5 min read

Young adult novels typically cater to—you guessed it—young adults. But here at The Ampersand, our YA pile continues to grow even though we’re supposed to be struggling adulting adults by now (lol). And it’s not just us: apparently, 55% of YA readers are actually adults. 

It’s easy to understand the appeal of YA literature. It offers escapism, nostalgia, and an opportunity to recognize our own coming-of-age experiences. After all, we are constantly growing and changing, making YA novels applicable to anyone at any time. 

In this article, we highlight young adult books (graphic novels included!) by women that we wish we had read when we were younger. These are books that brought us comfort and clarity and helped us become a little bit more sure of ourselves and of our place in the world. So whether you belong to the young ones or the young once (see what we did there) we hope this list inspires you to pick up or re-read a YA book or two.


4 YA Novels by Women We Wish We Had Read When We Were Younger
Speak is an award-winning novel written by Laurie Anderson and was published in 1999. It is included on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books (2000-2009). 

Speak is Laurie Halse Anderson’s debut novel exploring the life of a fifteen year old high school student in the aftermath of sexual violence. Speak faced controversy and censorship as many adults felt that its subject matter was too difficult for YA readers to process and explore. But 20 years after its publication, Speak is still one of the most influential and impactful YA novels in my life and I think of many of its teen readers as well.

A novel like Speak unfortunately is still so important and necessary today when national leaders themselves paint rape as something to joke or laugh about. Speak‘s sensitivity and restraint also explore how the act of coping with trauma can be traumatic as well. I believe it’s a must-read novel, especially for young girls, about reckoning with the pains of a cruel world and gathering the courage to stand up for yourself and speak. 

Read this for: a sensitive exploration of trauma, the overwhelming effects of sexual violence, and the importance of art and brave honesty in the midst of utter isolation and loneliness.

This One Summer 

This One Summer is a multiple award-winning graphic novel written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. It is the first graphic novel to win the Caldecott Honor, an award given to outstanding picture books for children. 

This One Summer is a coming-of-age story about two friends named Rose and Windy as they transition from childhood to adolescence over the course of one summer in a small beach town. 

(Sidenote: The graphic novel was banned in some US states and was even frequently cited in the top ten most challenged books because of its mature content). 

The first thing you’ll notice about this lovely book is the gorgeous monochromatic blue that Jillian Tamaki uses for the illustrations. You’d think that something done in all blue would be somber, but every page of this graphic novel is teeming with life and movement. 

Jillian’s illustrations perfectly complements her cousin’s prose. Mariko Tamaki weaves together a story that captures what it’s like to be on the cusp of adolescence. Rose and Windy have been spending the summer at Awago beach with their families “since, like forever” but this one summer proves to be pivotal as the two girls find themselves dealing with fighting parents, a depressed mother, growing bodies, and boys. Throughout the summer, Rose and Windy get a glimpse into the complexities of adult life and slowly realize that the future is much more complex than what their childhood naivety could grasp. 

Read this for: memories of childhood summers when the days blend together, the experience of your first crush, the effects of depression on individuals and families, and a sensitive handling of wanted and unwanted pregnancies.

Blue is the Warmest Color 

Blue is the Warmest Color (Le bleu est une couleur chaude) is a French graphic novel by Julie Maroh. It was adapted into film and won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

(Sidenote: Many people may be familiar with Blue as a film rather than a graphic novel. In 2013, the movie gained critical acclaim as well as controversy for its graphic sex scenes and dominance of the male gaze. In 2018, the director was accused of sexual assault.)

Blue is the Warmest Color is a bittersweet story of falling in love and coming out. The graphic novel features Clementine, a high school junior who falls in love with Emma, an art student with blue hair. 

Clementine has always believed herself to be straight, that is, until Emma comes along. The attraction between the two girls is instant, and Clementine finds herself rethinking her ideas about herself and her identity. 

Blue, being a lesbian love story, also portrays the hardships and prejudices that people in same sex relationships experience. The story is set in the 90s, a time when homophobia was rampant. However, even in 2019 the story is still relevant as the LGBTQ+ community continues to struggle and fight for acceptance and equal rights. 

What Blue does so effectively is to show that love transcends gender and sexuality. However, it does so with so much awareness of the experience of being in a queer relationship. Throughout the story, we see Clementine and Emma battle with conflicting emotions and try to understand themselves and each other, while also taking in societal expectations and identity politics. 

Read this for: the difficult process of coming out, facing prejudice, and coming to terms with one’s own sexuality. 

We Are Okay 

4 YA Novels by Women We Wish We Had Read When We Were Younger
We Are Okay is a novel by Nina LaCour. It won the 2018 Michael L. Printz Award.

We Are Okay is the story of Marin, a college freshman spending her winter break alone in New York. Her best friend Mabel is coming over and her visit forces Marin to confront the past that she has been running away from. The layers of secrets, grief, and Marin and Mabel’s complicated relationship slowly unfold through the book’s shifting narrative between the past and the present. 

Full disclosure: I bought this book because I liked its cover and I wanted something “easy” to read at the airport. Little did I know that I would be taken into an intensely emotional journey through pain, loss, and loneliness. As I read, I found my own anxiety being reflected back to me in ways so subtle yet so precise. Here was Marin, a young girl much like the girl I used to be, experiencing the same fears and anxieties that I used to (and still do, actually) experience.   

Marin’s story is not plot-driven, but it is densely packed with themes of family, isolation, pain, and love. LaCour paints a picture of profound loneliness—the kind that leaves you hollow and paralyzed. But while We Are Okay is mostly a haunting story about loss and learning to live with grief, it’s also a story about the healing power of hope and learning how to be okay again. 

Read this for: an incredibly delicate depiction of depression and anxiety, the simultaneous joy and confusion of your first queer love, and the life-altering power of secrets.

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