When I was a teenager, it seemed like most YA books focused on the lives of younger teens — your high school freshmen and sophomores, the sweet sixteens, and lots of big teenage firsts. I ate it all up, naturally, because I started reading YA books at age 12 and I wanted to get a sense of what to expect in my teen years. I only recall a few YA books that focused on 17- and 18-year-olds, and what the end of high school looked like — 18 seemed impossibly old and mature, so much so that reading a YA book about a teen girl dating a high school senior definitely felt mildly scandalous!
As YA has grown and evolved, especially in the last 15 years, we’ve seen the aging of protagonists and so many are 17, 18, or even 19! Sixteen now seems young. Fifteen feels childlike. And 14? Almost unheard of. And while I do love that the age range of YA books has expanded to include seniors in high school and those tumultuous and uncertain immediate post high school years (Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi being a great example of this!), I do feel like it’s been at the expense of these younger YA protagonists, who don’t seem to get their time in the spotlight anymore.
I think including younger teens in YA is so important for many reasons: First of all, those years are important and just as story-worthy as senior year drama. Second, younger teens deserve to see their own experiences and challenges reflected in YA, especially if they’re different from what older teens might be facing. Third, kids and teens do tend to “read up,” i.e. read above their own ages and experience levels, and I think it’s important that middle school readers have a bridge from middle school and middle grade books to books starring older YA readers.
Nonetheless, in the last 10 or so years there has been a dearth of 14-year-old protagonists in YA fiction — and it’s such a lack that it took me some time to research this list and find enough books to fill a post. But there is good news! Amazing newer and established authors are writing younger YA protagonists and many of the books on this list are 2022 new releases. It gives me hope that there will be more younger YA books hitting shelves in the future, and in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this excellent and diverse selection of YA books starring 14-year-old protagonists!
Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi
On her first day of high school, Parvin is devastated to find that she’s been dumped by her very first boyfriend of just a week who claims that she’s too much. Wanting to save face, she vows to find the perfect date by Homecoming to show that she’s not too loud or too much. Her plan? Act more like the heroines of romcoms. Her friends and family aren’t convinced this is the way to go, but Parvin is committed to her plan…but then world events have a big impact on her family and Parvin has to re-evaluate what truly matters.
Azar on Fire by Olivia Abtahi (August 23)
Azar Rossi has been intentionally quiet her freshman year of high school because nodules on her vocal folds have given her a really, really deep voice. But when Azar, who lives for music and is a songwriter, learns of a local Battle of the Bands, she wants in. But first, she has to assemble the perfect band, led by a lead singer, to perform her original music. Only, putting a band together isn’t as easy as she thinks, and she’ll have to use her voice if she’s to realize her dreams.
I Rise by Marie Arnold (August 2)
Fourteen-year-old Ayo is used to her mom being in the spotlight after she founded one of the biggest social justice movements in New York City, protesting police brutality. Ayo knows her mom’s work is important, but she also just wants to experience life as a normal teen without having to be an activist. But when her mother is shot after a riot breaks out and is in a coma, Ayo finds that the activism community wants her to step up…and Ayo has to decide what she’s comfortable doing publicly, even as she’s grieving privately.
Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
Fourteen-year-old Sophronia doesn’t want to go to finishing school — she’d rather dissect mechanical instruments and climb things than learn how to curtsy and pour tea. But her mother sends her off nonetheless…and Sophronia is surprised to find that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is no ordinary finishing school. Sure, they teach their young ladies manners…but they also teach them about poisons, passing intelligence, and the best way to defend oneself with a hat pin. And it’s not long before Sophronia is caught up in a conspiracy bigger than herself. This first book in the series starts when Sophronia is 14, but the three sequels take readers through her finishing school years as she grows older.
Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys, Andrew Weiner, and Brittney Williams
Lolo thinks she’s just a normal teen girl who is dealing with normal family drama and anxieties about her dad’s business failing, but when a cop mistakes her brother for someone else and pulls a gun on him, Lolo discovers that she has supernatural abilities. Now, a dangerous dealer in her neighborhood wants Lolo in his crew, knowing her powers could be an asset to him…but Lolo isn’t about to be used by anyone, and she must find the strength to stand up for what’s right.
Flamer by Mike Curato
Aiden Navarro is spending the summer between middle school and high school at camp, where he’s overwhelmed by feelings and questions about his identity. As he navigates bullies, friendships, and his growing attraction to another boy named Elias, Aiden will have to figure out a way to accept who he is while finding the confidence to live his truth.
Brightly Woven: The Graphic Novel by Alexandra Bracken
Before she became known for The Darkest Minds, Alexandra Bracken’s debut novel was a standalone fantasy called Brightly Woven, now sadly out of print. It starred a 16-year-old protagonist named Sydelle who is a talented weaver and goes on a mission to help a magician save the kingdom. A graphic novel adaptation was released a few years ago, and Sydelle was recast as a 14-year-old girl. While I can’t say for certain why the character was aged down, I’m sure it had something to do with the massive popularity of middle grade graphic novels, and the publisher was likely hoping that the adaptation would be a nice bridge from MG to YA.
Winger by Andrew Smith
This is the oldest book on this list, and it is about a super smart 14-year-old boy named Ryan Dean West who skips two grades and is a junior at an exclusive prep school. But just because he’s book smart doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows how to navigate the complicated social dynamics of his junior class. But dealing with bullies, unrequited love, and rugby rivalries pales in comparison to the complications and heartbreak that arise when tragedy strikes.
Sometime in Summer by Katrina Leno
Anna believes in luck, because bad luck seems to follow her wherever she goes. As summer approaches, she’s not only facing the loss of her family’s bookstore and her parents’ divorce, but her best friends have stopped talking to her. And now she’s about to spend two months in New England for the summer. But once she arrives in Rhode Island, she finds that luck has a way of turning around and new and old friends aren’t always what she expects.
Undercover Latina by Aya de León (October 11)
This book is being billed as middle grade, but since it stars a 14-year-old character, I say it counts as YA. Andréa Hernández-Baldoquín’s family works for The Factory, an espionage agency whose international work is dedicated to protecting communities of color. At 14, she finally gets her first mission, but it’s not what she expects: She has to go undercover as a white girl and befriend the son of a white supremacist. But undercover life is hard when you have to deny your culture and the very core of your being…and even harder when Andréa develops a crush on her mark’s Latino best friend.
Want more great recommendations? Check out our round up of YA books that are perfect for middle grade readers looking to read up!