The Most Underrated YA Books of the Pandemic
A lot of conversations on social media about underrated YA books are packed with title recommendations that have either hit the bestseller list — sometimes numerous times — or have been on major award lists — sometimes multiple lists. It’s hard to truly find gems that are underrated when what constitutes that qualifier isn’t quantified.
This has been especially true during the last two years. With the pandemic, books which had initial publication dates in early 2020 saw their shelf dates shift to summer, or to fall, or to 2021, in the hopes of giving the book the best chance at reaching readers during quarantines, shutdowns, and the complete upheaval of traditional in-person events. Now, with the challenge of sourcing paper and supply chain breakdowns, even books published in 2021 facing comparatively fewer challenges than those of the previous year are themselves in deep limbo.
So what, then, to make of underrated YA books of the pandemic?
Taking this literally, I pulled up the largest annual release lists on Goodreads for YA Books, first for the 2020 YA releases (822 books as of writing) and for 2021 YA releases (873 books as of writing). We know these lists are not comprehensive, nor are they entirely correct, since they can be edited by anyone who wants to include their favorite book from any time. But for the most part, they’re solid starting places to get an idea of the landscape of YA in these two years.
From those lists, I ranked the books which published between January 2020 — with the mindset those books prior to March were still impacted when the world completely shut down — and July 2021 — knowing that those books just released and would not have the same dedicated period of time to garner readers as those published over a year prior. I pulled out all of the books which were not the first in a series from this compilation, as series books will, by nature, have fewer readers as the series continues. I looked at the number of reviews each book had, as well as the number of ratings. I made sure they were published by a well-known publisher, weeding out self-published titles or those by publishers who do not have a dedicated YA imprint. This ensured the books being evaluated were as close to a level reader-discovery field as possible. Additionally, all of the books were from U.S.-based publishers for the same reason, and each is a fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, category. One comic made the list.
Not every book on Goodreads will have a review and a rating. Some may only have a rating, while others may only have a review. To level the playing field as much as possible, I averaged the number of reviews with the number of ratings. Anything over a 100 average was deleted and every one of the top ten books for each year had below a 65.
Books were ranked by the lowest to the highest numbers. Of note: none of these books were among those which may have been reviewed or rated based on an author’s behavior, commentary, or other criteria which can impact those numbers. I separated books published in 2020 from those in 2021 into two lists, as some of the lowest averages came from books published just this summer. Those haven’t yet had the time to reach readers as those published over a year ago have.
It’s worth noting more broadly that nearly every one of these books is by a white author and most are straight and/or cisgender. This isn’t a bad thing: so many more diverse books are being better marketed, either from publishers or, more commonly and in the case of Goodreads, more fortunately, from readers who seek to share the representation within these books for other readers to find. It feels weird to showcase underrated YA books that are primarily white, but mathematically, that’s what this specific subset of YA books indicated.
So now that you know the criteria by which most underrated books are being evaluated here, let’s take a look at the most underrated YA books of the pandemic. Maybe your next favorite read is here, just waiting for you to find.
The Most Underrated YA Books of the Pandemic
Bright Shining World by Josh Swiller
Wallace’s dad has a Very Important but Very Secret job that means the family moves a lot. After just getting settled in Kentucky, the family is uprooted, and they move to Upstate New York — Wallace’s dad will be investigating a mass outbreak of hysterics.
That outbreak just happens to be centered at the high school Wallace will be attending.
Wallace’s classmates and teachers aren’t super into him from the get-go, and as more strange happenings occur, well, he’s definitely not moving beyond the reputation of weird new kid.
This is a darkly funny thriller for readers who want something totally different.
Where We Are by Alison McGhee
Cult story lovers, this one is for you! McGhee’s book follows best friends Micah and Sesame, who share all of their deepest secrets with one another. Micah’s worried about his parents’ obsession with a cult leader called “The Prophet,” while Sesame is mourning the death of the last of her family members. Not yet being 18, she needs to keep a low profile to avoid the foster care system.
When Micah and his family disappear, pulled into the underground by The Prophet, Sesame is left even more alone. Now, she needs to figure out how to find Micah and get to the truth of this cult.
Followers by Raziel Reid
Satire is always a hard sell in YA, but for readers who love it, Reid is doing it and doing it so well.
