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, leaning heavily towards diverse authors and characters, since that’s what I’m interested in reading. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)
Any book on this list I loved at the time I read it, whether I had a chance to write a review or not. (And wow I am really behind at writing reviews here!) Obviously a re-read years later might reveal a problematic aspect I didn’t pick up on back then. Please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.
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.
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.
I really enjoyed this fast-paced YA thriller murder mystery. Distinctive narrative voice, great characters, and the main character finds himself in quite an interesting situation.
“Nick Pearson is hiding in plain sight.
My name isn’t really Nick Pearson.
I shouldn’t tell you where I’m from or why my family moved to Stepton, Virginia.
I shouldn’t tell you who I really am, or my hair, eye, and skin color.
And I definitely shouldn’t tell you about my friend Eli Cruz and the major conspiracy he was about to uncover when he died — right after I moved to town. About how I had to choose between solving his murder with his hot sister, Reya, and “staying low-key” like the Program has taught me. About how moving to Stepon changed my life forever.
But I’m going to.”
Possibly one of the best YA books, or maybe even books period, that I have ever read. Heartbreaking in places, gorgeous emotion, heavy topics. Just amazing. If the blurb grabs you, absolutely give it a chance.
“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.”
I really enjoyed this YA about a gay Jewish teenage boy named Jack who isn’t ashamed of enjoying sex while having zero interest in relationships, and who writes a sex advice column for other teenagers. Unfortunately for Jack, not everyone is as accepting of his life choices and personality as they should be – and not just the stalker who begins blackmailing him, but (as it turns out) some of the people around him who should be backing him up in such a scary situation. I’m not sure the mystery aspect came together quite as well at the end as I’d have liked, but I did really enjoy the book! Enough that I’ve ended up reading other work by Rosen and enjoying it too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tremendously well-crafted, utterly heartwrenching gay YA with an unreliable narrator for most of the book. He’s unreliable because he’s a teenage boy with an eating disorder who’s developing delusions that it gives him extrasensory powers that will help him solve a mystery. The mystery is why his beloved older sister ran away from home; he believes someone hurt her because why else would she abandon him? Very rarely will I flip to the end of a book to see what happens, but I had to for this one, because I needed to know if the end was going to be something I could live with.
It was, and I finished it, and I’m so glad I did. The characters are vivid, and the declining small town setting here is detailed and distinctive. And I think what struck me the most was how so many people in this book – the MC, his mom, his sister, his romantic connection – are all imperfect people like we all are, but so clearly trying to do their best to look out for the people they care about, even when their own demons or situations get in the way.
The author is an ED survivor himself, which I think is important context when considering a book where a main character acts under the belief that the more he restricts calories – and yes, there are daily totals in the book – the more powerful he becomes. That metaphor is the central focus of the book, and I completely understand how that’s too hot a burner to touch for some readers even though Miller makes it clear at all times that this kid is Not Okay.
His disorder also impacts the “romance” subplot of the book, though as an adult romance reader and author, I hate to see people put “teen romances must be portrayed as 100% healthy” expectations on a book that doesn’t sell itself as a YA romance but instead is a story of a teenager having a major mental health crisis. Which, yes, he does eventually get treatment for, and start finding his way back to health.
“Julián Luna has a plan for his life: Graduate. Get into UCLA. And have the chance to move away from Corpus Christi, Texas, and the suffocating expectations of others that have forced Jules into an inauthentic life.
Then in one reckless moment, with one impulsive tweet, his plans for a low-key nine months are thrown―literally―out the closet. The downside: the whole world knows, and Jules has to prepare for rejection. The upside: Jules now has the opportunity to be his real self.
Then Mat, a cute, empathetic Twitter crush from Los Angeles, slides into Jules’s DMs. Jules can tell him anything. Mat makes the world seem conquerable. But when Jules’s fears about coming out come true, the person he needs most is fifteen hundred miles away. Jules has to face them alone.
Jules accidentally propelled himself into the life he’s always dreamed of. And now that he’s in control of it, what he does next is up to him.”
Note: This book does acknowledge the transphobic awfulness of JKR and supports changing the name of the sport, which then did happen in the real world.
