’ll end up wrong a few beats later. When you get the moves right you’re elated. We’re doing it! We’re making it look so easy – isn’t this fun? And then you say something in the wrong tone, or they do something super boneheaded, and you’re stepping on each other and falling on your asses.

Parenting teenagers

I was enamored with parenting books when my children were small, and then they all but disappeared from my nightstand. Now they stack up and tumble over, their titles an insight into what’s plaguing my soul and turning my hair grey: How to Hug a Porcupine, The Secrets of Happy Families, Unspoiled, Untangled. I used to be obsessed with picky eating and crafting the perfect sleep schedule. Now I want to shout at my old self: It doesn’t matter!!! Who cares if they eat peas or took good naps? It matters that they don’t end up in jail or dancing around a pole. Where’s that book, hmm?

But there is no book that will magically get me through these years. Nor is there a magic formula, a sure-fire method or a guarantee. She’s her own person, who will make her own choices. We’re her parents, who are doing the best we know how. There’s only one guarantee: she’ll screw up and so will we. We’ll love her and embarrass her and remind her that we have her back. She’ll love us and embarrass us and say awful things about us to her friends behind our backs. That’s how this parenting thing works.

I hated junior high and truly enjoyed high school. It’s where I found friendships that still endure, first love, and opportunities to pursue passions that still bring me joy. Elena’s face lit up when the counselor suggested an alternate class for her, one that speaks to her love of creating and performance. She’s a good kid, and I feel pretty sure that she’ll find her own way in high school. I also feel pretty sure that it will be completely unlike the way Mike and I experienced high school, or what we imagined for her.

Parenting teenagers

By the time I walked out of that meeting with the counselor, my panic was gone. I can’t believe we’re here, for sure, but at the same time I’m so glad we’re here. When we’re not tripping over each other, we’re having a good time. I enjoy her company and she makes me laugh. She’s going to be leaving us sooner, rather than later, and that will probably suck. And then we’ll move on to the next phase and wonder if we’re doing it right. Same partner, different song, completely different moves. That’s how this parenting thing works.

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