When Lily is arrested after a date gone wrong, her mugshot gets leaked to the press. This would be a big deal anyway, but it’s made bigger because her aunt is a star in a reality show series a la The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Lily’s mom kicks her out of their less-than-glamorous home, and her aunt offers to take her in. Now Lily is part of the show herself. Is it real life? Or is it all for show?
The Night of Your Life by Lydia Sharp
The sell on this one is short and sweet: terrible prom night meets Groundhog Day time loop.
Smooth by Matt Burns
Talk about a book for teens. Kevin has acne — the kind of acne that’s not just teen hormones. He’s seeking out medical treatment, and it’s pretty brutal. There are a ton of side effects and he has to do monthly blood tests to make sure he’s not dealing with anything even more challenging (Accutane, anyone?). At one of those appointments, Kevin meets Alex in the waiting room, and now, those appointments become his true escape from the hell of high school and struggles he’s having with his best friends.
The book is funny and wry, and once Kevin learns who Alex is outside of their safe haven of doctor appointments, things may…not be at all what they seem.
Like Spilled Water by Jennie Liu
Readers who want a story set outside of the U.S., this one will be up your alley.
Na is 19, and she’s always lived in the shadow of her little brother Bao-bao, the cherished son. Years ago, her parents moved themselves and Bao-bao to the city in order to give him the best opportunity to get great grades in a great school so he could attend a top higher educational institution.
But now Bao-bao has died, and Na works to uncover why. Did he really bomb the Chinese college entrance exams? Or was there something more? Her parents are pressuring her to leave her vocational education now and enter the work force, so in addition to unlocking Bao-bao’s secrets, she’s confronted by traditional gender expectations in her family and community.
Glitch Kingdom by Sheena Boekweg
Itching for a fantasy adventure story? Perhaps one where a fantasy world feels so real that there’s no way it’s just fantasy?
Welcome to Glitch Kingdom, where teens are in a battle of a lifetime, and not just because they’re been pulled into a video game and are stuck inside.
Reviewers have noted the cover being a huge turnoff, despite the story being compelling and original. I agree it doesn’t really explain the story but at the same time, it seems like it really does.
The Whitsun Daughters by Carrie Mesrobian
A cross-generational ghost story, Mesrobian’s book follows the three Whitsun sisters in their small midwestern town. Though their story is contemporary and explores topics like teen pregnancy and the realities of being female in a patriarchal society, the book is narrated by Jane Murphy, a girl from a century before who lived where the Whitsuns do now. Murphy’s story is one of pushing against norms, too, as she works to defend her choice to escape an arranged marriage and find love on her own terms.
What Goes Up by Christine Heppermann
Peep the cover of this slight novel-in-verse. You may think it’s just some pretty color circles. But those are actually mushroom prints, which is a recurring motif throughout the book.
Heppermann’s latest novel follows college student Jorie as she wakes up after making a poor decision. The narrative follows as she works to understand everything that led her to that decision, including her father’s infidelity, her obsession with art, the breakup with her boyfriend, and more.
Sources Say by Lori Goldstein
It’s interesting to me that one of the common threads among some of these underrated books is they feature humor. Humor is a mood and because of that, it’s quite subjective. But maybe, too, there hasn’t been a lot done to highlight the range of funny YA stories that have hit shelves recently.
School elections used to be super boring at Acedia High School. That is, until Angie and Leo run against one another. The formerly romantic couple’s messy breakup was the talk of the school, and now, seizing on an opportunity to “win” in the wake of it, secrets and scandals are spilling, forcing both to take up the mantle on a number of causes.
The school election this year is anything but boring — nor anything but a popularity contest. I’m definitely getting Election vibes here.
Fierce As The Wind by Tara Wilson Redd
If girls in sports are your jam, pick up this book about Miho, who is training for a personal Ironman Triathlon. After a breakup leaves her angry, aided by the reality that most of her friends have an idea what they want to do with their lives when graduation rolls around, Miho wants to do something. But the Hawaiian teen can’t afford a real Ironman.
Her friends propose a solution of creating their own version of the race, and now, Miho is able to channel her feelings and passion into preparation. Perhaps she’ll also figure out what it is she’s meant to do next along the way.
The Great Big One by J.C. Geiger
Climate change and its impact on the future may be too close to read about in fiction right now, but maybe that’s precisely why books like this one are essential.
