College Stories in YA

As I’m just about to go into my second year of university, I’ve never been more desperate to read more YA set in college than I am at this very moment. There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding the need for more YA books to be set after high school — and yes, I know NA is a thing, but for someone with the majority of the books I’ve been reading since I was 12 being YA, suddenly jumping into a new readership seems daunting. And plus, I still connect to so many YA stories. I’m only 19, that weird age when you’re not quite a teenager anymore but not quite an adult either, and I still see so much of my life in the protagonists from the YA books I read. And I know I’ll be reading YA for quite some time to come, even once I leave uni.

One of the main reasons I haven’t ventured out into NA and tried to read more of those books has definitely been influenced by the stereotype that NA is more about relationships and romance, and yes, sex. I’m asexual… so you might be able to understand why I wouldn’t be able to see that aspect of myself in the protagonists. I want first romances, cute handholding, and swooning. I’d definitely be happy to give some NA a go that doesn’t involve much or any romance. But another one of the reasons why I haven’t really given NA a try is because it doesn’t have the same platform as YA. YA is everywhere I look — on Twitter, Instagram, the blogs and BookTube channels I follow — and joining a whole new community seems daunting to me.

So something that I’ve been thinking about more and more of late, and something that it appears other bloggers have been thinking about too, is the need for more YA to be set in the first year or two of college or university. I mean, I started university when I was 18. Some of the protagonists in high school YA I’ve read are 18. I don’t see why there should be such a hard distinction between YA and NA sometimes, with publishers often not being willing to pick up a YA manuscript that’s set in college because they might not feel as though it fits with the target audience or that there’s any demand for it. But let me tell you this — there definitely is demand for more YA to be set in college.

If we’re being honest, not a lot has changed in my life from being in high school to transitioning into university. I still live at home. I was still in a relationship with the same person going from high school to university. I was still coming to understand my sexuality and how I identified, while navigating my life that consists of part time work and going to uni a few days a week. Yes, I have more freedom than I did in high school, but beyond that, not a lot has changed.

One of the things that often defines YA is the protagonist’s story of ‘finding themselves’, and I never would have guessed this, but I’d definitely say the most influential year in ‘finding myself’ came last year — during my first year of university. Last year was the first time I felt like I could actually do more of the stuff I loved, like writing and blogging, I was able to become friends with people that I could relate to a lot more than I did in high school, and I was finally able to become honest with myself about being biromatic asexual. For the first time in my life, I felt like I finally found the people I belonged with — and that was amazing. So that’s part of the reason why we can’t understate the need for YA set in college. It’s a time in a young person’s life that can be just as influential, if not more, in the formation of who someone in their late teens is as a person.

Thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough to read three YA novels set in college recently! They were all very different, but I hope it’s indicative of more of the YA books I’ll read in the near future. So here are my thoughts on all three of them!


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Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Pros:

  • The college setting, of course!
  • It was about a reality TV show, which was super interesting.
  • YAY FOR MENTAL ILLNESS REPRESENTATION! The protagonist has depression, and there’s discussions about psychology, therapy, and suicide.
  • The writing style was really unique! It was written kind of like a journal, which was pretty cool.

Cons:

  • I found that I couldn’t connect with Jane as much as I would have liked, just because she’s very sarcastic and self-deprecating a lot of the time.
  • THIS WAS A LONG BOOK. It was over 400 pages, and while I read it pretty fast because of the format, I found that the middle dragged a bit.
  • I didn’t feel hooked because the outcome of the reality TV show didn’t feel like enough to make me know what was going to happen. So that element was pretty meh for me.

