What's Up in YA

Campus Life, YA Style: YA Books Set In College

Hey YA Fans!

September is the start of (many) school years, and it’s when (most) college students head back to campus. Although YA books tend to focus on high schoolers — they are, after all, the bulk of teenagers — college-set YA continues to be a growing area. It makes sense. Not only are many freshman college students still teenagers, but many teens who are still in high school like reading about characters who are slightly older and “wiser” than them (“wiser” because as anyone knows, that’s debatable, especially in YA books!).

Find below a small collection of YA books featuring college-age characters who are either on break from their school year or who are diving headlong into their campus lives. This is obviously not comprehensive, but it is a nice taste of those college stories.

A few years back, I worked on a committee which put together a list of great reads for college-bound students. The list was discontinued, but I pulled together a new list last year. It features a wide array of great books for those who are life-long learned, including plenty of YA titles.

American Panda by Gloria Chao

Mei skipped a grade and is now 17 years old and a college freshman at MIT. While her parents are hoping she becomes a doctor and remains proud of her Taiwanese heritage, Mei doesn’t find herself following their dreams for her. She hates germs, and she’s falling for a Japanese classmate. Everything for her changes when she reconnects with her estranged brother.

Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi

Penny is ready for college to bring her something different. Settled into University of Texas, Austin, it doesn’t take long before her life crashes into Sam’s — and their relationship grows stronger and stronger via text messages. Their connection deepens as they share the realities of their lives and thoughts, all without seeing each other.

Freshmen by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This is the one book on the list I haven’t read, but I wanted to include it because it’s a look at a college freshman who wants to redefine herself and another college freshman with no intention to make himself different and how their lives intersect. This one is supposed to be funny, even though it takes on some Big Topics, and it’s been comped to Emergency Contact.

Little Fish: A Memoir From A Different Kind of Year by Ramsey Bayer

This graphic memoir, told in illustrations, lists, and collages, follows Ramsey as she leaves her small town in Michigan to become a college freshman at an art school in a big city. This one nails the weird feelings of big change, as well as the ways that freshmen do — and don’t — cope well with it.

Mariam Sharma Hits The Road by Sheba Karim

Not technically set during the school year, I’ve included this one because the main character just finished her freshman year and has returned home for the summer. Her best friend from high school is in trouble — she’s a model and her image just got plastered in a big way, and now her very conservative parents are furious. Mariam and Umar, another high school friend, devise a plan to rescue their friend from her parents via a road trip. A fascinating look at how friendships change after high school, as well as a much-needed addition to the canon of YA road trip books featuring teens of color.

Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr

A powerhouse duo of YA writers each write through the voice of an incoming freshman as they email back and forth prior to the start of their college careers. Along with the basics of who will bring what, we get a deep dive into the lives they will leave behind when they head off to school.

An Off Year by Claire Zulkey

So what about the kids who don’t go to college after high school? There are surprisingly few books about kids who go into the trades or begin a work life. This isn’t either of those. Instead, this is a book about a girl who, once she gets to her college campus, decides she needs to take a year off. This is a year where almost nothing happens to Cecily, but where she gets to witness the world around her shifting — even if she herself isn’t ready to embrace it.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

This quiet, award-winning novel is one of the few that truly captures what my own experience of loneliness freshman year of college was like (though for different reasons). Marin’s best friend is coming to see her over the winter break at her dorm, and from here, we’ll see slowly why Marin left her West coast home for the East coast, why she lost touch with her best friend, and why it is she has become so lonely.

Wrecked by Maria Padian

Pink book covers are an unintentional theme here. Padian’s novel, told in two voices, takes place during freshman year on a college campus. A sexual assault is the centerpiece of the story, as two characters who are not involved in the crime attempt to figure out what happened, as well as what resources are available to them and the victim. A powerful, real, and authentic look at what is — and is not — available to students on college campuses when it comes to sexual assault.

(I don’t know about you, but I sometimes think were I able to go back to college, I’d enjoy it so much more now as an adult than I did as an 18-year-old!).

Thanks for hanging out, y’all, and we’ll see you later this week!

— Kelly Jensen, @heykellyjensen on Instagram (note the new name!) and editor of (Don’t) Call Me Crazy and Here We Are.