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Learning curves

A new school year means emotional challenges in addition to academic ones. The teen protagonists of these nuanced YA dramas navigate the complex intersections of their school, familial, and social identities. See also our recommendations for middle-school and high-school readers in the 2018 Back-to-School Herald.

Sophomore Darius Kellner doesn’t fit in at his Oregon high school, but he also doesn’t fit comfortably in his own life due to clinical depression, disconnection from the Persian half of his heritage, and constant awareness of his (white) father’s disappointment in him. While visiting his grandparents in Iran, Darius meets Sohrab, and a tender and natural friendship begins between the two young men. Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an affectionate portrait of Iran and an exploration of understanding one’s identity — both personally and culturally. (Dial, 14 years and up)

White high school senior Winter, protagonist of If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say by Leila Sales, faces internet notoriety after a racially offensive post she meant as an ironic joke goes viral. Winter’s reactions to the perceived injustice are squirm-inducing but feel honest to her character. Readers willing to give Winter a chance at redemption will find a thoughtful coming-of-age story that underlines the power of empathy, community, and believing in one’s own capacity for positive change. (Farrar, 14 years and up)

Two teens confront the dangerous sexism entrenched in their elite, formerly all-male boarding school in Brendan Kiely’s dark and timely novel Tradition. After Jules Devereux is sexually assaulted by her influential ex-boyfriend, new (platonic) friend James Baxter resolves to stand up for her. Together, they hatch a daring plot to make a public statement. Alternating chapters from these equally compelling narrators detail two distinct paths of activism. (McElderry, 14 years and up)

In After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay, high school basketball star Benedict (“Bunny”) Thompson transfers to an elite school where he’s one of only six black kids out of a thousand. Ribay alternates the first-person points of view of Bunny and his best friend Nasir and avoids heavy-handedness through authentic-sounding dialogue. The story revolves around basketball, but will have wide appeal as a tale of friendship and tough choices. (Houghton, 14 years and up)

From the September 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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