Rating:

3-stars


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Let’s Talk About Love

Pros:

  • THE PROTAGONIST IS BIROMANTIC ASEXUAL. And that’s me! That’s how I identify! It was incredible to see my sexuality portrayed in a novel — FINALLY!
  • A lot of this book took place in a library, and Alice meets her crush at the library, and AHH IT WAS JUST GORGEOUS. I was crying happy tears pretty much the entire time.
  • Alice goes to therapy to talk about her fears and to understand herself and how she identifies better. It’s not often that we get to see good representation for therapy in YA, and I absolutely adored this element.
  • There’s discussions about the asexual spectrum and recognition about the fact that sexuality is fluid!
  • THAT COVER. MY HEART.

Cons:

  • My only slight complaint is that this sometimes felt like a book for people to understand what it means to be biromantic asexual than just about a girl who identifies that way, while not having the whole plot revolve around this. Alice spends so much time explaining herself and discussing what it means to identify as asexual and there wasn’t a lot going on besides that — this was a book about sexuality. And while I loved this book, sometimes Alice being biromantic asexual felt like her only defining characteristic.

Rating:

5-stars


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We Are Okay

Pros:

  • THE WRITING WAS JUST SO BEAUTIFUL. Nina LaCour is a national treasure and I will worship her and her writing as long as we both shall live.
  • This novel portrays grief and loss so poignantly, and I just lost myself in the narrative.
  • It’s set at college in the winter when everyone else is on break and Marin is staying back, and it was incredible atmospheric and I loved all the snow imagery. Another spectacular aspect of this book.
  • QUEER. Full stop.

Cons:

  • IT WAS TOO SHORT AND I WANTED MORE. Also, this book reduced me to a sobbing mess by the end, but that’s not really a complaint. If anything, it’s a compliment.

Rating:

5-stars

Let's Talk

Have you read many YA novels set in college? Do you have any recommendations for NA with heavy friendship elements? Have you read any of the three novels I mentioned above, or do you have any recommendations? I’d love to know!

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37 thoughts on “College Stories in YA

  1. Was just thinking I hardly know any set in uni/college… my favourite YA are ones set at boarding school (I have a fleet of those if you need recommendations 😉) which is similar, but not quite. Only one that is kind of college would be ‘Along for the Ride’ by Sarah Dessen which is the pre college summer where she’s deciding where to go etc and finishes with her at college, such a cliché ‘American summer’ book but I adore it

      • Ok my fave ever is ‘Anna and The French Kiss’ (and it’s 2 follow ups) by Stephanie Perkins, a book called ‘Dead Beautiful’ by Yvonne Woon is AMAZING and creepy and romantic, so good! Those are my favourites off the top of my head, I’d have to go check my bookcase for more!

  2. Rainbow Rowell is one of my favourite authors because she just covers all bases: ‘Fangirl’ is a YA book set in the first year of uni (it’s my favourite book of all time!) and I recently read her adult novel ‘Attachments’, which I actually found just as relatable and enjoyable. Personally I’ve enjoyed venturing into NA since coming to uni; I’ve changed drastically with my confidence and independence growing every single day, so reading about people in there 20s just keeps me excited for the future! I think across both the genres there should be more books about uni, ‘Fangirl’ is the only one I’ve read so far.

  3. Given that we had EXACTLY the same thoughts about We Are Okay and Nice Try, Jane Sinner, it appears I REALLY have to read Let’s Talk About Love. I’m going into my third year of uni (yiiiikes) and even though a lot has changed for me in terms of moving out of home, dating a girl etc etc I still feel like a child. Wonderful post ❤

  4. Love this post! I completely agree that there should be more stories written about college-age characters… it’s such an interesting time in one’s life and something that a lot of readers could relate to. I’m definitely going to check out the three books you mentioned! 🙂

  5. This is honestly such an important issue for me too! I love YA, and I am scared to jump into adult books because they are often more gruesome and intense than YA, and I am not really looking for that, plus for me a 20 year old, it is just as hard to relate to a 30 year old protagonists as to a 16 year old. I find in fantasy YA their ages aren’t mentioned very often so I can ignore how old the characters are, but it would be nice to see more 19, 20 year old protagonists.

