Teens and young adults sometimes get a bad rap in popular culture. When I was one myself, I was terrible, but having worked with teenagers professionally since then, I know that they’re great. They may lack life experience, but often they more than make up for it in enthusiasm and curiosity. So here are some of my fave contemporary YA books starring teens.
The way my life is organized these days, it’s tough for me to write reviews. Some of the books below have them, some do not, but I love them all. Hope you find something new and great to enjoy on this list!
Before we jump in:
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Heavily atmospheric novel about 14 year old misfit Hazard and how his life changes due to his relationship with 16 year old “bad boy” Jesse. It felt hauntingly familiar to me, despite the author writing it as a teenager in 2010-ish (estimate based on an interview I read) and me being 43 in 2018. It perfectly captures that high school experience of not fitting in, of the feeling that space and events away from school and parents are the most real, and of the often emotionally incoherent but deeply felt relationships with both friends and romantic interests.
It also seriously digs into the effects on young people of a homophobic / queer-erasing culture. A sizable chunk of Hazard’s problems come from how he and the people around him don’t openly discuss, understand, or even acknowledge bisexuality.
It’s a painful book, even on second read, but I was so touched by it, and I was relieved when the author crafted a believable positive next step for Hazard at the end after everything he’d been through.
“Nick Pearson is hiding in plain sight.
In fact, his name isn’t really Nick Pearson. He shouldn’t tell you his real name, his real hometown, or why his family just moved to Stepton, Virginia. And he definitely shouldn’t tell you about his friend Eli Cruz and the major conspiracy Eli was uncovering when he died. About how Nick had to choose between solving Eli’s murder with his hot sister, Reya, and ‘staying low-key’ like the Program said to do.
But he’s going to tell you—unless he gets caught first…”
Diversity note: The main character is African-American, and so is Giles.
If I ever felt moved to give a book a hug, it’s this one. The story of three high schoolers’ messy and intertwined lives: biracial Mira who struggles with depression, gay or bisexual (identification in progress) Jeremy who’s targeted for bullying because of his gay dads, and gay or homoromantic+bisexual (unclear) foster kid and drug user Sebby who met Mira while they were both in inpatient mental health treatment.
I can’t help but interpret their relationship as a shifting polyamorous triad with various levels of sexual and romantic attraction/behavior and passionate friendship between various pairs, in a very teenage way where no one’s ever 100% sure what’s going on except they can’t stand to be apart. I actually really liked that ambiguity and lack of labels here, as it felt appropriate to the amount of chaos and self-discovery each character was dealing with. Not all of the relationship parts are healthy, either, which again, feels appropriate to the characters.
It’s the kind of book where you want to scoop up all the main characters in your arms, give them hot chocolate, and tell them everything is going to be okay… and then go yell at their various parents / foster parents who are fucking up and MAKE them fix everything they can. So I don’t know if Scelsa intended the ending to be ambiguous, but I found it to be so, and I cannot help but interpret it in the most positive way possible, because that’s what I need from this book. YMMV.
Diversity note: Scelsa is a lesbian.
The kind of YA novel that just makes me want to wrap the main character in a warm blanket, give her a cup of hot chocolate, and let her sit and breathe for a while. Grace Glasser has a gift for playing piano, a solid best friend, and other supportive people in her life, but she also has an alcoholic and totally irresponsible mother who flits from guy to guy, upending Grace’s entire life every time she changes boyfriends. After Grace returns home after a music camp to find her mother sold her piano right before a critical audition, Grace starts spending time with Eva, whose mother has passed away. (Grace is white, Eva is biracial African-American and white.) It takes a bit for the girls to work out that Grace is bi, Eva is gay, and yes they would both like to kiss. But Grace’s mother also reaches out to Eva to comfort her, which is a huge complication, and Grace starts losing her other support people as they urge Grace to basically protect Eva from her mother.
I adored how this novel blended Grace’s frustration about her mother’s emotional neglect/borderline abuse with Grace’s very real love for her mother. Both Grace and her mother are allowed to have richness and dimension, though the narrative in unflinching in indicting her mother’s negligence. When Grace protects her mother, you 100% understand why, but you also cheer for her and mourn with her when she has to start making hard choices to get her own life. Gorgeous, painful, messy, and real.
Geeky as hell YA roadtrip romance between Brandon, conflicted about being both gay and Catholic, and unapologetically gay Abel, Brandon’s unrequited crush and co-host of their fan video series. Brandon and Abel take an RV across country following the convention circuit for the show they vlog about, Castaway Planet. Given the setup, that’s awkward enough, but then mysterious messages start showing up about them on a web forum.
