YA Contemporary Fiction

ON THE SUBJECT OF UNMENTIONABLE THINGS by Julie Walton

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Strait-laced high school journalist Phoebe Townsend has a secret life as the Internet’s most detailed and scientific sex blogger. All of her information comes from medical journals and books–really her only sources of knowledge since she hasn’t had sex herself yet–and it answers the kind of questions that she knows should be taught in sex ed classes but are instead swept under the rug by her conservative small town’s “abstinence-only” policy.

But when her decision to open her blog to comments and Q&A attracts the attention of an ultra-conservative local politician, Phoebe’s blog suddenly becomes the talk of the town. Although fellow teens seem grateful for the matter-of-fact information, adults either dislike the blog or are too afraid to get on the mayoral candidate’s bad side. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s work for the school paper has thrown her in the politician’s path, jeopardizing her anonymity. With her secret identity under threat and an unexpected love triangle making her life at school all-too-complicated, Phoebe has to ask: is fighting the stigma against quality sex ed really worth blowing up her life?

Militantly sex-positive in the best possible way, Walton’s novel includes a sprinkling of accurate information about taboo topics, including female masturbation, and a powerful call-to-action to fight for factual, science-based sex ed in high schools. By having her well-informed protagonist choose to wait to have sex until she feels emotionally ready, Walton provides a counter-example for anyone who worries that when kids learn about the existence of condoms they will immediately run out and have lots of promiscuous sex. That’s actually the main thesis of her work: information doesn’t lead to more sex. It leads to safer sex. Couched in an entertaining narrative with an unlikely heroine, repulsive villain, and tantalizing love triangle, Walton’s message couldn’t be more fun to read. I highly recommend this book to fans of YA Contemporary and any public and high school libraries who can get it past their gatekeepers. (Because yup, this book will be challenged. Oh, the irony.)

THE UNDEAD TRUTH OF US by Britney S. Lewis

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Since Zharie’s mother died, her world has changed drastically. There are the practical changes: the fact that she now has to live with her aloof aunt and has had to quit dancing at the expensive studio where her mom used to work.

And then there are the zombies.

Zharie sees them everywhere, kids she used to know with the flesh peeling off of them, but no one else seems to notice anything wrong. She knows it has something to do with her mother, who seemed to be decaying in the few days leading up to her unexpected death. When Zharie meets Bo, a boy who for some reason morphs in and out of a zombie state in her eyes, she hopes that forging a friendship with him will provide some answers about her undead visions. But getting close to Bo just raises more questions–about friendship, love, and how people can be killed but keep on living.

Grief and heartbreak shimmer through Lewis’s poetic prose and symbolic fantasy as she explores the pain that comes with deep love. Within the story, Lewis shares the origins of zombies in Kongo, Haiti, and the Vodou religion. Fans of Amber McBrides’s inimitable Me (Moth) may enjoy this novel due to its lyrical style, heavily allegorical fantasy/horror, and grounding in African diasporic religion (although that last is more prominent in McBride’s work). A great addition to YA literary fiction collections.

I RISE by Marie Arnold

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To most of Harlem, Rosalie Bosia, founder of the social justice organization See Us, is either a heroine or a villain, but to Ayo, she’s mom–and the reason Ayo has no social life. It seems like all of the other almost-fifteen-year-olds at Ayo’s high school are dating and going to parties while Ayo is stuck at community meetings and pasting up flyers. Ayo understand that her mother’s work is important, but she is tired of feeling responsible for fighting racism every second of her life. She just wants to be a normal kid for once, and that’s why she’s determined to get out of See Us.

