We all love great world-building, and bow down to the likes of Leigh Bardugo and Laini Taylor with their beautifully wrought fantasy landscapes. But what about world-re-creating? While I’m the hugest fan of intricately woven imaginary cities and worlds in fantasy and sci-fi, I also love delving deep into real-life locations, compellingly depicted on the page. Here are six YA novels that make particularly evocative use of their rich—and very real—urban settings.
You Know Me Well, by Nina LaCour and David Levithan
Let’s kick off our YA city crawl with this beautifully understated masterpiece set in the arty districts of San Francisco during Pride Week. LaCour and Levithan, who have written many other masterpieces both alone and with others, team up to great emotional and atmospheric effect here, bringing us a softly lit, wild-hued, haunting and uplifting version of San Francisco. The sense of place is pervasive and brilliant. You can practically taste the ocean in the breeze. Narrated in alternating chapters by Mike, who’s dealing with heartbreak, and Kate, who’s hiding from the possibility of love, and therefore of potential heartbreak, the novel charts their wary, growing friendship as they make their way through the city. There are quiet moments on the waterfront, and wild moments in the height of Pride celebrations, but it’s always utterly grounded and richly authentic.
Meant to Be, by Lauren Morrill
London, baby! That’s the location of this Shakespeare-inspired comedy of errors that follows Julie and Jason, two bickering, couldn’t-be-more-different teens who end up working together on a school trip to London town. Julia’s a type-A, super-focused scholar, while Jason, in her eyes, is nothing but a slacker going nowhere. Julia’s looking to get her history on, check out some of the places her parents visited on their honeymoon, and keep texting the cute British boy she meets at a party. Jason helps her, in exchange for her helping him with his schoolwork. They end up arguing their way across the city, giving the reader some serious London vibes while Julia and Jason start realizing that maybe they’re not so different after all.
Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older
A long, hot summer in Brooklyn is where this tale of shadowshapers—people who can infuse their art with demon-fighting magic—is deeply and richly set. With Puerto Rican teenager Sierra Santiago as its compelling lead character, the novel dives deep into the rich histories of the borough and the people who live there. By filling this visceral version of Brooklyn with a rippling mirage of otherworldliness, the author gives us a truly magical take on a very real place. A wonderfully detailed urban fantasy that overflows with danger and wonder.
Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins
We almost get two cities for the price of one, as we first encounter Anna in her native Atlanta, where’s she’s very happy hanging out with her friends and working at the local movie theater. That doesn’t last long, though. Her dad ships her off to boarding school…in Paris. Ew, right? Wrong. Anna soon discovers she loves the Latin Quarter, and also everything else. Because Paris is awesome, and Perkins makes us feel it. She takes us through a beautiful, timeless version of the City of Lights, as Anna and her friends eat, drink, watch movies in French cinemas, and, of course, fall in love. An uber-romantic novel set in the most romantic city in the world. Sigh. You will want to go to Paris when you’ve finished reading this, c’est vrai.
More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera
Silvera’s debut is set in a just-slightly-in-the-future version of the Bronx, in a world where memories can be erased, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–style. The book’s Bronx is as authentic as it gets, considering Silvera was born and raised there. Protagonist Aaron’s dad recently committed suicide, and Aaron is barely holding it together. His girlfriend, Genevieve, is pretty much all that’s been keeping him steady, but she’s away for a few weeks, leaving Aaron in disarray. Which is where new guy Thomas comes in. Aaron starts spending more and more time with Thomas; he only feels safe and alive when Thomas is around. As he starts to realize just how powerful his feelings are, he also considers the memory-erasing procedure, because forgetting everything—including the fact that he might be gay—couldn’t hurt as much as remembering. Silvera fills the novel with local details while also basically devastating us emotionally. It’s what he does.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Although Thomas’s outstanding debut isn’t set in a named city, it deserves to be on this list, because it feels so viscerally real in its representation of neighborhoods and cities across the country. It could be New York, LA, Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta. The place where Starr grew up is crafted in great depth and detail, down to street names, stores, local eccentrics, rival gangs, while the upscale locations and exclusive school she attends are similarly detailed and specific. By avoiding any one specific place, Thomas gives us a city that could easily be (and probably is) the one we live in, which helps make this a true American city in a true American novel. Her powerful and grounded storytelling puts us right in the middle of the action, however (necessarily) uncomfortable it might make us feel. The most crucial of all YA city stories, right here.