5 Inspiring YA Books to Read with Your Teen


I love Young Adult (YA) literature, and can’t wait till my kiddo is old enough to read and talk about books with me! YA books are about, and written for teenagers, and reading them gives me hope for the future. Young people like the characters in these books, are working towards a better world that is inclusive and kinder. Their imaginations and curiosity are inspiring.

Because I have many years to wait for my preschooler to read at this level, I want to recommend 5 inspiring YA books to read with your teen for those of you whose kids are ready. Or, for those of you who also enjoy YA lit to read alone. 

Now a few caveats before you read my list of 5 inspiring YA books to read with your teen. 

These are all personal recommendations from me, a YA reader and scholar with niche interests. My favorite YA books are those about magical queer girls- and yes, there are enough of those for me to have a huge stack to read.

In general, I seek out books where marginalized characters thrive. The fact that I’ve only included 1 book on this list about magical queer girls makes these recommendations totally diverse, for me. But if you’re not into magical queer girls, or if you prefer reading about straight white people, this isn’t the list for you. If you don’t like queer things, my blog posts aren’t for you either.

In no particular order, here are 5 inspiring YA books:

1. Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Genre: Historical Fiction

I’ve been a longtime fan of Malinda Lo’s writing (lesbians and queer women of a certain age may remember her vlogs and writing for a formerly amazing lesbian website that’s now been taken over by TERFs). Last Night at the Telegraph Club, the Vermont Reads 2023 winner, is an amazing story of finding yourself. Lily, the main character, discovers her identity and interests, and navigates the friction between her culture and mainstream society.

This tops my list of 5 inspiring YA books to read with your teen because of the well-written characters and the window into life as a Chinese lesbian teenager in the McCarthy era. Lo gives us a look into both the Chinese and queer womens’ communities in 1950s San Francisco, and the struggles and joys of each. The settings of the San Francisco streets, a Chinese community pageant, and the queer bar called “The Telegraph Club” are vivid. Her research is evident without being overbearing.

I went to hear Lo’s speak recently, sponsored by Vermont Humanities, and she said that when conducting research for this book she had to find anything about her identity- as a Chinese lesbian- in the footnotes. Reflecting on who writes history and whose story is shared provides a powerful vantage point for her work. 

Summer (left) and her wife (right) with author Malinda Lo (center)
Summer and her wife with Malinda Lo at South Burlington Library

This book ensures that younger generations will have direct representation on the page. 

Read Last Night at the Telegraph Club with your teenagers so they have an appreciation for the rights queer people have today, and as an important reminder that queer rights and experiences aren’t the same for everyone due to other aspects of identity, like race, or age, or gender. It’s a great book to spur discussions about deep issues of identity and representation. 

2. Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

I read this book a few years ago and still think about it a lot. It is such a hard read, but I instantly knew I wanted to give it to all my young relatives. Trigger warnings are needed for sexual assault, grooming, forced drug use, and manipulation

The main character is Enchanted, a talented singer who is discovered by famous R&B singer, Korey Fields. He manipulates her, and her parents, and she ends up having singing lessons from him that quickly turn into something much more sinister. The book opens with her waking up, feeling groggy, and seeing his dead body. This book is one of the most intense books I’ve ever read and it will stick with you. 

In case you think this story sounds familiar, it is indeed inspired by R. Kelly’s abuse of young girls. Even though it will disturb you, it’s a must-read for mature teens to help them spot the signs of manipulation and grooming from older men. Seeing everything happen through Enchanted’s perspective helps us see how something so horrible can happen, and hopefully will prevent other teens from falling victim to this terrible behavior. 

Grown brings up a lot of potential discussion topics for teens, especially with teen girls or any teens whose ambition might make them ignore red flags from those with power.

3. The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen 

Genre: Graphic novel. May also be considered historical fiction as the main time period is the 1990s, but I refuse to believe that slander.

This graphic novel is beautiful. I love it so much that me and two friends have written two academic articles about it. 

The Magic Fish weaves three storylines together to create a rich story about coming out, family, and communication. Each storyline has a different color scheme (red, blue, or yellow), and the colors sometimes blend and overlap in interesting ways to show connections between them.

Communication, especially across generations and language barriers, is explored through the plot and also in the absolutely gorgeous illustrations. 

The present-day storyline (illustrated in red) takes place in the 1990s and Tien, a middle schooler, is struggling to tell his parents he is gay. Some of his concern is because he goes to a Catholic school, but a larger problem is he doesn’t know how to say the word gay in Vietnamese. 

