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Where to Start with YA Fantasy Literature

By Katherine Scott, PCC Instructor

Five books to start your YA Fantasy Lit Adventure!

Listen, when it comes to real life, things are weird right now. Dystopias have dominated the Young Adult Fantasy genre for a long time, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to read about a world that’s only a little worse than my own. With series like Divergent by Veronica Roth and Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, readers get an idea of what living in a post-apocalyptic world may be like. Readers in 2020 however, already kind of know. We don’t need constant reminders of the dangers of fascist governments and class based societal gaps.

Currently, I’ve found myself turning to Fantasy. Fantasy is not an escape from reality, but instead uses elements of this world and makes them magical and surreal, all while teaching us something about our own reality. It’s like a persuasive speech with character development and dialogue. So, below are four entry points for YA Fantasy that are NOT dystopias… and one that is.


Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Simon Snow is the Chosen One… except he doesn’t really know what that means. In his last year at the Watford School of Magicks, Simon still can’t control his overwhelming and inconsistent power. With his brilliant best friend Penny by his side, Simon tries to solve the mystery of the magical deserts that have been emerging across the continent, all while obsessing about the whereabouts and whatabouts of his dashing, rich, and possibly vampire roommate.

Sequels: Wayward Son, Any Way the Wind Blows (upcoming)

Why to read it: In the simplest terms, this book is LGBTQ+ Harry Potter. The enemies to lovers trope is well worn, but this book is whimsical and joyful in such a way that you will need to take smiling breaks while reading. It’s a satisfying read that has been known to make me high-five someone near me mid-paragraph.

Age Suggestion 14+
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Dreadnought by April Daniels

“Genetics aren’t destiny.” Dreadnought is the leading superhero in the world. Their power is passed from one body to the next, and with that power comes the ideal superhuman body. When Danny Tozer accidentally encounters Dreadnought in the midst of a battle and dies in her arms, the mantle is passed to her. The thing is, Danny is a closeted transgender 15-year-old girl, and when she receives the mantle, her body changes. So now, she has to determine if she wants to keep the mantle of Dreadnought’s power (along with the responsibility and the gender affirmation) while facing transphobia from the city she’s meant to protect and a father that seeks to “cure” her girlhood. As if that’s not enough, the cyborg Utopia who murdered the previous Dreadnought is planning an extinction level event. Can Danny stop it?

Sequels: Sovereign, and a Third book, yet untitled.

Why to Read it: There has been a trend of superhero novels in recent years, and it seems that a generation of authors that grew up on comics without seeing themselves represented want to rectify that in fiction. There are not enough LGBTQ+ characters in Marvel and DC stories, so authors have found a way to change that. Like Carry On, Dreadnought conceptually could be viewed as queer fan fiction, or it could be filling the gap that is missing in superhero literature: queer voices.

Age Suggestion 13+
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Shadow and Bone (The Grisha trilogy) by Leigh Bardugo

Alina Starkov feels comfortable in the role of sidekick. Growing up in an orphanage with her best friend Mal, she has gotten used to following him in whatever he’s doing. Their nation, Ravka is torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a permanent fissure in the middle of the country populated with monsters. When Alina enters the Fold, she reveals a dormant magical power she didn’t know that he had. Sent to train with The Grisha, a magical elite led by The Darkling, she learns how to operate at court, in romance, and in power all while trying to heal a war-torn nation.

Sequels: Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising
Six of Crows Duology and Nikolai Duology also take place in the same world.

Why to read it: Shadow and Bone weaves Russian folklore into an un-put-downable trilogy with magic, courtly drama, and yes – romance. While the Dark versus Light symbolism may seem heavy handed, there are nuanced and complex characters with their own agenda. You never know who to trust and how to trust them.

Age Suggestion 13+
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This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

In this Romeo and Juliet-esque friendship story, the children of Verity’s crime families have to – quite literally – overcome their demons. In this world, acts of evil create actual monsters. Kate’s father employs the monsters in the city, but extorts the human population for protection against them. August’s family is trying to keep the city together while he hides a secret: August is a monster himself. Kate and August form an unlikely friendship as she tries to become more monstrous, and he less.

Sequel: Our Dark Duet

Why to read it: This is a unique premise for a book which functions as a morality tale without beating you over the head with it (because that would make a monster): Teens can grow beyond the confines of their parents’ expectations and determine their values for themselves. Also, this book centers around a male/female best friend pairing that does not evolve into a romance, showing the possibility and value of these relationships for young readers.

Age Suggestion 14+
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Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Andover exists in a post-apocalyptic America where nuclear radiation is dangerous outside of cities. In this retro-futuristic look at an America with superheroes, villains, and a shadowy government, Jess Tran is bisexual, of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, and just trying to survive high school and her internship. Oh – her parents are superheroes, her older sister is a super hero, and her younger brother is a (mad) scientist. Jess has to navigate being the “average” child of super parents and her mega-crush on classmate Abby. As if that were not enough, she becomes embroiled in government intrigue, causing her to question what makes a hero or a villain.

Sequels: Not Your Villain, Not Your Back Up, Not Your Hero (upcoming)

Why to Read it: The series is amazing for so many reasons. It teaches the value of media literacy as characters question what they’re being told by the media and their government, then fight for what they believe to be right. It shows a wide variety of characters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and with diverse racial backgrounds. This series may be set in a dystopic world, but this is Not Your Regular Dystopia.

Age Suggestion 13+
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Start Reading!

Listen, I like Divergent and The Hunger Games. Those are objectively good stories! All I’m saying is, if you’re like me and need a bit of magic in your world, or if you want to boost your literacy with tales of struggle and overcoming improbably high odds, these series are great places to start. Hopefully you’ll meet a character that you identify with, or at least empathetically understand.  Our dystopic world is changing and, these YA Fantasy series can help give us the tools and strengths to change with it.

Do you like to stay up to date with the latest in YA and Adult literature? Check out Pop Culture Classroom’s Summer Book Clubs happening in July and August!

For more pop culture recommendations, read our blog post: 6 Anime to Keep Kids Learning Over Summer.

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