6 Y.A. Novels That Showcase the Power of Teenage Friendship
Though they cover a diverse array of experiences, genres and relationships, I’ve found that Y.A. stories generally feature one central theme: friendship. Developing a chosen family for the first time — whether it’s one best friend or a large, inseparable group — is one of the most rewarding, albeit challenging, parts of growing up, which makes friendship a relatable theme for readers of almost any age.
My own teenage years were defined by my friendships, for better or worse — as a closeted queer teenager, I didn’t have much else. Because of that, I often find myself drawn to novels that highlight complicated, messy, yet supportive, friendships.
Here are six spectacular Y.A. stories, and friendships, that will always have a place in my heart.
‘As You Walk On By,’ by Julian Winters
No one writes complex friendships (alongside adorable queer romances) quite like Winters. In his latest novel, a charmingly awkward teenager, Theo Wright, gets dared by his closest friends while they’re at a raging party to ask his crush to prom. The promposal ends up being a disaster that sends Theo into an existential crisis. In his despair, he holes up in an empty bedroom at the party, but one by one, the room fills with unlikely acquaintances who have their own reasons to hide. This book highlights the under-discussed challenges that arise in certain friendships — throughout the story, Theo grapples with being the token queer friend, calling in those close to him when they’ve crossed the line — and other difficulties teenagers may have encountered.
‘The Serpent King,’ by Jeff Zentner
Zentner’s Morris Award-winning debut follows three small-town teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Each wants to escape from the reality of daily life in their small rural town: Lydia hopes to leave for New York City; Travis wants to retreat into his favorite fantasy novels; and Dill aims to distinguish himself from his father’s religious extremism and crime. “The Serpent King” is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious, but what makes this book stand out is that, though the characters face many ups and downs, they still attempt to push one another toward a brighter future.
‘Death Prefers Blondes,’ by Caleb Roehrig
Roehrig’s novels span genres from thriller to mystery to horror; here, he writes a queer “Ocean’s Eleven”-meets-“Hamlet” heist adventure. “Death Prefers Blondes” follows a teenage glitteratus, Margo Manning, who moonlights as a cat burglar alongside a team of fabulous young drag queens. She gets into trouble, though, when one of her jobs lands the whole crew in grave danger. Their ability to survive depends on their friendship — with no queen left behind. Through their capers, these well-rendered side characters reveal how drag — and a set of good friends — can make a queer teenager feel invincible.
‘Late to the Party,’ by Kelly Quindlen
Codi Teller is a shy teenager who’d rather watch TV with her friends than go out, but one night, she’s yanked from her comfort zone when she has to crash a party to save her friends Maritza and JaKory, who drank too much. At the party,a chance encounter ushers Codi into the world of the “cool kids” without Maritza and JaKory’s knowledge, which means she ends up torn between her new friends and her old ones. What happens when you outgrow a friendship and yearn for something new? How can you reconcile who you once were with who you are now? As Codi grapples with these questions, this queer coming-of-age story highlights just how complicated friendships can be.
‘Six Crimson Cranes,’ by Elizabeth Lim
One of the most impactful friendships I’ve seen in Y.A. recently is in “Six Crimson Cranes,” between Lim’s incredibly drawn heroine, Princess Shiori, and her closest companion, a magic paper crane named Kiki. The novel draws on classic fairy tales and East Asian folklore to create a brilliant story about a princess banished from her kingdom after failing to control the forbidden magic within her veins. The familial relationships in this book are complex, but her one steadfast partner is Kiki, a bold, upbeat and cunning character in her own right, whose friendship is paramount to Shiori’s success. For many teenagers, the support of one person (or paper crane) can be enough to keep moving forward, and it’s rewarding to see that dynamic play out in an immense Y.A. fantasy like this.
‘When You Were Everything,’ by Ashley Woodfolk
“When You Were Everything” follows the ex-besties Cleo and Layla after their friendship breakup (a topic that’s underexplored in Y.A. novels). Through past and present narratives, we see Cleo and Layla drifting apart before their friendship explodes. And just when Cleo tries to put it all behind her, she’s forced to tutor Layla, making her recovery even more challenging. In showing Cleo’s grief at losing Layla, Woodfolk acknowledges the power and validity of teenage friendship even when it goes awry. But with new and promising friendships developing throughout, we’re reminded that if we take the time to forgive others — and ourselves — moving on can be a hopeful journey, too.
Phil Stamper is the author of “The Gravity of Us,” “Small Town Pride” and the Golden Boys series.