More Than Voting: 6 Election-Themed YA Novels Tackle Relationships and Political Engagement

Teens have long been engaged in the world around them, and this year many of them may be voting for the first time. As you encourage young people to be civic-minded, recommend these election-themed YA books that tackle family, friendship, love, and making their voices heard.

Teens have long been engaged in the world around them, and this year many of them may be voting for the first time. As you encourage young people to be civic-minded, recommend these election-themed YA books that tackle family, friendship, love, and making their voices heard. 

Running cover, The Voting Booth cover, The State of Us cover

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Feb. 2020. ISBN 9780062937049.
Gr 7 Up–Even though they’re not old enough to vote in the upcoming state special election, 17-year-olds Jamie and Maya find themselves roped into canvassing for a progressive candidate in an effort to flip a historically conservative voting district. Jamie sees himself both as a passionate activist and a completely hopeless, clumsy mess. When he’s asked to deliver the toast at his sister’s bat mitzvah and go door-to-door to talk to likely voters, he’s convinced he’ll do or say something that will make him a laughingstock. Maya is having a terrible summer—her best friend is moving to college and her parents announced their trial separation at the beginning of Ramadan. When the local political candidate holds a campaign event at her mosque, her mother encourages her to volunteer as a way of filling her time. Although they’d been close as children, Jamie and Maya’s relationship has been dormant for several years, but begins to bloom slowly into something beautiful, multilayered, and complex. While this scenario hardly sounds like the setup for a compelling novel, Albertalli and Saeed unfold a story told in alternating chapters that weaves together timely, relevant, and engaging themes. VERDICT With topical references to state and national issues—including hijab bans, bathroom bills, and the subtle politics of meme culture—this is a warm, beautiful story about relationships’ beginnings, endings, and transitions; what it means to fight the good fight; and the transformative power of local activism. A solid addition to any contemporary YA collection.–Erin Downey, Boise School District, ID


The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert. Disney-Hyperion. Jul. 2020. ISBN 9781368053297.
Gr 7-10–In Colbert’s latest novel, a cast of warmly realized characters tell the story of a seemingly mundane moment in time—two teens voting for the first time. Marva Sheridan is beyond excited about her first election day while Duke Crenshaw can’t wait to get it over with. Unfortunately for him, voting ends up being a lot more challenging than he ever expected. As the day creeps on, he and Marva have to work together to make Duke’s vote count. Along the way, they realize their chemistry is undeniable. Marva and Duke are beautifully rendered over the course of this book, showing their progression from strangers to something more than friends. Their story is crafted to appear small at first—a tale told around a single voting booth—but as readers learn more, they will begin to understand how both characters are affected by much larger structures: rigged elections, educational inequities, violence, grief, and more. Colbert addresses these themes in ways that are both true to the characters and resonant with current discussions about the ways that social, economic, and racial barriers shape our lives. Marva and Duke are lovable in their own right but their story usefully shows how determination and ingenuity have the potential to produce real-world change. VERDICT Recommended for readers who enjoy character-driven romance with real-world resonance.–Talea Anderson, Washington State Univ., Pullman, WA


You Say It First by Katie Cotugno. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Jun. 2020. ISBN 9780062674128.
Gr 9 Up–Meg is a force. She’s active on her high school campus, she works phone shifts getting people registered to vote, she’s a feminist, and she has just been accepted into Cornell. She has a nice group of friends and parents who love her. By all appearances, Meg has it together. But a year prior, when her parents got divorced, her mother’s drinking and her father’s new girlfriend sent Meg into autopilot without anyone noticing, not even Meg. It isn’t until Meg’s boyfriend unexpectedly breaks up with her that she wakes up and realizes she’s been so busy holding things together that she’s lost her own agenda. When small-town and hardworking Colby answers a call from Meg, the two make a connection that changes both of them. Five hundred miles away from one another, Colby and Meg begin a relationship based on good old-fashioned dialogue that enables them to move forward and quit letting life make decisions for them. Cotugno, rather than being politically heavy-handed, makes seamless the complexity of Meg and Colby’s relationship. She writes with equal sympathy about opinionated characters with differing life experiences and worldviews. VERDICT For collections where the smart-girl romances of Miranda Kenneally, Jenny Han, and Nandini Bajpai do well.–Jennifer Miskec, Longwood Univ., Farmville, VA

