This has been an incredibly tough year for so many people and for so many reasons, and we've all had to find ways to cope. For me, finding books that speak to me is always at the top of my list, and I know I'm not alone. Though we may all need comfort these days, we find it in very different ways, whether that means only engaging with media that brings joy, or sticking with work that reflects your activism, or prioritizing stories by marginalized creators, or something else entirely.
As someone who's a little bit of "all of the above," here are the YA books that've been getting me through 2020; I hope you find something that helps you do the same!
Yes No Maybe So
In an election year, nothing is more empowering than the reminder that we have the capacity for change; that we can use our voices to make a difference. This collaboration between two bestselling YA authors about a Jewish boy and a Muslim girl who team up as political activists serves up not just a sweet romance but a firm statement that we’re all capable of getting involved in the political arena in some way, even teens who aren’t yet old enough to vote.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn
We’re only going to get through this year by reading the best of the best, and this Persian mythology-inspired standalone fantasy sits comfortably on that list, brilliantly exploring the concept of monstrous beauty. Soraya was born cursed, doomed to poison anyone she touches. After a lifetime of being hidden away, her brother’s wedding gives her reason to emerge for the first time, but being out in the world is nothing like she expects—for better and for worse.
You Should See Me in a Crown
If you truly want to add some joy to your reading, Johnson’s debut—which happens to be Reese Witherspoon’s first ever YA book club selection—has got to jump to the top of your list. This utter delight stars Liz Lighty, a girl who’s always felt like a misfit in her small Indiana town. When her plan to get out falls through, the only way to course correct her future is to fit in to the extreme: by winning the prom queen title and the scholarship that comes with it. She might be an unlikely fit for school royalty, but even more unexpected for Liz is falling for her competition.
Sometimes the best way to get through a year is to look ahead to a time it’ll be in your rearview. And you know, if a couple thousand years from now is as fun as this debut space opera makes it out to be, it seems worth waiting for—especially if the company is as fun as irreverent explorer Captain Alyssa Farshot.
The niece of the emperor, Alyssa has never cared much for politics; she’d prefer to continue her incredible space explorations forever. But when her uncle dies and declares a Crownchase for the first time in seven centuries, Alyssa has no choice but to join in the heated, universe-crossing contest for the throne.
The Summer of Everything
Anyone familiar with Winters’ work knows he’s a pro at making readers feel warm and fuzzy, but he takes it to the next level with this year’s release, which can best be summed up as “Empire Records but bookish and gay.” When Wes’s beloved bookstore job is threatened by the store’s potential closing, he knows he and the rest of his friends have to save it. Of course, that includes Nico, Wes’s best friend, whom he’s been desperately crushing on. It’s all the perfect distraction from the one thing Wes dreads thinking about the most: the future.
Whether or not you’re a fan of Arthurian legends, you will find tons to appreciate in this brilliant debut about a girl named Bree who’s spending the summer after her mother’s death in a college program when she tumbles headfirst into a secret society.
See, Bree is an outlier—the one person whose memory can’t be erased by Merlin, the society’s most powerful mage—and with that comes the realization that there’s some connection between these Legendborn demon hunters and her mom’s death. To get answers, Bree pretends to be one of them, making both allies and enemies in the process. But absolutely no one is prepared for what lies at the heart of the mystery, least of all Bree herself.
Life in quarantine means social media is dominating more than ever, which makes this the perfect year to lose yourself in this wonderfully charming romance about a girl named Pepper and a guy named Jack. The two tumble into a messy, multilayered, anonymous romance when they fall for each other on an anonymous chat app while publicly feuding under their respective family restaurants’ Twitter handles. Just one warning: you are definitely gonna wanna have grilled cheese handy while you read.
Even if this book weren’t great, it would be enough to get me through 2020 to know this paranormal YA romance broke barriers by becoming the first novel by a trans author with a trans lead to hit the New York Times bestseller list. But thankfully, it’s also great and marvelously inventive.
The story stars a trans boy named Yadriel who seeks to prove to his family he’s a brujo (sorcerer) by successfully raising his cousin from the dead. But Yadriel accidentally raising hot high school bad boy Julian instead. Now in addition to solving his cousin’s murder, Yadriel will have to help Julian figure out the secret behind his own death in order to help him find peace. But what if when they find the truth, Yadriel isn’t ready to let Julian go?
The Black Kids
One of the best things in any given year is discovering great new voices, and as we struggle through 2020, this fantastic debut harkens back to the reality of another painful time in American history, and specifically in its racist history: Los Angeles in the 90s, during the Rodney King riots.