Unfortunately, her mom has other ideas. Viewing See Us as a legacy she’s leaving to Ayo, Rosalie insists that her daughter take on leadership responsibilities. Although afraid to strain her relationship with her mom, when Ayo finally gets the attention of the boy she’d love to be her first kiss, the stakes for achieving a social life have never been higher. But just as Ayo and Rosalie start to reach an understanding, a police officer shoots Rosalie, gravely injuring her. With her mom in a coma, Ayo is left reeling, following the birthday scavenger hunt her mom left behind and wrestling with the role political activism will play in her life in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Elevated by a poetic voice and a cast of nuanced characters, I RISE examines the experience of being a Black teenager in New York City and the unique burdens that Black Americans have to grapple with. Arnold never shies away from the emotional traumas of racism and microaggressions (including police brutality), keeping her story hopeful by focusing in on a protagonist with a powerful voice, a powerful platform, and the drive to fight. I highly recommend this novel for YA collections and readers who enjoy heavy YA contemporary fiction.

TWICE AS PERFECT by Louisa Onomé

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Adanna Sophie Nkwachi is no stranger to pressure. She’s always top of her class (or second in her class after her debate partner, chief rival, and maybe-crush Justin) and rocketing toward a career in law. So she can handle being a bridesmaid to her diva cousin and her Nigerian pop icon fiancé, no matter how many times she changes her mind on the dresses, and even if it means deciding whether she wants to cause a furor among the aunties by inviting her other maybe-crush Tayo as her plus one like he insists she should. She can even handle being two different people: obedient Ada in her close-knit Nigerian community and driven Sophie at school.

But a group project in art class? That’s too much.

The required art elective at school doesn’t seem to be getting Ada any closer to her law career, and the assignment pushes her out of her comfort zone. Worse, it throws her into the orbit of her estranged brother, Sam, who became a poet at some point during the six years they haven’t seen one another. But Ada’s encounters with Sam–and with poetry–make her dig deeper into her past and into her heart. Is it possible for her to be a perfect daughter and be happy? Maybe the epic wedding of the year is the perfect chance to reunite her not-so-perfect family.

Onomé builds an immersive, character-rich world around her protagonist in this heartfelt contemporary novel. As she learns more about herself, Ada finds a place for herself as an individual within her family and her community and negotiates the challenge of pursuing individual needs while still caring for those around her. Clear, conversational prose with a first-person narrator provides the perfect voice and vehicle for this story. I highly recommend this one to fans of YA contemporary literature!

THE COMEDIENNE’S GUIDE TO PRIDE by Hayli Thomson

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Aspiring comedian and daughter of one of Salem Massachusetts’ many witch-themed inn caretakers, Taylor Parker may have just outed herself. When she sent her Salem Witch-themed comedy sketch to SNL’s “diverse writers” internship, she never expected to make it to the finals. If by some miracle she wins, her name will be announced and everyone will find out exactly what makes her so “diverse.”

Taylor honestly isn’t sure how the people closest to her will react to the news that she’s a lesbian. After all, her mom’s best friend, Jenn, is basically Taylor’s gay idol, and Taylor’s friends in the theater department aren’t exactly homophobic. But things get complicated when Jenn returns to Salem pregnant–and in a relationship with with the Impregnator–shaking Taylors respect for her. And then the thing that seems even less likely than winning an SNL internship happens: Charlotte Grey, high school acting goddess, the most beautiful girl in the universe, the girl that Taylor has been in love with since forever (and the most hated person in the drama department) seems to be interested in dating her. Taylor’s stress is mounting. She can’t confide in Jenn until she comes to terms with her being bi. She can’t tell anyone about the SNL internship possibility until she tells them she’s gay. She can’t openly date Charlotte without alienating her friends (and telling everyone she’s gay). But as hard as opening up might be, if she doesn’t start being honest, she might be squashing her chance for the life she’s always dreamed of.

Complex character relationships shine in this YA “coming-out” Rom Com. While worrying about how those close to her will react to her lesbianism, Taylor must grapple with her own biphobia and the ways it has tainted her relationship with a bi mentor. Not only Taylor’s choices, but the choices of her mother and her best friend contain layers of good intentions, flawed assumptions, and subconscious selfishness. There are no villains here, only humans doing their best to love and support one another. If you’re looking for a nuanced Rom Com or a coming out narrative with a unique backdrop, this is a book you’ll want to pick up.

