Young Adult Fiction for Literary Minded Adults

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There is something about the crunching of leaves and a crisp fall breeze that hits me with nostalgia for new school clothes, Friday night football games, and Homecoming dances. Then, I remember that I’m a high school teacher so I’m actually surrounded by students and school bells all the time. That somehow doesn’t make it any less fun to read stories about high school. In fact, autumn is the perfect time to indulge in these back to school vibes and read some Young Adult fiction.

YA definitely gets a reputation for being campy and cliché. As a teacher, I consider it to be my responsibility to read books that might be popular with my students, which means reading lots of YA. While I have read lots of cringe-worthy YA, I am also constantly discovering thoughtful and well-written young adult novels that rival many books on the general fiction shelves. Lots of the new YA coming out is inclusive and progressive, but also fluffy, angsty, and fresh. There is a little something for everyone. Here is my YA reading list for literary-minded adults:


  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas – This novel has been getting lots of hype lately and it’s so justified- this book is brilliant. Thomas’ novel confronts American racial inequalities head on. It’s the story of Starr, a teen girl from a poor, Black neighborhood, who attends private school in the white suburbs. When she witnesses her friend’s murder by a cop, she has to reconcile the tensions and injustices between her two communities. This novel dives into issues of police violence, inner city gangs, and code-switching. It’s so pertinent to our world today – and soon to be a movie!

  • The Summer of Salt, Katrina Leno – This is the ideal aesthetic novel. It takes place on a dreamy island in the sea where a family of female witches live. In the summer before college, Georgina wonders if her powers will ever arrive. Whimsical and lush, this novel takes on a profound feminist message that is fitting for the #MeToo era. 

  • Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell – When I finished reading this book, I truly felt like I was in high school again. Rowell authentically captures how earth-shattering first love is, while also telling the story of a girl with a deeply troubled home life. The novel shares how Eleanor and Park meet on the bus and fall in love by sharing music, comics, and conversations. It’s also set in Omaha, Nebraska, where I am currently teaching!

  • The Astonishing Color of After, Emily X.R Pan – It’s easy to think that magical realism must belong only to the great post-colonial writers of the past, but Pan creates an elegant YA magical realist novel that is simply “astonishing.” It tells the story of Leigh, a 14-year-old Taiwanese-American, whose mother turns into a bird after dying of suicide. The bird leads Leigh to Taipei where she unearths ghosts and family secrets as she deals with her own grief. With writing that is both dazzling and haunting, this is the kind of novel that stays with you for a long time.

  • Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins – Don’t judge this novel by its corny title. This book is addictive and adorable. It’s dear to my heart, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read it at least 5 times. At its beginning, Anna gets sent to boarding school in Paris. She is nothing but resentful to be spending her senior year without her friends. When she gets taken in the by school’s arty group of friends, she starts to develop a crush on Etienne St. Clair, an American boy with a British accent anda girlfriend. It’s a good old-fashioned , swoony YA romance. I’m inclined to think that every book (especially YA) is better when it includes boarding schools and Paris. I also love love love the companion novel, Isla and the Happily Ever Afters, which is another boarding school in Paris love story!

  • We Are Okay, Nina LaCoeur – I read this short novel in a single evening because it is so quietly entrancing. A meditation on loneliness and grief, it’s the story of Marin who chooses to spend her Christmas break alone in her college dorm instead of going back to California. When a friend from her past comes to visit, she must confront the events of the last summer that she has tried so hard to forget. Deeply interior and desperately tender- this book leaves readers with lasting message of healing, growth, and memory.

  • Foolish Hearts, Emma Mills – I’m rounding out the list with another genuinely cute read. When the novel begins, high school senior Claudia has just one friend and prefers to spend her weekends playing video games with her family. She ends up uncovering a huge secret, joining her school’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and breaking out of her shell. It’s a cozy story about friendship, theater, and a little romance. After I finishing it, my roommates ended up falling in love with it too. It’s become a fan favorite in our house.

With so many YA inspired films, like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Beforeand Love, Simon, gracing our screens in the past few months, YA is more relevant than ever. I find that YA makes a perfect break from reading lots of literary or classic fiction. So as fall settles, why not spend a rainy afternoon with a cup of coffee and a YA novel?

M. A. McCuen is a secondary English literature teacher and grad student in Omaha, Nebraska. Originally from Michigan, she graduated with a BA in English and French from University of Notre Dame in 2016 where she spent a semester studying at the University of Paris Diderot and interning in Ireland. After graduation, she spent a year teaching abroad on Wexford, Ireland, before beginning her M.Ed at Creighton University.