To practice English, Tien and his mom read European fairy tales together. These stories relate to what Tien is going through, and his mom tells Vietnamese fairy tales as well. All the fairy tales are illustrated in blue. 

The third storyline is about Tien’s parents’ escape from Vietnam in the 1970s, illustrated in yellow, and told through Tien’s mom’s memories.

This book is an easy read but the illustrations deserve careful attention, and my write-up doesn’t do it justice. This is one of many truly inspiring YA books to read with your teen for several reasons. You can discuss the impact of the past on the present, and it can open conversations about your own past, whether that is stories you read, places you lived, or traumas you went through. It shows how people can communicate across multiple languages and cultures to show they love each other. And, it can also open conversations about being nervous about asking your crush to the school dance.

4. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Genre: Contemporary fiction

If you’ve read and love The Hate U Give, you need to read Angie Thomas’ second book, On the Come Up. It feels blasphemous saying this, but I love it even more than the first book. It takes place in the same setting as THUG but with completely different characters, and a different high school specifically for kids interested in the arts. 

Bri, the sixteen-year-old main character, is an aspiring rapper. Thomas, who was a teen rapper in real life, shows us how Bri prepares for rap battles and comes up with lines on the spot. She’s impressive and her process is inspiring. She gets the opportunity to record, and we see her navigating trying to make a name for herself with her music. She has to work on the balance between writing for fame and writing for herself. Bri’s family and friends give her great advice along the way, though others try to take advantage of her.

As a former high school teacher, I love Bri’s mom, Jay, so much. You’ll love her too. Her lectures to Bri about the importance of school are phenomenal. She’s every teacher’s dream parent! Despite that, she’s not perfect, and Bri is dealing with the trauma of her mom’s past.

This is on my list of 5 inspiring YA books to read with your teen because of all the discussions you can have. Working out how to follow your passion, getting others to see your talent, and staying true to your identity are great things to discuss with this book. Complicated family relationships are another topic that frequently comes up. 

Angie Thomas’ characters are always fully formed from the first page, and you and your teenager will love following Bri’s journey and rooting for her as she finds her voice.

5. When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Genre: Magical realism

I bet you were thinking I’d somehow forgotten to include magical queers in this list of inspiring YA books, but here we go! 

I love Anna-Marie McLemore’s books so much that I’ve written about several of them in my academic life, this one included. I am a fangirl for their work. They write about queer and trans teens of color finding and creating community. They write in the genres of magical realism, fantasy, and fairy tale retellings, which I love. If you haven’t read anything in the magical realism genre- where magical things happen in the real world- give it a try.

In this novel, Sam struggles with his gender identity, even though his mom and friends embrace him. He relies on cultural traditions from Pakistan to work through his gender, and by the end accepts himself as a boy and as Pakistani by refusing to blend into his small-town white culture anymore. 

Miel is his neighbor, best friend, and love interest. Flowers also grow from Miel’s wrist, and she and her sister arrived in the town through magical ways. 

Magic is tied to emotion in When the Moon Was Ours showing the power our feelings have over us.

This book is a great one to read for examples of adults supporting and celebrating queer and trans teenagers. Unlike many fantasy-adjacent YA books, Sam and Miel have supportive parental figures who are very present. 

You can discuss with your teen how the characters stand up for themselves, their identities, and their cultures in empowering ways. Creating communities that care for and share their culture is another great topic. Miel and her sister are Latine, and both Miel and Sam benefit from the cultural traditions of their families. 

If you and your teen are fans of fairy tales, you can discuss how this book uses those familiar themes and gives them new and contemporary life in this book. Then you can go read all of McLemore’s other books, because they’re amazing. 

Have you read any of these books? What books do you recommend for reading with your teenager? I had a hard time narrowing my list of inspiring YA books down, so if you want more book lists please let me know! If you want to know where to find more queer books I will talk to you about that forever, or Mombian has an amazing database.

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5 Inspiring YA Books to Read with Your Teen

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Summer Pennell
Summer moved to Vermont in 2021 with her wife and kiddo (now 4). She lives in an amazing gayborhood in a great community, and loves to pretend she's in a real-life Hallmark movie. Summer has degrees in English literature, visual arts, folklore, and education (clearly, making lucrative choices) and works with future secondary teachers. Along with some neighbors and her wife, she served on the Essex Pride Committee that planned the first pride in Essex Junction in 2023. Her hobbies include crafting (cross stitching and making fascinators are her favorites), reading queer romance and YA, spontaneous kitchen dance parties, and watching ridiculous things on TV. Her family enjoys exploring the beautiful state and surrounding areas, and she always welcomes suggestions for family-friendly activities.



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