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5 YA books this winter dealing with identity and overcoming hardships

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Winter can be a good time for reading thoughtful books. It's like the pale daylight and early darkness create a space for stories — in particular for stories that ask the reader to mull over themes and ideas that can sometimes be difficult. It's a time that allows for reading deeply, giving things proper consideration — and sitting with the feelings that can create.

With that in mind, here are five new YA books out this winter that will reward such reading.

She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Raised in America by immigrant parents, Jade reluctantly agrees to spend a summer with her estranged father in Vietnam in exchange for the funds she needs to go to college the following fall. He wants her to help him launch a B&B business in a mansion built by French colonizers over a century before, which he has been painstakingly renovating. But the more that Jade explores the strange house, the more she sees the rot and decay just beneath the surface. Strange dreams convince her that something is haunting the house and fueling her father's uncanny obsession with it, and she realizes that the only way to convince him of the truth is to fake an even more dramatic haunting of her own devising.

In the grand tradition of gothic novels wherein the house itself is a sinister presence, She Is a Haunting dives headlong from creeping suspicion to outright body horror mayhem. From parasitic insects creepy crawling the walls to food that rots in the fridge overnight to nightmarish apparitions that torment Jade in dreams, her father's house digs its claws into her family as it festers beneath the weight of its terrible past.

It's becoming something of a gothic novel trend to use the framework of the genre to dig deep into the history of colonialism and ask the searing question: Who had to be exploited in order to build this grand, imposing house? The more layers that Jade peels back, the worse the answer to this question becomes — and She Is a Haunting is not afraid to tear the house apart and expose all the hidden corruption. This is indeed a haunting book that will make your skin crawl even after you close its pages for the final time.

Saints of the Household by Ari Tison

Brothers Max and Jay have reached a tipping point. As the only Bribri (Indigenous Costa Rican) kids in their community, they have always felt like outsiders, but a recent violent incident has made them true outcasts. When they beat up their cousin's abusive boyfriend — their school's golden boy — in the woods, it was for a good reason, but even they question whether the means they resorted to was the right and good choice. They worry that the trauma they carry from having an abusive father has made them like him. And even as they need each other more than ever to find their way through the unrelenting troubles they face, they begin to drift apart.

Told from both brothers' points of view by alternating between prose for practical Jay and poetry for artistic Max, Saints of the Household is the sort of book you read in one sitting, completely engrossed in the lives of its complicated and immensely sympathetic protagonists. A book that focuses on abuse and the trauma it creates can be a difficult read, but I found that the solace Max and Jay draw from their culture, their extended family, their creativity, and each other was so beautiful that instead of being laid low by the horror of their situation, my heart was full of triumph of their surviving it and finding ways to thrive.

This is a fantastic debut, and I can't wait to see what Tison does next.

Into the Light by Mark Oshiro

As a homeless teen who has been abandoned by his adoptive family, Manny is trying to survive alone on the road. Hitching a ride with the friendly Varelas family in seems like a lucky break. But then a dead body in the news gives Manny a horrifying clue about the location of Reconciliation — the religious compound that he was cast out of, where his sister was left behind.

Meanwhile, Eli lives by the will of his adoptive family and their reverence for Reconciliation. His obedience and devotion is seen as a miracle that proves their beliefs. But the strange thing is, he can't remember anything about his life before Reconciliation. As Manny and Eli's stories draw together, both must face harrowing questions about their pasts and futures.

Like Oshiro's previous novels, Into the Light is a serious and contemplative exploration of identity and trauma. It plays with narrative form, and it eventually becomes clear that we are not hearing the story in an entirely linear fashion — and the truth at its core is only truly illuminated once the characters are ready to face it. Into the Light tackles issues of homophobia, the foster care system, religious fundamentalism, and abuse with a fearless power that makes it feel both unique and important.

Escaping a fundamentalist cult is subject matter that could easily be sensationalized for drama, but Oshiro's gentle and thoughtful storytelling deliberately takes a different path, holding the reader safe even as the journey takes harrowing turns.

Brighter than the Sun by Daniel Aleman

As the only person in her Mexican family with American citizenship, Sol has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. Every day she crosses the border from her home in Tijuana to attend school in the United States and work towards fulfilling the dream of becoming the first person in her family to attend college. But with her family's restaurant failing and money scarce, now she must also take on a part-time job to help pay the bills. To make the intense schedule work, she'll have to live with her best friend in the States during the week. The longer that Sol tries to live between two worlds, the more exhausted and overwhelmed she feels, until she begins to fear that her dreams are impossible to achieve.

Somehow, Brighter than the Sun manages to be a very compassionate and sweet book while simultaneously being absolutely harrowing. Sol is faced with an impossible juggling act, and I was riveted as I watched her try to keep everything in the air, gasping when she fumbled and cheering when she succeeded. The weight of her responsibilities is palpable, and the feeling of her exhaustion and desperation to just get through it left me breathless with sympathy. But even while presenting us with Sol's struggles, the tone never becomes cynical or even angsty. Because at every turn, Sol is cherished and protected by good, kind people who understand her struggle and do their best to help her.

We Are All So Good At Smiling by Amber McBride

While hospitalized to receive treatment for her depression, Whimsy meets a boy called Faerry. They are drawn together by some force that neither understands, until they begin to realize that they have a whole history that has been stolen from them. They were friends before, a long time ago, and the same loss set them on this path. Together they brave the dark forest of their trauma, populated by monsters and spirits that Whimsy has inadvertently conjured up. But it seems uncertain if either of them will find the way through.

After her enchanting debut Me (Moth), McBride became a must-read author for me. This feels like an even more deeply personal book, delving far into the experience of depression through a dream-like fairy tale told in verse. This book cannot be read like a prose novel, moving in a linear fashion from one plot point to the next. It must be read like the poetry it is, drifting from metaphor to myth and feeling rather than knowing. The dark forest has long been a symbol for the things that frighten us, and anyone who has struggled with their mental health will recognize Whimsy's fight to pass through it.

Whimsey's personal mythology is built from stories and folktales from all around the world, and it is what ultimately saves her — this is a story about the power of stories and how they can help us survive the darkest times.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlyn Paxson