Need a hand picking out a book for the young reader in your life this holiday season? You’re in luck — we asked two teen writers to review four of the season’s buzziest young adult titles, from fantasy epics and high school drama to a funny, sweet graphic novel. Here’s what they had to say.
“Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood. Based in Victorian-era Ethiopia, “Within These Wicked Walls” is a dazzling retelling of “Jane Eyre,” steeped in foul curses and rich magic. The plot follows the debtera Andromeda, an exorcist who is hired to cleanse a particularly high-maintenance Evil Eye curse from the wealthy Magnus Rochester’s staggering mansion. Blackwood masterfully fleshes out a hearty magic system adorned with silver amulets and grotesque manifestations of the Evil Eye. Her vivid language is indomitable as she conjures up images of Magnus’ opulent household, the unforgiving desert sands and Andromeda’s internal conflicts. Witty banter and poetic dialogue are skillfully woven into the novel, dishing out the perfect amount of character depth. While the novel holds up splendidly, it unfortunately feeds into the blatantly misogynist “mean girl” trope — a “plastic” love rival who obsessively indulges in vanity, her only motivation being to vie for men. The “mean girl” of the novel is antagonized in the face of Andromeda’s thoughtful (albeit less cosmetically experienced) nature. It is a shame that this story knocks down another woman’s femininity to characterize its main lead as powerful. Outside of this criticism, “Within These Wicked Walls” promises readers a fantastical, edge-of-the seat, swooning-over-Magnus kind of experience.
“The Keeper of Night” by Kylie Lee Baker. Plunging into the world of 1890s Britain and Japan, author Baker explores biracial identity through the character Ren Scarborough, a soul collector who is half-Shinigami, half-Reaper. On the run from the Reapers after being ostracized by them for centuries, Ren plows through killer-hair swamps and beautiful spider-demons, seeking answers about her heritage. The novel brings modern personification to ancient Japanese mythology while exploring timeless themes like death and family. Baker uses flowery yet impactful prose to convey a fascinating plot, but the story line seems to paint Ren’s oppression as an experience inflicted equally by both Reapers and Shinigami. The Reapers ostracize her in order to perpetuate their racial hierarchy, while the Shinigami ostracize her because they perceive her as foreign and an other. Especially important in the setting of colonial Britain, the novel skimps on emphasizing how the mistreatment from Ren’s two sides differ from each other because of historical differences in racial dynamics. Setting aside its shortcomings, however, “The Keeper of Night” is a deeply personal narrative about a girl who goes to impossible lengths just to belong — learning along the way she’s had people she’s loved by her side all along.
— Reviews by Esha Potharaju
“The Falling Girls” by Hayley Krischer. Shade is not like most cheerleaders at her school: She doesn’t have blond hair, her name isn’t Chloe and she has been lifelong friends with quirky outcast Jadis. Krischer doesn’t leave the stereotypical cheerleader characters out of her novel entirely, though — the three lead cheerleaders, all named Chloe, are the face of cheer for the town, and as Shade takes on this new sport, this could be her chance to join their clique. However, after sharing matching stick-and-poke tattoos and confiding in Jadis, does Shade’s desire to gain popularity merit abandoning her “second half”? As Shade straddles two seemingly opposing worlds — her passion for cheer and her high school friendships — unexpected turns along the way reveal her true values and priorities. “The Falling Girls” is a thought-provoking novel about female friendships, touching on themes of manipulation, jealousy, pride and status. Krischer’s three-part novel will keep you on your toes and leave your heart racing as Shade navigates her young adulthood and is faced with tragedy among her teammates.
“Huda F Are You?” by Huda Fahmy. The title says it all. This graphic novel is a quirky story about Huda, a Muslim teenager who moves to Dearborn, Michigan. In her previous school, Huda’s hijab defined her identity and made her stand out, but now, she’s no longer the only hijabi at her school. The other hijabis fit right into their unique cliques — the makeup artists, the gamers, the athletes — but not Huda. Coming from a family with four sisters, Huda has never had the spotlight, and her inability to fit into a social group frustrates her. Fahmy’s comical writing style and amusing graphics balance out the pressing identity crisis Huda faces as a Muslim high schooler in America. “Huda F Are You?” briefly addresses topics like experiencing Islamophobia at school — many racist comments are made, and some are not resolved. Fahmy’s choice to let these comments pass can be representative of a realistic response from a high schooler’s perspective, however, seeing greater character development in Huda’s journey of gaining courage would have offered more closure. Beyond this criticism, this quick read, accompanied by humorous graphics, is a comical yet insightful portrayal of a high schooler’s attempt to define her identity as she navigates religion, family and social life.
— Reviews by Nour Gajial
This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix (teentix.org), a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.