"Ashfall" by Mike Mullin
Tanglewood Press, 476 pages, $16.95
Ages 12 and up
Apocalyptic books are always an entertaining diversion because they force you to imagine a dystopian future where society has gone horribly awry. Life, in most of these books, is generally so skewed from our current reality, the read becomes a marvelous exercise in fantasy. "Ashfall," however, takes place just a moment from now and what makes it so particularly chilling is that it's based on a premise that is just a little too realistic for comfort. Not so far below the surface of Yellowstone National Park lies a simmering supervolcano that has created the park's famous geysers and scalding hot springs. Some scientists predict an eruption may happen any day now – and the resulting rain of ash, fires, climate change and dust would be devastating to the U.S.
Alex, a teenaged computer geek living in small-town Iowa, is looking forward to the weekend. His mother, father and bratty younger sister have just driven out of state, leaving him alone to enjoy his video games in peace. But only a few hours after they left, Alex's world is upended. A relentless storm of cinders and rocks is unleashed upon the unsuspecting community. After a terrifying night spent in his neighbors' bathtub, Alex awakes the next morning in an ash-coated world where people who weren't killed by the supervolcano's eruption must scrap and forage for their lives. There is no electricity or wireless communication, cars cannot drive on the piles of ash, and most of the food from surrounding farmlands has been destroyed.
Quickly realizing that he doesn't have much hope for survival in his decimated house, Alex sets off by foot and by ski, trudging through wet, slimy ash, to search for his family. Along the way, Alex fights for survival, eventually teaming up with a resilient young travel partner. In this debut novel, Mullin nails the horror of trying to survive in a gritty, bleak atmosphere and yet still manages to subtly capture the thrill for a teenager who only subconsciously recognizes this rare opportunity for supreme freedom. "Ashfall" is a thrilling modern quest that will draw in readers of all ages.
"Pregnant Pause" by Han Nolan
Harcourt Children's Books, 352 pages, $16.99
Ages 14 and up
Sixteen-year-old Elly is pregnant. Her parents are about to leave for another long missionary stint in Kenya, but before they do, they give Elly a choice: either travel with them or marry her stoner boyfriend, Lam. Elly chooses the latter and ends up moving with Lam into a desolate cabin where they will work for his parents at a weight-loss camp for kids. Elly, who is fiercely independent and outspoken, reluctantly settles into her new life, questioning her own decisions at every turn.
Nolan, National Book Award-winning author of "Dancing on the Edge," has created a deeply nuanced portrait of a young woman on the brink of crisis. This unpredictable novel cleverly explores teen pregnancy without ever falling into maudlin or preachy territory. Elly emerges as one of the strongest voices in young adult literature on the subject.
"Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories" edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones
HarperTeen, 384 pages, $9.99
Ages 13 and up
In this harrowing nonfiction collection, 70 authors have come together to share their memories of being bullied – and of bullying others. From verbal torments while riding the school bus or walking the halls to nasty telephone calls to physical abuse, these authors reveal it all. In the vicious cycle of school bullying, no one is safe. Whether you play the victim, bully, sidekick, silent observer or protector role, it's clear from these poignant stories that anyone who has ever been witness to an episode of bullying has been scarred for life. Some of these authors (overwhelmingly female) describe the shame of being bullied; others describe the guilt held over for decades for being the one who perpetrated abuse upon others. This is a timely book for anyone wondering how to finally break these cycles as bullying climbs to ever-nastier heights thanks to social media.Ellen Hopkins, R.L. Stine, Lauren Oliver, Melissa Walker, Aprilynne Pike and Mo Willems are among those who contributed to this masterful collection.
"Stick" by Andrew Smith
Feiwel and Friends, 304 pages, $17.99
Ages 14 and up
Stark "Stick" McClellan was born with a deformity: he has only one ear. This has led to any number of hallway scuffles, but Stick's brother, Bosten, has always been there to defend him. As a result, Stick loves and admires Bosten more than anyone else on earth. However, the boys have been raised in an atmosphere of severe abuse and neglect, and Bosten knows that time is ticking for him to escape before he is permanently injured by their parents. When a friend leaks an important secret about Bosten to the boys' violent father, he manages to run away, leaving behind his vulnerable younger brother. Stick must now find Bosten before it's too late – and he also must finally defend himself along the way if he has any hope of saving his brother.
This is a dark yet redemptive tale from the author of "The Marbury Lens."
"Every You, Every Me" by David Levithan; photographs by Jonathan Farmer
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 256 pages, $16.99
Ages 12 and up
A teenager, crushed by the strange disappearance of a close friend, starts to unravel as he uncovers a series of disturbing photographs that place him at the center of the mystery. Only one thing is for certain at the beginning of this novel: Ariel is gone, and Evan is devastated. But, the reader does not know at first what the relationship is (or was) between Evan and the girl ̵ or where she has gone. Evan reveals his angst in the first-person narrative and the photographs are scattered throughout the book as he finds them. As it becomes clear that Evan is at risk of losing his mind, the reader becomes a sleuth, drawn ever more into the novel's mystery. Thanks to the luminous combination of engaging narrative and spooky photos, this unique psychological thriller is haunting.
Kristin Kloberdanz, former TIME magazine reporter, is now a freelance writer on books for teens.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun