Setting is something I care deeply about when it comes to reading. I love being transported somewhere, whether it’s a place I know intimately or a place which is wholly new to me. I’m someone who prefers a good road trip to flying from place to place for this very reason: I want to soak up every bit of the places and spaces I’m in, visiting the weird, the wonderful, and the downright iconic things that make a place what it is.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a round-up of YA books across the United States, so I wanted to pull one together for readers who, like me, love settings. Every state in the U.S. has a different feel to it, and there’s nothing like getting that flavor when reading.
Let’s take a trip together across the 50 states of YA. I’ve included a wide range of realistic, historical, mystery, and even fantasy books on this reading road trip, with some that offer a deep dive into the things that make their state special and others that offer thoughtful critiques and insights into what it means to live in a specific area of the country.
As always, it’s worth considering the fact that so much of what makes the spaces those of us in America occupy doesn’t belong to us. Rather, state boundaries, names, and histories were created upon lands occupied by Native People. Because of the dearth of Native American literature for young adults—something that is, indeed, getting better—there aren’t as many stories from those voices and places as I’d prefer to include.
States are in alphabetical order, included in parentheses after each book’s title.
The 50 States of YA
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp (Alabama)
Four voices tell this story of a school shooting over the course of a mere fifty-four minutes. A gut punch of a timely novel about guns, about anger, and about survival. Set in the fictional town of Opportunity, Alabama, the book’s setting offers a wide spectrum of students in terms of race, gender, and sexual identity.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock (Alaska)
Set in 1970s Alaska, Hitchcock’s debut novel explores what it’s like to grow up in a remote state through the voices of four different teenagers. Hitchcock was born and raised in Alaska herself.
Girl In Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow (Arizona)
Charlotte’s life has been anything but good. She struggles with her mental health in the midst of a wealth of personal and familial tragedies in this book that takes on addiction and more. Though not set entirely in Arizona, the state does play a role in the book.
After The Fall by Kate Hart (Arkansas)
Set in the Ozarks, where outdoors life is a crucial part of the story, Hart’s underrated YA debut explores what happens when a girl lives through something traumatic and refuses to be “saved” by a boy. Stereotypes, double standards, and the financial crisis all play a huge role in this book that’s one part Laurie Halse Anderson, one part Sara Zarr. Hart’s an Arkansas native, as well as Native American, Chickasaw Nation.
Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert (California)
Colbert’s award-winning novel oozes everything that is Los Angeles. The story follows Suzette, who is home in L.A. after a year of boarding school in the Northeast. L.A. is where her friends and family are, but the reason she left was because of the brother she adores, Lionel. Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and Suzette’s parents worried that she’d be too impacted by his disease to thrive at home for school—but this summer might be the one that convinces both her and her parents otherwise. A moving story about family, about mental health, and about sexuality.
Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth (Colorado)
Margaritte is a young Native American girl living in a small Colorado town that’s devastated by poverty, joblessness, and drug abuse—which she’s contributing to as a drug dealer herself. She hates this life and wants more, but a surprise pregnancy and an unreliable boyfriend might not be the ticket out of town. Wurth is Native American, Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee.
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro (Connecticut)
If you’re craving a good mystery series, how about one that riffs on Sherlock Holmes? Set in a prep school in Connecticut, the moment that Jamie Watson meets the legendary great-great-great-granddaughter of Sherlock, Charlotte, they are a clash of tense energy. But a murder at the school lands both of them in the spotlight and they realize it’s time to work together.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez (Delaware)
By technicalities only, this novel isn’t YA. But it has such incredible crossover appeal, with a cast of incredible teen character, it deserves placement on this list. Set in an apartment complex off a busy highway in Delaware, this book follows a family who has left Mexico for a new life in the U.S. It’s a story of a budding romance, as well as a story of what it’s like to start over as an immigrant in America.
The Devil You Know by Trish Doller (Florida)
18-year-old Cadie wants adventure, since she’s tired of her otherwise boring life in her Florida town with dad and younger brother. When she meets two cute boys at a party who offer to take her on a fun trip through the state, she jumps at the opportunity. Only she has no idea that this trip might end up putting her life in great danger.
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown (Georgia)
Joanna has never been afraid to be out. But when her father, a popular radio evangelist, remarries and moves her family from Atlanta to a small town in Georgia, he asks her to keep her sexuality under wraps. She agrees—reluctantly. But then, of course, things get complicated when she starts falling for a girl in her new town.