  6. Yes those exact reasons are why I don’t read NA
    there aren’t many YA indeed set in college ! That’s why I requested “Freshmen ” can’t way to get to it
    it’s still available on NetGalley in case you want to request it 😊

  7. Great post! I’d love to see more college in YA. It’s not uncommon to have 16/17 year olds in college so I think it is a completely appropriate setting! It’s just funny to me that we don’t blink an eye at a 17-year old killing people in fantasy books but some people think college is too ‘adult’ for contemporary. I just started Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and the main character is in college 🙂

  8. I’m with @inkdries. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell was wonderful. Her Potteresque spinoff Carry On is great too but not in a college setting. I didn’t want to leave these characters, they have a life force of their own!

  9. I would love to read more books set in college! I mean, it is known as the time period of one’s life where they ~find themselves~. Fangirl is the only college setting I have read, and it is one of my favorite books! I would definitely be interested in reading more, but they are hard to find! Definitely adding these 3 to the TBR 🙂

  10. How about When Dimple Met Rishi? I reviewed it on my blog: https://paigehadleywriter.com/2017/08/03/book-review-when-dimple-met-rishi-by-sandhya-menon/

    I think the point you made about Alice’s defining characteristic being her sexuality is very important. So often books about queer characters or people experiencing mental illness are so preoccupied with that aspect that the characters themselves can end up one-dimensional. I can definitely recommend Adam Silvera’s first two novels for fantastic, realistic, nuanced representations of gay protagonists experiencing mental illness. Have you read him before?

  11. This is such an interesting post and I thank you a ton for writing it and bringing attention to the need for books featuring characters in that 17-21 bracket that often seem to be so overlooked. However, I think I disagree that I feel there needs to be MORE YA with these older characters, as opposed to wishing that NA would just grow out of it’s tiny, sex-focused stereotype. I’m like you in that I’d really love to read about some of these characters who are out of high school, but without the plot that wrapped up in explicit sex scenes. I think giving those potential books the YA label is doing a disservice to NA because it’s not allowing NA to grow out of its tiny niche. It’s like…YA encompasses SO many things-fantasy, romance, action, sci fi….so much! And NA is…college and sex. Why is it so limited? Why not let it break out to include other topics or different tones and styles that aren’t all so explicit?

    Hmmm, I’m not certain I’m making much sense, haha. I hope I don’t seem like I’m being argumentative either, I certainly mean no offense 🙂 But I’ve been thinking alot about my frustrations with NA lately and how it never seems to get the chance to keep growing and I don’t think YA should always be overshadowing it so much.

    • Thank you for reading my post! Yes, I can see your point. I’d love to see NA that isn’t just contemporary, which is what it’s known for at the moment. And I also think it’s important to acknowledge that there shouldn’t be such a distinct line between YA and NA so that it’s easier for people who read mostly YA to branch out and read about protagonists who are a little older. And like you said, I think having more NA of different genres would help that! Thanks for your great comment! 💜

  12. I totally agree that we need more college YA! Some NA is good but so much of it is just like…college aged erotica which is not really my jam. I loved the three books you mentioned as well and they definitely helped fill a bit of the void!

    I think it would also be great for more community college set YA or other non-traditional stories. It seems like all YA characters get to go to university right after high school and that doesn’t represent a large portion of teens! I would like to see stories about girls who want to go but didn’t get in, who can’t afford it so they go to community college, or who can’t afford it at all and head into adulthood at 18. I think this rep is important!

    • Ugh I agree! I’m not really a fan of that either. And yes, you’re right! More novels about characters who are 19/20 and on a gap year or doing something that isn’t just going straight from school to college would be amazing to see too! It’s so important to acknowledge that not everyone’s journey into “adulthood” is the same, and the books we read should reflect that 💖

  13. i didn’t realize i need it too until i read it! i read a few NA books already, they set in college yes but their drama also seems 10000% more dramatic and full of sex- which makes me really uncomfortable :/ the only ya books i read that set in college is fangirl, and it’s pretty scarce. i agree, i think finding yourself is more in senior year of high school and first year of uni… so many important decisions to make!

