Fantasy may have its duels to the death, and sci-fi may have the threat of planets blowing up, but don’t make the mistake of underestimating just how high the stakes in the real world can be. These seven contemporary YAs lay it all on the line with intense competitions, life-changing prizes, and vicious rivalries.
Not Now, Not Ever, by Lily Anderson
Anderson takes on Oscar Wilde in her sophomore romcom, about a girl named Elliot who rebrands herself as Ever in order to pursue the summer of her choosing at a hypercompetitive academic decathelon, rather than following either of her divorced parents’ competing directives. There, Ever competes for her dream prize: a scholarship to Rayevich College, the only college with a sci-fi literature major that might allow her to follow in her idol Octavia Butler’s shoes. But she’s also greeted by a nasty surprise that keeps her on her toes when it comes to maintaining both her true identity and her secret whereabouts…and a more pleasant one in the form of a delightfully cute math nerd.
Rites of Passage, by Joy Hensley
Military school is tough enough, but joining up in its first class to include females? Sam McKenna may not quite have grasped what she was signing on for when she enrolled on a dare from her now-deceased brother, but she’s certainly ready to rise to the task. As Sam toughs it out through grueling training, classmates faltering, and all the abuse the other cadets and staff can dish out, there’s no ignoring that all her endeavors may be pointless if she’s been set up to fail. What do you do when the one person you trust is the last person you should? This authoritatively written debut has its high stakes and pacing nailed down beautifully, and while Sam and her journey and strength are absolutely the heart of the novel, I’d be remiss not to mention that it’s got one of my favorite slow-burn romances, too.
No Good Deed, by Goldy Moldavsky
In a far more lighthearted version of the high-stakes competition setting, Moldavsky’s sophomore follows wannabe do-gooder Gregor to Camp Save the World, a summer camp for teen activists. There, each camper picks a cause to champion. Naturally, Gregor wants to feed the world’s hungry children; how could anyone pick a cause more worthy than that? While the others range from obviously deserving to utterly strange, competition heightens all around when they learn there’s a major internship at stake. Outgooding each other becomes the name of the game in a satire that gently balances support for and mockery of social justice advocacy.
Pizza, Love, and Other Stuff that Made Me Famous, by Kathryn Williams
Going on a cooking reality show definitely wasn’t Sophie’s idea, but with a culinary school scholarship on the line, she can’t not take the chance when her best friend, Alex, nudges her to try. After all, she was practically born with a spatula in hand, having grown up in her family’s Italian-Greek restaurant. But on set, things are way more intense than she expected. Backstabbing is par for the course, but at least romance is a delicious distraction. Can she power through to give herself her dream future in this salty-sweet novel? (For another great culinary competition read, check out Taste Test, by Kelly Fiore.)
Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
Those who think they know the true meaning of the word cutthroat have no idea what they’d be in for at the American Ballet Company, the prestigious Manhattan ballet academy where your fellow dancers would just as soon strangle you with your toe-shoe laces than help you with them. Bette’s used to her family holding court, but her sister’s shadow is a terrible place to be. June isn’t skilled enough to land top roles no matter what she puts her body through, but if she doesn’t make it happen soon, by any means necessary, her mother’s going to kill her dreams for good. And Gigi is the new girl, too talented and alluring for her own good. In a school where there’s only room for one star, there’s nothing these dancers won’t do to land in the spotlight. (For more in the world of New York City performing arts, check out You in Five Acts, by Una LaMarche.)
Tumbling, by Caela Carter
Everyone who tunes into the summer Olympics for gymnastics every four years knows what skilled, practiced champions its stars are, but what exactly does it take to get to don a leotard and flip on a four-inch beam in front of millions? Five girls share their experiences with exactly that at the Olympic trials, including Grace, who’s not yet at the level she wants and needs to be; Leigh, who might be the most talented of the bunch but is terrified it could all fall away if everyone finds out she’s a lesbian; Camille, whose reasons for competing have everything to do with her loved ones and nothing to do with what she wants; Wilhelmina, who’s only got one shot left in her illustrious career and is desperate to make it count; and Monica, the dark horse everyone underestimates at their own peril. If you miss Make It or Break It as much as I do, this is the one to grab.
For Real, by Alison Cherry
Amazing Race takes on YA form in this fabulously fun sister-centric novel that has Claire supporting her sister, Miranda, by teaming up with her to take down Miranda’s cheating ex on reality show Around the World. But their experience traveling the world isn’t exactly what she expects; turns out, it’s a dating show, and while Claire might be finding love on camera, she might actually just be finding a guy who’s in it for the spotlight. Meanwhile, though she came on the show for sisterly support, she’s clashing with Miranda far more than she expected. After so many years spent in the shadow of her big sis, who will Claire be when she emerges from the wildest experience of her life?
Game. Set. Match., by Jennifer Iacopelli
Love takes many forms among the members of the ultra-competitive Outer Banks Tennis Academy, and there isn’t always room for it at a school where athletes have been training their whole lives for careers in their chosen sport. For Penny, a star on the rise, it’s an unwanted distraction; for Jasmine, who’s dreamed a future with a guy who apparently doesn’t feel the same way, it’s a wrench in her carefully crafted plans to follow in the family legacy; and for Indy, it’s a promise a possibly off-limits guy seems to have no intention of keeping. For these girls, it’ll be a challenge to keep their heads and hearts in the game, but as fierce competitors, there’s also no way they’ll ever give up.