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The college experience in YA books

Last month Hub blogger Becky O’Neil write a great blog featuring school stories for teens featuring a array of subsets of the traditional school story genre. I thought I’d feature some fictional books featuring college-aged students for older teens or those already in college looking for stories that depict their current college experience. Publishers haven’t published too many teen books focused on this age group and I don’t have many titles. I know college aged students are too busy to read, but what about during school breaks or as a brief distraction from studying? Here’s some of what I’ve found:

Megan McCafferty’s irresistible Jessica Darling series begins with Sloppy Firsts (a 2003 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and a 2003 Popular Paperback for Young Adults) when Jessica is 16, then Second Helpings when she’s a senior in high school, followed by Charmed Thirds. This follows Jessica’s college years as she juggles her studies, works as an unpaid intern during her freshman summer at True magazine with its überhip staff, and dates her first love Marcus Flutie, despite his being 3000 miles away in California at a Buddhist college. When Jessica confesses she cheated on him in her sophomore year with a punk Republican, Marcus stops communicating with her – except for sending a series of cryptic one-word postcards. There’s also a cute (and married) Spanish grad student she’s working with on a storytelling project over her sophomore summer. Despite these distractions, Jessica can’t let go of Marcus and is stunned to learn he’s left the Buddhist college and is now living in total isolation in the middle of Death Valley at a small, all-male college run entirely by the students supporting themselves by working with cattle (or, as one of her friends says, he’s at a “gay cowboy camp”).

McCafferty describes what life’s like as Jessica lives in a series of dorms on campus, struggles to pay for school after her parents withdraw their financial support sophomore year, and other hook ups she has while trying to get over Marcus. Jessica hilariously recounts her summer job her junior year teaching college prep classes to neurotic, overachieving high schoolers – resulting in her being fired and having to work a humiliating job serving ice cream at the Jersey shore and her search for housing her senior year. The last two books in this wonderful series, Fourth Comings and Perfect Fifths recount Jessica’s life after graduation.

Several of Tammar Stein’s books also show characters in college. Light Years (one of YALSA’s 2006 Best Books for Young Adults features Israeli-born Maya, 20, grieving and feeling guilty over the death of her boyfriend, killed in a suicide bombing in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. She leaves Israel for the US to study astronomy at the University of Virginia. There, she makes friends and slowly tries to find love again but still can’t forget. Readers get to know what her life was like in Israel, including her military service and first love – a life that’s light years away from the one she has in the US. It’s a really interesting look at the difference between the two cultures and shows how Maya finds friendship and a new love in her life.

Stein’s High Dive, is about Arden, 19, who’s still reeling over her father’s sudden death in a car accident and her mother’s deployment to Iraq. Arden’s on her way to Sardinia to close up and sell her family’s vacation home, but meets three college girls traveling through Europe for the first time and decides to join them.

Like Stein’s High Dive, Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Uninvited (among YALSA’s 2010 Best Books for Young Adults) isn’t set in college either, but the main character, Mimi, is in her freshman year at NYU. After a love affair with a professor goes bad, she escapes to a remote Canadian farmhouse owned by her famous painter father. When she arrives, she finds someone else already living there. Jay, a 22-year-old musician, is as surprised as she is to find her in his house. They’re shocked to discover they’re related – half brother and sister by the same father. Unbeknown to them, a troubled local twenty-something guy with a mentally unstable mother has developed an attachment to Mimi and is hanging around the farmhouse spying on her. This book’s a creepy thriller with lots of plot twists.

There are many non-fiction books with advice for college bound students (SLJ recently posted a list of new titles) but not as many fictional books written specifically for older teens or college aged students interested in reading about college life. I’d love to see more books that explore this time in their lives.

— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading When She Woke by Hillary Jordan


  1. Rachel Cohn’s Very LeFreak is about a college student. And yaaaaay Jess and Marcus!

  2. Sharon Rawlins Sharon Rawlins

    @mclicious Thank you! Didn’t remember Rachel Cohn’s book. Ditto about Jess and Marcus!

  3. Sharon Rawlins Sharon Rawlins

    @Jennifer – Great list! Thanks so much!

  4. Sharon Rawlins Sharon Rawlins

    I didn’t include Looking for Alaska on the list because it’s set in a boarding school and the characters are younger than 19. A few books with characters older than 18 I could have mentioned – I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak and Hold Me Closer Necromancer by Lish McBride – for example – don’t mention college or focus on it too much (Sam in Necromancer has dropped out of college).

    Another author I just discovered that writes about the college life is Diana Peterfreund in her Ivy League Novels series.

  5. No prob! I also just remembered Patricia Weiss’ COLLEGE GIRL.

  6. […] the case (“Where Are All the Young ‘Adults’?”, Young Adult Review Network; “The College Experience in YA Books,” YALSA’s The Hub). Both of those articles have a few suggestions for YA fiction featuring late […]

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