10 Excellent Indie Contemporary YAs

Beautiful Music for Ugly PeoplePublishing is a competitive industry, let’s face it—and as with any other, sometimes the big guys get all the glory, while the little guys have a tendency to slip under the radar. But just because a book isn’t on every list doesn’t mean it can’t be great. Of course, with the huge number of smaller publishers and self-published titles, it can be a challenge to sift through and find the standouts. That’s why we’ve done it for you, with some of our favorite selections from independent publishers that easily stand beside the big names.

Love and Other Unknown Variables, by Shannon Alexander
It’s not surprising to see a book with quirky, intelligent characters, a strong budding romance, and a girl with cancer garner many a comparison to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but readers who don’t mind shedding a few tears should snap this one up on its own merits. It’s sweet, funny, emotional, nerdy, and yeah, it’s probably gonna wreck you a little bit, but isn’t that exactly what we want from our YA? Of course it is.

Perfectly Good White Boy, by Carrie Mesrobian
I’m picking a favorite of Mesrobian’s two books with Lerner Publishing imprint Carolrhoda, but both this sophomore and her Morris Award–nominated debut, Sex & Violence, earn their place among the best of the best when it comes to YA published by indies. Particularly here, Mesrobian masterfully handles the voice and perspective of a thoughtful and self-reflective teenage boy with raw, gritty honesty on the subjects of sex, relationships, family, fear, and the future.

Dirty London, by Kelley York
LGBTQ YA has long been dominated by stories of cisgender boys, but in the last year or two, bi and lesbian teen girls are finally breaking their way in, in a major way. But of all the great queer-girl books I read last year, this self-published title by York has probably gone furthest under the radar, despite being one of my favorites. In London, York’s crafted a character who’s a delightfully realistic mix of seeming contradictions, who wants to blend in but is fiercely strong, who gives in to a plan to pretend to be straight but never internally wavers on her own self-identification as a lesbian. The relationships (particularly the family dynamics) in this book are strongly depicted and fantastically earned, and London is engaging, bold, vibrant, and true.

Reclaimed, by Sarah Guillory
There’s only so much you can say about a book like this, that’s so full of twists and turns it feels like saying anything at all could give away something. So all I’ll share is that even when I thought I had this beautifully written book nailed, I was wrong. Well, that, and that years after reading, the beautiful rural southern atmosphere sticks with me nearly as much as the characters do, and that’s saying a lot.

Torched, by Andrea Lynn Colt
Self-published YAs still pale in number when compared to other categories, and that was especially true when Colt published this one in 2012. But years later, this contemporary about a cheerleader who’s framed for arson still holds a special place in my heart for being my intro to quality self-published YA. A fun, charming, and witty page-turner with a hilarious premise and memorable characters for sure.

If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan
Not only is there, as mentioned above, a dearth of LGBTQ YA featuring girls, but there is a serious lack of those girls being racially and/or ethnically diverse, and an even more serious lack of them being written by women of color. This is all to say thank you, Sara Farizan (and Algonquin) for both this Lambda Literary Award–winning story of two female best friends who fall in love in Iran, and this past year’s Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, featuring a Persian lesbian in a New England private school who falls for the wrong girl. (The latter in particular is great for younger YA readers, for whom—say it with me—there is a truly sad absence of LGBTQ options.)

Dangerous Boys, by Abigail Haas
This one’s sort of a hybrid on the indie front. In the UK, it was in fact published by Simon & Schuster—the same house that published Haas’s Dangerous Girls (unrelated, despite the matching titles)—but in the U.S., it was published by Haas herself. Chloe is a girl caught between two brothers, both of whom ultimately want to be the good in her rapidly worsening life. The marked difference is that Ethan provides respite in the more traditional sense of being a sweet, attentive, loving boyfriend, while Oliver encourages her to embrace the darkness he sees within her.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
I have so much love for this Stonewall Book Award–winning title, which features a transgender boy named Gabe who’s learning to accept and show his “B-side” with the help of a radio station gig that makes him something of a local hero. Cronn-Mills is also the author of the quietly powerful (and beautifully titled) The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind, about a girl questioning her sexuality, making her one of my favorite authors to watch for contemporary YA on the orientation spectrum.

Damsel Distressed, by Kelsey Macke
Fairytale retellings are relatively common in YA, but a contemporary Cinderella from an ugly stepsister’s perspective? Not so much. In her debut, Macke eschews the typical pretty, mostly together heroine for Imogen, who suffers from depression, issues with her weight, and a lack of self-confidence that keeps her from pursuing onstage roles in the musical theater she so loves. Her issues are only exacerbated when her father remarries and moves in her stepmother and the beautiful new stepsister who despises her, but she also has her very own Prince Charming in the form of her best friend, Grant. With his support, therapy, and a whole lot of perseverance, Imogen works on becoming the fairytale heroine she is meant to be, and her fantastic voice, Macke’s touching and humorous writing, and a collection of drawings and diary entries take readers on the journey with her.

The Chance You Won’t Return, by Annie Cardi
Alex Winchester has a relatively normal life until her mother slips into the all-consuming delusion that she is Amelia Earhart. What results is a beautifully crafted story of a girl trying to find love and comfort with someone new, and a family trying to hold onto someone who’s no longer with them, while also struggling to hold onto each other. YAs dealing with teens whose parents are suffering from mental health issues are few and far between, and this is an easy favorite in that vein, along with The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta.

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