It’s the first time Ashley, the lone Black girl in her cool clique, has really had to reckon with the major difference that separates her from her friends, and the microaggressions she constantly suffers in their presence. As her activist sister joins the riots and Ashley herself unwittingly takes part in spreading a dangerous rumor about another Black kid at her school, the time has come for Ashley to figure out where she stands and who deserves a place in her future.
Not So Pure and Simple
Giles is one of YA’s most reliably fantastic thriller authors, so it was a pleasure to kick off the year by watching him change course with his very first coming-of-age novel and see he knocked it out of the park every bit as hard. (To say nothing of how glad I am to see more conversations about toxic masculinity happening in YA books.)
It stars a boy named Del who takes up a purity pledge in his pursuit of his crush, Kiera, but ends up serving as adviser to the other Pledgers when his school institutes a sex ed class the rest of them desperately need.
The Court of Miracles
One thing I have desperately needed in 2020 is a nap, constantly, so the books that’ve made me forgo them as a result of not being able to put them down are memorably few and far between. This fantasy mashup of Les Mis and The Jungle Book with Six of Crows vibes stars Eponine analog Nina as a thief who’ll do anything to keep her little sister, Ettie, safe in an alternate post-French Revolution Paris that wants to destroy them both.
Late to the Party
Has this year left you feeling a little behind? Codi can definitely relate, because she feels late to everything—to having a real social life, to finally finding a girl she can be with, and to coming out to her friends. She can’t shake the feeling that no matter how much she loves Maritza and JaKory, the expectations that come with their friend group are holding her back.
So when they crash a party and Codi makes a new friend who introduces her to an entire different world, including the adorable Lydia, she decides to keep her new life to herself and see who she is without the friends who’ve always defined her. But when she’s ready to share herself for real, will she be able to merge the old life with the new one? And if not, who isn’t gonna make the cut?
Today Tonight Tomorrow
Romance is always a favorite genre for me, but never more so than in 2020 when I just need to surround myself with happy feels. Solomon’s third novel is the perfect choice for this, telling the story of a pair of competitive teens who spend twenty-hour of high school’s final hours fighting their very last battle: winner of the school-sanctioned scavenger hunt that’ll send them all over Seattle. But as Rowan and Neil fight their very last fight, they come to realize there might be a better prize than the game has to offer, if they can just realize there’s more between them than competition.
While summer camp wasn’t an option for most kids in 2020, Camp Outland was happily in session, full of openly queer kids having the summer of their lives. As always, one of those kids was Randy, though this summer he’s returned as the more traditionally masculine Del, there for sports rather than theatre and ditching the nail polish for a “manlier” look. Not that he isn’t the same kid he’s always been, but this is the year he’s finally going to land Hudson, a fellow camper whose tastes have never included Randy.
Randy’s sure that once he lands Hudson as Del, he’ll be able to ease back into himself, but what if he can’t? This thoughtful romance is full of nuanced conversations and inclusive representation that makes it the perfect way to hang on to summer a little longer.
Cinderella Is Dead
What’s more soothing than a fairy tale? Or at least, Bayron nails the 2020 version of soothing, which sees a queer Black girl overthrowing the patriarchy in a world that idealizes the Cinderella story a little too much. Sophia isn’t looking to meet “her prince”; all she wants is to be with her best friend, Erin. When the time comes for the ball, Sophia ditches it, hoping to come up with a solution. But what she finds instead is the perfect partner for a revolution.
One of the hardest parts of 2020 has been the feeling of not having a voice, and no one embodies that feeling—and the power of taking it back—like Jackson. Her newest stars an aspiring singer named Enchanted who’s preyed upon by an established R&B artist, bolstering her career at the expense of being in a toxic and abusive relationship. When Korey’s found dead and the police come calling, all signs point to Chanty as the killer. But what really happened, and why was he with a teenage girl in the first place?
Felix Ever After
Callender is everywhere right now, with a beautiful Middle Grade (King and the Dragonflies) just longlisted for the National Book Award, an adult fantasy sequel (King of the Rising) coming in December, and nestled in the middle, one of the best and most groundbreaking YA novels you’ll read all year.
Felix Ever After stars a trans boy who struggles to find romantic love, which makes it all the more confusing when he finds himself drawn to the person he initially thought might be blackmailing him. It requires some real soul-searching to find who and what Felix really wants, but also who he really is, and what it means that he doesn’t feel like a boy all the time.
Dahlia Adler is an editor of mathematics by day, the overlord of LGBTQReads by night, and a Young Adult author at every spare moment in between. She is the editor of the anthologies His Hideous Heart (a Junior Library Guild selection) and That Way Madness Lies, and the author of seven novels, including Cool for the Summer. She lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books.
Keep Reading: 7 Popular Book Series for Teens