Back-to-school time is my favorite time of the year now that I’m an adult. Summer is over, my kiddo is out of the house during the day, life returns to a routine. But sometimes I miss the time in my life when “back to school” meant shopping at the mall for a new first-day-of-school outfit, loading up on blank notebooks and pens, and seeing my friends for the first time in months.
Books that feature high-school-aged characters bring me right back to those times. There is something to be said about going back to that time when you know it’s long behind you. School is such an important part of your life when you’re a teen, and capturing those moments in a story, or having much of the story revolve around the day to day of being in high school, just hit a little different. At least they do for me. If you miss it a little or just need a reminder of what that feels like, this is the list for you.
Fresh by Margot Wood
The first year of college is a real ride, am I right? Elliot McHugh thinks her first year at Emerson College is going to be a breeze. Little does she know she’s going to be the living embodiment of the phrase “fuck around and find out.” She thinks freshman year is going to be full of sex and shenanigans (which it is) but then she forgets one important part…SCHOOL. It’s one thing to not have declared a major yet, but it’s a whole different thing to half-ass your way through classes and expect to pass. Elliot definitely learns this the hard way, as so many of us do.
This book is also one of the queerest YA/NA books I think I’ve ever read. Elliot is hella queer. She sleeps with a bevy of co-eds throughout the book, and she also has a ton a queer friends. Despite really taking advantage of the amount of new people to sleep with, she keeps having the most deliciously intense sexual tension with her RA, Rose. Rose is constantly exasperated by Elliot’s shenanigans, and Elliot hates that Rose is somehow always around and spoiling her fun. (PS: the book is a loose retelling of Emma, so Rose’s last name is Knightley after the Mr. Knightley character in the book.)
Fresh is such a fun romp of a book. Because Elliot has ADHD, there are footnotes in the book so you can follow along with her thoughts as they kind of ping ping around in her brain. Also, you’re never going to look at chicken tenders the same way ever again.
As a content warning, there’s a sexual assault midway through the book.
Home Field Advantage by Dahlia Adler
I am not a sports queer by any stretch of the imagination. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love a sports story — especially a football story. So when I heard about this book, I was intrigued, and it’s by one of my favorite YA authors.
Amber has one goal: to become captain of the cheerleading squad her senior year. And she’s well on her way to making that happen. That is, until Jack shows up. The new team quarterback, Jack, isn’t what anyone is expecting — she’s a girl. Amber is the most surprised — not because Jack’s a girl, but because she can’t stay away from her. But if Amber gets too close to Jack, she stands to lose a lot; most importantly, her chance as captain of the cheerleading squad. But sometimes you gotta do it.
This book really does perfectly encapsulate those first few months of a new school year as an upperclassman. I didn’t go to regular high school, but I really wish I had just to experience Homecoming from a distance.
Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi
There is nothing I love more than a good enemies-to-lovers story, and I think it’s because of this book. Rachel and Sana could not be more different: Rachel is a feminist filmmaker and Sana is gasp a cheerleader. And after an incident sophomore year, they’ve been sworn mortal enemies…but are they really?
With Rachel dangerously close to not completing her senior project film (which she has to finish to go to film school), the only way she’s going to get it done is if they work together. Sana is the only person who can star in it and show Rachel all the things she’s missing. Not only is Sana the picture perfect leading lady, but she’s the only one who will dare challenge Rachel’s creative vision. Maybe they’re not actually mortal enemies; maybe it’s just fear. For Rachel, it’s the fear of trusting someone, but for Sana, falling for Rachel brings out the fear of people knowing who she really is. Especially because she’s not as sure as she once was about it.
The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre by Robin Talley
I didn’t know how badly I needed this queer theatre nerd book until I read it. If you’re a theatre kid (like I was), you know all about showmances. There’s something about spending a lot of long hours with people that can make you fall in love with them. But sometimes, they can really get in the way of the production, and that has dire consequences for everyone involved.
Melody McIntyre is no stranger to a school production showmance. She’s had one for just about every play she’s been a stage manager for, often with utterly disastrous consequences for not only her but the production itself. So when her friends make her swear she will keep their spring musical strictly professional, she takes the challenge. They’re doing Les Miserables, her favorite show and the one she’s been dreaming of stage managing since she was a kid. And things are going well…until she finds herself spending a lot of time with Odile Rose, one of the show’s stars.
Now Melody’s stuck. Because the one thing she wants to do is the one thing she literally can’t. But curses are meant to be broken, aren’t they?
Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins
A royal with a bad streak, girls who kiss, and boarding school in the Scottish Highlands? Say less.
Millie ends up in a far too common situation for a teenage queer; she’s ended up in a romantic entanglement with her best friend, who then acts like it wasn’t serious between them and starts kissing someone else. Some people would just sit at a different lunch table, but not Millie. She applies to (and gets into) an exclusive prep school in Scotland. Culture shock is a thing to deal with, but she has no idea that her roommate Flora is going to be an actual freaking princess. And she’s a total brat.
After getting over Flora’s attitude and a reality check, the girls realize the other isn’t so bad. Before Millie can believe it, they’re kissing behind giant rocks in the idyllic Scottish countryside (more of this please!) and sneaking off during Flora’s royal engagements to make out (again, more of this!). But Millie doesn’t think she can do this whole kissing-in-secret thing again. Will they figure out how to navigate the world together?
