2020 has been a year everyone wants to forget in many ways. But for publishing, it was actually an amazing year—and that includes the collection of young adult (YA) novels.
The best YA books of the year touched on serious issues and examined current events through unique viewpoints.
Keep in mind that “best” doesn’t correlate with “notable.” For example, while Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, was certainly notable, it wasn’t one of the
year’s most surprising or imaginative efforts.
Here are 10 YA books that stood out in 2020, as well as five more that look the most promising for 2021.
Best YA Books of 2020
Camp by L.C. Rosen
Boy meets boy, boy ignores boy, boy gives himself a masc makeover to get boy’s attention, boy meets boy again and sparks finally fly. The book takes place at an LGBTQIA+ camp, and it gives both boys strong backstories so that their actions make sense, even when you want to scream at them. The secondary characters are a delight.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
One of the most gifted poets of her generation, Acevedo takes a storyline that might feel like “too much” in the hands of another writer (long-lost sisters) and turns it into another masterpiece. She uses language in unexpected and lyrical ways.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
So many books are about relationships. While the protagonist falls in love in this gem, the book is, at its heart, about Felix’s relationship to himself. Callendar spins a tight mystery while also exploring issues of identity and class, without seeming heavy-handed.
The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson
The final in Johnson’s trio of Truly Devious books brings the mystery series to a satisfying conclusion. The three books manage to be both eerily atmospheric and impressively modern, balancing between two eras and doing it well.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed
The imaginative premise of this book follows two teenage girls living 200 years apart yet somehow connected through their struggles. They have big choices to make, and watching them navigate through the parts of their lives they want to change makes this a page-turner.
We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez
This novel about three young people fleeing Guatemala through Mexico makes immigration policy relatable for teens through outstanding storytelling. At times thrilling, at times heart-wrenching, the book stays with you long after you finish reading it.
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee
Another timely look at race, this time through the eyes of second-generation Japanese-Americans, teenagers whose lives are changed by the incarceration camps in the United States during World War II. The book follows them as they fight through the trauma of racism and injustice.
Punching the Air, by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
One of the best-reviewed YA books on GoodReads this year, Air tells the story of a boy who’s wrongly incarcerated—something Salaam, one of the “Exonerated 5,” knows all too much about. Amal Shahid sees his chances of becoming an artist dim as he fights to prove his innocence after his conviction.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
Combining folklore, fantasy and a critical examination of refugee policy, Wraiths became an instant bestseller last summer. It’s hard to put down this action-packed book; luckily it’s part one of a duology.
Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
The debut rom-com is just as adorable as the title, putting a new spin on the old “friends to enemies” trope. There’s definitely a “You’ve Got Mail” feel to this book, which also features the protagonists’ family businesses at war.
Five to Watch for in 2021
Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson
Her fantastic debut, You Should See Me in a Crown, was another 2020 favorite, and Johnson’s second book deals with themes of loss and (again!) music.
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
Thomas’ superlative The Hate U Give gets a prequel following Starr Carter’s father, Maverick.
The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold
This takes place in the aftermath of a pandemic; need we say more?
The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks by Mackenzi Lee
The third in the historical Montague siblings series introduces the youngest of the trio. There better be a lot of Percy, too.
Indivisible by Daniel Aleman
Mateo comes home from school and finds his undocumented parents have been taken by ICE.