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5 YA books that offer a nuanced reading experience for summer

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Summer is often touted as the season of the "beach read" — a time for fluffy, feel-good books that don't require much from the reader aside from showing up with a floppy hat and a frosty drink.

And while there are plenty of new (and delightful!) books on offer this summer that are perfect for pool-side lounging, the YA releases I'm most excited about offer a more nuanced reading experience — the stuff of sticky, heat-stroke dreams; overgrown, light-saturated wildflower fields; and the twisted alleys of old cities waking from their winter slumbers.

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet by Jen Ferguson

Lou is looking forward to her last summer working at her uncle's ice-cream shack. As a Métis girl growing up in Western Canada, Lou's life has had its share of trauma, from day-to-day racism to the intergenerational damage done to her family by colonialist institutions. But this summer, things will be good. Lou's mom is away on an epic road trip making art and finding her joy, and the sweet boy Lou thought had moved away forever is back in town and working alongside her at the ice cream shack.

But then she gets a letter from her biological father — the man who assaulted her mother and was supposed to stay locked up forever — and suddenly he's back in town and trying to insert himself into her life. The more Lou tries to pull away from the pains of her past, the more she realizes that they run deeper than she realized.

This is a book that asks the reader to walk with Lou through some difficult territory. The story sits with her anger, making space for it, and then traces out a path forward. Lou has to work through a lot to get to the other side — it's like the ice-cream shack promotional materials state: Ice cream is good. But it can't fix everything.

Lou's life is so immersive and is rendered with such specificity that I could practically feel the heat of summer on the prairies on my skin and taste the amazing sounding, color-named ice creams Lou's uncle flavors with local and native plants. I find myself thinking of the characters as if they're going on, living lives beyond the ending of the book. It's a stunning debut.

We All Fall Down by Rose Szabo

After really enjoying Rose Szabo's Adam's Family-esque debut, What Big Teeth, I was intrigued to see what they would do next.

River City is a place not everyone can find: A jeweled island in the center of a river that was once ruled by kings and queens and the magic of powerful witches. But a coup almost 20 years ago killed the magic, and River City has been morphing into someplace strange and sharp, its balance thrown into chaos.

Within the city's shifting confines, four young queer people struggle to find their places. Jesse, a newcomer, makes a home while searching for someone long-lost. Jack works hard as a hired thug, protecting the city's misfits and weirdos. David teaches at the university, studying physics and trying to understand the magic that still lurks in the city's dark corners. And the nameless girl struggles to lead a quiet life, hiding out of sight — because if the good citizens of River City saw her, they would surely revile her as a monster. As they meet each other and slowly grow bonds, it becomes clear that they are all part of an ancient pattern.

I went into this book thinking it would take place in a full-on imaginary world, and was surprised to find that it's really more of a portal fantasy. Jesse's story carries us across the bridge from our world into River City, and I was immediately drawn in by the idea of this magical metropolis hidden in plain sight. I feel like normally, a YA book would focus on the fight where the witches were overthrown, but this takes place almost 20 years later, in the messy unspooling of a revolution with no ongoing unifying goals. It's weird, angsty, and a bit messy — and I was enchanted by it.

The Undead Truth of Us by Britney S. Lewis

Ever since her mother died, Zharie has been seeing zombies everywhere. Living with her reluctant aunt and feeling like everything she's ever hoped for is slipping through her fingers, the last thing she wants is to get involved with her handsome neighbor, Bo. He's trouble on a skateboard, and she's not sure what's worse, the fact that she's falling for him or that he keeps half-morphing into a zombie when they're together.

But maybe if she spends more time with him, she can get to the bottom of what's happening to her and figure out why everyone around her seems to be decaying before her very eyes — because it's getting harder and harder to tell what's real, and what's just in her head.

This is a surreal zombie love story about coming to terms with loss, and it's every bit as strange as it sounds, in the best possible way. It has a certain dream-like quality, even while it's rooted in very specific experiences. I found it impossible to figure out exactly what was going on in Zharie's head, but it didn't matter because it all made fundamental sense emotionally.

Zharie has lost the most important person in her life, and everyone else — from her aunt to her estranged biological father — is failing to give her the support she deserves. The Undead Truth of Us is a portrait of a girl half-dead, and exploration of what it will take for her to fully live once more.

The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R.M. Romero

Ilana Lopez has been banished to Prague to stay with her aunt for the summer and study without distractions. Her one true love is playing the violin and she longs to be a professional musician, but her immigrant parents want her to stop wasting her time and focus on preparing for a more stable career. When she discovers an overgrown Jewish cemetery in her aunt's neighborhood and begins tending to it, she meets the ghost of one of its inhabitants — a boy named Benjamin who died a long time ago but can still enchant her with his kisses.

Then, when a mysterious man without a shadow tries to beguile her with the promise of a special violin and the opportunity to play it as much as she wants, it seems like an answer to her prayers. But she comes to realize that perhaps Benjamin and the other ghosts of Rose Hill are being held there against their will — and the man without a shadow may be the cause.

I think a novel in verse is the perfect way to tell a story about a musician, because the text's rhythm gives everything a lyrical musicality that places the reader so deftly in a musician's mind. I love the gentle flow of this book and its quiet, fairytale sensibility. I love that it layers the tragedies of Prague's past in the same way that stones are layered in an ancient city. I love its tender melding of folklore, history, and modern teen longings.

This is a story of deep hurts delivered with a very gentle, kindly touch.

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert

Ivy lives in the suburbs, right now. She begins her summer break with a car accident and an eerie encounter with a naked girl in the forest. Her mother, who has always been unpredictable and distant, actually does something normal for once and grounds her. But as the summer goes on, Ivy keeps noticing things that aren't quite right. The worst part is, she can't shake the feeling that all the strangeness has something to do with her mother.

Dana grew up in the city, back then. She always had a gift for finding lost items and knowing things before they happened, and when she and her best friends began to hone their talents into magical powers, it seemed like the answer to her problems. But it soon became clear that the magic was out of her control, and the consequences of wielding it would follow her for the rest of her life.

A daughter and mother must now reconcile with the past in order to survive the fallout of their tangled magics.

I know the movie The Craft has an actual sequel, but let's pretend it doesn't so that I can tell you this book is like a puzzle box that somehow contains a more interesting version of The Craft and then reveals what would happen if one of the wayward teen witches went on to have a daughter. It all boils down to the roiling cauldron of mother/daughter issues at the core of this story, and the twisting mystery of it all is very satisfying to unravel. It's clever and sharp and there's a reveal that really tore my heart out. All that plus teen witches — what more could you ask for?

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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