Earlier this month, I listed some of my favourite works of YA sci-fi and fantasy featuring queer protagonists. Now, we return to the real world for yet more! These are all set in a realistic, modern day and focus on the emotional ins and outs of growing up: first loves, figuring out your identity, navigating the many weird liminal spaces you might find yourself in as you teeter between what we call childhood and what we call adulthood.
As always, please leave your own recs in the comments below—I’m always looking for more!
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Darcy’s world is turned upside down when the paranormal romance novel she busted out for NaNoWriMo and impulsively submitted gets picked up for publication. She’s swiftly thrown into the publishing world of New York, networking with authors, trying to live off instant noodles and finish her revisions and untitled sequel… and developing a serious and unexpected crush on fellow young writer Imogen.
This is sort of from an older wave of queer YA—and YA more broadly, as you can tell by the emphasis on hot-boy paranormal romance—but it maintains a special place in my heart. It’s sort of two books in one, alternating between the novel-within-a-novel that Darcy is revising, and Darcy’s day-to-day shenanigans as she tries to navigate the YA publishing scene. It’s delightfully meta, and lets the reader sticky-beak behind the proverbial curtain. While it’s not named on-page, Darcy is one of the first demisexual characters I ever came across, and seeing the slow growth of her feelings for Imogen is rewarding and sweet, as is seeing her slow growth into an author and an adult.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Felix comes to his prestigious art school one morning to find the lobby plastered with an anonymous “gallery” of photographs depicting him pre-transition. Determined to find out who did this and get revenge, Felix creates an online persona named Lucky to befriend—and whittle deep dark secrets out of—his classmates and scholarship rivals. But the catfishing scheme goes awry when Felix learns more about his targets than he bargained for, and finds himself in the middle of a strange digital love triangle.
Felix is a wonderful rollercoaster of a book and Felix is a delightful protagonist. This book does an impeccable (and valuable) job picking apart the power imbalances that can occur in supposedly inclusive communities, and examines the many intersections of class, race, gender, and queerness that might make someone’s life joyful but also difficult. The romance is also top-tier friends-to-lovers stuff, and though Felix goes through some harrowing stuff I promise this has a happy ending. (CW: depictions of transphobia) (More details here!)
I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver
Ben plucks up the courage to come out as non-binary to their conservative parents, and gets kicked out of the house as thanks. They find themself in a new town and a new school, living with their estranged older sister and trying to hold together for long enough to reinvent themself. Ben’s just trying to fly under the radar and survive until the end of high school, and they certainly aren’t keen to open up emotionally again after the disaster that was their parents… but then they meet the sweet and charismatic Nathan, who might just be enough to start mending their broken heart.
I Wish You All the Best is about recovering from trauma and finding your own family, and it strikes the golden balance between dealing with harrowing themes while having a happy ending, giving us heart-aching realism as well as a sugar-sweet tropey romance. Ben begins in a rough place, but you get to watch them come out of their shell, making new friends, slowly falling for Nathan, and rebuilding the fraught relationship with their sister. It’s charming and cathartic. (CW: abusive parents, depictions of transphobia)
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Freddy is dating the charismatic, enigmatic Laura Dean, and she couldn’t be happier… except that she could be much happier, because Laura Dean keeps finding ways to make her miserable. Yet, like magnets, Freddy and Laura keep getting back together. As Freddy becomes increasingly alienated from her friends, and not even seeking advice from columnists or back-room psychics seems to help, she’s going to have to find the power within herself to reassess her priorities and find her true happiness.
This graphic novel is a truly lovely, gut-punching, and very valuable, exploration of the sorts of toxic relationships people can find themselves in, and the red flags you can miss when you want to be loved. The soft and detailed art style brings these characters and their emotional world to life, and the whole thing is a wonderfully cathartic story about self-respect and friendship. (CW: centres on a crappy, bordering-on-emotionally-abusive relationship; age gap relationships, discussions of teenaged pregnancy) (More details here!)
