Thank J.K. Rowling for starting the kid's book craze with "Harry Potter" and Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" saga for perpetuating the trend that has more adults reading children's titles than ever before. The year 2011 has seen an explosion of books catering to this ever-expanding bimodal audience, not only in novels for young adults but increasingly in titles for middle-grade readers, elementary schoolers, even the preschool set. Whether they're penned by the growing legions of bestselling authors who are now writing for a younger audience, or first-time novelists with intriguing stories to tell, this year has been a boon for the genre.
Young adult continues to be white hot, due in no small part to Suzanne Collins' hugely popular "Hunger Games" trilogy, which has triggered an avalanche of dystopian fiction set in barely recognizable, post-Apocalyptic Americas. Among the year's best dystopian titles are Moira Young's "Blood Red Road," a cinematic action adventure story written from the perspective of an uneducated 18-year-old; Lauren DeStefano's "Wither," the Margaret Atwood-esque tale of a young woman whose been married off to an older man for the sole purpose of perpetuating the human race; and Marie Lu's soon-to-be-released "Legend," a set-in-L.A. thriller.
Fantasy's success on store bookshelves and at the box office has led to its domination in the young-adult genre, but realistic fiction is also thriving. Some of the more emotionally resonant titles this year lifted a rock on lesser-seen aspects of war, including "Words in the Dust," based on author Trent Reedy's real-life experience as an American soldier in Afghanistan, and "Between Shades of Gray," from debut novelist Ruta Sepetys, about a Lithuanian teenager forced into a Siberian labor camp during World War II. Sarah Darer Littman's "Want to go Private?" about an Internet chat that escalates to a child abduction, and Cris Beam's "I Am J," which tells the story of a transgender teenage girl who identifies as male, are some of the more compelling, and topical, issues addressed this year.
Satires are few and far between, but Libba Bray's surreal feminist comedy about beauty pageant contestants whose plane crashed on a remote island in "Beauty Queens," and Joe Schreiber's exchange-student-turned-assassin tale, "Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick," are both terrific comedies.
Six years after "Twilight" became a household name, cross-creature love triangles continue to be popular. It's just the creature combinations and scenarios that are different. In Colleen Houck's inventive "Tiger's Curse" series, a teenage girl falls for a dashing Indian prince who spends most of his time padding around on all fours. In Laini Taylor's "Daughter of Smoke and Bone," an angel falls for a devil.
The angel-devil pairings in some of the year's best historical fiction aren't as literal. In Judy Blundell's "Strings Attached," a show girl becomes inadvertently involved with a mobster in 1940s New York. In "Cleopatra's Moon," by Vicky Alvear Shecter, it's Cleopatra's daughter Cleopatra Selene being courted by the Roman emperor's son.
Drafting on the success of young-adult fiction, middle-grade novels are also experiencing a major Renaissance with multiple big names now writing for the junior high set. Decemberists' frontman Colin Meloy made his fiction debut with a new middle-grade, lost-in-the-woods adventure series, "Wildwood." And blockbuster author James Patterson also entered into the fray with his fictional autobiography of a troubled sixth grader, "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" – a book that's a natural companion to Jeff Kinney's perennially bestselling "Diary of Wimpy Kid" series, the latest installment of which is "Cabin Fever." Maile Meloy's "The Apothecary," a Cold War murder mystery for tweens, and "The Great Wall of Lucy Wu," the tale of an 11-year-old girl who learns to embrace the Chinese half of her Chinese American heritage, are among the exceptional middle-grade debuts written by lesser-known authors in 2011.