What makes a great young adult book? It depends on who you ask. Jay Coles, author of Things We Couldn’t Say, which comes out Sept. 21, says it’s an intangible.
“If a book is authentic, makes someone feel, calls someone higher, or challenges someone’s prejudices or problematic worldviews, I’d say it is a sure winner,” says Coles.
His new book, coming three years after the success of Tyler Johnson Was Here, certainly ticks all those boxes. It follows Gio, a Black bisexual teenager struggling to deal with the return of his mother, a preacher who left his family when he was only 9.
She comes back as Gio struggles to show himself fully to his friends and family, as he worries they won’t accept every part of his identity. Identity is a crucial theme of many YA novels, and Coles notes his own identity struggles helped him navigate writing the toughest portions of the book. “I kept thinking about what this book might mean to a Black kid somewhere in the world. Gio’s story never left me. It demanded to be told,” he says.
Coles recently contributed to the middle grade collection “Black Boy Joy,” which aims at a slightly younger audience. He notes there is a distinction between writing for younger kids and older ones, but it doesn’t mean avoiding talking about certain issues. It just means addressing them in different ways.
“I’ve learned to be strategic in what I present in my middle grade stories versus my young adult stories. When I’m trying to tell a story, it helps me to think about my audience and what things, ideas, or issues are most relevant to them. That has made me a better writer indeed,” he says.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of the Inheritance Games series, published her first novel at age 19. “At that point in time, I didn’t know anything but being a teenager,” she says. Fifteen years later, she continues to write YA novels because “that is where my heart is. When I watch great media centered on adults, I think, ‘I love this, but it needs more teenagers.’”
She believes the appeal of a great teen novel lies in learning why people do the things they do.
“People love origin stories,” she says. “If you have a superhero, you want to know the origin story, so you know why they become who they become. A lot of formative events happen in the teenage years.”
In her trilogy, a teenage girl named Avery Grambs inherits billions of dollars from a man she barely remembers meeting. Avery must piece together her own origin story to determine why the man chose her over his family to inherit his wealth —this includes sparing with his four grandsons with charisma to spare.
While Inheritance Games is a mystery series, it’s also, like Coles’ book, a story about discovering and embracing your identity.
“The way people interact with Avery Grambs the new billionaire is so different than what she’s gotten used to in life. She deals with many changes,” says Barnes, whose second book in the Inheritance trilogy, The Hawthorne Legacy, comes out Sept. 7.
The new books by Barnes and Coles are two of many notable new YA books coming out in fall 2021. Here are nine other notable ones to watch for, many of which focus on that theme of identity.
Act Cool by Tobly McSmith (Sept. 7)
The author of Stay Gold returns with a book about an aspiring actor whose family won’t accept his transgender identity and forbid him to transition. He must decide how to balance their wishes while exploring a new opportunity at a big-city acting school.
It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi (Sept. 14)
Kiran wants to keep her family intact after her mother’s death, but her sister’s whirlwind relationship with a new guy seems to derail that hope, especially when Kiran learns that the guy’s younger brother, Deen, is the guy who ghosted her four years ago.
Kneel by Candace Buford (Sept. 14)
Candace Buford’s debut novel skillfully tackles the debate over national anthem protests. A young man eyeing a college football scholarship becomes an object of local outrage when he kneels during the anthem to protest his best friend’s unjust arrest.
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson (Sept. 14)
One of YA’s most talented writers, Tiffany D. Jackson (Grown), has a book perfect for those who want supernatural books for Halloween … a story about a girl haunted by her old life and, perhaps, the new house she shares with her new stepfamily.
What About Will? by Ellen Hopkins (Sept. 21)
After his brother, Will, suffers a serious head injury in a football game, 12-year-old Trace tries to hold together his fragile family as the brother he’s always admired suffers through opioid addiction. Trace eventually realizes he can’t keep covering for Will in this heartfelt novel in verse.
Before We Disappear by Shaun David Hutchinson (Sept. 28)
Enemies to lovers, magician rivalries and historical fiction—this imaginative queer romance has it all, following two magician assistants in the early 1900s who make an unlikely connection.
Black Birds in the Sky by Brandy Colbert (Oct. 5)
The supremely gifted Brandy Colbert focuses on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre with her first nonfiction book. She explores why the event still remains unknown to so many people and critiques the media coverage of the event as well as discusses the consequences of its legacy.
Bluebird by Sharon Cameron (Oct. 5)
The author of The Light in Hidden Places pens a noir thriller about a teenager who comes to New York City after World War II bent on finding the Nazi physician behind some of the war’s most heinous medical experiments.
Journey to the Heart of the Abyss by London Shah (Oct. 26)
In the sequel to The Light at the Bottom of the World, Leyla McQueen has her father back, but she’s lost the boy she loves. She tries to find out why her dad was arrested as a conflict escalates that reveals a futuristic authority’s horrific plans for its people.