There are so many reasons that books can miss out on their deserved share of love, from independent publishers not having the marketing budget to releasing the same day as a massive blockbuster to, you know, a global pandemic.
Here are some of the best YA novels that might’ve slipped under your radar but definitely deserve to be pushed to the top of your to-read list!
Your Corner Dark
Being one of the first books out in a given year is always a challenge, especially when you’re a debut and there’s a pandemic going on. So I’m extra happy that I happened upon this gem, the first YA I’ve read set in Jamaica. Like We are Not From Here (see below) or Ibi Zoboi’s American Street, Your Corner Dark takes a good look at what might lead a teen to want to escape their home and come to the US, while still appreciating the things that make home beautiful and the pieces one might want to take with them wherever they go. (The title phrase itself is uttered by the love interest in a context comparable to “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” for those who, like me, weren’t familiar.)
Frankie Green has his ticket out in the form of a scholarship, but when his father gets shot, taking care of him—despite his being abusive—becomes priority one. But with that comes promises he doesn’t want to make, a relationship he shouldn’t have, and a dream that’s looking increasingly impossible.
The Truth Project
Another lovely pandemic debut, this Alaska-set novel puts its star, Cordelia, in a tricky situation when she takes a DNA test for school and learns her biological father isn’t the man who’s been raising her…and her mother’s known the truth all along all along. Now Cordelia’s questioning everything about herself and is desperate to meet the man who provided half her genetic makeup, even if it means keeping secrets from her family.
Told in verse and interspersed with other media (most notably emails), Medema manages to pull myriad questions and emotions from an economical word count in this thoroughly modern story of identity and family.
The Closest I’ve Come
It’s just a fact that coming-of-age novels starring people of color are some of the best books in YA these past few years, but not enough of them have gotten the spotlight attention they deserve. Among those I wish I could shove in far more hands is this debut about a Latinx boy named Marcos who yearns to get out of his hood and find some happiness and security.
He ultimately finds some of what he’s looking for in new friendships, but truly growing up will mean shedding the toxic masculinity he’s been raised in all these years. This is a great pick for fans of Jason Reynolds’s When I Was the Greatest, Lamar Giles’s Not So Pure and Simple, and/or Erika Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.
Borsinky’s debut is starting to poke it’s head out these days, most notably by landing a spot on the Lambda longlist, but it went far too under the radar when it was first released in November 2020 for how special it is in the world of genre questioning YA.
Rare is the novel that both starts and ends while the main character is questioning and still has nothing to wrap in a neat bow by the final page, but that’s what makes this story about a kid who understands nothing about their own identity, beyond the fact that being called the feminized Sasha Masha feels right in a way their birth name doesn’t. Sometimes you just have to take the one thing you know and use it as your guide through the messiness of life, especially adolescence, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find the right people to help you through it.
For my money, Giles is one of the best YA thriller authors out there, and clearly the Edgar Awards committee knows it as well. Still, he doesn’t seem to be getting his due to my satisfaction, and this voice-y and superbly paced one happens to be my personal favorite.
Digging into the murder of a famed teen DJ are her former best friend, Kya, and her biggest fan, Fuse, who don’t particularly get along. But they both want the truth, and the friendship that forms between them as they dig through potential co-conspirators, the dark web, and untold secrets is the beautiful heart of this fandom-centric mystery.
My theory on why this one slipped under radars is because it was marketed as a romance, and I’ll throw you off that right now and set your expectations right: this is a much closer retelling to Romeo & Juliet than the rom-com cover would suggest. (No one dies, to be clear, but if you’re looking for the fuzzy happily ever after of Hot Dog Girl or Dugan’s upcoming Some Girls Do, this isn’t the place.)
What it does absolutely excel at (in addition to Dugan’s consistently smart and charming authorship) is both queer and mental health rep.
We Are Not from Here
While Oprah’s book club pick American Dirt was spending the year getting discussed to death, this contemporary YA about three teens making the journey up Latin America together to cross into the US was going far too under the radar for my liking.
It is, as you may expect, an absolutely heart wrenching deep dive journey that’ll have your heart in your throat the entire time, but painful as it is, it’s well worth the read. (And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be running to donate to an organization like RAICES as soon as you’re done.)
The Accidental Bad Girl
Speaking of books I think slipped under the radar due to marketing that doesn’t quite match the premise, this debut thriller is a freaking ride, so much so that after I read it on vacation, I lent it to both my older sister and my dad, and all three of us grown adults were impressed as hell at what Kaplan pulls off here.
It’s a mystery-thriller that takes on rape culture, drugs, slut-shaming, the intricacies of female friendship, and more, unlike anything I’ve read in YA, perfect for fans of feminist lit with unapologetic and messy heroines.
Related: The Best YA Books for Adult Readers