Rani Patel In Full Effect by Sonia Patel (Hawaii)
Rani looks, from the outside, like the kind of girl so many would love to be: a hip hop performer from an Indian immigrant family just kicking ass. But there’s far more beneath the surface. Her parents’ traditional marriage is challenged, she lives on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, and there’s an older, shady man offering her her dreams.
Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai (Idaho)
While not a love story about Idaho, this book about a Japanese Internment camp in Idaho is a much-needed, harrowing story of a horrifying part of American history during World War II.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez (Illinois)
Set in Chicago, this debut novel follows Julia, who isn’t the perfect Mexican daughter for her immigrant parents. That was the role her older sister Olga played. But when Olga is killed in a tragic accident, Julia must wrestle not only with the loss of her sister, but with what it is she wants in her life and what it is her parents expect of her.
All That I Can Fix by Crystal Chan (Indiana)
Romney and his family are known in their small Indiana town. They’re mixed race and Romney’s father tried to kill himself. That would be enough, of course, but the story adds even more to it: there’s a zoo that’s on the loose. That’s literal. Oh, and with that comes those who want to shoot the dangerous animals and those who are advocating animal rights and gun control. Makersville is making quite a name for itself in this story that throws together many compelling and strange pieces in a heartwarming, worthwhile way.
The Chaos of Now by Erin Jade Lange (Iowa)
One part story about bullying. One part story of a teen hacker and a vigilante justice website for those who’ve been bullied. Add a little bit of family drama and a small Iowa town, and you’re in for a great read.
Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Kansas)
Louise dumps her boyfriend after his disparaging remarks about Native people—she herself is Native and fiercely proud of her heritage. Louise takes on a role writing for the school paper, and she’s quickly drawn into a story about the school’s approach to inclusivity in their upcoming staging of The Wizard of Oz. Many in their Kansas community are upset about the diverse focus, but others, like Louise’s own actor brother, cannot welcome it any more. Leitich Smith is Native American, Muscogee Nation.
Run by Kody Keplinger (Kentucky)
Bo and Agnus shouldn’t be best friends, but they are. And one night, police sirens wailing behind her, Bo shows up to Agnus’s place and the two of them take the the road, unraveling stories, secrets, and more.
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (Louisiana)
Belles are revered in Orléans, where they’re in control of Beauty, which is a commodity prized above anything else. Camellia is a Belle, and while she has the coveted role that allows her to help other people become beautiful, Camellia wants more—she wants to live in in the royal palace and be named Queen of Orléans. Although not a realistic New Orleans, the setting is too good not to include this book for Louisiana.
The Lies They Tell by Gillian French (Maine)
Tenney’s Harbor, Maine, is a town small enough everyone knows everything. In this instance, everyone knows about the tragedy of the fire that destroyed the Garrison home. But no one knows how it started. A thriller for readers who love books like We Were Liars.
Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood (Maryland)
It’s a curse that the Milbourn women have lived fascinating but then died young and tragically. It’s the summer before her senior year and Ivy is ready to enjoy it—but then her mother comes back to town unexpectedly with children, and everything Ivy thought she knew about her family falls apart.
Here To Stay by Sara Farizan (Massachusetts)
Bijan makes a game-winning shot at his high school basketball game, and while he’s heralded as a hero by many, being on the spot has also put a target on him. Bijan becomes the target of harassment when a photo emerges of him photoshopped as a terrorist. This story—about basketball, racism, Islamophobia, and a teen boy who loves comics—is one that you won’t forget any time soon.
The Lake Effect by Erin McCahan (Michigan)
Briggs is spending the summer on the shore of Lake Michigan, helping an elderly woman with her daily tasks. It’s tourist season in a tourist town, but for Briggs, it’s a summer of visiting funeral after funeral (his charge enjoys attending them), making friends, and, perhaps, falling for the elusive, weird girl next door.
Hooper by Geoff Herbach (Minnesota)
Herbach knows how to write a sports book, and this one is no exception. Adam’s a basketball player and it’s what helped him get from a foreign orphanage to a loving, adoptive family in Minnesota. But when he’s selected for a big team, an incident that involves the police might pull him from his dreams of hoop stardom.
Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy (Mississippi)
This story of sexual identity and questioning one’s beliefs about themselves follows a young Ramona, a tall girl with a shock of blue hair. Set in a small town in Mississippi in a trailer park, it’s a story of a family trying to keep it together amid numerous hardships, jobs, and surprises that pop up along the way.
