As many authors will tell you, the only thing harder than writing a book is writing a second book. Once expectations have been set and reviews have come in and deadlines are breathing down your neck, trying to get those words out can be like squeezing blood from a stone. Sometimes it feels like an impossible task to live up to a good debut, or even just to a finished one. But here are fourteen authors whose second novels have made it clear they’re only getting better as they go.
Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee
I’m of the age where YA wasn’t really a thing when I was a young adult myself, outside of extensive, amazing series like Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club, which meant that if I wanted to read about kids around my age as a tween or teen, I turned to the modern classics. My favorite of these was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because heroine Francie just had so much moxie in the face of so much adversity. Her circumstances didn’t seem to allow for success or growth, so she had to force it to happen. It’s for that same reason I absolutely love Lee’s sophomore novel, about a Chinese American girl named Mercy who uses her cunning to gain entrance to a prestigious school that ordinarily would never admit a girl of color in 1906…only to have her new life completely upended by San Francisco’s infamous earthquake. This time, her cunning is put to an entirely new test: survival. And, as Mercy is wont to do, she aces it. I loved getting ta classic feel from a contemporary book, and was wowed I could love a Lee novel even more than her fantastic debut, Under a Painted Sky.
The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
When your first book digs its heels onto the New York Times bestseller list and gets made into a feature film, where do you go from there? If you’re Nicola Yoon, you manage to outdo yourself with a second book that makes the list, lands a second film deal, receives a Printz Honor, and snags a spot on the National Book Award shortlist. Yoon’s sophomore novel is brilliant, beautiful, creative, and nuanced, telling the instalove story (something no one rocks believably like Yoon, in my humble opinion) of driven, cynical undocumented immigrant Natasha, who’s on a mission to save her family from imminent deportation, and romantic but unhappy son of Korean immigrants Daniel, who’s heading to an important college interview while dreading the path it will set him on. Woven throughout their shared narration are brief interludes centering on briefly glimpsed secondary characters, intersecting with and sometimes redirecting their paths along the way. Being great at voice (as Yoon is) is one thing, but being great at that many voices? That’s magic.
The Upside of Unrequited, Becky Albertalli
How fast is it humanly possible to fall in love with fictional characters? How much great representation can there be in a single book? How can you write a heterosexual white girl and still have her be someone readers are seeing themselves in for the first time? When your first book is already one of the most popular and beloved YAs ever, and wins a Morris Award in addition to being made into a movie, can you possibly live up to expectations? The answers to all of these questions and more lie in Albertalli’s remarkable sophomore, about a chubby, anxious girl named Molly whose entire life has been marked by unrequited crushes…something she could live with until her twin sister found happiness in coupledom and left Molly feeling alone. But when she’s given the opportunity to join her sister’s group of friends through the seemingly romantic interest from the kind of boy she could once only have dreamed of, will she take it? Even as she realizes her heart lies with a boy who represents much of what she herself is trying to shed?
Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers
The thing about Summers’ debut, Cracked Up to Be, is that it’s the book that really got me into YA. Until I met Parker Fadley, I had no idea how brutally hilarious and hilariously brutal girls in YA could be, how dangerously clever and cleverly dangerous. So you can imagine how rocked I was by Some Girls Are, about a dangerous girl pitted against her former clique. In its opening, main character Regina is sexually attacked by her best friend’s boyfriend at a party, but when she tells a mutual friend (and fellow Head Clique member) what happened, the girl spins it to make Regina seem responsible for a betrayal, one she’ll pay dearly for. Left with no friends, Regina is on her own in fighting back against her former partners in crime. But there might just be one person left who can put her previous bad behavior behind him, becoming the only guy in school who’s got her back.
History is All You Left Me, by Adam Silvera
“Surely the Feelings level of More Happy Than Not is a one-time thing,” you say to yourself. “Surely.” But no. Adam Silvera is not done tearing you to shreds while slipping in some hope while you weren’t looking. In fact, he’s only just begun. Griffin is grieving the loss of not just his (ex-)boyfriend Theo, but of the future he’d envisioned for the two of them. He’d always imagined he and Theo would come back together someday, even though, at the time of his drowning death, Theo had moved on to another relationship, with Jackson. The more Griffin realizes how serious Jackson and Theo were, the worse Griffin feels…but the more he accepts that Jackson might be the only person who understands the loss he’s going through. But how big a role is too big for Jackson to play in Griffin’s grieving process?
This Adventure Ends, by Emma Mills
My list of favorite main characters in YA is a seldom-changing thing, but after a couple of chapters with Sloane, I had a brand-new member of my dream girl gang. Sloane is my favorite kind of YA main character: high intellectual IQ, low emotional IQ. Watching her fall into an intense and wonderful and quirky friend group and not know how to handle her feelings about unexpectedly finding wonderful new relationships in her new post-move life is just delightful. I love Sloane’s sense of justice and (possibly misguided) loyalty, and her desperation to show her feelings as she utterly fails at verbally expressing them. The group she falls in with has an extremely low-key The Secret History vibe, while the voice is far dryer than Mills’ Austen-inspired debut, First and Then. For great characters and really excellent character growth, this hilarious contemp is not to be missed.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee
As it happens, I think Lee’s debut is one of YA’s most underrated; This Monstrous Thing is a steampunk reimagining that takes the story of Frankenstein to an utterly fascinating place. But her second novel is a YA standout, debuting on the New York Times bestseller list and giving us a unique, joyous, glorious romp through historical Europe with a bisexual best friends-to-lovers story, a fantastic secondary character in thank-God-she’s-getting-her-own-book Felicity, and an exploration of privilege, race, and disability. For diverse, intriguing, nuanced historical fiction, there’s no question Lee is one of YA’s best.
Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy
I have a confession to make about this book. When I was reading it, I thought, “I’m definitely enjoying this, but I feel like people are connecting with it really hard in a way I thought I would, but I’m not.” Hahaha. Only after I finished did I realize I had been crying for half the book. Not because of particularly emotional scenes, not because of anything tear-jerking, just…I was reading about a girl who was proud of her bigger body and only learning to be prouder. Who was finding joy with it. Who was finding purpose with it. I had so taken what that means for granted that I legitimately didn’t realize how long tears had just kinda been streaming down my face. So, yeah, I think this New York Times bestseller is pretty good, and pretty important. I suppose.
Eliza and Her Monsters, by Francesca Zappia
I loved the experience of reading Zappia’s debut so much I literally held it up to my face as I crossed the street, because I couldn’t put it down. (Do not try this at home.) But her sophomore is the kind of book that reaches into souls and makes people feel understood, and makes those who are rarely visible feel seen. This is a book for anyone living different lives in person and online, and it celebrates the latter in a way that’s so often denigrated by media. I genuinely believe anyone who has a semblance of an online life, whether in fandom or social media, or who just knows what it’s like to click with people on the internet better than anyone in your high school, will find themselves clicking with this book about a teen girl who’s exposed as the creator of a famous webcomic and finds the most important new relationship in her life and the creative outlet she loves so much threatened in the process.
On the Edge of Gone, by Corinne Duyvis
My favorite thing about Corinne Duyvis is she can somehow take genres that are not at all my thing and magically go ahead and make me love them. Okay, well, my other favorite thing is that she writes books that aren’t just inclusive but are actually strengthened, plotwise, by diverse representation. In this case, that means centering a book around Denise, a Dutch Surinamese autistic girl desperate to get herself and her family onto a generation ship in order to save their lives as the apocalypse nears. But between her non-neuronormativity, her mother’s addiction, and her trans sister’s infertility, she’ll have to be determined, crafty, and brave as all hell in order to prove she deserves her spot, and to get the rest of her family on board by any means necessary.
How to Make a Wish, by Ashley Herring Blake
Ashley Herring Blake is rapidly becoming a master of writing stories of falling in somewhat contentious romantic love, while familial love proves to be considerably trickier and more complex to grasp. Here, that means that while Grace is falling in love with Eva, a dancer who moves to town while grieving her mother’s death, she’s struggling with the fact that her own mom, Maggie, has made a decision so utterly selfish, it’s unclear whether she realizes she even has a daughter to consider. Then Maggie takes it upon herself to finally be the mother Grace has always dreamed she would be…only it’s to Eva, and that makes everything even more complicated in this beautiful girl-girl romance.
I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Few contemporary YA romances have made the mark that Nelson’s debut, The Sky is Everywhere, has, but I think anyone who has read both of her offerings can agree she seriously outdid herself with this sophomore, recipient of both the Printz Award and a Stonewall Honor. Twins Jude and Noah were once thick as thieves, but by sixteen, things between them have fallen apart. Alternating between Noah’s narration at thirteen and Jude’s at sixteen, the story behind their lives, relationships, failings, sexual explorations, and everything else that transpired to tear them apart is slowly and skillfully revealed, as they move toward what they need for both their relationship and their hearts to heal.
Little & Lion, by Brandy Colbert
Colbert’s Cybils Award–winning debut is one of my absolute favorite YAs, so it was especially thrilling to see her return three years later with a book every bit as thoughtful, honest, and complex as her first, with a particularly strong focus on intersectional identity. Suzette, aka Little, has just returned from boarding school, where her romantic relationship with her roommate (and its exposure) is still weighing heavily on her mind. Between that, her brother Lionel’s bipolar disorder diagnosis, her developing feelings for a childhood friend, and her intense attraction to the girl Lionel (aka Lion) is pursuing, Suzette’s head is a complicated place to be these days. And when Lion makes it worse by asking her to keep secrets she knows are better left revealed, it just might be more than she can handle. Suzette is forced to grapple with the choice between doing what she feels is best for her brother and keeping their close relationship intact, and all the while the question lingers: what’s best in life for her?
The Library of Fates, by Aditi Khorana
Confession: of all the books on this list, this is the only one I read without first reading the author’s debut. Khorana’s premises are just a little too far off contemporary for my usual taste, so (bigger confession), while I really wanted to try this one, I didn’t have much hope for getting more than a couple of chapters in. But oh, once I started, I knew I would not be putting it down. Khorana’s language is lush and romantic, and the heartbreaking opening chapters following Amrita witnessing the destruction of everything that matters to her will make you want to sweep her up in a hug and follow her anywhere she goes. With a bold friendship at its heart and a hero’s quest into the fantastical, this gorgeous sophomore is not to be missed. And it ensured I’ll follow Khorana right back to her debut, too.
For some more great sophomore novels, check out Complicit, by Stephanie Kuehn (more and that and her other books here); Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta; Life by Committee, by Corey Ann Haydu (more on that and her other books here); Like Water, by Rebecca Podos; Before I Let Go, by Marieke Nijkamp; and Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg!