Get Yer YA, YA's Out: The Best Young Adult Reads for Not-So-Young Adults - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because there are other ways to have your comfort food and eat it too.

By Anna Davies

  • Young Adult (YA) books are not just read by young adults anymore.
  • YA books often strive to be on the bleeding edge of contemporary issues and ideas.

We’ve seen the memes and heard the pop-psych invocation to use this COVID time to do something with ourselves. But between scrolling the news, worrying about our futures and trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy in our homes, is it any wonder that we may seek a little comfort? Rather than trying to stretch, why not regress a bit and curl up with a book written with teens in mind.

Or maybe not regress. Because the young adult landscape has become much more complex, intelligent and diverse in recent years. There’s more to the genre than Harry Potter spin-offs and dystopian lit — and more nuance than exploring teen angst. Here, some of the latest books that deserve a read — no matter what year you graduated high school.

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All American Muslim Girl, Nadine Jolie Courtney
Allie is red-haired, green-eyed and stereotypically “all American” in her small Georgia town. She’s also exploring the Muslim faith of her father. Oh, and she’s dating a boy whose dad is a right-wing radio host. What could go wrong? This novel deftly explores the intersection of religion and culture from a teen’s point of view.

Of course, there are the expected plot points — should Allie kiss her new boyfriend, Wells, or follow the Islamic teachings she’s learning? — but the end result is a sophisticated and moving exploration of contemporary Islam in America. The author uses her own background, as a Muslim woman of Circassian descent, as inspiration. 

If We Were Giants, Dave Matthews
Yup, that Dave Matthews. You rocked out to him in college, and now it’s time to reintroduce yourself (and introduce your kids) to the man himself. While the fantasy novel’s reviews are meh — Kirkus calls out its “uneven pacing and clunky writing” — let’s get down to brass tacks and admit that “Ants Go Marching” also has uneven pacing and clunky writing. But it’s still been stuck in your head for the past 20 years. And the intentions of the book — exploring diversity and climate change — are noble. So escape our world for a bit and follow the adventures of Kirra and the Tree Folk. Crash soundtrack optional.

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Look Both Ways, Jason Reynolds
Before we introduce the book, we need to introduce the author. Named the national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress, Reynolds keeps it real. His bio, in his own words: What Jason knows is that there are a lot — A LOT — of people, young, old and in-between, who hate reading. He knows that many of these book haters are boys. He knows that many of these book-hating boys don’t actually hate books; they hate boredom. If you are reading this, and you happen to be one of these boys, first of all, you’re reading this, so Jason’s master plan is already working (muahahahahahaha), and second of all, know that Jason totally feels you.

Reynolds writes lyrically — in sentences that sound like spoken-word poetry — about kids in an urban middle school. Interweaving stories together, Reynolds creates a rich tapestry of what middle-school life looks like. Bonus: The novel may even trick your nephew into reading along with you. 

The Gravity of Us, Phil Stamper
What happens when you’re a teen journalist with half a million followers, a dad who’s going to be one of the first astronauts on a mission to Mars, and you’re nursing a major crush? Stamper grounds the fantasy aspect of the novel — and let’s be real, the fantasy for many is being a journalist with half a million followers — in reality-based detail. The best thing about the novel is how main character Cal navigates his relationship with fellow astronaut-son Leon. Their sexuality is treated matter-of-factly, and much differently than the “issues-based” young adult novels of the early aughts. Young love is torturous no matter what your gender or sexuality may be, and Stamper explores the agony and confusion of first love — among the intrigue of top-secret outer space missions.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins
In eerie timing, The Hunger Games writer is back — just when the United States is feeling more than ever like Panem, the sovereign state depicted in the series. A prequel to The Hunger Games, this novel places Cornelius Snow as an unlikely teen protagonist. (To refresh your memory, Cornelius Snow becomes Panem president and evil mastermind of the Games.) But let’s see what he was like when he was an idealistic adolescent!

Dragon Hoops, Gene Luen Yang
Written by a high school teacher, Dragon Hoops is a graphic novel about a high school basketball team. Through a year and a journey to potentially reach state championships, Yang deftly weaves player backstories to examine inequity and identity. His point: The game can’t be separated from larger societal issues. Basketball is used to anchor larger discussions about identity, power dynamics, and historical and contemporary persecution of minorities. Sounds intense, and it is. Still, quickly paced graphics and a tight storyline pull everything together as effortlessly as a three-point shot swooshing into the net. 

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