Jenny is the outstanding and percipient co-host of the Reading the End bookcast. She blogs about books and other sundries at the very entertaining Reading the End, where you can go for even more book recs in genres other than YA. She is also a champion citizen and loves a good order of cheese fries.
February can be a tough month for ace and aro friends, and I’d like to take a quick sec to say that I see and love y’all. And so for this February, I wanted to share a rec list of YA books that don’t have any sex or romance in them at all. Consider it a companion piece to my February 2018 column in which I made a list of YA novels where the youths bang and it still works out okay.
I in fact do not believe that Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace, is exactly YA, but that seems to be how it’s getting categorized, so I am going to GO WITH IT. Because I love reccing this book. It appears to be one of those fantasy books with a sort of grim Middle Ages type setting, but without getting into spoilers, it turns out to be something completely different. It’s about a girl named Wasp, who hunts ghosts. Until one of them starts talking back to her. Archivist Wasp is incredibly good, and Nicole Kornher-Stace has talked about how many people tried to make her add romance to it. She held firm. It’s terrific.
Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song is the book that finally got me in on Frances Hardinge, after years of advocacy by my marvelous friend Ana. Triss wakes up after an accident and finds that her world has become mysterious: Her sister won’t come near her, and there is a mass of pages ripped out of her diary. The sister relationship, which develops beautifully over the course of the book, is solid gold; and the girls also have to enlist the aid of Violet, the motorcycle-riding, no-fucks-giving fiancée of their late brother, who died in World War I. It’s my favorite iteration of England’s national obsession with cuckoo-in-the-nest stories.
How It Went Down, by Kekla Magoon, doesn’t contain any romance because it’s extremely sad, but I beg that you will not let that deter you. How It Went Down did not get the attention I believe it deserves. I WANT TO FIX IT. It’s a Black Lives Matter story that will tear your heart into pieces, told in many voices. Kekla Magoon is just an unbelievably gifted writer. I don’t know what else to say. How It Went Down is a master class.
I’m slightly cheating by including Erin Bow’s The Swan Riders, because you do kind of need to read the first in the series, and that one (The Scorpion Rules) does contain romance. But oh my God, The Swan Riders rocks my world. It takes place in a world where an AI controls everything and has organized it so that heads of state must relinquish one child apiece to government control, with the understanding that if they declare war on another state, their children will be sacrificed. The Swan Riders is a road trip story about our heroine, Greta, fighting for her own humanity and trying to find a similar humanity within the AI, Talis.
Last but very much not least, Sheba Karim’s Mariam Sharma Hits the Road was one of my favorite YA novels of last year, in part because it truly is a FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX!!! story and nothing else. And a road trip! It’s about three Pakistani American best friends jetting off to New Orleans to get away from Ghaz’s parents, who are furious about their daughter appearing on a sexy billboard. I loved this book because it depicts a wonderful array of family and faith and choice, without making value judgments about which one is best: This book knows that there isn’t any "best," only a "best for you." It’s the max amount friendship, without a romance in sight.
February YA Releases I’m Anticipating
Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up (5 February, Balzer + Bray) is surely the most predictable title ever to be included on a list of anticipated February YA. But what can I say? I’m anticipating it! Bri is a rapper and the daughter of a rapper, and she dreams of making her career in music and getting out of the dead-end life that seems to await if she can’t get out of her neighborhood. One of the best quiet things about The Hate U Give was its depiction of class difference, and On the Come Up sounds like it’s leaning into that in the best ways.
The Weight of Our Sky, by Hanna Alkaf (5 February, Salaam Reads), is the story of a Malaysian teenager with OCD who has to brave the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur to find her mother. Can I say that The Weight of Our Sky gives me the same feelings I used to get when I looked at the rows of "Dear America" books at the Scholastic Book Fair? I love the way historical fiction gives me an in to start learning about new-to-me episodes in the past, but I often find it daunting in adult fiction. I can’t wait to read The Weight of Our Sky, and I would dearly love for it to usher in a new era of baller international historical YA fiction.
Having finally read Heidi Heilig’s For a Muse of Fire this month, I find myself in urgent need of postcolonial Fronch fantasy books. Luckily Gita Trelease is here for me with Enchantée (5 February, Flatiron), which follows a girl using her forbidden magic to protect her fragile sister and unpredictable brother. She falls in love with a balloonist so THIS BOOK ALSO HAS DIRIGIBLES. I will always all-caps the dirigible information for you, YA lovers. Dirigibles are important business. Anyway, this is set right before the Fronch Revolution, so I expect high drama.
The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, by Shaun David Hutchinson (19 February, Simon Pulse) gives me that goooooood long title feeling that I always desire. (Is it just me, or is there a fashion on for long titles? I love it!) It’s about a boy named Dino whose ex-best friend, July, comes back from the dead. Ish. Odds that I am going to get this book off the shelf at the library and immediately flip to the end to see if July survives: One hundred percent. July better survive.
The words "boarding school" are a sufficient condition for me to pick up a book, and I can’t entirely believe that that isn’t the case for everyone. Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire (26 February, Katherine Tegan) is about girls who attend a high-class school that will train them to be either heads of household or child-bearers. But Daniela is a fraud: She’s in the school on forged papers, trying to rise above her station, and she lives in terror of being found out and sent back to live in poverty. Then she gets asked to be a spy. Everything about this sounds glorious. I would list it twice if I could.
Last but not least, England’s Emma Press is releasing a poetry book of LGBT reimaginings of Scottish legends. Wain, by Rachel Plummer (28 February, Emma Press), has kelpies and selkies and fairy queens, all whose stories offer imaginative space for queer lives. I got to see a review copy of this book, and it’s evocative and thoughtful and, sometimes, enjoyable creepy.
Tell me some more YA books that don’t have romances! I know I’m not the only reader who loves YA romance but could use a break from it now and then; and I know you’re out there, readers who just don’t want any damn romance in your damn YA! Help me build a comprehensive no-romance YA list!