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Coming of age with three contemporary YA novels

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Winter is often a time for introspection as we hunker down and wait for sunnier days ahead. What better way to direct the gaze inward than through the prism of contemporary YA novels that tackle big feelings head-on?

Though it could be argued that a tragic tale of first love, a portrait of racism at the Ivy Leagues, and an exploration of sexual identity couldn't be more different, each of these stories takes place in a moment where a girl stands at a junction in her life, on the brink of deciding who she truly wants to be.

Full Flight by Ashley Schumacher

Anna is in trouble. Even though she's the first chair saxophone, she has to convince her marching band director that she can handle the difficult duet he's assigned her. Desperate to keep the part, she convinces her duet partner, Weston, to help her get it right. Anna and Weston have never spent any time together before. He's known as a bit of a weirdo, and he spent the previous year at a rival school because of his parents' divorce. But as soon as they begin working on their duet, it becomes clear that there's an undeniable attraction between them.

The more time they spend together, the deeper their bond grows. Anna has never lied to her parents before, but when they forbid her to date Weston, she is compelled to do whatever it takes to be with him.

The premise is very simple: Marching band kids fall in love for the first time. And Full Flight really does capture that flush of first love and the overpowering magnetism that can pull two teens together. It paints such a vivid portrait of the moments that pull them together — thighs pressed together on a long bus ride home from a performance, a glow in the dark star pressed into a palm, the notes of a duet falling into place. It's an unabashed, heart-on-sleeve romance.

And then, just when you think the happily-ever-after is fated, it becomes a different sort of story.

Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman by Kristen R. Lee

Savannah is heading off to Wooddale University, leaving behind the projects where she grew up for the Ivy League. She worked hard to get a full scholarship, and is excited to have fun at college and get a fancy degree that will change everything for her and her mom.

So it's crushing when the micro-aggressions begin the moment she steps foot on campus. Savannah is one of only a hundred Black students attending Wooddale, and she immediately feels alienated. Even finding a few friends who understand and joining the Black Student Union isn't enough to make her feel at home, especially once the micro-aggressions escalate to blatant racist attacks.

But Savannah isn't going to put up with it. She calls out the frat boy ringleader behind the attacks, and quickly finds out that an old institution like Wooddale will do whatever it takes to protect boys like him — no matter the cost to girls like her.

Informed by the author's own experiences, Required Reading faces the reality of what so many Black students encounter as they try to integrate into a higher education system that is actively hostile towards them. Savannah's narration is witty and bold as she stands up to injustice over and over again, and though the story doesn't shy away from the pain she experiences, she does get to have some joy along the way as she makes true friends and learns what really matters to her. Requirements aside, this is certainly recommended reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of what it means to be a Black student in a predominantly white institution.

Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

Everyone knows exactly who Ophelia Rojas is. She's a boy-crazy, rose-gardening, floral-wearing senior who tells her parents everything and just wants to have a perfect high school moment where she dances with her dream date at prom — even though the identity of said date is still a little hazy. Her close group of friends might like to tease her, but she knows they have her back.

But there's one thing she hasn't told anyone. Sometimes, when she pictures the perfect prom date, it isn't one of her boy-crushes at all. It's Talia Sanchez, the slightly mysterious girl who sits in front of her in government class.

Between the stress of being a senior, the constant drama between her friends, and the loving but slightly overbearing pressure from her parents, Ophelia doesn't have time to completely reassess who she is and figure out what her attraction to Talia means. It's much easier to shove down her feelings and be the Ophelia everyone already knows she is. Right?

Ophelia may not have a label for her sexuality, but she definitely gives all the delightful disaster bisexual vibes a reader could hope for as she endearingly bumbles through her identity crisis. High school social interactions are so engrained with labels and boxes, and a character who is afraid to step outside of that will be deeply relatable to many. The real beauty of this story is that, once Ophelia starts being honest with herself and her friends and family, she discovers that no one is fitting into the boxes she thought they belonged in, and everyone's understanding of themselves and others is much more fluid than she could have imagined.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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Caitlyn Paxon