  14. I believe that YA books, NA book, and Adult-Adult books across the board need to change the ideology that the most important relationship within a fictional narrative is a romantic and/or sexual relationship. Most readers I know (including myself) are happy to read novels that focus on family relationships and friendships. I think we can all name a book and a movie that was made worse by the fact that the writer shoe-horned in an unnecessary romantic subplot. I’d rather have no romance at all rather than read bad romance.

  15. I haven’t read many YA books set in college, so thanks for this list! I have heard of all these books but I didn’t know that they were set in university so that’s really encouraging, because I’m about to start university myself. I would love more books about gap years too, because I think the freedom of not being in formal education provides lots of oppurtunities for good stories. I know what you mean about community–I’m pretty u to date with YA that’s coming out; even though I’m starting to get more interested in adult books, I don’t really know where to find them. Great discussion and reviews!

  16. I really get you! I’m 24 but I still feel much more connected YA protagonist that the ones you read about in adult fiction or NA. A lot of them share my same feelings and thougts. Plus there’re much more possibility to being represented. I’m asexaul too, and YA are few books that actually clearly display the presence of ace characters.

    I feel that YA is more a general definition of the characters’ age with a certain number of themes that are supposedly young adult-ish. But yet are really heavy. Like, depression ins’t a nice small talk.

    I think that it’s a bit to re-shape the definition of NA and try to actually kill off that sick idea tha all new adult people life revolves around sex and drama. Is just so… swallow. Plus, I think that is important to consider that a lot of readers that started out as teen with their reads, are actually growing up. And so also young writers, that might try to improve the border between YA and NA.

    Because I would love to read more books with twenty-ish characters. It makes me think about how their reality is seen in other countries or far aways from the people than cannot or have enough to move out and being the complete indipendent adult. Because I totally feel that some people think that twenty years old and more can be considered as fully adults but are actually something in between.

  17. I definitely agree with what you said. When I started venturing into NAs, I first thought that it was a genre post high school but the characters are not really adult yet. And it’s usually full of romance and while I love a good romance story, I also need something I can relate to especially when I was in college. I’ve graduated for a year now and I still relate more towards YA books compared to others. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve only read Nina’s book (and yes I agree that I love how she writes it and I just love her) and I’d definitely check out the others. I can’t really remember anything that was set in college other than Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando, and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Both are set in their freshmen year and shows the adjustment stage and trying to independent.

  18. I agree that there should be more YA books set in college.These books all sound really interesting. I think there should also be more YA books about uni in Australia.

  19. I am just over 30 and still reading YA. In fact, I didn’t pick the genre up until I started blogging a few years ago. I had heard that YA was expanding as far as 25, I think. So hopefully you can find more of the books you are looking for, while still sticking in the YA genre 🙂

  20. This is such a good point. I have now graduated, but when I was at university all I wanted was some college-based YA. I think the only one I read was Fangirl, which to this day is basically my favourite YA novel, but not enough! It can be hard to find what to read as you get older. I still read a lot of YA, because it’s fun, and because that sense of uncertainty is something that I can relate to more as an adult than I could as a teen, so reading it is comforting to me.

    I have one recommendation. It isn’t set in college (sorry), but it is somewhat in the NA landscape, though would probably actually be classed as literary fiction. It definitely has sex in it, but it’s not all about that like most NA (I am not crazy about romance novels, so I don’t really read NA either) – Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It’s about a girl in her early twenties trying to figure out a place in the world, and it also is the best representation of working in a restaurant that I have ever come across. It’s introspective and funny and sad and one of the most comforting reading experiences I have ever had.

  21. Totally agree with you. I love YA books, but they need more for people like us still in college!

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