Young Adult Speculative Fiction for the Holidays

Growing up in my family, there were always books under the Christmas tree, and some of my most treasured gifts throughout my life have been books. I clearly remember the year I got a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories for Christmas. I believe I also received a bicycle that same year, and after appropriately admiring it, I ignored it as I sat down on the floor by the Christmas tree to read my book. Books make great gifts for any occasion and offer an opportunity for the giver to connect with the recipient in a more meaningful way. That book from a favorite aunt, uncle, or grandparent might just become a treasured heirloom.
Here are my recommendations of ten books that would be great gifts for teens who love fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative fiction.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition by J. K. Rowling. I’m cheating a bit with this one, because Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone predated the Cybils and thus was never nominated. However, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was nominated in 2007, and I feel confident that Sorcerer’s Stone would have been nominated had the Cybils been around in 1998. This new  edition is packed full of lush, full color illustrations by Jim Kay. It  would be a great gift for Harry Potter fans, as well as for younger fantasy fans just reaching the age to appreciate Harry Potter for the first time.
Any book by Cory Doctorow. Few adult writers are as tuned in to modern teens as Cory Doctorow. His books are suspenseful page-turners that look at social justice issues in a way that respects teens as thinking, reasoning individuals. In Little Brother (2008 nominee) a young hacker gets accidentally arrested and tortured by Homeland Security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. In For the Win (2010 nominee), a group of young gamers risk their lives to take on the forces running electronic sweatshops in Asia, where young gamers work long hours in poor conditions “gold farming” — earning in-game rewards that can be sold by their employers for real money. Pirate Cinema (2012 nominee) looks at the conflict between young, creative digital artists and the corporations who control intellectual property rights, as a young filmmaker gone underground leads a political and digital revolution.
Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry (2010 winner). Zombies continue to be popular, and this would be a great gift for fans of The Walking Dead or other zombie stories. 15-year-old Benny Imura has grown up in a town protected by fences from the zombies outside, and he barely remembers the time before the zombies. He does remember his older brother Tom abandoning their mother, so he’s not thrilled about having to apprentice with Tom as a zombie hunter. From the finalist blurb: “Part dystopian, part action-adventure apocalypse tale, but most important, a tale about the relationship between two brothers. It’s a zombie book but one with serious heart in a surprisingly complex and heartwarming tale. It is a story that makes you think of who the real monsters are and gives more than zombies something to chew on. “ Sequels: Dust & Decay (2011 nominee), Flesh & Bone (2012 nominee), and Fire & Ash (2013 nominee).
His Fair Assassin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers. Set in a historical time period but with speculative fiction elements, this series will appeal to both historical fiction fans and fantasy fans. Set in late 15th century Brittany, a fictional convent of assassin nuns who are the daughters of Death work to help young Duchess Anne of Brittany keep Brittany free. Each of the three books — Grave Mercy (2012 nominee), Dark Triumph (2013 finalist), and Mortal Heart (2015 nominee) — follows a different protagonist and tells a different part of the story. These books have something for almost everyone: action, adventure, political intrigue, romance, gods personified, and assassin nuns. 
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011 nominee). Ransom Riggs wrote a story around a collection of odd and slightly spooky vintage photos, such as a child who appears to be levitating or a girl with two reflections in a pond. Although it sounds like a gimmick. it’s actually an immersive story which is both haunting and suspenseful. The excellent writing draws you in, and the photographs add an additional dimension. The story follows Jacob,  who travels to Wales following his grandfather’s mysterious death, and discovers a sanctuary for Peculiar Children, who each have some special ability or trait. The children are in hiding, but their sanctuary may be no longer safe, and Jacob and the Peculiar Children must use their abilities to save themselves and possibly the world. There are surprises at every turn in this book, so the less said, the better. Sequels: Hollow City (2014 nominee) and Library of Souls (2015 nominee).
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (2013 winner). Set in a futuristic Brazil, The Summer Prince is a dystopian story unlike any other. The city of Palmares Tres is a matriarchal society, and every year a Summer King is selected who will symbolically rule alongside the women for the year, although he has no real power, and at the end of the year the Summer King is ritually sacrificed. This year the Summer King is beautiful, passionate Enki, who is determined to use whatever influence he has to help his people. Enki is helped – and loved – by both young artist June Costa and her best friend Gil. From the winner’s blurb: “Character and setting are buoyed by beautiful writing and a story structure that encourages discovery. The book also stood out for its large cast of people of color and healthy depiction of bisexuality, both of which are underrepresented in YA. Johnson packs so much into her novel: love, friendship, family, the conflict between generations and genders, class and privilege, the transgressive power of art. While Palmares Tres and its culture may seem strange to readers, these themes are universal. The end result is a multi-layered story that will resonate with many teens.”
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by William Shakespeare and Ian Doescher (2013 finalist). With the imminent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many people are revisiting the older movies in preparation. What better way to relive the original Star Wars than with a Shakespearean version? From the finalist blurb: “If the Bard were alive today, he would surely have written the epic story of a young man’s search for identity amidst a galactic battle for freedom — and the larger tragedy of his father’s descent into darkness, redemption, and death. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars turned out to be so much more than the gimmicky book we initially assumed it would be. Ian Doescher has imbued every line of this book with his passion for, and understanding of, both the Shakespeare and Star Wars canon. It goes far beyond just mimicking Shakespeare’s language: from Darth Vader’s introspective monologues to R2-D2’s Puckish asides, this is truly Star Wars the way that Shakespeare would have written it.” Sequels include The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return. There are also versions of the prequel trilogy, which are surely superior in Shakespearean form to the movies?
The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton, and Maggie Stiefvater (2012 finalist). A great gift for aspiring writers, fans of any of the three authors, or anyone who loves short stories. This is an excellent collection of fantasy and paranormal stories by three popular YA authors. Most of the stories are strong, and the collection is worth buying for the story value alone. However, what makes it really stand out are the notes and drawings which give the reader a peek inside the minds of the authors and their writing processes, as well as the relationship between the three authors.
The Living by Matt De La Peña (2014 winner). From the finalist blurb: “What starts as a way for Shy to earn money to help his family back in a small town close to the San Diego/Mexico border turns out to be a horrific ride when the dreaded ‘Big One’ hits the West Coast. Added to the mix is a deadly disease that has killed not only Shy’s grandmother, but others. The Living has a gripping plot featuring a Mexican-American protagonist and a cast of diverse characters. It starkly portrays racism and classism among the rich cruise patrons, and the greed that drives some in power to commit questionable acts. Sure to appeal to reluctant readers with its multi-layered characters and action-packed scenes, this novel nails the horror of being caught in a disaster and portrays the courage and strength that can come when people are faced with terrible odds.” Sequel: The Hunted (2015 nominee).
The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking series) by Patrick Ness (2008 nominee). In my opinion, one of the best YA series of the past decade. The Knife of Never Letting Go is a suspenseful book with a gripping pacing that will leave you forgetting to breathe. It’s also a deep and provocative story that examines themes of war and oppression, and asks questions like: Do the ends ever justify the means? And if one side is evil, does that make the opposition good? Right and wrong aren’t always clear, and it’s hard to know who, or what, to believe. If you buy the first book, you’ll want to buy the whole series, because each book ends on a cliffhanger that will leave the reader wanting to immediately start the next one. Sequels: The Ask and the Answer (2009 nominee) and Monsters of Men (2010 nominee).
— Sheila Ruth