Charlotte Huang’s second book, Going Geek, whisks readers away to an exclusive, preppy boarding school on the East Coast, where Skylar Hoffman is eagerly anticipating the perfect end to her reign as a hip, popular girl on campus. It’s senior year. Her boyfriend is perfect, her friends are great, she’s staying in the perfect, socially elite dorm. And everyone thinks she’s a big deal, what with her mother being the screenwriter of a massively popular teen movie, which is basically her generation’s Can’t Hardly Wait. Or American Pie. (I guess it depends how old you are.)
But not everything is at it appears to be. Back at home, money is tight. Her mom is wrestling with her next screenplay, the pressure to write a successful sequel absolutely crushing her. Instead of living it up at the country club, Skylar finds herself working there over the summer—and all her lies about Hollywood success and summer parties catch up to her pretty quickly.
The book kicks off as she loses her spot in her favorite dorm and watches the relationships she has cultivated over the years fall apart due to her desire to hide from her problems. Suddenly, she finds herself having to make new friends and adjust to a new living situation, and is thrown completely out of her comfort zone.
Which is really what this book is all about. Losing comfort, losing privilege. Being forced to take a hard look at yourself, and the things you’ve grown to value. And the result makes for one of my favorite YA contemporary novels this year. No surprise, considering how wonderful Huang’s debut, For the Record, was.
But, of course, Skylar isn’t alone in dealing with a tough school year. Here are a bunch of recent YA reads with teens having a way worse start to the school year than you are, in varying degrees of disaster.
The New Guy and Other High School Distractions, by Amy Spalding
I’ve said it again and again: Amy Spalding’s The New Guy is the funniest YA book of the year. The contest is over. Pack it up. In The New Guy, Jules is less concerned with all the glitz and glamour surrounding her elite high school of wealthy, children-of-Hollywood executives and movie stars, and more worried about the future of her school newspaper. She’s the editor, and she won’t let this be the year the school’s historic paper goes up in flames.
Things get complicated quick when a formerly famous boy bander enrolls at the school, and becomes a serious distraction. He’s funny, he’s charming, he likes walking dogs with Jules. All is well until he joins the digital, YouTube-esque news group at the school, becoming a threat to her paper. It’s print vs. digital in a delightful comedy from one of my favorite voices in contemporary YA.
Winger, by Andrew Smith
Ryan Dean West is a brilliant, 14-year-old junior at a boarding school for the wealthy. His spirit is strong even if he isn’t. He’s small, easy to pick on, and finds himself starting his school year in a dorm full of the worst students at school. And to make things even worse, his roommate, the star of the rugby team, is one hell of a bully. Oh, and Ryan is on that rugby team.
The problems for Ryan, aka Winger, pile up, and he keeps making them worse. He gets in with the wrong crowd, pranks go awry, romances get seriously bungled up. Everything seems to be falling apart at the seams—and when tragedy strikes, he’s given some serious perspective in the most heartbreaking way possible.
Mirror in the Sky, by Aditi Khorana
It’s the start of another school year for Tara Krishnan. She’s navigating the usual issues: new friends, new classrooms…trying to figure out how to handle the news that there’s a parallel Earth across the universe that mirrors everything and everyone on our planet, sending everyone she knows into an existential crisis. You know, regular teen stuff.
Khorana’s debut is a really brilliant contemporary novel with a sci-fi splash, that’s less about outer space and aliens (because are they aliens, if they’re just like us?), and more about the struggle of figuring out who you are and watching everyone around you wrestle with the same questions. And don’t forget to add complicated friendships, new romances, and some really terrifying family drama into the mix.
Tara’s certainly having a weirder back to school season from you.
Those Girls, by Lauren Saft
I’m a sucker for a good shifting point of view novel, and Lauren Saft’s debut is a great one. It’s the start of junior year, and three best friends, Alex, Mollie, and Veronica, are going to face challenges that might rip apart their little clique. And each of their secrets holds a bit of darkness, from a potentially abusive boyfriend adored by the entire school to Veronica’s desperation for love and attention, it’s a brutally raw book about being a teen. If you’re looking for toxic friendship books, this is one of the best and a personal favorite.
The Inside of Out, by Jenn Marie Thorne
It’s the day before junior year, and Daisy’s best friend has just come out of the closet. Daisy is so thrilled for Hannah, she decides she’s going to fight for gay rights, taking on their high school’s same-sex date ban at school dances.
The result? Daisy’s well-meaning attempts at being an ally become seriously messy, with her cause going viral, pulling in national media attention. The book’s wonderful tagline: “Every story needs a hero. Sometimes it’s just not you.” There are wrong ways to be an ally, and this is one of the rare books that discusses that. It’s not so much that Daisy is having a rough time at the start of school. Instead it’s Hannah who gets sidelined in the wake of Daisy’s attempts to do good.
Goodbye Days, by Jeff Zentner
It feels kinda wrong to tease this book, seeing as it doesn’t come out until March of next year, but I’m here to encourage your pre-orders. Because. This. Book. I can’t imagine starting off school the way poor Carver Briggs does in Zentner’s sophomore novel.
Because he has killed his best friends.
Well, not really. He sends a text message to one of them, and when that friend tries to respond, he crashes the car he’s driving, killing all the passengers on board. Carver is left rolling in crippling guilt, as lawsuits and media descend upon him. Between battling the sinking feeling in his chest that never seems to go away and trying to navigate a complicated, maybe-blossoming relationship with his deceased friend’s girlfriend, it’s a beautifully complex novel about learning how to grieve and forgive yourself.