A DISASTER IN THREE ACTS by Kelsey Rodkey

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Saine Sinclair has one shot to make it into her dream college program, an elite track for documentary filmmakers at Temple University, by filming a 40-minute documentary on a local Virtual Reality competition. Unfortunately, the lovelorn millennial who’d agreed to be her subject drops out last minute, and Saine has to pin all her college hopes on another competitor, one who let her down spectacularly during a disastrous game of spin the bottle six years ago that ended their once-close friendship: Holden Michaels.

Privileged Holden isn’t the ideal subject for a heart-wrenching documentary, and his personal history with Saine will definitely make things awkward. Her feelings of embarrassment and resentment crystalized into something closer to hate last year when he dated, and was dumped by, her new best friend, Corinne. Hoping that Corinne won’t freak out about it, Saine agrees to a professional truce with Holden to help each other on senior projects. But as Saine gets reacquainted with Holden and the changes to his life, she realizes he’s not the vapid documentary subject she feared–great news for her admissions project, but terrible news for heart. Because as hard as she works to tease real life into a compelling story for her films, being honest about her own personal drama could cost her Corinne’s friendship and the friendship of the boy she’s might not hate after all.

I’m head-over-heels for this book. Saine’s voice surprised laughs out of me on every page, I swooned for Holden, and I adored that the captain of the cheerleading squad BFF Corinne was a good person trying to be a good friend. Therapy-positive conversations support the story’s more emotionally poignant moments. A great read for fans of contemporary rom-coms with great banter and some deeper themes!

FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley

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Daunis has always existed in two worlds: the Ojibwe community where her father is from and the community of wealthy white people in Sault Ste. Marie where she lives with her mother. She is part of both but fully accepted by neither.

When her maternal grandmother has a stroke shortly after her uncle dies of a meth overdose, Daunis knows a third disaster is coming. She tries to prevent it by deferring her college admission–pushing off her dream of becoming a doctor so that she can stay close to both of her communities–but her presence isn’t enough to stop a shocking tragedy. With her world crumbling around her, Daunis is swept up into an investigation of drug trade on the reservation as a confidential informant, taking the place of her uncle, who she learns was likely murdered. But even though she isn’t an enrolled member of the tribe, Daunis is an Ojibwe woman, and she has her own agenda for helping the Cherokee FBI agents who have infiltrated her town. She will be searching for the truth to save her people’s lives, while also protecting their culture and traditions from meddling outsiders. Unfortunately, even in the investigation, the line between her identities is blurred, and as her secrets pile up, and the fake relationship she’s developed with the young FBI rookie starts to morph into something real, Daunis realizes that the truth has the power not only to save lives but also to tear them apart.

This stellar novel hits all of the notes for a heart-wrenching YA contemporary, a brain-teasing YA mystery, and pulse-pounding thriller. Boulley immerses readers in Daunis’s communities–from Michigan “Hockey World” to her Ojibwe nation–and crafts a stunningly character-driven mystery that crescendos gradually toward the shocking conclusion. This book satisfies me as a thriller reader and as a contemporary reader, and while thoroughly accessible for its teenage audience, the mature storytelling style and pristine prose makes it a great choice for adult readers, as well. I will add my voice for the clamor of recommendations for this truly exceptional novel.

YEAR ON FIRE by Julie Buxbaum

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Maybe Immie shouldn’t have told Paige that she was the one who kissed her boyfriend. Maybe she should have told the truth–that it was really her twin brother–but that night, with her brother sobbing on the bottom bunk and the remnants of one of their father’s rages echoing through the house, keeping the secret of Arch’s sexuality seemed important. And after sixteen years of living with their father, the twins were good at keeping secrets.

With their friendship already on shaky ground, the arrival of the new boy only makes things more complicated. Paige calls dibs and Immie can’t say anything–not after what Paige thinks she did with her ex–and not even when it starts to become clear that the attraction between Immie and the new boy is very much mutual. As mysterious fires begin breaking out in their school, new relationships spark and old ones combust as the friends struggle to keep their secrets–and to know when they should let those secrets go.

