Need a place to start? Here's a list of some of my favorites that combine great writing with reader appeal. This list isn't scientific and lots of things will be left off; this is meant to be a bit of a cheat sheet and a way to dive in quickly. As a preface, I should say I lean toward the edgier, heavier topics, but I'm going to make the effort to toss in some lighter contemporary, as well. I also make no promises on not spoiling the plot on some of these.
Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles
This isn't the first book by Knowles I read, but it's the one that impacted me the most. This is a story of a sick, twisted, unhealthy friendship and the consequences that arise from such a relationship. I didn't like this book, and I hated both the main characters. But you know, that's what made the book work and that's part of why it's so powerful. Lessons from a Dead Girl is less a story than it is a character study, so the plot isn't necessarily over the top nor flashy. It doesn't need to be because the key is the dynamic between these two girls that causes one to end up dead.
High Dive by Tammar Stein
This seems to be one of those books that's always on the shelf and always overlooked. Arden, the main character, is heading to Sardinia to see her family's vacation home for the last time. After her father's sudden death and her mother's deployment to Iraq, they're selling the home. But rather than wallow in the pity she has for her situation, Arden takes a chance to explore Europe with a group of girls who are otherwise strangers to her before saying goodbye. Arden is a fantastically developed character, and the choices she makes in this journey really highlight this weird place she's in, where she must say goodbye to her past and embrace the fact that her future will never be the same. Add to that the backdrop of her mother being in Iraq, and you have a powerful read.
Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
I've reviewed this title in depth, so I won't talk too much about the plot. I've read a couple of Reinhardt's books, and this was the one that really knocked me out, really impacted me in a way I wasn't expecting, and I think it's one of those supremely underrated books. This is a story of brothers, of family, and of the power war has to change everything that once was. I've talked this title at the high school, and it's gone out. It's one you have to sell to your readers, since it's a quiet looking book. And as much as it feels like it could be depressing -- and trust me, there are depressing parts -- it's ultimately got a touch of the positive to it, too. A tear jerker on both ends of the spectrum.
Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg
This might be one of the most underrated books that I've read (and loved). What happens when the guy who is a killer football player and well respected for his game skills happens to be gay? How does he cope with this internally and externally? Konigsberg builds an incredibly well-fleshed main character, and the backdrop of football and jock culture is well tackled. Bobby has a supportive and strong family, and really, this is one of those books that's really good because there aren't any big issues in the book. Bobby doesn't have to dodge drugs or sex or an abusive household. Instead, he needs to confront his true feelings and do so in a way that respects his teammates, his family, and his future as a football player and public figure.
The Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (series)
I've expressed my love for this series before. Murdock's crafted a dynamic character in DJ, a farm girl in Wisconsin who has strong (though challenged) family pull, an interest in sports, and one hell of a head on her shoulders. This clean read is sweet but touches on heavy issues without coming across heavy handed or uncharacteristic. There's romance, a host of life choices DJ must confront, and a family that's about as real as they come. I think of any book I've read, this one's setting is truly a part of the story, and Murdock gets it right. DJ's voice is spot on, and the final book in this series was another teary read for me.
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
I could have picked either of her other two books, which were on my list of favorite reads of 2010, but it's her debut novel that should make the list of "must read" contemporary ya (as determined by yours truly). I was lucky enough to be a part of the judging committee that awarded this book the 2009 Cybils award, otherwise I may have never picked up this story about a girl who removes herself from everything she once loved. Parker's dropped out of cheerleading, her grades are slipping, and her parents are convinced she's going to kill herself. While reading this, I hated Parker, yet I couldn't stop myself from reading the book and finding out why it was I hated her or whether or not I really did hate her. It's an addicting read, and one that we know, since it's a story we know. We know people who fall through the cracks like this, who have something that's deeply bothering them but which they pack away and don't release. This is an unexpected and satisfying read, and a book that begs me to revisit, to see if I still feel the way I did about Parker when I first read it.
Split by Swati Avasthi
Speaking of both Cybils and debut novels, this is another deeply affecting novel. It's a story of abuse and survival, one that will haunt you while you're reading and haunt long after. The writing is strong, and the voice is spot-on male. I think in my initial review, I was a little short-sighted in calling it an "issues" novel, given that this is a story that's beyond single issue. Despite Cybils accolades, I still think this book is highly underrated and underread, despite the fact it has wide appeal for teen (and adult) readers. I've talked this one at the high school, and I've had no problem seeing it circulate. My book club kids have identified it as one they'd love to read and talk about, as well, and I think it's actually quite a strong novel to use in a book discussion.
I Know It's Over by C. K. Kelly Martin
When Nick's prepared himself to dump his girlfriend Sasha, he realizes it won't be as painless as he hoped when he learns Sasha's pregnant. Nick's an incredibly fleshed character, dynamic and emotional without treading away from feeling like a realistic male character, as could easily happen with a story like this. I bought every one of his emotions, felt all of the pain he felt, and believed in what he was doing. Martin's book treads into territory that's apparently taboo and not talked about, which is abortion.
Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick
Another book I've raved about before. But here's something I haven't told you before: it took me two times to get through this book. But that second time was absolutely worth it. I was reluctant. I didn't want to buy it. But I was wrong.
I've used this book in my book club, and I have rabid fans of it. Amber Appleton is the epitome of a fantastic, optimistic, kick ass character, and she is one despite all of the horrible things stacked against her. This is a quieter book, but one that deserves a huge response. And a tissue or two.
I could double the size of this list, maybe even triple or quadruple it. But I'm leaving it at nine titles, four featuring male voices and five featuring female voices. Most have been published in the last year, but there are a handful of older titles. It can be overwhelming to dive into a new genre or reading area when there's so much to choose from, but starting small and then moving forward is the only way to do it. I've tried to offer a wide swath of style and topic and offer exposure to some of the names popping up in the contemporary ya world that are worthy of following.
If you've read any of these, weigh in! And if you know of other must-read recent titles that should be on everyone's radar or in their back pocket for recommendation, leave a comment.