This book is such a love letter to fan culture, these guys are more adorable than any fictional character has any right to be, and Lillis seems to take special care respecting Brandon’s emotional conflicts. Really good, and after this I’ve enjoyed exploring more of Lillis’s work.
“Meet Jack Rothman. He’s seventeen and loves partying, makeup and boys – sometimes all at the same time. His sex life makes him the hot topic for the high school gossip machine. After Jack starts writing an online sex advice column, the mysterious love letters he’s been getting take a turn for the creepy. Jack’s secret admirer knows everything: where he’s hanging out, who he’s sleeping with, who his mum is dating. They claim they love Jack, but not his unashamedly queer lifestyle. As the pressure mounts, Jack must unmask his stalker before their obsession becomes genuinely dangerous…”
Diversity note: Jack is Jewish. Rosen is a gay man and Jewish.
I didn’t realize how bad Caleb Roehrig was going to f— me up with this book. Dude can write, and he does not go easy on the reader. Our main character is Flynn, a high school kid who is normal in every way, nothing to see here… except for one thing, which he’s been keeping a secret. Not-a-spoiler alert: he’s gay. When his girlfriend January disappears, suddenly all eyes are on him as a possible suspect. This is a thriller/mystery as Flynn struggles to uncover what happened to a young woman he really cares about, but also a self-acceptance journey for Flynn.
Props to Roehrig for making me feel Flynn’s grief for January by including her as a person and not just a plot device, delving seriously into her life in a way that feels very feminist. I’m now bracing myself to read Roehrig’s next book, White Rabbit, because forewarned (about writers smacking you in the heart repeatedly) is forearmed!
Diversity note: Roehrig is gay.
Gripping conspiracy / mystery / high school coming of age novel with an opposites-attract romance subplot, about a young African-America woman from an elite Washington D.C. family. It was written by black woman, and it’s narrated brilliantly for audio by Simone Missick who plays Misty Knight on Netflix’s Luke Cage. So good that I actually stopped listening to it at about 85% for weeks because I couldn’t bear for it to end.
I adore the main character, Emily Bird, and I adore her drug-dealing crush, who goes by the nickname Coffee, and I want to run over the main antagonist with a truck except that I’m so scared of him I would run away. Johnson blends so many strands so beautifully: a mysterious viral outbreak; Emily’s relationships with her family, friends, and frenemies; the developing, sometimes contentious relationship she has with Coffee; and Emily’s own journey of self-discovery, reinvention, and resistance. Looking back, I can’t believe how much stuff is in this book and how neatly it all fits. Gorgeous book, should be far better known.
Diversity note: Author Johnson and narrator Missick are both women of color.
“Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry’s and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.”
Diversity note: Kelly Loy Gilbert self-describes as half-Asian.
I really enjoyed this #ownvoices YA novel about a Muslim teen girl who wears hijab, growing up in the U.S. Sanna’s parents are divorced; she lives with her Egyptian Muslim mother and regularly sees her Indian father. The book starts pretty calmly, showing us Sanna’s life, her friends and family, her high school world. Some reviewers felt like that as a slow start, but I really liked getting to know Janna so well before she seriously started trying to tackle two big confusing issues in her life: her crush on a non-Muslim boy named Jeremy, and deciding what to do about a well-respected young man in the Muslim community attempting to sexually assault her.
The former causes confusion and social complications at school. The emotional fallout from the latter is seeping into more and more of her activities, eroding her sense of safety. But the book isn’t just about Sanna interacting with these two guys. It’s also about Sanna figuring out the kind of person she wants to be and how to live that, whether it’s in relation to dating, confronting her trauma, her volunteering, or her family relationships. I’m really looking forward to another book by Ali.
Diversity note: Ali is Muslim.
“Jamie Watson has always been intrigued by Charlotte Holmes; after all, their great-great-great-grandfathers are one of the most infamous pairs in history. But the Holmes family has always been odd, and Charlotte is no exception. She’s inherited Sherlock’s volatility and some of his vices—and when Jamie and Charlotte end up at the same Connecticut boarding school, Charlotte makes it clear she’s not looking for friends.
But when a student they both have a history with dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.”
And that’s my first-ever post rounding up contemporary YA novels I loved and highly recommend. Hope you found something interesting. If you have any reading suggestions, let me know, and as always, if you found this post helpful, please share it!