[Read: YA Books Reflect the Activism of Real-Life Teens]

The State of Us by Shaun David Hutchinson. HarperTeen. Jun. 2020. ISBN 9780062950314.
Gr 8 Up–In the alternating viewpoints of cool Dre and uptight Dean, Hutchinson takes us into a relationship with more complications than most. Both teenage boys are the only children of vying Presidential candidates and, fittingly, they first meet in an election event green room. Dre, son of the liberal Latino candidate, is comfortably out to his family and his friends, while Dean’s conservative mother, the opposite candidate, is not gay-friendly and Dean himself, who is white, is only beginning to admit to himself that he’s somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. The blossoming friendship between the boys occurs in crossing paths on the campaign trail, in private app chats, and phone calls. Hutchinson imbues all the minor as well as main characters with credible personalities and provides a thoughtful depiction of how different kinds of interpersonal relationships within and beyond families shape individuals and friendships. VERDICT This is more than just an election year story and will have staying power in high school and public library teen fiction collections.–Francisca Goldsmith, Lib. Ronin, Worcester, MA


Running by Natalia Sylvester. HMH. Jul. 2020. ISBN 9780358124351.
Gr 8 Up–The better part of Cuban American teenager Mariana (Mari) Ruiz’s life has been spent in smiling service to her father Senator Anthony Ruiz’s political aspirations. Mari’s unwavering support of her father, however, is tested by intense scrutiny during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Increasing unease over her role comes to a head when Mari bolts prior to an important television interview. Fallout from her disappearing act strains Mari’s relationship with her parents and worsens her status at school. While seeking social refuge with student activist Jackie Velez, Mari discovers that her father does not hold the values that she thought he did. Caught between supporting her family and standing up for what is right, Mari must choose a side that she believes in. Sylvester delivers a captivating coming-of-age narrative about the power of truth and finding your voice. Initially complacent and naive, Mari’s growth reads genuine as she begins to push back against her father’s campaign demands and question her privilege. The struggle between familial expectations and personal identity is something that will resonate with many readers. Diverse, complex secondary characters strengthen the narrative by presenting a well-rounded representation of South Florida. Sylvester’s ultimate message is simple: be an agent of change by standing up for others and calling out injustice. VERDICT This powerful novel will provoke much discussion on topics like the political machine, youth activism, and environmental justice. Highly recommended for all libraries.–Pearl Derlaga, York County P.L., VA


Most Likely by Sarah Watson. Little, Brown/Poppy. Mar. 2020. ISBN 9780316454834.
Gr 7 Up–Four friends—Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha—who have been tight since kindergarten are entering their senior year and beginning to face the realization that they will all be going in different directions. The opening chapter establishes that one will become President of the United States, but readers don’t know which one. Is it Ava, an artist who is struggling with her future choices; CJ, an earnest do-gooder; Jordan, a budding ace journalist; or Martha, a strong young woman who is facing some hurdles in life? As the novel spans a year of their experiences, a red herring is thrown in to muddy the waters as to who the future president could be. Debut author Watson creates four appealing and diverse young women; however, the narrative can seem formulaic and strives hard to check all the boxes, thus feeling like a made-for-TV movie. But this coming-of-age drama has a twist that will throw off readers as to which young woman becomes president, as all are smart and capable, and worthy of the office. Plus, the message of enduring friendships is always important for young people to read. VERDICT A fun and light read, this book will appeal to teens who like contemporary fiction. A solid purchase.–Nancy McKay, Byron P.L., IL

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