YA Realistic Fiction

ROSIE LOVES JACK by Mel Darbon

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When Jack doesn’t arrive at the cafe on time, Rose knows something is wrong. She races up the hill to their inclusive college and is just in time to share one last hug with Jack before the police take him away. He’s had another outburst, and this time, he’ll need to go to a special facility to help with controlling his anger.

Rose’s dad is happy that Jack has been sent away. He tells Rose to forget him and confiscates all the postcards Jack sends her. But Rose can’t forget Jack. She loves him. And she knows that her dad is being overprotective because she has Down syndrome. Rose is not going to let her dad or her disability keep her away from Jack. She runs away from home, determined to find Jack in his new home in Brighton. But a fierce snowstorm turns her travel plans awry, and Rose will need to rely on her thinking cap and her love for Jack to survive the dangerous journey ahead.

Heads up: this book gets DARK…. Rose’s journey pits her against bullies, thieves, and even sex traffickers. As she faces each challenge, her love for Jack and hope for their future keep her from giving up. While Darbon does an excellent job in creating Rose’s voice and an action-packed plot, she falls short on Rose’s overall character development. The romance is certainly heartwarming–and shows Rose’s acting with her own agency when her parents want to limit her choices–but throughout the book, Rose defines herself only in terms of her relationship with Jack. It was really all I knew about her interests by the end of the book: Jack, Jack’s artwork, her future marriage to Jack. This would annoy me in any romance, but is particularly disappointing in a romance featuring a couple with disabilities.

The strength of the book is Rose’s courage in facing–and ultimately assisting the police to take down–the sex traffickers. Her “friendship” with the fifteen-year-old imprisoned in the brothel and the ways in which they ultimately help one another was my favorite aspect of the book. And the courage she finds to go to the police in the end is incredible. The challenges she faces would (and do) daunt even typically-abled characters, and you will reach the end of the novel knowing that Rose’s disability does not make her weak.

In short, I’d recommend ROSIE LOVES JACK as a thriller or contemporary fiction with a unique narrative voice, but as a romance ft. a couple with disabilities, I wish it were more nuanced.

CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY by Steven Salvatore

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In their heart, Carey is a diva. Their mom must have had a glimpse of their future when they named them after Mariah Carey. Of course that glimpse of Carey’s destiny didn’t clue her in that her child was genderqueer. Fortunately, ever since Carey came out last year, their mom has been a fierce advocate who continues to try to understand and educate herself about Carey’s identity and experiences.

Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t as awesome as Carey’s mom. Their best friend Joey has been distant. Their classmate Max tortures them with microaggressions during class (and more overt bullying everywhere else). Even teachers and administrators discriminate against them.

So when the hot guy who is for some (incredible!) reason interested in dating Carey encourages them to audition for Elphaba in the school musical, Carey has a choice to make. Will they find the courage to fight the hateful people–and their own self-doubt–and live their dream? Can a small group of activist students overcome the powerful forces determined to silence them?

Carey’s diva-dreams play into a plot that is at times larger-than-life, including a deus ex machina defeat of a villain. In contrast, some passages early in the novel read as informational–explaining Carey’s gender identity, how they* came to understand their identity, and related terminology. This slows the narrative but may be helpful to less-informed readers or any reader who is exploring their gender and might resonate with the part of Carey’s story that happened before the book begins.

The strength of the novel, though, is its depiction of Carey’s mental health journey. The effect of misgendering, bullying, and microaggressions on Carey is raw, realistic, and heartbreaking. Since they already know who they are at the novel’s start, Carey’s emotional journey is not toward self-knowledge, but toward self-acceptance–toward realizing how much they have internalized and believed the lies of a hateful society that tell them they are “broken” or without value. Importantly, Carey seeks (and receives) help from a professional therapist as well as his family and friends.

Therefore, CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY has a hard-hitting and multi-faceted value for YA collections. It allows genderqueer teens to see themselves reflected in literature; it allows communities to see a path to allyship and the genuine damage caused by people who fail to take a strong stance against discrimination; and it gives teens with depression, anxiety, or PTSD a positive example of how to seek mental healthcare and the difference it can make in their lives. And ultimately (thanks to Carey’s awesome community and diva-dreams) we also get an uplifting, triumphant conclusion!

*Note: In this recommendation, I have used the pronouns they/them/their when referring to Carey because they use those pronouns most often in the book. But Carey also uses she/her/hers and he/him/his depending on how much feminine or masculine energy Carey feels on a given day.

BE DAZZLED by Ryan La Sala

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Raffy practically drags May from the car to the convention center. He can’t risk being photographed before he finishes gluing moss onto May’s face. All the other cosplayers got dressed at home, but they didn’t havr famous artists for moms–artists who for some ridiculous reason don’t consider crafting an art and don’t want their sons to go to art school. But Evie is not going to stop Raffy from entering–not entering, winning–the biggest cosplay competition in Boston. And once he does win, he won’t need Evie’s support for art school. He’ll have sponsors. Fame. He’ll finally be out of Evie’s shadow and surging into his future as a crafter.