“17-year-old vegan feminist Ellen Lopez-Rourke has one muggy Houston summer left before college. She plans to spend every last moment with her two best friends before they go off to the opposite ends of Texas for school. But when Ellen is grounded for the entire summer by her (sometimes) evil stepmother, all her plans are thrown out the window.
Determined to do something with her time, Ellen (with the help of BFF Melissa) convinces her parents to let her join the local muggle Quidditch team. An all-gender, full-contact game, Quidditch isn’t quite what Ellen expects. There’s no flying, no magic, just a bunch of scrappy players holding PVC pipe between their legs and throwing dodgeballs. Suddenly Ellen is thrown into the very different world of sports: her life is all practices, training, and running with a group of Harry Potter fans.
Even as Melissa pulls away to pursue new relationships and their other BFF Xiumiao seems more interested in moving on from high school (and from Ellen), Ellen is steadily finding a place among her teammates. Maybe Quidditch is where she belongs.
But with her home life and friend troubles quickly spinning out of control–Ellen must fight for the future that she wants, now she’s playing for keeps.”
“Sixteen-year-old trans boy Miles Jacobson has two New Year’s resolutions: 1) win back his ex-boyfriend (and star of the football team) Shane McIntyre, and 2) finally beat his slimy arch-nemesis at the Midwest’s biggest classical piano competition. But that’s not going to be so easy. For one thing, Shane broke up with Miles two weeks after Miles came out as trans, and now Shane’s stubbornly ignoring him, even when they literally bump into each other. Plus, Miles’ new, slightly terrifying piano teacher keeps telling him that he’s playing like he “doesn’t know who he is”—whatever that means.
Then Miles meets the new boy in town, Eric Mendez, a proudly queer cartoonist from Seattle who asks his pronouns, cares about art as much as he does—and makes his stomach flutter. Not what he needs to be focusing on right now. But after Eric and Miles pretend to date so they can score an invite to a couples-only Valentine’s party, the ruse turns real with a kiss, which is also definitely not in the plan. If only Miles could figure out why Eric likes him so much. After all, it’s not like he’s cool or confident or comfortable in his own skin. He’s not even good enough at piano to get his fellow competitors to respect him, especially now, as Miles. Nothing’s ever been as easy for him as for other people—other boys. He’s only ever been almost enough.
So why, when he’s with Eric, does it feel like the only person he’s ever really not been enough for…is himself?”
This is set in the 1990s, but that’s still contemporary, right?
“Seventeen-year-old Joel Teague has a new prescription from his therapist—a part-time job—the first step toward the elusive Normal life he’s been so desperate to live ever since The Bad Thing happened. Lucky for Joel, ROYO Video is hiring. It’s the perfect fresh start—Joel even gets a new name. Dubbed “Solo” after his favorite Star Wars character, Joel works his way up the not-so-corporate ladder without anyone suspecting What Was Wrong With Him.
That is, until he befriends Nicole “Baby” Palmer, a smart-mouthed coworker with a chip on her shoulder about… well, everything, and the two quickly develop the kind of friendship movie montages are made of. However, when Joel’s past inevitably catches up with him, he’s forced to choose between preserving his new blank slate persona and coming clean—and either way, he risks losing the first real friend he’s ever had.”
Gorgeous, emotional YA about three generations of Iranian and Iranian American young men. CW: Saeed is the non-gay MC, and he struggles a lot with accepting homosexuality.
“2019. Moud is an out gay teen living in Los Angeles with his distant father, Saeed. When Moud gets the news that his grandfather in Iran is dying, he accompanies his dad to Tehran, where the revelation of family secrets will force Moud into a new understanding of his history, his culture, and himself.
1978. Saeed is an engineering student with a promising future ahead of him in Tehran. But when his parents discover his involvement in the country’s burgeoning revolution, they send him to safety in America, a country Saeed despises. And even worse — he’s forced to live with the American grandmother he never knew existed.
1939. Bobby, the son of a calculating Hollywood stage mother, lands a coveted MGM studio contract. But the fairy-tale world of glamour he’s thrust into has a dark side. Bobby is forced to hide his sexuality for fear of losing everything.
Set against the backdrop of Tehran and Los Angeles, this tale of intergenerational trauma and love is an ode to the fragile bonds of family, the hidden secrets of history, and all the beautiful moments that make us who we are today.”
“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 the list!