The May Queen Murders by Sarah Jude (Missouri)
Ivy’s family has always lived in the remote Missouri Ozark town of Rowan’s Glen. Other kids think the people who come from Rowan’s Glen are weird, but Ivy and her cousin Heather hold close to one another. But a tragedy after a May Day celebration unravels a host of secrets and a history of both the family and of Rowan’s Glen itself.
The Window by Amelia Brunskill (Montana)
Anna and Jess are as opposite as twins could be. They also shared everything with each other—or so they thought. When Anna dies while sneaking out, suddenly a whole host of secrets unravel. This one’s for mystery and thriller readers.
Girl Out Of Water by Laura Silverman (Nebraska)
Anise has been looking forward to her summer at home in California, but when her aunt loses both of her legs in a tragic accident, her summer plans no longer mean relaxing with friends at home. She and her dad are moving to Nebraska for the summer to help her aunt. Helping take care of her younger cousins is hard…but so is whatever the relationship that’s developing between her and Lincoln, a one-armed skater.
Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee (Nevada)
Hijinks ensue when a girl who has no superpowers—despite a family that has them and a community that prizes them—takes an internship with the town’s supervillain. Oh, then there’s her crush, Abby.
Game Change by Joseph Monninger (New Hampshire)
Zeb might be the quarterback of his small New Hampshire high school’s football team, but thanks to T.T., who is a beast on the field, he never gets to play. But when T.T. is injured, Zeb steps up and the whole town suddenly finds a new hero. Is a football future what Zeb really wants, though?
My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma (New Jersey)
A cute, sometimes over-the-top (in a good way!) read about a girl following the prophecy given to her by the family psychic. She believes a boy whose name begins with an R and who gives her a silver bracelet is meant to be her love. And with Raj, it felt right…until she found out he was seeing another girl. Now she’s found another boy to enjoy her time with named Dev. But, is he the one she’s really meant to be with?
Like Water by Rebecca Podos (New Mexico)
Savannah Espinoza’s small town in New Mexico is known for what doesn’t stay. As soon as people graduate high school, they get out of town and onto bigger things. But Vanni stays behind to help out around home, and it’s by staying home, she learns more about herself than she could ever imagine.
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina (New York)
It’s one of the hottest summers in New York City history, not just from the weather, but also because of the fear everyone has about the serial killer Son of Sam. This story follows Nora as she navigates a summer that’ll change her life forever. A feminist story about growing up, about family challenges, and about a world you can’t always control.
We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss (North Carolina)
Told through letters and a third-person perspective, this story follows two boys who are best friends—one who is sitting on death row and one who isn’t. Both come from rough family situations, but their devotion to one another and to saving the life of the one behind bars keeps them going. Moving, heartbreaking, and also hopeful.
Apple In The Middle by Dawn Quigley (North Dakota)
Apple Starkington doesn’t embrace her Native heritage, thanks in part to being called a derogatory term. But when wealthy white father decides to send her away to her mother’s Native family for the summer, she begins to learn not only the history of her heritage, the history of her name, and the history of her mother, who died when she was born. Quigley is Native American, Turtle Mountain enrolled Ojibwe.
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis (Ohio)
This book about rape culture takes us deep into the story of an angry girl out for revenge. Alex’s sister was murdered and the murderer walked free; this left Alex angry and ready to kill herself. Told through three perspectives, we see what it is that makes Alex so angry and tormented, as well as two of her peers who are in her path—for better or for worse. McGinnis’s Heroine would also make an excellent book for Ohio, as it explores the epidemic tearing apart rustbelt towns across the country.
The Last Harvest by Kim Liggett (Oklahoma)
This is a book about murder, about honoring the dead and about Devil worshipping. It’s the kind of award-winning horror that could only be set in a small Oklahoma farming town. Be prepared for blood…and blood rituals.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (Oregon)
Jade knows that in order to succeed and to fulfill her dream of becoming a well-known artist, she needs to get out of her rough community in Portland. When she accepts a scholarship to a mostly-white private school, she thinks this is her ticket. But then she experiences over and over that her race continues to be used against her, when opportunity after opportunity is taken from her, despite her perfect qualifications.
The Girl And The Grove by Eric Smith (Pennsylvania)
Leila’s been bouncing around the foster care system for far too long. But now she’s been adopted and she’s excited to get involved in the local environmental activist club. Leila can’t stop hearing voices, though, and it’s those voices which lead her to a magical grove in a local park.
Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl (Rhode Island)
This weird little book will appeal to readers seeking a mystery full of shady, strange characters. Back in high school, Beatrice and her six best friends were the cream of the crop. But then one of the group died under strange circumstances. Flash forward to a year later, and now Beatrice hopes to get to the bottom of what caused Jim’s death. Oh, the place that she’s hoping to get the answers from? A seaside estate.
The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne (South Carolina)
What happens when your good intentions and desire to be a good ally end up turning the spotlight on you, rather than on the cause you’re trying to champion? That’s the heart of Thorne’s story, which follows a girl who wants to be the best she can in advocating for LGBTQ rights because of her friend’s coming out. When the story grows beyond her control, though, her best friend and her real struggles are left in the dust.
Rose Eagle by Joseph Bruchac (South Dakota)
This e-novella is a prequel to Killer of Enemies, set in South Dakota’s Black Hills. It follows a young Rose as she navigates her Lakota history in a post-apocalyptic world. Rose’s aunt dreams that she’ll become a medicine healer, but Rose feels that prophecy is too much for her. Bruchac is Native American, Abenaki.
A Sky For Us Alone by Kristin Russell (Tennessee)
Set in a fictional Appalachian town, Russell’s debut novel takes on issues of poverty, of rural unemployment, and opioid epidemic, and the ways that small towns can thrive—or falter—with family legacy. Harlow struggles with the death of her brother, but in the midst of her grief, she finds herself falling in love with a boy named Tennessee. It’s not 100% clear whether this book is set specifically in Tennessee, but given both the love interest’s name and the setting of rural Appalachia, it felt like a good fit.
Shame The Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Texas)
A reimagined Romeo and Juliet set on the Texas-Mexico border in 1915. Go in for both the history and huge moment in time, as well as for the love story.
Wild Bird by Wendeline Van Draanen (Utah)
Wren is angry, and the solution her parents concoct is to send her to a wilderness therapy camp, located deep in the heart of Utah. She blames everyone but herself for her predicament, but it’s only by learning to ask for help—to literally survive in the wild—that Wren begins to better understand herself and the source of her anger and bitterness.
True Letters From A Fictional Life by Kenneth Logan (Vermont)
Everyone thinks that James and Teresa are the perfect couple in their small Vermont town. But the letters James writes secretly, in private, and keeps stashed away in his desk drawers tell an entirely different story. He feels trapped and can’t figure out a way to live his true life, rather than the one he feels others see as perfect.
Grendel’s Guide to Love and War by A.E. Kaplan (Virginia)
Tom Grendel lives a quiet life and mows lawns for his older neighbors while pining for neighbor girl Willow. The problem? Willow’s brother Rex loves throwing loud parties and causing chaos, which not only is proof of how awful a human he is (in Tom’s mind) but also causes challenges for the folks in the neighborhood dealing with PTSD and other mental health challenges. So Tom? His plan is to take Rex down and win the heart of Willow. But, of course, it won’t be as easy as it sounds.
Lovely Dark and Deep by Justina Chen (Washington)
Viola returns home from a trip abroad with something unexpected: a sensitivity to light. And not just a sensitivity. She’s allergic to sunlight, and her parents decide to protect her as much as they can, keeping her covered in layers, away from windows, and other opportunities to be in contact with the sun. Viola wants a normal life, though. Especially when she begins falling for Josh.
Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon (West Virginia)
This is a story about taking down a motorcycle gang and two girls who should, by all accounts, be enemies, but become fast, furious friends. What more needs to be said? Motorcycle gang. Girl power.
See No Color by Shannon Gibney (Wisconsin)
Alex Kittridge is a killer baseball player, and she’s also a transracial adoptee. This is a story about baseball, about family, about “not seeing color,” about blackness, and it even has a little romance—one that’s realistic and not the driving force behind the novel.
You Are The Everything by Karen Rivers (Wyoming)
Wyoming comes in the end, perhaps, of this story that is better to know nothing about going into than to have a fully fleshed explanation of. The story follows Elyse as she finally catches the crush she’s been after for a long time. She and Josh are the sole survivors of a plane crash, and it’s that crash which brings them closer and closer and into the life she’s always dreamed about. It’s destiny. Or is it?
Love YA books with a strong setting? Check out these YA books set in Chicago, YA books set in Los Angeles, and recent YA books set in New York City.
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