Welcome to my new feature, Where to Start? A few years ago, I had read pretty much ZERO contemporary or sci-fi YA, and I wanted to start but it was tough deciding which books to start with. Skip forward in time a few years, and I’ve read a LOT of those genres plus several others, and the idea for Where to Start? was born. Periodically I’ll feature a list of books I think are good starting points for those who might be new to certain genres/category/themes, but WANT to read those kind of books. And since this was inspired by my venturing into contemporary YA, I thought it only fitting to start with that.
The Contemporary YA Edition
1. Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz
What’s it about in a sentence: Zach is an 18-year-old alcoholic in rehab trying to remember how he got there and what to do next.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: Saenz’s writing is always beautiful without being very figurative or heavy. I also would recommend it because I don’t think the subject matter–a teen in rehab–is one that a lot of readers would recognize a contemporary YA might tackle. It shows just how vast the genre can be.
2. Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot
What it’s about in a sentence: Charlotte, a boarding school student, gets drawn into the world of Julia Buchanan and her rich, political family with their own dark secrets.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because:It’s a loose retelling of a classic(Brideshead Revisited–you don’t have to have read it to understand this novel), and it has a pretty classic feel with the boarding school, the main character has more narrative distance than usual, and there’s sort of a Great Gatsby-esque vibe.
3. Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
What it’s about in a sentence: Simon’s been chatting it up anonymously with his classmate, a boy who’s going under the name Blue, but Simon’s secret identity is threatened when another classmate finds out and starts blackmailing him.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: It’s very cute, it avoids a lot of the problems some people have with contemporary YA(missing parent syndrome, the protagonist only having one friend, etc.) and the main character has a distinct voice.
4. Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer
What it’s about in a sentence: Main character, Gigi, and her friends are all “smart girls”, but they’re start wondering if maybe they’re missing out on something, so they make a pact to all do something challenging.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: It doesn’t follow the predictable formula you think it will & it’s interesting to see a contemporary novel focused on a group of friends rather than just one. Gigi is the main character, but her two friends get a LOT of page time.
5. The Distance Between Us by Kasie West
What it’s about in a sentence: Caymen is the daughter of a doll shop owner who starts falling for a rich boy who comes into the shop one day, even though Caymen has vowed to stay away from the wealthy.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: It’s a quick read and the romance has a bit of a classic feel–two people who misunderstand each other but are drawn to each other. Plus, the main character is witty & fun to read.
6. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
What it’s about in a sentence: Elise is unpopular, mostly friendless, and completely unhappy, but she starts on a journey of self-discovery when she discovers a night club and starts learning how to become a DJ.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: It’s full of beautiful lessons that don’t hit you over the head, Elise grows SO much over the course of the novel, and it does some interesting things with the romance.
7. Open Road Summer by Emery Lord
What it’s about in a sentence: Reagan accompanies her music star best friend on her tour, but things don’t go as planned with fellow music star Matt Finch joins the tour.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: A great female friendship like YEAH. The romance is great, too, and I think it’s impossible not to fall in love with Matt Finch.
8. Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu
What it’s about in a sentence: Tabitha joins an online community called life by committee, which is a site where people spill their secrets and then get an assignment related to said secret, and it complicates her life.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: It has a great portrait of messy, flawed people, and it’s compulsively readable in a way I find common in genre fiction, but less so in contemporary novels.
9. When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney
What it’s about in a sentence: Danny’s mother recently passed away from cancer, and he ends up going to Tokyo to take care of property his mother had in Japan.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: A good portion of this book takes place in Japan & it’s a book about grief that’s really more about the initial steps after grief(“grief books” are good & necessary too, but it’s rarer to get books about this step of the process).
10. My Best Friend, Maybe by Caela Carter
What it’s about in a sentence: Colette and Sadie haven’t been friends for years, but when Sadie tells Colette she needs her to go with her to Greece for a family wedding, Colette ends up agreeing–and has to decide if there’s still a friendship worth salvaging.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because:It’s incredibly unique in setting & diversity, and while the bare-bones plot(friend break-up + possible reconciliation) isn’t that uncommon, Carter does a lot of interesting things with it.
11. Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
What it’s about in a sentence: Regina was part of the popular, mean girl group until something happened at a party that made her former best friend mistrust her, and now she’s the one who is getting ostracized and bullied.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because:It’s a familiar kind of story(think Mean Girls) told in a way that makes you look at it differently.
12. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
What it’s about in a sentence: Lennie’s struggling the summer after her sister dies, which encompasses a whole bag of issues–boys, grief, and life.
I’d recommend it to new contemporary readers because: A YA contemporary education is not complete without a Jandy Nelson book, and while I like I’ll Give You the Sun more, I think The Sky is Everywhere is better for someone new to the genre. It’s true and heartbreaking and beautifully written.