Back in 2015, I asked a bunch of publishing professionals about YAs they think “get it right”—ones that truly nail a part of the human, and specifically teen, experience. But while adults are definitely major consumers of YA, and wholly responsible for publishing it, no one can speak to the effectiveness of modern YA like actual teens. So I posed the same question to a whole bunch, and here they are, to share which books they think get it right.
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
The beauty of Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is in its honesty. It’s a remarkably accurate book about what coming out looks and feels like, but just as we queer teens have more to contend with than coming out, so does Simon—flirtatious, grammatically correct emails with an anonymous boy from school and theatre and Oreos and blackmail and friendships. This is the book that prompted me to come out to my mom; this is the book that will help so many people, teenagers or not, prepare for life outside the closet; this is the book that first made me comfortable, proud, and happy to be gay.
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a wonderfully done, thought-provoking book about a gay character. Simon is a relatable, hilarious character who is forced into an uncomfortable and terrible situation. Besides the LGBT aspect, it focuses heavily on the amazing friendships Simon has, and how that helps him through his problems. It opens eyes to many important lessons, including the point that white and straight shouldn’t be the default. This book is incredible, and should be read by everyone who wants a memorable story with an important message.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness may just be my favourite YA novel ever. I related really well to the main character’s issues with OCD, which is something I’ve never read in YA before. All the issues/disorders were handled really tastefully and I’ve never read a story like it.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin is an amazing book showing not only gender identity but perfectly dealing with suicide and anxiety. Riley’s feelings helped me understand both myself and other people better. I can easily say that it is one of my all time favorite books.
Still that Girl by Rebecca Dominick
The grief of losing a loved one is inexpressible, and when Katarina’s parents die she is left feeling completely alone and unloved. In Still That Girl by Rebecca Dominick, Katarina is faced with the challenge to overcome her grief and continue living her life to its fullest, despite all the hardships. Her journey is wonderfully written and makes you feel a part of all her triumphs and losses.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
This Song Will Save Your Life totally captures the way your life can change once you find one of those things you love so much it feels like it’s a missing part of you. Leila Sales perfectly balanced how much high school and pretending to be friends with people you have nothing in common with sucks. How everyone is expected to fit into a certain mold, and how much it can hurt when you don’t fit, no matter how much you try. It was so accurate that it hurt, mostly because I realized these experiences have to be universal.
Rapunzel Let Down, by Regina Doman
Rapunzel Let Down by Regina Doman retells the original fairy tale in a modern setting and deals really well with the physical, emotional, spiritual, and legal ramifications of rape, not only from the victim’s point of view but also from the offender’s. While retelling fairy tales has almost become cliché in recent years, this book deals not with the Rapunzel story you and I grew up with, where a prince falls in love with a long-haired girl trapped in a tower and endeavors to help her escape so they can run off together; instead this book follows the original story, where the “man” chooses not to help the imprisoned damsel and instead rapes her, impregnating her with twins. In most novels on the subjects of rape, feminism, abortion, exploitation of poor families, politics, and religion, only one side of the story is told, but the insight and empathy with which this novel tackles such tough subjects is refreshingly different. A great read for older teens.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Shug, by Jenny Han
Reading Jenny Han’s books is like wandering through a field of memories. I became completely immersed in the nostalgia and whimsical little details of her golden words. My copy was practically glued to my grasp, and I couldn’t bear to part with it for more than a moment until, to my despair, I reached the end. The worlds and characters she creates are beyond captivating; they reach into my heart and tickle it—I could rave for hours.
Fans of the Impossible Life, by Kate Scelsa
With an offhand, casually humorous yet lyrical style, Scelsa captures the voices of Mira, Sebastian, and Jeremy, three struggling teens who learn to trust one another and find their own identities despite the crushing secrets they keep. What I love about this book is how real it is, and how strong the story arc of friendship is—slowly, the main characters fall in love with each other, but in a different way than expected.
