YA Contemporary Fiction

THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

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Unlike her arch-nemesis, the vindictive and supremely self-absorbed Miss North Carolina, Teagan “Miss Virginia” Miller is not disgusted when she learns that the Miss Cosmic Teen USA Pageant will be sharing a hotel with a Sherlock Holmes fandom convention. She’s more petrified. It has taken a lot of work to keep her nerdiness–and her gayness–under wraps to placate the pageant bigots and give herself a real shot at winning that scholarship money. How is she supposed to maintain the illusion with hundreds of hot girls milling around, cosplaying as John Watson?

All hope of keeping her focus evaporates when she meets one of her favorite fanfic writers, Kay. While Teagan has been hoping to keep her queer identity secret for the weekend, Kay is doing the opposite, using the convention as a chance to escape her small town’s prejudices, experiment with using they/their pronouns, and (hopefully) kiss a girl for the first time. Unfortunately, the biggest bully from Kay’s hometown happens to be Miss North Carolina. It would be better for both Kay and Teagan if they avoided one another, just stuck to their own corners of the hotel, and not give Miss North Carolina a chance to destroy them. But love doesn’t always listen to logic, and once they share their authentic selves with one another, will they really be able to go back to keeping those identities hidden?

From the first page, I knew this book would be soaring to the top of my recommended YA RomComs list! The protagonists immediately hook readers with the authentic, heartfelt, and hilarious voices that England so excels at capturing–in their speculative works as well as this new contemporary novel. Through the escapist environment of a fandom convention, England provides a space for their characters to explore their identities, a common experience for all teens at Cons but especially powerful for queer teens who are infrequently surrounded by such an inclusive and accepting crowd. Yet this book is more than just the story of queer teens finding love and acceptance. England does not shy away from the thornier questions of identity and the blind spots and prejudices that their protagonists have toward one another and themselves. This is a book for the teen who isn’t sure whether it’s safe to come out in their community; the teen who isn’t sure whether they’re queer; the teen who isn’t sure what pronouns fit them best–and how on earth to communicate that to others. And this is a book for all readers, queer or straight, enby or cis, who are ready to laugh, fall in love with two incredible people, and be inspired to work a little harder on their own prejudices and accepting the people in their lives. I highly recommend this to all YA Contemporary readers. Though it is targeted at a high school audience, it will be accessible to mature middle schoolers as well.

WHEN WE WERE THEM by Laura Taylor Namey

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Graduation week isn’t going as Willa planned, and it’s all her fault. She hurt her best friends–badly–and the worst part is, that she isn’t sure why. But when her friends issue her an ultimatum with their friendship hanging in the balance, Willa will have to sort through her memories, from the blissful days on the beach their sophomore year with the girls and Nico, when all their dreams seemed perfect and possible, to the terrible tragedy their junior year that tore it all apart, to Willa’s choice last October that signed the death warrant of their friendship. With graduation looming closer, Willa opens some painful wounds, discovering some uncomfortable truths about herself and an even worse realization of what her future needs to look like.

This story hits the ground running with a strong thread of suspense that makes it hard to stop turning pages. The friendship struggles are relatable and heart-wrenching while the mysteries from the past give the story a bit of a thriller vibe. I highly recommend it to fans of books like WE WERE LIARS.

LAWLESS SPACES by Corey Ann Haydu

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Mimi’s sixteenth birthday isn’t what she’d hoped. She’s not surprised that her mother chooses to go on an impromptu trip with her boyfriend and leave Mimi alone for days. It’s just like her mom. But she is shocked when the news story breaks that her mother is the accuser in a high-profile sexual assault case that’s been all over the news.

Home alone, and unable to get in touch with her mom, Mimi isn’t sure how to handle this news–especially because of how her mom reacted about an incident in Mimi’s life last year, an incident which her mother seemed to think was all Mimi’s fault simply because of how her body is shaped. But as Mimi struggles to navigate these overwhelming revelations–all the while dealing with her own struggles with dating and her body image–she finds a stack of journals in the attic and begins to connect with the journey of the generations of women in her family before her, women who have had struggles that are dishearteningly similar to the sexism Mimi is still experiencing decades later.

Told through Mimi’s poetry, this story is beautifully told, but heavy. There are very few lighter moments in this book that deals with such important but difficult themes. It is a strong, feminist coming-of-age novel that will appeal most to older teens and twenty-somethings who want to immerse themselves in this struggle and come out the other side feeling connected to a community of women–generations of women–who have experienced gender-based violence and discrimination and feeling inspired to join them in the fight.

REQUIRED READING FOR THE DISENFRANCHISED FRESHMAN by Kristen R. Lee

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I deserve to be here.

