Consider this my farewell-to-high-school post. I’m writing it the day before I leave for my freshman year of college—not least because I am a champion at procrastinating—and I realize that means my high school days are officially behind me. As an avid reader of YA books, I find this shift particularly odd: suddenly, the novels I love are no longer written for me.
But before I make the official transition to college—eek—I want to highlight a few of those books I’ve read over the years that I feel get high school right. These books stand out for their authenticity: something in their characters, their themes, and the relationships they explore deeply resonates, in my opinion, with the high school experience. They are perfect reads for anyone who wants to pick up an excellent realistic YA contemporary novel this back to school season. In my experience, not all YA portrayals of high school and of what it means to be a teenager feel fresh, but these books absolutely do. They examine the insecurity, the loneliness, and the slow self-discovery that define the everyday life of many teenagers, all while avoiding lazy clichés.
Of course, there is no universal high school experience, and these books and characters won’t ring true for every teen reader. But for their nuanced portrayals of what it means to be a teenager, I—in my wholly subjective opinion as a YA reader and recent HS graduate—think they’ll resonate with many.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
Elise has stumbled through life as an outsider. Her every attempt to gain popularity has failed, often dramatically. So she resolves to commit suicide—but before she can go through with it, she calls her only friend, who in turn gets her emergency help. Soon after, she discovers a warehouse party that changes her life—a party that introduces her not only to her love of DJing, but to a group of kids with whom she genuinely connects. On a visceral level, so much of This Song Will Save Your Life resonates with the realities of high school: the rejection of yourself in order to be popular, the fake friends, and, ultimately, the incredible moment of self-discovery when you realize a) who you are and b) that there are others like you—all of it is woven masterfully throughout the novel. But there is another level of the book, one that fearlessly examines bullying and self-harm, and I imagine Elise’s experiences will resonate with many high school students who have found themselves in similar situations.
Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang
Liz Emerson is about to commit suicide. In class, she listens as her teacher describes Newton’s Laws of Motion. Then, once school ends, she puts those laws into action and drives her car off the road—to make it look like an accident.
Weaving together past and present, Falling Into Place explores what drove Liz to want to die. Amy Zhang’s dreamy prose lay plain the realities of high school, from fraught friendships to nagging feelings of loneliness to the push-and-pull of saying—and then quickly regretting—stupid things that I know so many of us experience. But what makes the book so incredible—and so very real—is the way it deconstructs the typical clichés surrounding portrayals of high school. In Falling Into Place, the mean kid/nice kid binary falls away. Everything is complicated: Liz is no saint, but she isn’t evil, either—and no matter how many friends she may have, like many of us, she can’t stop feeling alone.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Sam is dead. Well, not really. Though on the night of February 12 she dies in a car accident, she wakes up the next morning to relive the day again. And again. And again. Think Groundhog Day, except starring a popular high school student who, on the surface, may easily be written off as a typical mean girl. But the magic of Before I Fall is Sam’s evolution: as she continually relieves the day of February 12, she starts to question her own ethics. Like Falling Into Place, Before I Fall feels so real because it dismantles the trope of a popular mean girl—Sam is written with such empathy, and it rings true to the reality of high school, where it so often seems that, deep down, everyone is equally confused and lonely and insecure.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
There’s a reason Speak is a YA classic. About Melinda, an artist and social outcast reeling from a rape by a fellow classmate at a party, it explores the elements of high school life that are an unfortunate reality for many sexual assault survivors: the ambivalence, the victim blaming, the devaluing of pain.
Speak is also surprisingly funny, finding a deeply sarcastic and hilarious narrator in Melinda. Like so many of us, she’s constantly making judgments about everyone around her (I’ll never forget the nickname she gives to one of her teachers, “Hairwoman”), and she’s left to deal with her pain alone, lacking a proper support system. Melinda feels like she could be any one of my friends, and in a way that’s what makes the novel so powerful: readers are reminded that her experiences as a rape survivor are a reality for countless high school and college students, especially girls.
The Duff by Kody Keplinger
The Duff is one of the books that made me fall in love with YA. About Bianca, whose family life is thrown into turmoil and who’s informed that her best friends only keep her around because she’s less conventionally attractive than they are, the novel explores body image, sex, and complicated family dynamics. To escape her own problems, Bianca develops an enemies-with-benefits relationship with Wesley, a popular guy whose overconfidence has long repelled her. But perhaps the biggest force behind The Duff is Bianca’s voice—cynical and self-deprecating, it reads like how a teen speaks, and there’s something so very real about the way Bianca carries herself. Her personality is full of contradictions—she’s self-confident but deeply insecure, brazen but afraid—and I suspect that will resonate with many high school readers.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
There is something in All American Boys for every reader. Told in dual points of view, from the perspective of a black teen who is beaten by a police officer and of a white boy who is intimately connected to that officer, the novel explores police brutality—and, by extension, racism and privilege—with precision and nuance. Its story is relevant to every American high school student, as it examines the way our everyday culture upholds systems of oppression against people of color, particularly black people.