Told through four alternating points of view, YEAR ON FIRE explores the limits and the power of love among friends and family. The twins wrestle with their love of their father and coming-to-terms with the ways he is abusive and the effect it has had on their lives. The new kid finds himself on a new continent, struggling to relate to his father and forgive him (or not) for the adultery that destroyed his parents’ marriage. And the wealthy best friend with the seemingly perfect life has to confront the cracks in her family and her own image and identity. There is a lot going on in this story, but the storylines are thematically parallel and therefore easy to keep track of. I’d recommend this one to teens who love weighty contemporary fiction, especially stories with multiple protagonists.

DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt

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Malena didn’t want to go to school braless. Her abuela may think that large breasts is a blessing, but sometimes they are inconvenient and embarrassing. But the first degree burns on her back–the third disaster in a trifecta of tragedies, including the destruction of her home in Puerto Rico and the move to Florida–meant that wearing a bra was impossible. Unfortunately, the school administration didn’t see it that way, and they give Malena detention and force her to tape panty liners over her nipples.

Ruby hasn’t lived in Florida long but she already has a reputation as a feminist–the kind of girl who doesn’t mind announcing to her entire class that she needs a tampon. And why shouldn’t she? She has a body; she menstruates. She shouldn’t have to be ashamed of either of those facts. But when she sees another new girl in the bathroom being forced to wrap her breasts in surgical tape, Ruby knows it’s time to put her voice to better use–and she’s going to convince Malena to join her in this protest whether she wants to or not. As they take on the sexist, body-shaming administration, the girls quickly learn that activism has its price. The only thing costlier is inaction.

Unapologetically feminist with accessible voices and an inspiring storyline, DOES MY BODY OFFEND YOU? is a great pick for any fan of YA Contemporary fiction. The authors do not shy away from the realistic consequences of activism, especially for teenagers who are already bound by the rules and expectations of multiple authorities in school and their families. But the protagonists take courage in the knowledge that they are fighting for something important and morally just. Teen readers will be inspired by their story.

THE WORDS WE KEEP by Erin Stewart

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Lily is the one who found her sister bleeding on the bathroom floor, the razor still in her hand. But she didn’t go with her dad when he took Alice to the hospital. Or when he visited her in the treatment center. Instead, she stayed home and made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

Now, with Alice coming home, Lily will finally have to confront her sister’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. But how can she face Alice when she’s been working so hard to keep her life together–to keep her grades up, to stay at the top her game as a runner, and especially to hide the truth about Alice and the ways that Lily might be losing her mind, too? When her teacher pairs her with a new boy for a poetry project, Lily is horrified to learn that he was at the treatment center with Alice and knows Lily’s secret (or at least, one of them). When they stumble onto an idea for their project that involves anonymous poetry shared in public spaces throughout the school, however, she realizes he might actually be the key to helping her get through this–not just because their poetry is an instant success that sets them up for a top grade and the possibility of an elite summer program at UC Berkeley, but because through the poetry, Lily is finally able to anonymously express some of the darkness that she’s been hiding from the world. But as the time for revealing her identity as the mysterious “Guerrilla Poet” draws closer and Alice seems to be spiraling again, Lily begins to wonder whether her family can survive the revelation of her darkest thoughts when she’s the one they depend on to hold them all together.

This is both high praise and a warning: the depictions of an anxiety disorder, self-harm, and suicidal ideation in this novel are so real and raw that readers will feel them right along with the character. For some readers, this will be validating–a rare and powerful experience of seeing their own struggles reflected by another person, realizing they are not alone, seeing a path forward to hope and mental health care. For other readers, it may be triggering. Be aware before picking this book up and share trigger warnings with kids you recommend it to.

That praise/warning aside, I highly recommend this novel for YA Contemporary fiction fans and YA library collections. In addition to the realistic portrayal of mental illness, the novel features a strong, determined, witty narrator and a heart-warming romance, both of which buoy the reader up in the book’s darker passages. And the “guerrilla poetry” movement that the protagonist starts–and the way that poetry allows her and others in her community to anonymously express thoughts they fear to admit and forge unexpected connections–will warm the heart of any readers who have found themselves in the arts and literature (and of course every teacher and librarian!). It is a well-crafted and important story, and I highly recommend it.