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Young Adult Novels that Explore the Complexities of Friendship (And More!)

Cover Image for blog Young Adult Novels that Explore the Complexities of Friendship and More

by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)

What is more important than friends? Although many young adult books feature romance, I have noticed that many of the YA lit books I've read recently center friendship. I love seeing this, especially in YA lit, because while romance is fun to read, it's often our friendships that anchor us during challenging times, and fostering amazing friendships is such an important part of growing up. (It's also important for us adults! I love seeing great friendships in adult books, too!)

I love the way that the books on this list explore how complicated friendship can be as young people grow and change and what it can look like to maintain (or ressurrect!) those friendships amid the changes.

Traci Chee's We Are Not Free ( | - Jen chose this for our Unabridged Buddy Read in June, and I am so glad that she did. This historical fiction collection centers on the voices of fourteen second-generation Japanese American citizens who are all forced out of their homes and into incarceration camps during World War II. This powerful account examines so many important issues within this horrific historical event, but in the work, Chee also explores the way that friendships can provide continuity and hope amid very tumultuous and cruel circumstances.

Talia Hibbert's Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute ( | - Although this is definitely a romance at its core, this lovely book very much centers on friendship. Bradley Graeme and Celine Bangura grew up as best friends, but then they experienced a friendship breakup because of the way social groups shifted. Essentially Celine felt that Brad masked who he truly was (including hiding his OCD) to fit in with the popular group, and she was completely unwilling to do that.

Once that friendship breakup happened, Brad and Celine became heated rivals competing for many of the same things, and tensions rose. But when they are forced together as they compete for a prestigious program promising a potentially powerful scholarship, they have to find their way forward. I love the way both Celine and Brad do some hard work in this novel to become better friends and better people.

Adiba Jaigirdar's The Dos and Donuts of Love ( | - This young adult romance features Shirin, a Bangladeshi Irish teen baker who is determined to compete on the first ever Junior Irish Baking Show. Shirin's immigrant parents own a donut shop in Dublin, and although she loves working with them, her dream is to ultimately open her own bakery. However, her ex-girlfriend Kris (whose Chinese parents also own a donut shop) also plans to be on the show. Kris does not love baking like Shirin but feels pressure from her parents to perform.

Although there is certainly romance in this book, there is also a lot about friendship and how challenging but important it is to be a good friend. I loved this fun, punny, face-paced book, and I appreciated the way that Jaigirdar incorporated many important social issues - body image, racism within television, and the challenges of being a child of immigrants just to name a few - into this lovely story.

Abdi Nazemian's Like a Love Story ( | - This historical fiction novel is set in 1989 in NYC amid the AIDS epidemic. This story focuses on three teens: Reza, who is Iranian and who has just come to the US, and Judy and Art, two best friends who go to the school Reza is just starting to attend. Judy's uncle, Stephen, is a gay activist dying of AIDS, and Judy and Art are both very devoted to him. Art is the school's only out and proud gay student, but he has a complicated relationship with his conservative parents who deny his truths.

As Reza gets to know Judy and Art, he starts admitting some truths to himself that he is not yet ready to share with others. Things only get more complicated when Reza finds himself inadvertently dating Judy, whom he considers a very important friend that he does not want to lose.

I loved so many things about this brilliant book. The friendships in this novel are powerful and layered, and Nazemian resists easy answers as the characters explore what it means to support each other through hard times.

Sara Novic's True Biz ( | - This brilliant book does involve some romance, but it also largely centers on friendship and the ways that access can impact friendships and camaraderie. One of the main characters, Charlie, was denied the right to learn American Sign Language and consequently spent much of her childhood on the fringe of the hearing world, but all of that changed when she began attending a residential deaf school where she was immersed in ASL for the first time.

In addition to Charlie's story, we see the complicated friendship of Eliot and Austin, roommates at the boarding school who have had very different life experiences. While Austin enjoys a bit of fame at the school because of his deaf family lineage, Eliot has endured profound trauma that leaves him scarred. We also get to know February, the headmistress of the school who is navigating her own relationship challenges. I learned so much from this book and loved getting to know the different central characters. (We talked about this one on episodes 249 and 257.)

Sonora Reyes' The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School ( | - This phenomenal story focuses primarily on Yamilet Flores, a closeted queer Mexican American sixteen-year-old who is determined to fly under the radar at the new private Catholic school she's attending. We also get to know Yami's younger brother, Cesar, who also transferred to the school and who has plenty of his own friendship and romance challenges.

I share more about this one in next week's episode featuring great books by Indigenous authors we're recommending, so be sure to tune in to hear more!

Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer's To Night Owl from Dogfish ( | - I read this one with my daughters as a read aloud, and we all loved it so very much. (This is middle grade, but it would read well with older teenagers as well.) Although this is a book about families coming together - the premise is that Bett Devlin and Avery Bloom discover that their fathers are dating and initially plan to sabotage the relationship - the friendship that develops between Bett and Avery is so beautiful and is at the center of the novel. This one is entirely epistolary with a mix of media and characters doing the writing, which largely focuses on emails between Bett and Avery (who live across the country from each other), so that is a fun element as well.

Other YA lit books that come to mind that we've shared about before are the amazing friend group in Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious series - check out Jen's review of that series here - and the supportive friends in Alice Oseman's Heartstopper graphic novel series. (We discussed the pilot episode of that film adaptation on Patreon - so good!) I'd also recommend Nina LaCour's We Are Okay that I shared in a book review last month - friendship is such a key element of that book.

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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