Fans Of The Impossible Life had a powerful depiction of depression, struggling with queer identity in terms of balancing you versus others, and friendship that changed my life because it was the first time I really could even partially see myself in YA. The lyrical writing really did justice to Mira’s and Sebby’s depression because their experience wasn’t one-dimensional but truly jumped off the page, pushed my glass heart on the floor, melted it, and then shoved it back into my chest screaming at it to beat fresh, anew, changed. The backlash that Sebby faced from being queer regarding his foster parents whilst still being proud and confident of himself with Mira and alone was a beautiful and authentic thing; it felt like Sebby was who *I* was, and he definitely is a mirror in many, many ways. The fireproof bond that these two (Mira and Sebby) had where they were so close, lifted each other up and helped each other survive was real for me. I don’t see it too often but I have friendships like these now and in the past that will literally change me forever, and so it was so powerful for me to actually see this emotional, beautiful mess on the page.
Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
I think Pointe by Brandy Colbert does a good job at portraying sexual abuse towards children. It also features a MC that’s a person of color, which YA needs more of. It’s overall a great book that does a good job of handling a challenging topic.
The Notorious Pagan Jones, by Nina Berry
My best friends are my rant boxes, inspiration, and most fun people to be around; I try my best to be the same for them. This is what Mercedes and Pagan are to each other in The Notorious Pagan Jones, and it makes me happier than any romantic love story could have. Dealing with themes of sexuality, PTSD, addiction, and friendship, The Notorious Pagan Jones is a win!
–Huvi, age 16
Smart Girls Get What They Want, by Sarah Strohmeyer
If there’s one aspect of high school life I see young adult books continually ignore is the sheer amount of time students invest in completing homework assignments and working on group projects. Except, that is, for Sarah Strohmeyer’s gem of a contemporary novel Smart Girls Get What They Want. The light synopsis may have you thinking otherwise, but Strohmeyer is candid about the academic pressure best friends Gigi, Bea, and Neerja face and the degree to which they push themselves to reach their ultimate goal: to attend a high-ranking college. It’s just what I like to find in my YA–after getting through my own hours of homework, of course.
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The Summer I Turned Pretty, by Jenny Han
One book that really “got it right” for me would be The Summer I Turned Pretty, by Jenny Han. I am often left out of groups because of how different I am; I dress differently, I act differently, and I am of a different religion than most of my friends. Jenny Han did a fabulous job of representing what it feels like to be left out of a group and that craving of acceptance.
The Book of David, by Anonymous
The Book of David is a true rollercoaster written as a diary, by Anonymous, a story about a boy who is a stereotypical southern boy, plays football, and goes to church every Sunday. This book talks about the struggle of keeping sexuality a secret and what happens when everyone finds out at the same time.
How I Fall, by Anne Eliot
How I Fall is a book that I adore. Ellen, the main character of the story, has a passion for photography and creating works of art. She has friends in school, and does well in her classes. But Ellen also has cerebral palsy. I am a teenager that also has cerebral palsy, and I love Ms. Eliot’s writing and Ellen’s character. How I Fall “got it right” because it shows that we (people in the disabled community) can be more than our disabilities, that disabilities don’t define who we are. Ellen illustrates that we can do things in spite of our disabilities, and while we can be limited in some aspects of life, we don’t have to limit ourselves overall. But, most of all, How I Fall told me that it is okay to be who I am, that it is okay to be me.
More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera
More Happy Than Not does the underwater feeling of depression right. Adam Silvera never shies away away from complexities of having depression as a teenager. Instead, he gracefully swan dives in with sensitivity and strength. Some YA books belittle the fact that it is really hard for some people to be happy, but not this one. So, so important to me.
Firsts, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Firsts by Laurie E. Flynn wowed me for so many reasons, its honest portrayal of teen life being one of them. I like how this book openly confronts and discusses teen sex while so many other contemporaries seem to walk on eggshells and pretend it doesn’t happen. Because it does. Firsts expressed how new and insecure teens feel about their sexuality, which is very true. Firsts is definitely a YA that got it right, and I urge you to read this book!