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Hey 19: YA Books With 19-Year-Old Main Characters

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

For many years, there was a call across social media for more YA books set in college. Teens like to read up in terms of age was part of the reason, but the other was that many adult YA readers wanted to slip into a story that was a little more mature than high school. New Adult, which never took off as more than contemporary romance with young main characters, didn’t fit the bill, and while there were calls for older YA main characters, a parallel call for younger YA main characters sought stories that were appropriate for older tween readers and younger teen readers wanting to see more 13, 14, and 15 year olds.

There’s been a little of both in YA in the last half-decade or so.

More YA books in recent memory have been showcasing older teens, and a number of them have introduced 19-year-olds as their main character.

It’s a fascinating age to think about in terms of what it means. Not all 19-year-olds go to college, as will be seen in the list below, but 19-year-olds operate in a wholly different world than 15-year-olds in terms of freedom and flexibility. In some ways, 19-year-olds are unencumbered by the trappings of typical teen plots, wherein adults or other authority figures have a lot more power over them. This removes a significant plot hindrance and allows new avenues of storytelling for a writer.

At the same time, 19-year-olds have a whole host of different challenges to contend with in terms of plot. Where are they living? How are they surviving financially? Is school taking up the bulk of their time or is work? How much responsibility do they really have over their own lives and how much feels like simply an extension of their high school years, whether they’re living at home or not?

YA books set in college don’t especially interest me, on the premise that college isn’t all that interesting. I loved my experience, but because of how much freedom is given, there weren’t as many exploits to be had (I mean, they were had, but nothing novel-worthy). But the premise of a YA character being 19, whether or not they’re in school, changes things. 19-year-olds are on a precipice of freedom and adulthood while also still being a “teenager.” As we continue to be a society wherein adolescence extends deeper and deeper into one’s 20s physically, mentally, socially, and culturally, the 19-year-old, despite how different they may be from a 15-year-old, feels far closer to them than they do a 25-year-old.

That shift in perspective opens up a whole conversation in and of itself, as well as a host of opportunities to offer deeper, fuller stories in YA and adult categories, whether or not they crossover in their audience appeal.

The below are a number of YA books featuring 19-year-old main characters who offer fascinating, compelling stories, as well as give meaning to what it is to be on the edge of adulthood.

Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson

Hutchinson’s memoir about growing up gay and living with depression begins when he’s 19. He hasn’t seen anyone like him in his community, and he’s struggling to understand who he is in a world where he doesn’t believe he fits. Brave Face delves into life with depression as well as what life is like being gay and not having a strong sense of self and acceptance. But make no mistake: it’s not about being depressed because you’re gay. Shaun doesn’t shy away from sharing some of the poor decisions he made or the behaviors he engaged in that don’t put him in a great light, but those are real, and they’re raw, and they’re honest and vulnerable and the kinds of things that young people will see and understand and appreciate.

Check Please! Book 1: #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu

This graphic novel, based on the wildly popular webcomic of the same name, is about Bitty starting his freshman year at college and getting involved with the hockey team that is unlike his home team. It’s a gentle and sweet comic about baking, hockey, and falling in love.

Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi

Penny could not be more excited to leave high school behind and begin her life at the University of Texas in Austin as a college student. She’s eager to get started on a career in writing and leave all of the awkwardness and loneliness of her past behind.

When she stumbles into Sam, who works at a local coffee shop and considers himself a bit of a wreck, the two of them begin a relationship that evolves less in person and more via texts, and allows them to connect with each other — and themselves — on a deep and necessary level.

Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe by Sarah Mlynowski

Nineteen-year-old Sam’s boyfriend has ditched her for the summer to trek across Europe. She’s now signed up to be a counselor at the summer camp she attended in her youth, and it’s one she swore she’d never return to.

Much as Sam loves her boyfriend, when she meets Gavin, the camp’s sailing instructor, she finds herself enjoying a summer unlike any other…and falling for someone she maybe didn’t anticipate having such feelings for.

(Many points to the absolutely clever title here. Anyone who went to summer camp and had to sing songs will be transported immediately!).

Love and Other Carnivorous Plants by Florence Gonsalves

All things should be exciting for Danny, now that she’s finished her first year at Harvard. But it’s not: she’s failing her premed classes and losing touch with her closest friend.

Then she finds herself falling for an older girl she meets in rehab for an eating disorder and much as the budding romance is exciting, it’s also reigniting some of Danny’s self-destructive behaviors.

Gonsalves’s queer YA book about finding yourself takes a sharp look at mental health and the ways the patterns one develops when struggling can really make you feel removed from your own life.

More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood

What, exactly, does it mean to be a Renaissance Man?

Nineteen-year-old Danyal is brimming with confidence and poise and cannot wait to continue his career as a chef — a career of which his father doesn’t approve. Danyal is less interested in that opinion than he is of the girl he’s mad for: Kaval. The problem? Her family doesn’t think he’s good marriage material.

When Danyal is selected for the academic competition and honor of Renaissance Man, he seeks out the help of Bisma and while neither anticipate falling for the other, sometimes love has other plans.

The Project by Courtney Summers

After her parents die in an accident that leaves her physically scarred, Lo finds herself becoming more and more used to being alone. She’s 19, a high school dropout with a GED, and has scored a low-level job at a startup online news site.

When Lo witnesses someone die and the father of that young man shows up at the news office begging for answers, she begins a deep investigation into The Unity Project, a local do-good organization she’s deeply familiar with because her sister, Bea, is part of it.

But The Unity Project is anything but a charitable organization. It’s a cult.

Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

The second book in a duology, Rebel Sisters takes place five years after the end of Biafran War and now 19-year-old Ify is living out everything she wanted in the Space Colonies. But back in Nigeria, still rebuilding after the war, Uzo is working to collect and save necessary images and details of the war from technology.

When a deadly disease breaks out in the Space Colonies, despite how far apart Ify and Uzo are, they find themselves connecting to figure out what is really going on.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Nineteen-year-old Mila knows about grief, loss, and loneliness. Rather than attend college and because she’s aged out of the foster care system, she chooses to take a job opportunity on a remote farm, where she’ll be working with young people who experienced many of the same challenges and tragedies she did.

The farm is a refuge, but not just for people like her. It’s haunted by ghosts and until she’s willing to face them by facing her own memories and experiences, Mila won’t be able to rest nor bring her best self to the job.