But Raffy never thought about the one other person who could throw him off his game: his ex-boyfriend Luca. And when Luca doesn’t only show up but shows up in a costume Raffy designed, it’s impossible for him to keep his cool. Is it possible that Raffy’s hopes for the future could self-destruct as violently as their relationship?

This rom com is adorable and uplifting. By alternating between past and present, La Sala threads the suspense of the competition through the build-up and collapse of Raffy and Luca’s relationship. It’s definitely a page turner! I loved the evolution of Raffy’s relationship with his mom (and Luca’s!) and the depth given to the secondary characters (May and Inaya especially). A well-written, engaging, funny book for fans of YA realistic fiction and/or romances.

GROWN by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Enchanted needs to sing like she needs to breathe. The white girls at her school say she sounds like Beyonce, but that’s only because they don’t know many Black singers. Enchanted’s passion is the classic singers–the ones she and her grandma used to sing along with–Gladys Knight, Aretha, Nina Simone.

When she auditions for Music LIVE, the judges aren’t impressed with her dated sing choice or her timid performance, but 28 year old superstar Korey Fields is. He convinces her parents to let Enchanted tour with him, his newest protege. But there’s a darkness to Korey that Enchanted didn’t see at first, and the whirlwind that she thought would lead her to fame and love instead carries her down into terror, abuse, and ultimately a pool of blood on the floor of Korey’s penthouse.

I cannot adequately express how powerful and moving this book is. Enchanted’s voice is so strong. Even with the immense power her abuser holds over her, even when she is confused and heartbroken and doubting herself, she holds on. She fights when she’s able (and when she isn’t able to fight emotionally, mentally, the author makes it very clear that it is NOT her fault that she is in this situation). And she survives.

And the community around her! Reading this book as an adult and a parent, I wept at some of the scenes where her parents defend her. Jackson incorporates their voices directly through police interview transcripts and minutes of mom group meetings to provide a deeper perspective on how a whole community is affected by and responds to the violent abuses of a powerful man. Not all adults react in a positive way, but many do–from the parents, to the psychiatrist, to the flight attendant who notices something amiss. A reader will come away from this book knowing that there is help out there. That they are not alone in their experiences and they do not need to be alone in their rescue and recovery. As dark as the subject matter is, a reader will come away from this book with hope.

TW: This book could definitely trigger survivors of sexual violence and/or abusive relationships, but FWIW it didn’t trigger me. I think it was the strength of Enchanted’s voice and the knowledge from Chapter One that she will escape–that there will be some form of justice–that kept me from going to a dark place. But every survivor’s journey is different, so definitely exercise caution.

MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Samira Ahmed

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Khayyam is grateful to have the summer in her father’s native Paris to get her life together. Her senior year is about to start. Her never-quite-official boyfriend is off to college and popping up in Instagram pics with other girls. And worst of all, Khayyam has ruined all of her chances of becoming an art historian with one ill-conceived, under-researched essay erroneously linking Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix.

“The work of a dilettante, not a future art historian.” That was how the head judge at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had described her work. Khayyam had hoped that participating in the essay contest would set her apart–show the Art Institute how serious she was–so that the School would take a closer look at her college application. Now, she wonders if she’s distinguished herself in a bad way and is destined for still more rejection.

But when she meets a descendent of Alexandre Dumas (another, younger, perfectly charmant Alexandre Dumas) by chance at a cafe, Khayyam sees new possibilities opening up for her. Maybe she and Alexandre can work together to unravel the truth behind Dumas’ connection with Delacroix and salvage Khayyam’s reputation as a future art historian. And maybe in the process, they can discover the identity and history Leila–a woman of Asian and Muslim descent (like Khayyam)–who was described by the poet Byron, painted by the artist Delacroix, but never given a voice of her own.

With the hashtag #writeherstory, Ahmed attacks the narratives that men build around women (particularly women of color and intersections of marginalized identities)–narratives that subsume women’s own voices and cast them as sexual objects in dramas directed by the men around them. She mounts her assault poetically with the interweaving of Khayyam’s voice with the voice of Leila, fictional in reality but real in the world of the narrative. Khayyam’s conflicts and power struggles with the men in her life parallel on a less grand scale the experiences of Leila in her interactions with the male-dominated artistic community–many well-intentioned men, none quite listening to Khayyam or to Leila. I loved every page of this book and highly recommend it to older YA readers who like deep, thought-provoking (thought-requiring) realistic fiction, especially readers with an interest in art history and/or classic literature.

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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As one of only four Black kids at her preppy high school, Kiera gets tired of answering stupid questions. Like, “Can I wear dreadlocks?” How is she supposed to answer that? Do they expect her to speak for all Black people? It’s one of the reasons she created SLAY, an online VR gaming universe exclusively for other Black gamers. In SLAY, Black gamers can just be themselves without having to worry about facing the kind of harassment Kiera experienced in other MMORPGs. But when one of the players is murdered IRL, SLAY becomes the subject of international attention and a catalyst for racially charged conflict and conversation.