Savannah has to repeat those words to herself every day–several times a day–just to remind herself that she hasn’t shown up at the wrong university. She’s one of only 100 Black students at the prestigious Ivy League school and her white classmates haven’t exactly gone out of their way to make her feel welcome. Hopefully, her mother is right that if she makes it all four years in this place, people will respect her degree more than they would have if she studied at an HBCU. But Savannah is starting to doubt it.

Savannah’s whole life has reinforced the reality that no matter what she does, some people will always assign her a label based on the color of her skin alone. And deserving to be somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be allowed to stay–whether that place is a pizza parlor or an elite university. So when a statue on campus is desecrated with blackface, Savannah is torn between wanting to speak out and fearing possible repercussions, especially since she’s pretty sure the racist behind the hate crime is a rich kid whose family has a long history at the school. But some things are too important to keep quiet about–even if they might cost your future.

This gripping, thought-provoking contemporary novel is a must-read! Although it is set on a college campus, the cliques, power dynamics, and constant struggle to find your niche and to balance school with life will be relatable to every high school student. Lee slams racist institutions with a blunt honesty that is refreshing, convicting, and guaranteed to get every reader thinking about how they will navigate the college environment and confront those injustices when they inevitably encounter them. I highly recommend this wonderful debut!

VINYL MOON by Mahogany L. Browne

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It’s been five weeks since Angel’s mother sent her to the live with her uncle in Brooklyn, and Angel knows it’s her own fault. Her fault that she had to leave California. Her fault that her arm is in a sling. Her fault that Darius, the first boy who called her beautiful, the boy who loved her so much he couldn’t help but hurt her, is in jail.

Angel isn’t eager to share her past–or her guilt–with the other girls in her advisory class at her new school or with her teacher, however cool she might seem. But when she rediscovers the poetry of Maya Angelou, which she had loved to read until Darius tore up her book, the words of Angelou and soon other Black artists take root in her soul. And as she confronts the darkness in her past, she begins to open herself up to love: the love of a boy, the love of a friend, the love of her uncle, and most incredibly, the love of herself.

Exquisite poetry and prose intertwine in this uplifting novel about a Black trauma survivor finding herself through the powerful voices of BIPOC artists. Writers like Cisneros, Morrison, and Angelou influence both the character on her journey to becoming a musical artist and the style of narration, a combination of vignettes, poems, and conversations. Browne also surrounds her protagonist with a community of Black women and girls, each with her own developed identity and arc, who flesh out not only the world of the story but the message about the strength, resilience, ingenuity, and above all value of Black girls, despite how society teaches them that they don’t matter or can’t achieve. This book is an essential purchase for any YA collection and an emotional, uplifting literary read for teens and adults.

DANGEROUS PLAY by Emma Kress

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Zoe has one goal for the year: to lead her field hockey team to the championships where she’ll have the chance to impress scouts from her dream college. It’s not going to be easy, especially since most of the team will be new players, but that’s why Zoe has been leading her handpicked new girls in middle-of-the-night training sessions, so that they really blow Coach away at try-outs.

Everything goes according to plan, except that one of the girls who makes the team isn’t one of Zoe’s picks. In fact, the only time Zoe has seen Nikki before was when she ran across the field during one of the middle of the night trainings, her shirt undone, a wild look in her eyes like she was fleeing for something–or someone. Zoe is pretty sure something happened to Nikki, just like she’s pretty sure that another teammate has been getting harassed at school while the administration does nothing, but the best option seems to stay out of it and focus on the game. But when Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, her focus begins to slip away, and suddenly she realizes: she and her fierce teammates shouldn’t be saving all their fight for the field. Their nighttime training sessions would be better spent wreaking vigilante justice against the boys who have hurt them.

This novel is packed with emotional intensity and morally-questionable heroics. Ultimately, Zoe and her friends will find a way to fight for justice without using violence, and Zoe’s fraught family relationships will settle into a supportive community. A great read for anyone wanting to vicariously take out some rage against the patriarchy with an positive and constructive message about how all high schoolers can take a proactive stance against rape culture.

A SECRET SHARED by Patricia MacLachlan

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Nora doesn’t understand why her mom wants a DNA test. Isn’t it enough to know who you are and where you came from? Do you need to know who your ancestors were, too? As Nora expected, her mother’s test results don’t hold any surprises. But Nora finds a huge surprise hidden in the envelope: her little sister, Birdy, snuck a tube of her own spit into the testing envelope and her results don’t match her mom or her dad. Nora doesn’t know why her parents would keep Birdy’s adoption a secret, but as she investigates to learn more about her little sister’s past, Nora’s own secrets begin to pile up. With all of the complicated things she’s thinking and feeling, could there possibly be enough love in her family to hold her together?