Brothers Griff and Leo are preparing for the tsunami that’s destined to wash out their west coast town. If they can survive that, awesome, but then they have to survive the threat of nuclear war, wildfires, and probably also the horsemen of the apocalypse. Griff’s taken to prepping, and while Leo has, too, it’s not in the same manner. And once the two of them begin hearing strange songs, they become more divided than united. Griff moves away from prepping while Leo leans in closer — the music is altering them in real ways, be it through hope or through fear.
A Night Twice As Long by Andrew Simonet
It’s a blackout that seems like it’ll never end, and that’s just what’s going on outside of Alex’s mind. At 16, she had been taking care of her autistic brother for a long time, but one big mistake caused him to be taken from her and her mother.
Now, she’s determined to get to the bottom of this blackout with the help of her best friend, but will that help her understand what happened with her brother?
Note this isn’t a dystopia. It’s a contemporary, realistic read.
The People We Choose by Katelyn Detweiler
What happens if you start to feel chemistry with the new boy who moves in across the street from you and your moms and you learn that his father was the sperm donor for you?
For Calliope, the answer is…maybe a lot more questions.
Enduring Freedom by Trent Reedy and Jawad Arash
YA war books used to be a lot more common than they are now, but Reedy and Arash deliver on one of the few new titles on shelves now.
Following September 11, Baheer, an Afghan teen who loves to learn, and Joe, an American army private, have their worlds completely shattered. For Baheer, family life is in upheaval as soldiers descend into his town. For Joe, his dreams of becoming a journalist are on hold as he’s shipped overseas.
Neither boy is especially eager to encounter the other, but over the course of time, they discover they have far more in common than not. But can they set aside political differences to make a real connection?
Girl on the Ferris Wheel by Julie Halpern and Len Vlahos
Looking for a slice-of-life story about the ups and downs of romance? Look no further. Cowriters Halpern and Vlahos offer a punk rock, outgoing musician in Dmitri who quite literally falls for Eliana, a quiet movie buff who has depression.
This one is packed with Feelings of how sometimes love is amazing and sometimes love is hell.
The Poetry of Secrets by Cambria Gordon
The pitch for this one notes it’s perfect for fans of Elizabeth Wein and Ruta Septys, as it’s historical fiction with a ton of fascinating details about a period of time and the real challenges of those living at numerous intersections.
Set during the Spanish Inquisition, Isabel Perez should be unbelievably honored the sheriff wants to marry her. But she’s not interested. Her eyes are only for a nobleman named Diego.
Complicating matters — and why it is she should be thrilled the alguacil wants to take her in marriage — is the fact her family was forced to convert from Judaism to Christian, rendering them low in the social class hierarchy.
But maybe that’s precisely why the marriage is of interest to the sheriff: Isabel and her family haven’t converted completely, as they still practice in secret.
The Salt in Our Blood by Ava Morgyn
Witchy vibes + tarot + New Orleans = a book that will delight fans of horror, of dark family secrets, and all things mystical and magical.
Smoke by Darcy Wood
The description for this promises that there will be a lot to unpack within the story, and because the bulk of reviews for this one are other (white) authors, it’s hard to know what it does or doesn’t achieve. In any event, there is potentially a LOT to dig into here thematically, culturally, and more. That’s your heads up!
Honor has always been a straight-laced, A student. But when her father, who struggles with PTSD, has his VA benefits cut and bills begin to pile up, Honor devises a solution to their financial challenges: growing and selling marijuana.
Speak For Yourself by Lana Wood Johnson
Many readers who’ve reviewed this one point out that the main character struggles with migraines, is fat, and is demi-sexual, all of which are representation so many readers desperately seek.
This is a story about a slow-burn romance. Skylar is ambitious and smart, determined to win State at the Scholastic Exposition with her new app. She’s deeply independent but realizes she needs to find help in order to achieve this dream.
Enter Joey and Zane. Skylar makes a promise to help Zane and Joey become an item, but during the course of prepping for the competition, Skylar may be falling for Zane herself.
It’s super interesting to see some common elements among these most underrated YA books of the pandemic. Many contain humor, many are contemporary and tackle heavy issues, and some feel almost too close to the moment we’re living in (see: blackouts, prepping, environmental disaster, and the ending of the war in Afghanistan).
But if what you’re looking for is a book that needs more readers or you’re the kind of reader who loves digging into something that “no one else has read,” these titles are literally the ones who haven’t seen much readership — big thanks, of course, to the pandemic.