Engaging from page one, SLAY uses a gaming lens to explore the diversity of Black experiences in the US and around the world. From Kiera–an American high schooler trying to balance the expectations of her friends, boyfriend, and family with her own hopes for herself–to an assortment of other players around the globe, readers see how Black people experience discrimination in various social and even family settings. We also see through Kiera’s experience how the VR experience that allows her to express herself authentically without discomfort or fear of judgment (an experience she does not have IRL at her high school) can also allow bigots to play out violent racist fantasies without fear of consequences. This book is important and beautifully written. I highly recommend it to teens and adults.

THE FIELD GUIDE TO THE NORTH AMERICAN TEENAGER by Ben Philippe

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Norris isn’t thrilled about the move from Montreal to Texas. For one thing, he’s a Black French Canadian–three types of people that American TV has taught him definitely do not fit in. Unless you like to be the butt of jokes. Which Norris does not.

For another thing, Texas is hot. Like hell in July hot. Norris can’t get through a school day without sweating through at least three shirts, and it’s January.

But Norris has one thing to hold on to: the Whistler. If he can earn enough money by Spring Break, he can fly up to British Colombia, meet his best friend, and ski the Whistler like he’s done every spring break for his whole life. Until then, he’ll keep his head down and count down the days until he can escape.

His plans begin to turn awry when he meets an incredibly awkward hockey player-wannabe, a cheerleader named Madison (because of course her name is Madison), and a budding photographer and serial truant named Aarti who for some reason makes his stomach do somersaults. Could it be possible to grow attached to this hellscape after all?

A book to make you laugh out loud. Norris’s voice is honest and hilarious. His observations about American teenagers are on point, and the friends he makes are as quirky and delightful as he is. Great read for fans of humorous YA realistic fiction.

TWEET CUTE by Emma Lord

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When Jack sees that the burger franchise Big League Burgers had ripped off his family cafe’s signature sandwich (complete with secret ingredient) he can’t contain his anger. So he let’s it out. On the company’s Twitter.

When Girl Cheesing’s tweet goes viral, Pepper’s mom demands that she take over the BLB corporate Twitter and let loose some of her signature snark on the small sandwich shop. Pepper feels icky about it, but how can she say no to her mom?

When Jack and Pepper realize that they’re the ones behind the avatars of their parents business feud, they decide to turn the Twitter war into a friendly competition: no holding back, nothing off limits. What they don’t realize is that they’ve been chatting for months under assumed names on a school social media account. And between their anonymous hostility on Twitter, their anonymous honesty on Weazel, and the inconvenient blossoming of a friendship–and something more–IRL, things are about to get complicated.

I LOVED this rom com. Read the whole thing in one sitting. It’s fun and escapist, but also has deeper threads that make you think about family, loyalty vs. personal integrity, and the different ways we interact with one another when we have the freedom (and sometimes constraint) of anonymity online. Highly recommend to readers of YA realistic fiction who are looking for something deep but not heavy.

WE ARE OKAY by Nina LaCour

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Marin wishes Mabel weren’t coming to visit. She meant to leave her old life completely when she left California. She was supposed to start anew at college. And even though she hasn’t been entirely successful at hiding her grief, at least her new roommate didn’t know the old Marin. Whereas Mabel knows her far too well. What will she think when she sees Marin’s blank white walls, her empty bulletin board? Though she hasn’t spoken to Mabel in months–not since the day she found out her grandfather’s secrets–she knows Mabel will see right through her the minute she walks through the door. And when she does, Marin knows the tragic past she’s been trying to escape will drown her.

Though quiet in plot, this novel is loud in emotion. A deserved Printz Award winner, WE ARE OKAY bathes the reader in an authentic experience of grief and growth, of changing friendships, families, and relationships. Persistent story questions about the nature of the past tragedy provide enough suspense to keep readers turning pages even as the action of the plot itself is gentle and contained. I would highly recommend this book to fans of emotional YA realistic fiction. It’s an exceptional one.

A HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD by Deb Caletti

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Annabelle starts running and doesn’t stop. She runs out of her hometown in Washington State and keeps running. She’s not going to stop until she reaches Washington D.C. In a panic, Annabelle’s mother sends her grandfather in an RV to bring Annabelle home. But her grandfather understands why she’s running and decides instead to come along for the ride. Soon, Annabelle’s brother and her friends got on board, starting a social media campaign to raise money and awareness. Because they were all affected by the tragedy. They understand why Annabelle wants–needs–to run. And soon the rest of the country will too.

Heartbreaking and powerful, this novel is difficult to put down. The immediacy of the third person/present tense narration complements the flashbacks Annabelle experiences. While it would have been easy to feel stuck in Annabelle’s head for most of the book, the third person narration helps with that as well, providing a bit of distance. Ultimately it is the suspense of the unknown tragedy in the past that propels the book forward to its message at the end–a speech that could have seemed didactic except that it comes so authentically from Annabelle’s voice and experiences throughout the novel. This is a book that will stick with me. Recommended to teens who enjoy realistic fiction with a TW: gun violence and abusive relationships.