9 YA Books Where The Settings Are Characters

Warner Bros.
By Kerri Jarema

In some books, the characters are key. The stories are all about their progression, their growth, their actions, and ultimately, their choices. Others are plot driven, all about the action, taking us from one place to next at breakneck speed, keeping us on the edge of our seats during the entire reading experience. But what about the literary locations?

In some books it feels more like the settings where the story takes place are just an afterthought, not crucial to anything happening to the plot or the characters. But there are stories that would be irrevocably changed if they were removed from their settings. These are the books where the cities, towns, countries, and even worlds, both real and imagined, play a vital role in everything; the way the characters interact with each other, the backstories that they carry with them, and the way the story moves forward.

These nine books below are some of our favorites young adult reads that include settings as characters. The worlds where these books take place completely alter the way the books is read, whether by building the characters, changing the plots or just being an all-encompassing reading experience that makes you feel like you're right inside the pages of the books themselves.

The Wizarding World In The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

This one is probably obvious, but there is no Harry Potter without The Wizarding World. Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, The Burrow, The Ministry... all of these places make the magic of the series possible. In the earlier books, being in the castle or out on the grounds at Hagrid's Hut or in the Forbidden Forest made anything seem possible. There was something mystical around every corner, something new for Harry (and the reader) to learn about. In the later books, the Wizarding World became a more sinister place, full of dark magic and those evil enough to wield it. Even when the trip spent some significant time in the Muggle world in the seventh book, it didn't feel quite right until they'd made their way back. That's the mark of an all-important setting, for sure.

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Paris In 'Anna And The French Kiss' by Stephanie Perkins

There is something about the way Paris is written in Anna and the French Kiss that makes you feel like you're there. Anna is definitely wide-eyed as she takes in her new surroundings, and as her friends show her around the city, the reader gets a tourist experience of their very own. You'll learn how to give your ticket to the usher at the movie theater and find the best spot on the steps of a cathedral for a picnic. You'll make a wish at Point Zero, order gooey pastries, and wander the banks of the Seine. Moving to Paris changes Anna, and reading that transformation is a totally immersive experience.

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Avonlea in 'Anne of Green Gables' by L.M. Montgomery

What would Anne Shirley be without Green Gables? From the moment the carriage carrying her and Matthew starts ambling into Avonlea, Anne makes the town her own. A road filled with cherry blossom trees becomes Lover's Lane, the forest holds ghosts and the lake becomes her storybook funeral procession. The descriptions of the seasons in Avonlea are ethereal, evoking gorgeous sunsets and dappled leaves, wind whispering through the grass and picturesque pastures. Avonlea is the perfect place for Anne's mischief and optimism to come into their own; after all, nothing too bad could ever happen in Green Gables.

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Ketterdam in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

The Dregs are all direct products of Ketterdam. The dark, dreary, cold city has done everything it could to break its citizens, and Kaz, Wylan, Nina and Inej have spent years fighting back. This has led to some serious PTSD, a penchant for cruelty, a dependence of violence and the constant need to shirk death. Ketterdam crafted these characters as much as Bardugo herself, and without the harsh cruelties of the city there would be no Dregs, and no Kaz Brekker, and no corrupt politicians to fight against. Ketterdam is like a dark shadow following over the shoulders of the Dregs (and the reader) as the plot a book's big villain in city form.

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The Districts in 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins

Another no brainer here, but Suzanne Collins's artfully crafted district system lent everything to these books. Without growing up her family's sole provider in a district where food is scarce, Katniss would not have had the fire in her belly needed to survive the Hunger Games, or to start a rebellion. Beyond that, the Capital's cruelty and insistence on perfect fashions and "high entertainment" is such an obvious comparison to the worst in all of us (the reader, or the viewer in the case of the films, is the Capital) takes this trilogy from a simple YA dystopian to something much greater and more intricate.

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The Bronx in 'More Happy Than Not' by Adam Silvera

There are countless books set in New York City and its boroughs, but More Happy Than Not so flawlessly and authentically captures what it's like to grow up in a very particular kind of neighborhood: the ones you don't always see on your televisions or the big screen. Because Aaron Soto's Bronx neighborhood isn't glitzy and full of glamour. It's filled with real people; quiet boys trying to blend in with their brasher neighbors, teens who have seen more loss and violence than men twice their age, communities coming together during the best times and holding each other up during the worst. These are people who live with just enough, who work hard to survive, to whom New York is not some mythical city of dreams, but simply home. The Bronx is this book molds its characters and story arcs in a way that no other place possibly could.

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The Space Ships In 'Illuminae' by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

OK, in Illuminae one of the ships is literally a character: a rogue AI system that's about to make things super complicated for everyone on board his ship. But because of the unique structure of the book (it is written entirely in documents, emails, instant messaging and camera footage) each of the four ships in the book feel like they have their own personalities that drive (and are driven by) the people aboard them. One ship will take on the stoicism of its captain, another its sacrifice, and another its rogue tendencies; it's a strange and immersive reading experience that definitely drives the plot forward. Just one of the reasons that reviews of this book are mostly little more than "MIND. BLOWN."

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The Three Londons In 'The Shades Of Magic Trilogy' by V.E. Schwab

The three Londons in V.E. Schwab's trilogy are crucial to her characters and plot development throughout the three books. There's Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King — George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered — and where our main character Kell (who can travel between all three Londons) was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London — a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now. All of the characters are entirely molded by the Londons in which they live, their personalities and motivations shaped by their relationship to magic and how they move between the worlds, and the plot is completely shaped by this as well.

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Antarctica In 'Up To This Pointe' by Jennifer Longo

Jennifer Longo created an entirely new reading experience by taking a story we may have read before about a highly motivated girl dealing with the aftermath of crushed dreams, and turning it into an entirely unique tale by setting it in Antarctica. There definitely aren't many books set in the South Pole but the eerie isolation and darkness, paired with forced close quarters with strangers and stubborn determination it would take anyone to spend six months there created an weird and wonderful world for Harper's story to take place. All of the extreme settings of her temporary home drove her memory and developed her character, even with a sleepier plot.

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