16 YA Novels That Keep It Real | Summer Reading 2021

These realistic novels for teens explore identity, family relationships, and figuring out your place in the world, all told with honesty and nuance.

Hurricane Summer / Yolk / Not So Pure and Simple / Like Home


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These realistic novels for teens explore identity, family relationships, and figuring out your place in the world, all told with honesty and nuance.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo. HarperTeen. ISBN 9780062882769.
Camino and Yahaira, two teenagers in different countries who have never met, are suddenly thrust into each other’s lives when their biological father dies in a plane crash. They piece together their Papi’s life in New York and the Dominican Republic, joining their partial memories to finally see the whole person. Told in alternate narratives, this novel in verse is a cathartic exploration of grief, love, and family secrets.

The Summer of Impossibilities by Rachael Allen. Abrams/Amulet. ISBN 9781419741128.

Four girls grappling with tough issues—self-harm, a father having an affair, juvenile arthritis, and more—are thrust together one summer. The teens form a club: to play poker, drink Southern Comfort, wear pearls, be honest, and accomplish something impossible before the season’s end. Allen examines the pain of adolescence with grace, humor, and maturity; this story stays firmly rooted in its characters’ gentle affection and unfaltering humanity.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062990297.

Biracial Michael works through his identity, race, and sexuality as he finds himself through his drag persona, the Black Flamingo, in this novel in verse. Michael’s story reminds readers that being true to who you are is what makes you truly fabulous.

Hurricane Summer by Asha Bromfield. St. Martin’s/Wednesday. ISBN 9781250622235.

Tilla travels to Jamaica with her younger sister to visit their father, who she hasn’t seen for a year. The carefree vacation never materializes, as her father’s business obligations and a hurricane headed toward the island throw her plans off course. Tilla is thrown into an unfamiliar world where she must decide which relationships need to be rescued from the rubble, and which she’ll leave behind.

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti. S. & S./Simon Pulse. Jun. 2020. ISBN 9781534426979.

Sixteen-year-old Sydney Reilly is headed home for the summer, although her sexpot actress mother’s new house in San Francisco hardly qualifies as “home” for her—and her foreboding only intensifies when her mother’s new boyfriend is the only one at the airport to greet her. This is a brilliant coming-of-age story wrapped in a page-turning thriller; Sydney is a sharp, complex character coping with best friends, first boyfriends, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse.

Yolk by Mary H.K Choi. S. & S. ISBN 9781534446007.

Jayne Baek’s carefully curated identity as a young college student studying fashion marketing in New York City begins to crack when her older sister shares her cancer diagnosis.

Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780062349194.

Del attends church to get his crush Kiera’s attention. When she and other teens approach the altar during a service, Del joins them to get close to Kiera, then realizes he just became a Purity Pledger, promising to stay sexually pure until marriage. With humor and honesty, this novel addresses the impact of sexism, social media, religion, and adults’ fears of teen sexuality, adeptly showing how even “good guys” indulge in toxic masculinity.


Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry. Algonquin. ISBN 9781616208967.

The four beautiful, fierce Torres sisters captivated the boys of their San Antonio neighborhood, but when Ana died, the sisters responded to their grief differently. Still, Ana’s ghost haunts them in the form of mysterious occurrences in the house. Weaving themes of sisterhood, death, and romance, along with Shakespearean inspiration, Mabry’s lyrical tale is Little Women meets The Virgin Suicides with a magical realist twist.

Light It Up by Kekla Magoon. Holt. ISBN 9781250128898.

A police officer fatally shoots an unarmed 13-year-old African American girl and sends an already grieving community into an emotional tailspin. Magoon examines how law enforcement policies, the threat of police violence, and the 24-hour news cycle affect different parts of a community in profound ways.

Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith. HarperTeen. ISBN 9780062943170.

Pony moves to a new school hoping to lead a normal life without being known as the “trans kid.” Romance, self-discovery, strong secondary characters, and references to The Outsiders make this a great read for anyone who has ever felt different.

Like Home by Louisa Onome. Delacorte. ISBN 9780593172599.

Ginger East is the only home Nigerian American 16-year-old Nelo has ever known. An act of vandalism at her best friend’s neighborhood store combined with the news of a fancy corporate spice store coming to her neighborhood send her reeling and seeking a way to express herself. Nelo has to confront that whether she likes it or not, things are changing around her and she has to fight for her home.

Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins. Farrar. ISBN 9780374304928.

Two teens from very different backgrounds journey to Kolkata with a church group to help those who have escaped from sex trafficking. While they help others, they are surprised to find healing from their own traumas. Through alternating perspectives, the author crafts a powerful message about global trafficking, activism, and cultural bias.

We Are Not from Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Philomel. ISBN 9781984812261.

Concluding that there is no future for them in Guatemala, Pequeña and brothers Pulga and Chico take off north, following the tracks of La Bestia and risking everything, including their lives, to reach the U.S. border. Desperation permeates the pages, as Sanchez’s richly drawn characters confront the lack of legal options and the undaunted hope of those compelled to attempt the journey.

Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781547600083.

Fed up with their school’s lack of acknowledgment of women’s rights, Chelsea, a poet, and Jasmine, a writer and actress, start a blog to showcase their own progressive writing. Especially relevant given the #MeToo movement, this thought-provoking novel will inspire readers to make a difference and challenge the status quo.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen. ISBN 9780062941084.

Dani, of Filipino descent and a scholarship student at a prestigious private school in Southern California, hopes to win a debate scholarship to Yale; Claire, an uber-wealthy student from China attends Dani’s school and rents the spare room in her home. Yang expertly weaves in parallels to real-life events, such as the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, as she explores nationality, wealth, and rape culture.

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062996480.
Amal is a Black teen incarcerated for assaulting a white teen. With spare but forceful words, this novel in verse examines the dehumanization of young people caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. Through Amal’s experience, readers see how young people are left at the mercy of racist, broken educational and criminal justice systems that stifle talents and silence voices.

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