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Life, death, and football

Gritty and intense but also full of heart and hope, each of these four YA novels stars a teenage boy facing some of life’s most serious challenges.

smith_alex crowAndrew Smith follows his 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award–winning Grasshopper Jungle with the similarly multilayered, ambitious novel The Alex Crow. Fifteen-year-old war refugee Ariel lived through the bombing of his village by hiding in a broken refrigerator. Ariel’s emotionally raw account of his year surviving various atrocities alternates with an often darkly funny account of his six-week stint at the disciplinary Camp Merrie-Seymour for Boys, which he attends with his American adoptive brother Max. Two other story lines converge with Ariel’s: that of a deranged man’s U-Haul road trip and of the ship Alex Crow‘s ill-fated nineteenth-century Arctic voyage. The multiple narratives and original sci-fi elements are anchored by strong prose and a distinct teenage-boy sensibility. (Penguin/Dutton, 14 years and up)

reynolds_boy-in-the-black-suitHigh-school senior Matt, the eponymous Boy in the Black Suit, is mourning the mother who died just before the book begins and the long on-the-wagon father who has returned to drink. At his funeral-parlor job he looks for “the person hurting the most,” hoping that his or her expression of grief will help him deal with his own. While all this sounds like heavy problem-novel territory, it isn’t. Just as in his previous novel When I Was the Greatest, Jason Reynolds writes about urban African American kids in a way, warm and empathetic, the late Walter Dean Myers would have applauded. (Atheneum, 14 years and up)

gardner_deadIknowIn The Dead I Know, another mortuary-set story, Aaron Rowe begins his first job at JKB Funerals. A young man of few words, Aaron takes to his work readily, assembling the coffins and washing the hearse, which helps him temporarily escape the disturbing events at home in the caravan park. After tragedy strikes, he is finally able to accept desperately needed help from the funeral home’s proprietors, who reach out to him through their own pain and loss. Moments of warmth and humor lighten the psychological suspense and frank depiction of death in Scot Gardner’s engrossing novel. (Houghton, 14 years and up)

lynch_hit countFreshman football player Arlo Brodie, star of Hit Count, sets his future goals: varsity linebacker by sophomore year, then college ball for a Division One team, then the pros. Arlo works out like a fiend, gets in super shape, makes varsity, and plays like a man possessed. An alarmingly high hit count, or number of hard blows to the head, forces the coach to bench him, but by that point, the adulation, the workouts, and the thrill of sanctioned combat have become Arlo’s drug, and he’s addicted. Chris Lynch’s unflinching examination of the price of athletic power, with plenty of bone-crunching play-by-play action, is both thought-provoking and formidable. (Algonquin, 14 years and up)

From the April 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katrina Hedeen About Katrina Hedeen

Katrina Hedeen is managing editor of The Horn Book Guide.

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