One way to connect with your kids: Read their books. Two librarians offer some suggestions.
To help you navigate the shelves, we’ve compiled a list of 18 outstanding contemporary YA books, including fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels. These books offer well-written, fast-paced stories and memorable characters that will appeal to you whether you are 14 or 54. Sure, some of them feature serious and sometimes controversial topics — but that’s what books are for and why reading them with your kids can be a learning experience for everyone.
(List created by Deborah Taylor; book annotations by Karen MacPherson)
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
It’s the summer of 1987, and El Paso teen Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is going through a rough patch. Then Ari meets Dante Quintana and life changes dramatically. Sáenz takes us along Ari’s challenging and ultimately fulfilling journey toward self-acceptance, hope and love. (Note: Look for a sequel, “Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World”).
A Blade So Black, by L.L. McKinney
Atlanta teen Alice Kingston discovers her magic powers when she meets Addison Hatta, who lives in a place called Wonderland. Inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” McKinney creates her own rich fantasy world and introduces a gutsy Black heroine. (There is one sequel, “A Dream So Dark,” and another, “A Crown So Cursed,” expected next year).
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Check Please!: Book 1: #Hockey, by Ngozi Ukazu
Ukazu’s debut graphic novel features a young man named Eric “Bitty” Bittle, whose speed and agility, honed in figure skating, make him a skillful hockey player. But Bitty, who also loves to bake and vlog and is gay, is something of a misfit on his college hockey team until he finds love and learns to accept himself for who he is. (“Book 2: Sticks & Scones” is also available).
Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo
Two teen girls lose their father in a plane crash and suddenly learn that they are half-sisters. In the midst of their grief, the girls have to decide whether to respond to their complicated new connection with anger or love. In this novel-in-verse, National Book Award winner Acevedo writes with grace and lyricism about loss, family betrayal — and the healing power of love.
The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee
Set in 1880s Atlanta, Lee’s novel explores a little-known part of U.S. history as it tells the story of 17-year-old Jo Kuan. Jo works as a maid to one of the richest and meanest ladies in town, while also moonlighting as a newspaper advice columnist known as “Dear Miss Sweetie.” The second job gives her the opportunity to speak her mind — and the consequences are complicated.
Every Body Looking, by Candice Iloh
Iloh tells the story of Ada, a Nigerian American teen who bears the burden of being the oldest daughter in a dysfunctional family. Written in verse, the book goes back and forth in time to give readers a fully realized portrait of Ada, including the emotional scars inflicted by her mother’s addiction, her struggle to cope with her father’s loving but heavy-handed parenting, and her need to express her true self through dance.
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Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley
Teenager Daunis Fontaine straddles two cultures: the Ojibwe heritage of her late father and her White mother’s French American world. As she prepares to start college, things get even more complicated when she reluctantly agrees to join a federal investigation into a deadly new drug ravaging her community and finds herself drawn into a web of lies, suspicion, corruption and murder in this gripping crime novel.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, by Julie C. Dao
Julie Dao gives an East Asian twist to the story of the Evil Queen in “Snow White” in this intense fantasy starring a memorable antiheroine, 18-year-old Xifeng, who is blessed with extraordinary beauty and destined to become empress of Feng Lu. That destiny, however, has a high cost as Xifeng must leave behind not only the young man who has long loved her but her very humanity. (Look for the sequel, “Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix.”)
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement, by Paula Yoo
Yoo displays a novelist’s flair in this compelling story of the 1982 murder in Detroit of Vincent Chin and its aftermath. The book deftly explores how the case has affected the Asian American community as well as the legal changes it has sparked.
Kiss Number 8, by Colleen AF Venable (illustrations by Ellen T. Crenshaw)
In this graphic novel, the happy life of high-schooler Amanda (”Mads”) turns chaotic when she learns her father has withheld a potentially explosive family secret. Suddenly, Mads wonders who she can trust as she tries to understand why she wants to kiss Cat, her best friend, instead of the cute boy next door.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo
In this National Book Award winner, Lo expertly blends historical fiction, social justice concerns and a tender love story. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s, the novel follows 17-year-old Lily Hu, who has long had an inkling that she is romantically interested in girls, and when she meets a White teen named Kathleen Miller, Lily’s well-organized life is suddenly turned upside down.
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March Trilogy, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin (illustrations by Nate Powell)
The momentous early life of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis and his struggle for civil rights comes to vivid life in this three-part graphic novel series. The books chronicle how Lewis and other civil rights activists used nonviolent tactics to protest racist policies at great personal risk. Before he died in 2020, Lewis, working again with Aydin, continued his story in “Run: Book One.”
Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay
When 17-year-old Filipino American Jay Reguero learns that his teenage cousin Jun was one of the thousands of victims of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, he feels compelled to journey to the Philippines to learn the truth about his cousin’s life and death.
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Punching the Air, by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid is unjustly sent to prison after he and his Black friends clash with a group of taunting White teens. Telling their story in first-person verse poems, Zoboi and Salaam take us into the heart of Amal’s pain and anger. Amal’s story was inspired by Salaam’s experience as one of five Black teens in the Central Park jogger case, who spent years in prison before being exonerated of the crime.
Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People, by Kekla Magoon
Magoon presents a comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party, from its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s amid intense persecution by federal authorities to its eventual demise in the early 1980s. Magoon concludes this beautifully designed, timely volume by connecting the Panthers’ legacy to the current work of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A Sitting in St. James, by Rita Williams-Garcia
Williams-Garcia offers an intense saga of family secrets and treachery set just before the Civil War as she tells the closely connected stories of the Guilbert family, the White owners of a failing Louisiana sugar plantation, and their enslaved workers.
From the very first pages, Giles plunges readers into a multifaceted mystery that crackles with energy and action: A teen DJ named Paris Secord (”ParSec”) has been killed. Friends and fans join forces to find justice for their friend.
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All, by Laura Ruby
Fourteen-year-old Frankie Mazza is left at a Chicago orphanage — along with her siblings — by their father, who claims he can no longer care for them during the Great Depression. Intertwined with Frankie’s coming-of-age story is the tale of Pearl, the ghost of a teen who died traumatically years before and now haunts the orphanage where Frankie lives.
Deborah Taylor is the former coordinator of school and student services at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and a national expert on young adult literature. Karen MacPherson is the former Children’s and Youth Services Coordinator at Takoma Park Maryland Library.