This complex story about love and truth is told in MacLachlan’s spare yet meaningful prose. With the current conversation about the trauma of adoption, it might have been nice to see more of Birdy’s perspective and more complex and conflicting emotions from her character upon learning about her first mother. But that isn’t the story MacLachlan is telling here; this is Nora’s story–the older sister, trying to figure out what her family means not only because one of her siblings is adopted but because her loving, trusted parents have lied to her since Birdy’s arrival. I’d recommend this story to elementary-aged readers who enjoy literary fiction.

THE BIG REVEAL by Jen Larsen

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Addie isn’t ashamed of her body. In fact, she’s incredibly proud–not only of how she looks, but of the strength and grace that has helped her rise to being the best dancer at the top arts boarding school in the country. But she is frustrated with how others see her and think less of her for being fat, especially since fat dancers are discriminated against in the industry.

When Addie gets the opportunity to attend an elite summer program led by one of her biggest heroes, an elite dancer with a body like hers, she won’t let anything stand in her way, especially not the $6,000 she definitely doesn’t have. Fortunately, her awesome and supportive friends have a plan: put on a secret underground burlesque show on campus after dark. It’s an exciting idea, one that makes Addie feel incredibly excited and empowered. But as the date of the show grows closer, doubts about baring her skin in front of an audience begin to creep in. And on a campus where young women are routinely shamed and disciplined for outfits that the administration deems “too revealing,” the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will Addie find the courage to dance for what she believes in?

This unapologetically feminist and body positive YA contemporary novel will resonate with all young women who have ever been shamed and objectified for having bodies (so, all young women…). Debates over the validity and empowerment of sex work take center stage, but complex friendships, budding relationships, and amazingly witty banter keep the feminist message from feeling overly preachy. The high stakes plot makes it difficult to put this one down. I highly recommend this novel to fans of YA contemporary fiction.

THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I by Cassandra Hartt

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A small town in Maine is slowly eroding into the sea, and the lives of three high schoolers are crumbling with it. When Tommy swam out into the ocean, he wasn’t planning on swimming back or being rescued. He was hoping to sink beneath the waves, to leave his miserable existence behind. His twin brother, Ellis, has been trying to pretend Tommy’s depression doesn’t exist, focusing on his own struggles as an aspiring track star whose prosthetic leg is starting to irritate him from overuse. And his best friend and Tommy’s sworn enemy, Harlow, knows that all of it–from Ellis’s leg to Tommy’s depression–is her fault. But through their efforts to save their town and their relationships with one another, the teens begin a journey toward healing where new romances blossom, old secrets are purged, and forgiveness will lead to a path forward.

Lyrical prose and authentic emotions guide readers through this poetic story. Fans of emotional contemporary YA, such as A TRAGIC KIND OF WONDERFUL, WE ARE OKAY, or AN EMOTION OF GREAT DELIGHT will love this quietly beautiful debut. Hartt includes a warning at the start for scenes of suicidal ideation, suicide, and depression, which are upsetting in their realism, but the hope and healing that propels the story makes it a rewarding read for anyone who won’t be triggered by the content. I highly recommend this one.

Amazon.com: The Sea Is Salt and So Am I: 9781250619242: Hartt, Cassandra:  Books

THE SUMMER OF LOST LETTERS by Hannah Reynolds

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Until she finds her grandmother’s letters, most of Abby’s summer plans involve trying to avoid her ex. But the minute she starts reading the love letters from a mysterious man named Edward–who apparently wanted to marry her grandmother and still has a necklace that belonged to her–everything changes. Her grandmother never mentioned an Edward, or spending summers with a wealthy family on Nantucket. In fact, all Abby really knew about her grandmother was that she came to America alone as a toddler while her parents perished in Auschwitz. Now, Abby wants to learn more about the grandmother she loved but, as it turns out, barely knew.

After securing a job at a Nantucket bookstore for the summer, Abby is determined to find Edward, get some answers about her grandmother’s past, and get that necklace back–even if it means breaking into his mansion. But she didn’t count on Edward’s grandson, Noah, who is just as handsome and charming as he is determined to thwart Abby’s attempts to poke her nose in his family’s business. As the summer wears on and friendship blossoms into something more both Noah and Abby wrestle with the price of love: how much they are each willing to sacrifice for love of their families and for each other.

From the jacket summary and cover art, I did not expect to laugh out loud at this romance–but the banter! The premise of the romance of the grandparents and the tension between families left room for angst (and there was angst) but the thrust of the contemporary romance is summer fling turns to forever love over a series of adventures and capers. It was sweet, funny, and at times heart-wrenching, full of history and thorny ethical dilemmas, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommend to fans of YA contemporary romance who like family drama and a bit of mystery.

Amazon.com: The Summer of Lost Letters: 9780593349724: Reynolds, Hannah:  Books