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2009's Best Young Adult Fiction (Mostly)

During the past decade young adult literature has seen a number of critical and commercial successes that have rejuvenated the genre, transforming it from the redheaded stepchild of the literary world into one of the most dynamic and exciting niches in publishing. The conventional problem novel, once a staple of YA fiction, is now complemented by a variety of genres and formats. Indeed, YA fantasy and nonfiction were exceptionally strong this past year. Nevertheless, characters that are coming of age and struggling to find their place in the world remain a hallmark and populate many of this year's best YA titles. They may be marketed to your teens and tweens, but beware: You'll find yourself reading them just as compulsively.


Charles And Emma

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman, hardcover, 272 pages, Henry Holt and Co., list price: $18.95

To marry or not to marry: That is the question, if not for Hamlet, then for Charles Darwin, who after weighing his options chose to marry his cousin Emma. It was a happy, fruitful union, but not one without division. Emma was devoutly religious, and although she supported her husband in his scientific endeavors, she fretted for his eternal salvation. Charles, for his part, wanted to believe in God, and tried to reconcile science and religion, but to no avail. With empathy, humor and insight, Heiligman proves the truth of the maxim that behind every great man there is indeed a great woman. There have been many Darwin-themed books published this year (which marks the 200th anniversary of his birth). This is clearly the best. (Read about Charles Darwin's struggle with faith, love, and evolution.)


Lips Touch

Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo, hardcover, 272, Scholastic Press, list price: $17.99

In the staggeringly successful Twilight saga, Stephenie Meyer explores the literary territory where fantasy, romance and horror overlap. If the two novelettes and novella that make up Lips Touch lack vampires and werewolves, they scare up the next best things: goblins and demons. In "Goblin Fruit," Kizzy blithely ignores the warning signs that the handsome new student is not quite what he appears to be. In "Spicy Little Curses Such as These," Anamique, who will kill all who hear her beautiful voice, finds that true love comes with a price. And in "Hatchling," Esme wakes one morning to find that one of her eyes has turned blue — and that's the least of her problems. Each story here boasts beautiful illustrations, lyrical writing, wry humor, surprising twists and — of course! — kissing. (Find out exactlywhat kind of girl a goblin wants.)


The Lost Conspiracy

The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge, hardcover, 576 pages, HarperCollins Children's Books, list price: $16.99

Why read seven doorstop-sized fantasies (e.g., Harry Potter) when you can find the same enchantments — fabulous world-building, clever fantasy concepts, intricately crafted plotting, food for thought and characters you can't help but root for — in one compelling stand-alone volume? On Gullstruck Island, the settlers and natives have intermingled to such a degree that virtually none of its residents are from pure stock. Yet class and the ethnic divisions remain. When the Lost, Gullstruck's mystical island guardians, mysteriously die it threatens the stability of the entire island. It's up to Hathin, a young girl from the inconsequential Lace tribe, to find her addlebrained sister (quite possibly the last remaining Lost), derail the conspiracy and unite the island in time to avert further tragedy. (Read about the strained relationship between the tribes on Gullstruck Island.)


Marcelo In The Real World

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, hardcover, 320 pages, Scholastic Press, list price: $17.99

If you madly adored the quizzical narrator of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, here's one that might be just as good, if not better. Marcelo, who, like Haddon's young hero, falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, has made a deal with his dad: If Marcelo works in the mailroom at his father's law firm for the summer, he can remain in his comfort zone for his senior year, attending the special ed school he has been enrolled in since first grade. Otherwise, he'll be mainstreamed into a regular high school. The summer job brings Marcelo new friends, but also a host of ethical dilemmas that he is ill-equipped to cope with, and as he comes dangerously close to making the wrong choices the tension in the story ratchets up another notch. (Marcelo describesthe "mental music" that plays in his head.)


When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, hardcover, 208 pages, Random House, list price: $15.99

What happens when you throw seemingly disparate elements — school story, time travel, mystery — into a single novel? Rarely do they come together as wonderfully as they do in Rebecca Stead's engrossing short novel. At home, Miranda, a latchkey kid in Manhattan, is helping her mother prepare for a stint on the popular game show, The $20,000 Pyramid, by quizzing her every chance they get. At school, the sixth-grader is dealing with the constantly shifting friendships and crushes that are part and parcel of early adolescence. Even more disconcerting, however, is the crazy homeless man who stands outside her building and the cryptic notes she begins to receive. A strange new classmate and his vexing observation about Madeline L'Engle's 1963 classic A Wrinkle in Time prove to be the clue that ties everything together. (Read about Miranda's preparations for her mom's game-show appearance.)

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Jonathan Hunt