When it comes to television and film, subcultures don’t get treated very well by the mainstream from which they’ve broken away: TV Tropes has an entire page dedicated to “Subculture of the Week,” which points out how Bones, Law & Order, and other pop culture points have mischaracterized Goths, gamers, and everyone in between. Thank goodness for YA books, which actually understand how to depict subcultures!
This isn’t surprising, seeing as YA is already concerned with articulating the adolescent experience, but the level of attention and empathy paid to these groups is much needed. Check out these real and fictional subcultures as depicted through YA novels.
Althea and Oliver, by Cristina Moracho
High school juniors and best friends Althea and Oliver have an escalating series of problems: She wants them to be something more; he has a sleep disorder that makes it so he can’t remember the last three weeks; she does something to ruin their friendship; he leaves for a sleep study without saying goodbye. While going to punk shows in basements bound them, now Althea must chase Oliver to the East Coast to salvage their friendship. The ways in which these two friends grapple with the obstacles of Oliver’s condition and his inability to reciprocate Althea’s feelings, as well as the perfectly depicted punk collective she ends up crashing with, perfectly embody the DIY culture of the 1990s, in which the story is set.
The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, by Barry Lyga
Fanboy, who regularly suffers humiliation at the hands of bullies who don’t understand his love of comics, loses his best friend to “the dark side” of sports and popularity. But thankfully, a new friend seems poised to take his place: Kyra, wonderfully cynical and a fellow fan of graphic novels. The only problem is, Kyra is also (as the author himself describes her) “the girl of his nightmares”—being a Goth and all. Watch these two societal outcasts put aside their misconceptions about each other’s subculture to forge a genuine friendship.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black
Black’s novel takes the preexisting culture of vampire enthusiasts and makes it literal: In a world where vampires (or, those who have turned Cold) are locked away in Coldtowns to staunch the flow of vampirism, they’ve also become Internet and television celebrities. Impressionable humans—mostly teenagers—flock to the Coldtowns to get bitten and join this exclusive club. When Tana flees to a Coldtown out of necessity—a party-turned-massacre leaves Tana maybe Cold and her ex definitely too far gone—she discovers just how much her generation worships the undead. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown puts a sharp, clever spin on the notions of sex, immortality, and individuality-versus-conformity that you see in other, real-world subcultures.
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
As someone who spent her adolescence writing Tamora Pierce fanfiction, this book is one I’ll never take off my shelf: Cath and Wren are twins who grew up writing Simon Snow (like Harry Potter) slash fic, even attaining some modest Internet fame. But when they start college, Wren distances herself from her sister—by both choosing a different roommate and shrugging off discussions of the Simon Snow fandom—while Wren retreats further into the most welcoming (online) world she knows. Rowell understands fandom (as you’ll see in her other book I put on this list) and accurately depicts the struggle to function in the “real world” without condescending to Cath.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
When billionaire James Halliday dies, he leaves behind his fortune, embedded as an Easter egg in the immersive OASIS roleplaying game on which he’s staked his success. In the years following his death, gamers all over the world become gunters, or egg hunters, focusing all their time and energy on learning everything about the 1980s and deciphering Halliday’s frustratingly complex clues. The gunters have their own hierarchy and rivalries, enough that they catch the attention of Innovative Online Industries, a corporation that wants to monetize the OASIS.
Majix: Notes from a Serious Teen Witch, by Douglas Rees
It’s difficult to find YAs about witches that aren’t urban fantasy or paranormal YA—stories about young women practicing Wicca without conjuring up ghosts or fantasy creatures. Rees’ novel fits the bill: Kestrel—not Susan, because what witch is named Susan?—is dealing with the emotional upheaval of being shipped to her aunt’s house after her father has a heart attack. She doesn’t fit in at school, refusing to wear the uniform (in favor of dressing all in black) and grappling with cruel bullies. Not to mention, she has always felt she’s a white witch, but recent events have conspired to make her lean toward the dark side…
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
While Nick and Norah meet when he asks her to be his girlfriend for five minutes, their shared love for publicity-shy indie band Where’s Fluffy? unites them in an all-night search: They hop from one NYC music venue to the next in search of the band’s secret show, while also embarking on an incredibly adventurous first date.
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
What starts as a furtive glance on the school bus leads to a remarkable, life-affirming relationship. Like Oliver and Althea, Park and Eleanor are united by their love of many subcultures: X-Men comics, Walkman mixtapes, and other passions that brand them losers in high school in the 1980s. All it takes is Eleanor starting to read over Park’s shoulder and him spreading his comic book out a little more for her to see, or the sharing of headphones, and it’s like the whole world opens up.