One of my favorite things about YA literature is the way it talks about the unique challenges of teenage life. As people come of age, their entire world shifts and changes around them. YA has always celebrated that change while acknowledging that it can be tough to grow up, whether it’s through the lens of a real-world setting, a spaceship, or a fantastical kingdom.
But some books choose to merge the real and fantastical together with compelling results. In my latest book, The Deck of Omens, the five modern-day teenagers at the center of my story must defeat the monster that’s tormented their families for generations—while coming to terms with their individual grief and trauma.
Here are five of my favorite works of YA fiction where characters have to balance magical destinies and dangerous supernatural problems alongside contemporary issues real teens face every day.
Havenfall by Sara Holland
Maddie Morrow’s family was fragmented when her mother was accused of her brother’s murder, leaving her traumatized and lonely. The only times she’s felt safe since this tragedy are the summers she spends at her uncle’s inn at Havenfall, Colorado… which just so happens to sit at the gateway to other worlds. Maddie’s beloved uncle serves as the Inn’s caretaker, an ambassador between all of these worlds, and Maddie wants nothing more than to be his successor one day. But this summer, she might just get her wish a little sooner than she planned. And she’ll learn that everything about her uncle’s job, in this world and all the others, is more complicated than she ever realized.
Holland balances Maddie’s yearning for a home and a family with the magic of Havenfall, where fantastical politics, intrigue, and a mysterious murder are just as important as Maddie finding first (and maybe second?) love and delving into her family’s tragic history. For many teens, home is a fraught concept that evolves as they grow up. Maddie begins her journey willing to do anything to protect the only place that’s ever felt like home to her, but the more she learns about the history of Havenfall and her own family, the more she realizes it’s never been that simple. Only by learning the truth about her past and making her own way forward—not following in someone else’s footsteps—can she figure out her place in the world, as both a young woman and a potential ambassador between realms.
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
This first installment in the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy follows Alex Mortiz, a Brooklyn-dwelling teen with a magical destiny. But unlike some of the other protagonists on this list, Alex doesn’t want anything to do with her magical powers. Her sisters, Lula and Rose, are comfortable with their bruja heritage. But they don’t have the memories Alex has—of a power that drives away the people she loves and causes nothing but pain and sorrow. All of this comes to a head during her Deathday celebration, where, instead of embracing her power, she casts a canto so powerful that it erases her entire family. Saving them means traveling to Los Lagos, a land of spirits, monsters, and dangerous enemies.
It is so easy to blame yourself for things that happened when you were a child, regardless of how much you were actually at fault. Alex’s exploration of her trauma and unraveling of that guilt places a journey of grief, acceptance, and healing alongside an immersive magical quest, creating an irresistible combination of emotional truth and speculative wonder. Plus, the stories of sisters Lula and Rose are continued in Bruja Born and the forthcoming Wayward Witch.
Witches of Ash and Ruin by E. Latimer
Dayna Walsh is struggling to control her somatic OCD, deal with being outed as bisexual in her conservative Irish town, and handle her oppressive, religious father. Her secret life as a member of the local witch coven provides a welcome escape from her worries—until witches begin to turn up dead. A famous serial killer called the Butcher of Manchester is back, and this time, his targets include everyone Dayna loves. She’ll have to work with a rival coven (which happens to include an annoyingly pretty witch) in order to keep everything she cares about safe.
Latimer seamlessly merges Dayna’s contemporary teenage problems with her budding magical powers and the escalating stakes of the murders, while juggling a complex cast of characters. Witches and gods collide in this layered tale that’s equal parts magical mystery, gritty contemporary fantasy, and a queer coming-of-age romance. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel.
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Older’s first installment in the Shadowshaper Cypher trilogy follows Brooklynite Sierra Santiago, a young descendant of shadowshapers—people who imbue art with ancestral spirits—as she deals with real-world social justice issues alongside a supernatural killer who’s hunting other shadowshapers. And if she can’t stop the killer, she just might be next.
Older is an incredible talent, and this talent is on full display here, seamlessly blending the real and the fantastical—particularly when navigating how art and magic are inherently intertwined. The cast of characters are instantly compelling; standouts include girlfriends Tee and Izzy and love interest (and fellow artist) Robbie. The way Sierra balances her own creative dreams and her community’s expectations for her is a journey many teens will relate to. Coming of age often involves moving from a passive participant in your own life to an active one—something that’s threaded deeply through every aspect of Sierra’s emotional journey. Watching her connect more deeply with her Afro-Boricuan heritage and start to come into her own as both an artist and a shadowshaper makes for a compelling beginning to a dynamic series.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Yadriel is a brujo with a problem: He’s summoned a spirit who won’t leave him alone. A spirit who just so happens to be Julian Diaz, an extremely cute bad boy with some loose ends to tie up before he’s ready to move on. Set over the course of Día de Muertos in an East LA brujx community, Cemetery Boys chronicles Yadriel and Julian’s journey to try and put the latter boy’s spirit to rest.
In addition to handling the supernatural, debut author Thomas delves deeply into Yadriel’s journey of seeking acceptance as a trans boy in his brujx community. Yadriel knows exactly who he is, and his family’s ancestral magic knows, too—but convincing some members of his community is proving a bit more difficult. There is such honesty and heart on every page of this book, and readers across the world will feel affirmed and seen as they get to know Yadriel.
Originally April 2020.
Born in New York City but raised around the world, Christine Lynn Herman subscribes to the firm philosophy that home is where her books are. Currently, Christine and her books reside in Cambridge, MA, along with her partner and their extremely spoiled cat. You can find her in the nearest forest trying to figure out how to become a tree, at www.christinelynnherman.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @christineexists. You can learn more about her latest book, The Deck of Omens, here. Readers can pre-order copies of The Deck of Omens from Christine’s local independent bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, along with other national retailers.