Loveless by Alice Oseman
Georgia loves love: romance movies, fluffy fanfic, love songs, you name it. But she’s never been kissed, never gone on a date, never even had a crush on anyone—which her classmates agree is pretty weird. When Georgia sets off for university, she’s determined to fall in love properly and finally enter her Adulthood. Things don’t quite go according to plan, though, and between unexpected new friendships, ill-advised smooches, and Shakespeare Society Shenanigans, Georgia finally realises that she has plenty of love in her life, if not the romantic kind.
This is a gorgeous aro-ace coming-of-age story that explores the twisty world of romantic expectations, and ends up as a glorious ode to friendship and platonic love. Whether you’ll directly relate to Georgia’s identity struggles or not, this is a valuable novel for how it unpacks the culture of sex and romance and the preconceived notions that hover over young people as they head into “mature” relationships. Why should dating and sex be so entangled with our idea of “becoming an adult”? Sometimes the strongest bonds in your life are the friendships you run the risk of ignoring as you set out on a quest for “real” love. It’s sweet, very neatly plotted, and full of great observations.
The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth
After discovering that early-onset dementia runs in her family, Saorise has sworn off all romantic notions (and most notions of friendship and general human connection, TBH). But then Ruby arrives in town for the summer, and suggests a relationship with no strings attached and only the fun parts: everything you’d see in the cheesy falling in love montage in the middle of the rom-com. It seems like a foolproof plan, until, of course, those pesky emotions start getting in the way.
I came for the sapphic take on classic romance clichés, and stayed for the sincere exploration of existential ennui. Saorise is beautifully portrayed as a young person who feels she literally has no future and no agency over her life. Her cynicism makes for some funny, scathing observations, but it also feels justified and authentic. Her relationship with Ruby, and the way they both grow over the story, is a delight, and the overall message is a moving one about how life and love matters even if it might end one day. (CW: terminal illness) (More details here!)
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Amidst the whirl and colour of a traditional Bengali wedding, Nishat finally plucks up the courage to come out as a lesbian to her parents. It doesn’t go amazingly well, but at least she can take comfort in running into Flavia, an old friend who has moved back home and who has grown up to be very pretty. But then Nishat and Flavia find themselves poised as rivals in a business competition at school—can love bloom under such pressure?
A very sweet, and at times gloriously angry (and those two things can, and arguably should, co-exist) story about growing up feeling stuck-in-between. Nishat’s status as the daughter of immigrants alienates her from many of her prissy White classmates, yet she also feels unmoored from her family’s culture in many ways. She’s wonderfully stubborn and makes for a fun protagonist, and her romantic subplot with old friend Flavia hinges on a playful, rather than a vicious, rivalry. As with many of the books on this list, it’s a rough road at times but this girl gets her happy ending. (CW for depictions of homophobia, racism, characters being outed)
We Used to Be Friends by Amy Spalding
James and Kat have been BFFs for years, but their communication is fracturing in their final year of high school. The list of secrets they’re not telling each other is stacking dangerously high, and with college looming, it might soon be too late to clear the air.
Told in alternating timelines—Kat’s chapters going forward chronologically, James’ going backwards—this novel pieces together a bittersweet picture of a platonic breakup, which hurts just as much (if not moreso!) than any romantic one. Each girl could easily be the villain in each other’s story, but the shifting perspectives and the funky non-chronological structure lets the reader piece the whole story together and see the relatable, sympathetic flaws in both of them.
Under Shifting Stars by Alexandra Latos
Audrey and Clare are twins, though born enough hours apart to have different birthdays and different star signs. The distance between them has only gotten wider after the death of their older brother, and the sisters are left afloat as they try to deal with their own coming-of-age stories: Clare stumbling through an unexpected journey of gender identity, Audrey determined to prove that her neurodivergence doesn’t make her “weird”.
This is a lovely, quiet, kind story about growing up and figuring yourself out. The twins have satisfyingly different narrative voices, and their alternating storylines delve into their experiences in interesting ways. While there is some romance in both plotlines, this is first and foremost a novel about siblinghood and grief, and it pulls it off with charm.