We Used to Be Friends by Amy Spaulding
It’s hard to capture an entire school year in one book, which is why most authors won’t do it. But Amy Spaulding does it in the most clever way possible — a dual POV story told in dual timelines. (Think like the musical The Last Five Years but teenage girls.) James (a girl with a “boy’s” name) is telling the story of the ending of her relationship with her best friend Kat from the end of senior year to the beginning, while Kat tells the story from the beginning to the end.
James is suffering mightily because her parents — who she thinks are the definition of the perfect relationship — are getting divorced. So of course, she’s going through a total crisis of faith when it comes to love. But at the same time, Kat, who has been dating the same shitty guy for most of high school, meets someone new and falls in love. That someone just happens to be a new girl who intrigues Kat after a meet cute with a lasagna (that was the first thing I heard about the book, and I was SOLD).
While the dissolution of the friendship is the crux of the book, Kat’s budding relationship with Quinn is a huge part of her storyline, including their fight to both be crowned prom queen. Senior year is so emotionally fraught without the addition of a new love interest and the struggle of losing your best friend in the process.
The Prom by Saundra Mitchell
This book is a novelization of the Broadway musical of the same name, which is cool because it goes to places the play can’t because of time constraints. Mitchell worked with the creative team from the musical to make sure the story doesn’t stray too far from the original, and as someone who has seen the musical and read the book, I think it does a good job.
Emma wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa to the senior prom. But they live in Indiana, and the PTA who hosts the prom has decided to cancel it under the pretense of maintaining the town’s family values. Oh, and Alyssa’s mom is the head of the PTA and totally unaware of the baby gay in her house. Obviously things get complicated. Alyssa was going to use the prom to come out to her mom. After a group of clueless and desperate Broadway actors show up to champion Emma’s cause to elevate their own fame, Emma learns an important lesson: You have to take your story into your own hands.
The promposals in this make me really glad that wasn’t a thing when I was in high school. Isn’t prom stressful enough without having to throw a person a parade to ask them to go with you?
Forward March by Skye Quinlan
Most of the time in pop culture, band kids are the butt of the joke or just side characters. This book is bringing a band kid front and center. Even though Harper is called “Band Geek,” she’s more than that. For starters, she’s trying to figure out her sexuality, complicated by the fact that her dad is a Republican.
Someone decides to troll Harper by creating a dating profile for her without her knowledge — a big no-no. If her mom — the school dean — found out, it would be big trouble for several reasons, including the fact that Harper still isn’t sure that she’s into girls. But then the leader of the drumline, Margot, swipes right. And now Harper has a lot to figure out. And did I mention that her REPUBLICAN dad is running for president? Her being into girls could really slow his momentum on the campaign trail. But sometimes you just have to be who you are, even if it costs your dad the White House.
Forward March also features an asexual lesbian main character, which is something we don’t see nearly enough.
Some Girls Do by Jennifer Dugan
School is such an important part of this story for multiple reasons. First, Morgan is kicked out of her Catholic school where she’s a track star because being out and proud goes against their code of conduct. Senior year is almost over, but she has to transfer to a new school where her running career is in danger, which could mess up going to college for her.
For Ruby, college is something that feels too out of reach. She lives with her mom in a trailer and works in exchange for pageant lessons. Her mother’s pageant career ended when she got pregnant, and so even though she’d rather be working on her classic car, she spackles on the makeup and rhinestones to keep her mom happy. But then she learns that pageants can help her pay for community college and get out from her mom’s thumb.
The two girls meet by chance when Ruby almost runs Morgan over with her car. But then they just keep crossing paths and realize they don’t mind it. Morgan finds her queer community for the first time, while Ruby keeps her sexuality stuffed away like a pair of socks to fill the cups on her pageant dress. How will they overcome the hurdle (couldn’t help it) together?
Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler
I told you all how much I love this author, so let this be a testament to that. When I first heard this book described, it was sold to me as a queer version of Grease. Listen, that’s all I needed to know. This book was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021. One of the things it does best is paint a picture of the beginning of the school year. Even though you’re in school, your mind still drifts to summer. So imagine how Lara feels when her summer fling Jasmine shows up at school, throwing a wrench in the budding relationship with BMOC Chase that Lara has been dreaming about since freshman year.
The struggle of having your summer crush (the one you never saw coming and never thought you’d see again) show up on your first day of school is deliciously played here. Sun-kissed hair among the lockers, the tans fading even though the memories won’t. But also, there’s this weird reality of having that person in what you thought was your space. Trying to pay attention in English class is hard when you’re remembering the feeling of your fling’s hands on your body, and Lara’s in for a wild ride.
Bonus Middle Grade Option:
Drew Leclair Gets A Clue by Katryn Bury
This middle grade story is an explicitly queer, modern day Harriet the Spy. True crime fan Drew has to use her sleuthing skills (and her dearth of internet resources including her online sleuthing group) to figure out who has been cyberbullying her classmates. On top of that, she is deep in the throes of early adolescence. Her mom left and she’s trying to wrap her head around that. Oh, and she thinks that she may be attracted to girls, which would explain a lot about who she tends to like.
This book smacks you right back to middle school in a visceral kind of way. But it’s sweet and has a whole lot of heart. Plus, who doesn’t love a baby queer?