The sophomore slump can be one of the greatest curses of any writer, and the stronger your debut, the scarier the expectations. Many an author has been felled by the pressure to write a great second novel, and yet, for whatever reason, when it came to YA standalones, this was The Year of the Sophomore. I don’t think I read a single follow-up this year that I didn’t like as much or better than that author’s already strong first offering, and I dare you to read the following books and disagree.
I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Probably the most anticipated sophomore novel in the history of ever. I have to admit I was terrified when I opened this one up. Like so many other YA readers, I absolutely loved the gorgeous and poetic The Sky is Everywhere, and three years is a whole lotta time to build up expectations. But Nelson delivers something every bit as beautiful and then some in this nonlinear dual-POV book about familial relationships, art, pain, envy, and love.
Life by Committee, by Corey Ann Haydu
Haydu has rapidly become my favorite uncomfortable writer; you know when opening one of her books that it will not be easy on either your mind or your heart. But you also know it won’t simply be a read, but rather a thoughtful experience. Just as Haydu’s phenomenal debut, OCD Love Story, penetrated my brain by putting my anxiety in perspective, her sophomore novel, about a girl who has been isolated by her peers and gets sucked into the questionable online forum she turns to for advice, constantly makes me think about the approval we solicit from strangers, and why. It also kept me up waaaay past my bedtime.
For Real, by Alison Cherry
From the very first paragraph of Cherry’s sophomore novel, it’s impossible not to wonder, “Is this even by the same author as Red?” Where Cherry’s 2013 debut was charming satire with a younger-reader bent, For Real reads older, edgier, and straight-up fun. The story of two sisters who embark upon an Amazing Race–type reality show in order to get revenge on one’s boyfriend is sweet, funny, inspiring, and eminently likable. It may not be “unputdownable” in the thriller sense, but it certainly was in the “No desire to do anything else until I’m done reading” sense.
Perfectly Good White Boy, by Carrie Mesrobian
Mesrobian’s debut, Sex & Violence, was a Morris Award nominee, and her followup just as seamlessly nails not only a teen male voice, but a teen male experience. This thoughtful, honest, fearless depiction of a boy in his final year of high school, who’s sitting on his decision to join the marines upon graduation, is a rare character-driven novel with deeply quiet power.
Bleed Like Me, by C. Desir
Desir is that most divisive sort of YA author, the kind who writes about the sort of things you wish teens didn’t experience, but must acknowledge they do. What struck me the most when reading Bleed Like Me was that while adult me could clearly see the toxicity of the central couple, and the way they fed each other’s self-destructiveness, I also felt how teen me would’ve experienced that exact same pull. It is simultaneously terrifying and a relief that books like this exist. They are necessary.
Complicit, by Stephanie Kuehn
Creep. Tastic. It’s hard to top the second-book pressure of an author who literally won the award for best debut (Kuehn’s Charm & Strange took home the 2013 Morris Award), but man, does she deliver. It’s hard to say much about this dark, twisty psychological thriller without spoiling, but I will say this: no matter what you figure out along the way and when, the ending is still going to rip your heart out.
My Best Friend, Maybe, by Caela Carter
In a year when conversation about diversity was at the forefront of the YA conversation, this is a book it pained me to see get lost in the shuffle. Yes, the main character herself is a straight, cisgender white girl, but this is the story of how she reunites with the best friend she didn’t know was a lesbian, falls for that friend’s adopted Haitian brother, and examines her Christian faith in the process. There’s so much character nuance here, it was the first time I remember reading a book feeling like I had to keep turning the pages just to observe the character development.
The Summer I Wasn’t Me, by Jessica Verdi
When I saw the premise for Verdi’s debut, My Life After Now, was about a girl contracting HIV, I immediately feared that no future premises would live up to it. Then I saw that her sophomore novel was about a girl going to de-gayification camp, and I felt a strange rush of relief. For me, this actually exceeded the debut (though I definitely recommend both), and had me in tears both happy and sad the whole way through.
What’s your favorite amazing sophomore novel?