Uni Novels for Uni Students
Words by Maria Gil
Categorising novels into the Young Adult genre can be a bit misleading; most of the characters are teenagers, meaning anyone past the teenage years will find themselves no longer truly represented in literature in the same way as the teenagers. What about us young adults at university? Where are our grand romances, massive adventures, and self-explorations? There is hope because those stories do exist! The characters in these four YA novels are all university students, experiencing the joys and horrors of wielding the power of choice when you feel too young to be a proper adult.
In Mary H.K Choi’s EMERGENCY CONTACT (Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $17.99), Penny Lee goes to a university an hour away from her town to learn how to become a writer. She hopes to put everything from her high school days at a distance and truly become happy. However, sometimes university is not the picture-perfect place that one dreams about.
Meanwhile, Sam Becker is trying to move on from the “god-awful” chapter in his life to become the famous movie director of his dreams. But when crippling anxiety takes over and you live in an empty storage room above from the cafe you work at with $17 to your name, paying to go to film school proves to be a challenge. When the two meet they become digitally inseparable as one teaches the other how to move past the personal hurdles that come with growing up.
Throughout the novel, Choi disproves the idea that relationships cannot happen via text message. She explores how texts can be a safe space to express feelings and thoughts one would otherwise be afraid to say out loud. At one point, Penny says “It wasn’t a romance; it was too perfect for that. With texts, there were only the words and none of the awkwardness. They could get to know each other completely and get comfortable before they had to do anything unnecessarily overwhelming like look at each other’s eyeballs with their eyeballs.” In modern-day university life friendships flourish more through SMS, since no one can agree on a time to mee half the time.
The novel sticks to the philosophy that even in our lowest of lows there is a chance to climb out of the pit, and you don’t have to do it by yourself because the friends you make during your university time might become the ones that truly matter and help you along the way. After all, it is a long road of self-discovery once you begin your university life.
Choi’s second novel PERMANENT RECORD (Little Brown Book Group, 432 pp., $18.99), follows Pablo Rind, a recent college dropout who works the graveyard shift at his local twenty-four-hour deli. His life might not seem all that bad once he gets entangled with Disney star turned pop star Leanna Smart, but looming are remnants from his past life. Phone calls from debt collectors, crippling student loans and a sense of loss sets the stage for an in-depth look of how relationships between family, friends, and lovers can be affected by one’s sense of lostness.
Choi, much like her debut novel “Emergency Contact,” explores what it’s like to be a millennial dealing with a degree of mental health problems from your past. Pablo wants to make something of himself, be a star of some kind — it is expected of him with a doctor for a mom and a college professor for a dad — but how can you when past choices have already set you on the path to failure.
While this witty, agonizing and relatable novel addresses what it means to be in your twenties with no clue where your life is going, Choi keeps hope tucked between the lines as Pablo and his friends start finding purposes to keep them working towards their individual goals.
Choi shows that being lost is part of being alive and no one truly knows what they are doing so we must start with creating happiness within ourselves.
In the world of university life, sometimes growth happens alongside friends that become family in the midst of tweeting about the dread of studying for finals like in Ngozi Ukazu’s CHECK, PLEASE! (First Second, 288 pp., $34.99). Ukazu’s graphic novel is a reminder of how beautiful college friendships can be. Set in the rich and diverse Samwell University campus, the story is told by Eric Bittle — a former junior figure skating champion, vlogger and pie baking extraordinaire who has joined the Samwell hockey team.
Bittle’s story is an irresistible queer narrative where the plot centres around growing up and the friendships we make rather than a big coming out story where the homophobe must be taught better. No one is stereotyped for their race or sexual orientation. They simply…are.
Ukazu skillfully dismantles the toxic masculinity that may come with hockey bros, preventing the story from becoming an unwanted melodrama and giving us an endearing story where Bittle wins everyone over with his pie-baking skills. Occasionally baking becomes an escape to avoid everything else. “Shitty's so serious about graduate school... I stress out when I make Spotify playlists--I can't even think about making life plans,” he said.
Notably, much of the beauty of the graphic novel is Bitty’s subtle physical transformation of how he presents himself as his time at school progresses. Not only does he visibly age throughout the panels but he stops hunching while he vlogs and tells his story with more gusto.
This light and the fun comic is filled with parties, bros, endearing moments, final exams that reminds us how much fun being at university can be. Where friends matter, and romance catches you off-guard.
Sometimes you can be caught off-guard when you realise everything you worked for at university might not be exactly what you want in the end. In Casey McQuiston’s RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE (Griffin Charles & Co, 432 pp., $26.99) Alex Claremont-Diaz, the Mexican-American son of the first female president of the United States, understands that being a person of color means working twice as hard as your white counterpart to gain respect and recognition, especially if it means wanting to become the youngest member of Congress. He had his life perfectly planned out, that is until he found himself in a press fiasco with Henry, the Prince of Wales who happens to hate his guts. It is also a novel of hope after the 2016 American election.“I wanted to hearken back to the sense of hope I had [in Obama’s election],” McQuiston said in a Publisher’s Weekly interview.
In this light-hearted LGBTQ+ novel, McQuiston unpacks the meaning of having to live to a legacy while attempting to pursue a passion. It is a reoccurring theme that complements both Alex and Henry’s histories of being pressured to live up to what the world expects of them, but also wanting to live their lives as they wish. “Sometimes you just jump and hope it's not a cliff,” said Alex halfway through the novel when he and Henry were trying to figure out what to do with their secret relationship.
This book is not some fluffy romance, but the emotional power of this story comes from confronting the big scary things of life, like Alex realising that his university career choices were made by the influence of his parents and wanting to live up to them rather than what he truly wanted. When Alex truly looks within himself is when he is trying to find his place in history with Henry by his side.
The answer, of course, comes back to the fact that you do not need to have your life put together in your twenties, nor figured out in university. McQuiston shows that the most important moments in history are the ones that bring joy and happiness in the long journey that is life.