Over the years I’ve read a ton of young adult literature, since I started my career in libraries working with teens and was responsible for purchasing young adult fiction for my library’s collection. I love YA, and I have the tote bag to prove it.
A lot of adults dabble in young adult fiction and read the ‘big buzz’ titles. But I’ve always been a champion of the “quiet” books that may fly under most people’s radar, even if they are a casual reader of YA. So, I thought I’d take some time to highlight my favorite underrated young adult novels in several genres. First up: contemporary YA!
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Hidden Gems in Contemporary Young Adult Literature
The Sharp Time by Mary O’Connell
I am obsessed with this book. Sandinista Jones is a vintage fashionista with a punk rock meets high culture vibe and a guarded heart, and I loved spending a week with her on 38th Street. If stories of processing grief and making new friends told through a kaleidoscope of imagery is your literary jam, this one’s for you.
A Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith
I love introspective narrators, and Annabeth certainly fits that bill. She’s processing a lot of different issues her senior year—her relationship with her best friend, her relationship with her mother, and her relationship with her self—and though this book features lots of “issues” it isn’t about any of them. The voice in incredible. Growing up is hard, and this novel completely captures those changes in a realistic but hopeful way.
The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi
As I’m writing about these, I’m noticing a theme: all of these novels so far are all in part about a young woman’s relationship with her mother. This quiet novel is about a young woman’s struggle as her mom’s mental illness spirals out of control, seriously throwing her family in turmoil when she’s got other stuff to deal with, like learning to drive and a new romantic interest. All of these are balanced into a very believable and moving story of growing up.
The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Greg Galloway
Even though this story features a component of magical realism—the titular 39th deaths are quite literal—it’s still such a fresh look at what it means to be a teenager doing stupid things like passing your time watching a cow carcass decompose in the river. I usually pitch this as “if Kurt Vonnegut wrote a Catcher in the Rye” because it’s beautiful and absurd and full of teenage angst but in a good way. This is the novel I want to hand to everyone who is skeptical of the quality of young adult literature. The writing is just amazing.
How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Staniford
This is the best book for anyone who was a weird, quirky outsider in high school. It’s about a strange but wonderful friendship between a girl who might be more like a robot and a boy who resembles a ghost and the most amazingly bizarre call-in radio show. You’ll be inspired to fly your freak flag, for sure.
99 Days by Katie Cotugno
This title actually hit the New York Times Bestseller ebook list in January 2016, but I still feel like its a bit of a hidden gem. Molly (yes, it’s always super weird reading a book when the main character shares your name) left her small town for a year at boarding school after some major drama made her the town pariah.
It’s all about messy relationships—friendships, romance, and family—and the complicated relationships and the slow way the truth about what really happened the previous year kept me turning pages. Every time you think you’d figure out the characters, another layer was pulled back that made you see everyone in a different light.
Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia
I completely picked this title of for the cover, but the voice of the main character is what hooked me.
After a precarious and nomadic life with her not-very-grown-up mother, Lemon embarks on a cross-country road trip on a Greyhound bus to California in search of her father when she gets herself in some real trouble. Against the backdrop of San Francisco landmarks like Haight Street and the ruins of The Palace of Fine Arts, Lemon learns important lessons about forgiveness and love.
This novel is understated and unfussy. A true coming-of-age story, Lemon is a different person at the end of the book than she was at the beginning. There are not many dramatic, intense moments, but a series of experiences that seem true and believable, full of characters that are compelling and relatable.
Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff
It took me two reading to really appreciate this novel that explores the ambiguity of gender. It’s a story of street kids in Brooklyn and there are no pronouns used, so the reader is able to draw their own conclusions about the gender of the main characters trying to survive and finding comfort in music and each other. For anyone with a punk rock heart.
For another amazing YA title that’s a bit more mainstream but perfect for any gaming nerds, check out Guy in Real Life.
Breakaway by Kat Spears
I also love Spears’ debut novel, Sway, but I really felt like her most recent novel, Breakaway did not get the attention it deserves. There are so few YA novels that focus on friendships of young men, and this one does an excellent job looking at how race and class can effect relationships. Spears writes with unflinching honesty about the teen experience.
The Books of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler
This is the most romantic of the YA novels on this list, but is foremost about family. Jude’s relationships with her father and her sisters are the driving force of the plot. They are a tight-knit Hispanic family—Jude’s parents emigrated from South America—and I loved the realistic portrayal of a family who speaks Spanish at home and my mouth was watering at all the empanadas they were constantly eating. Jude’s relationship with her father was touching and moving and the dynamic between the sisters was complex and nuanced.
Jude’s father has early onset Alzheimer’s and his condition has been worsening. Jude’s big idea to connect her father with his memories is to fix up his old motorcycle from his life in Argentina before he moved to the US. Their summer project is designed to keep him busy and active, but requires the help of a professional mechanic, too.
Enter Emilio Vargas. One of those Vargases, from a family of heartbreakers. Two of his relatives have devastated Jude’s older sisters and they made Jude agree to a pact to never get involved with a Vargas boy.
What unfolds is a touching and moving story.
If you’re hesitant about exploring young adult literature, or just looking for some under-the-radar reading recommendations, I hope you check these out!
Do you have any favorite hidden gems in YA fiction? I’d love to hear about them!