Gingerbread , by Rachel Cohn
Cyd Charisse is a complete teenage badass who’s so cool that she can still rock an old rag doll trailing behind her. Gingerbread is written in a voice similar to Francesca Lia Block’s classic YA novel Weetzie Bat, with a little less optimism and a little more snark. Making up her own vocabulary (burr-ito = cold) and hanging out with her tarot card reading senior citizen friend, Cyd is the perfect YA protagonist: confident and independent, but still full of questions she can’t answer herself.
An Abundance of Katherines , by John Green
John Green’s Printz Honor-winning novel introduces the reader to Colin, a former child prodigy who’s pretty sure that he doesn’t have the brainpower to become an adult genius. After a painful break-up at the end of his senior year, he doesn’t really know what to do with himself, so his best friend drags him on a road trip that finds them new crushes. This book perfectly captures the identity crisis of a recent high school grad who is realizing that what defined them as kids might not define them as adults. It also features some hilarious footnotes ranging from Greek translations to German slang.
Going Bovine , by Libba Bray
There’s so much going on in Going Bovine, a Printz Award-winner from the author of the successful Gemma Doyle trilogy, that it can be exhausting to read. But it’s well worth it. After being diagnosed with fatal mad cow disease, Cameron soon finds himself in a hospital bed chatting with a really cute angel who gives him a quest that she promises will lead to a cure. It’s a novel that deals with mortality and talking garden gnomes with equal expertise.
Twisted , by Laurie Halse Anderson
After Tyler Miller spends a summer of muscle-pumping manual labor, he goes from invisible dork to someone who’s capable of attaching the attention of one of the most popular girls in school. She tries to seduce him at a party, but as she’s completely trashed and he’s sober, he doesn’t think it would be right. But when pictures of the girl passed out and unclothed surface on the Internet, everyone as school is sure Tyler is responsible. Twisted is a great depiction of the isolation of an outcast and the hard lesson that doing the right thing won’t always mean you get rewarded.
If I Stay , by Gayle Foreman
Just like how you know that if the girl in a horror flick refuses a ride home, she’s going to meet an untimely end in a back alley, you can bet that if the protagonist of a YA novel has a great relationship with their parents, something awful is going to happen to them. When Mia and her family are in a terrible car accident, she steps out of her body and watches doctors try to keep it alive as she tries to decide if she can survive without her parents and brother. Watching as her boyfriend begs her to live and her grandfather gives her permission to go, it’s an intense look at facing an adult future without the possibility of retreating into even the trappings of childhood.
The Vast Fields of Ordinary , by Nick Burd
Few YA books capture the limbo of the summer stretching between high school and college as well as The Vast Fields of Ordinary. Burd writes about teenage experiences with the emotional accuracy of John Hughes high school movies: waiting with nervous excitement for your crush to get off from his fast food job, playing house with your boyfriend while your parents are away. Best of all, it closes with an unexpected emotional punch, still overshadowed by the clear snapshots of summer.
Luna , by Julie Anne Peters
Many YA books do a great job of painting the agony of a teen facing their transgendered identity, but Luna takes that struggle and looks at it from the outside, framed by a more commonplace problem — the desire to protect a sibling. Regan’s struggle to keep her brother’s secret and support him while he explores his gender identity is described simply and with almost painful honesty; we see not only how difficult it is for a teen to be able to express his true self in the basement in the middle of the night, but how much pressure keeping the secret can put on someone who loves him.
Hate List , by Jennifer Brown
So many novels in the YA cannon have attempted to look at school shootings and ended up telling a slightly tweaked version of Columbine, but The Hate List takes a completely unique approach. Valerie has started a hate list with her boyfriend Nick to blow off steam about the people that tried to make her life miserable. When he comes to school with a gun and starts using the hate list as a hit list, Valerie is as shocked and horrified as anyone. In the aftermath, with Nick and some entries on the hate list dead, she has to deal with her grief over the death of her first love, suspicion from the school that she might have been involved in plotting the shooting, and the overwhelming confusion that she could have so horribly misjudged someone. Valarie’s pain is so vivid on the page, and none of her problems have a simple answer.
Blood Wounds , by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Blood Wounds is the book to give anyone who doubts the depth a work of YA fiction can have. With enough senseless, stomach churning violence to rival any episode of Law and Order: SVU, the book focuses on high schooler Willa’s sudden identify crisis as she tries to figure out how much of yourself you inherit from your parents and how much you have control over and can change. The frustration Willa doesn’t allow herself to feel throughout the book is enough to make any reader’s blood boil in sympathy.
Anna and the French Kiss , by Stephanie Perkins
A romantic foreign city, a gorgeous boy with a British accent, your parents oceans away while you explore said city with said boy. With Anna and the French Kiss, Perkins seems to have taken every element of a teenage girl’s mid-math class fantasy and stuffed it into a well-written novel. Anna isn’t happy about spending her senior year in a boarding school in Paris, but warms to the idea when she meets the cute and charming St. Clair. There’s miscommunication, jealousy, movie blogging, and the exchanging of love poems. Prepare to swoon.