Although the market for Young Adult novels has never been bigger, and 55% of the genre’s readership is adult, it still remains something of a taboo subject in some circles. It isn’t always for snobby reasons, either. You might not be of the frame of mind that adults should only read Don DeLillo; YA might be perfectly fine in theory, but let’s face it. It’s not outlandish to assume you’re simply put off by the titles you’ve seen. Sure, the Hunger Games was a fun series, but the books don’t exactly have writing that knocks your socks off. The Fault in Our Stars was ubiquitous for a long time, but John Green’s Gilmore Girls-esque dialogue style might not be for you.
If you are open to YA in theory but think it isn’t for you simply based on the popular examples you’ve seen, good news. There are indeed YA novels that have writing, characterization, and plotting that put adult books to shame. Because the genre is so expansive, finding a gem can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. But like any respectable YA book boyfriend, we’ve done it for you. Here are 8 that will change your mind about the genre.
1. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
A gently disturbing dystopia (think Station Eleven) meets evocative stream-of-consciousness prose in this quiet, shaky story of a young woman visiting her cousins when a war breaks out. Her inner life is just as important as the exterior conflict, and as a bonus, there is an undercurrent of magical realism. This story is for both adults who think they don’t like YA and for readers who think they don’t like stream-of-consciousness writing.
2. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Unwind is by far the best work to emerge from the YA dystopia craze. Too often, dystopia premises come with thin plots, but every corner of this world holds up to scrutiny. The premise is that America has had a civil war between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions. They reach a compromise mandating that all babies must be born, but if a parent or the state doesn’t want a kid, they can be used as an organ donner in the same manner as Never Let Me Go. Naturally, there is an underground railroad of sorts for fugitive teens and a shadowy government agency called “Proactive Citizenry” (doesn’t that sound deliciously real?). It sounds strange to call such a disturbing book beautiful, but it is. It’s deeply human and full of hope, while at the same time feeling frighteningly plausible. It’s the first a four-part series but it can also be treated as a standalone.
3. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Ignore the cutesy sounding title, The Raven Cycle — which is the four book series this book starts — has lush prose and rich characterization that puts many adult books to shame. The series defiantly extends its middle finger to a traditional plot structure. It’s strange and avant-garde and pushes the boundaries of what YA fiction can be. It also happens to include one of the most intriguing gay heroes in recent YA fiction, and Steifvater nails the colloquial speech patterns of teen boys particularly in the second book. While its final installment is its weakest, the series is still well worth the ride.
4. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aiden Chambers
This is a complicated, multilayered book both in its plotting and its structure. The outer story is about a young man who travels to Amsterdam to honor his grandfather who died during World War II. Along the way, he learns about family secrets and alternative lifestyles — he falls for both a male and female love interest, and he makes a new friend who nonchalantly lives a polyamorous life. A story-within-the-story follows a young woman who had an affair with his grandfather while he was stationed in Amsterdam during World War II and the moral ambiguities that accompany it. Unlike other relationship-focused YA books, Postcards does not seek to moralize. It simply tells a unique story and takes it for granted that teens are just as complex and curious about the world as adults.
5. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
A heartwarming exploration of both fandom and the beginning of college, this story follows a young woman with social anxiety through her freshman year of university. She happens to be an avid fan fiction writer, which is a major part of her identity. The novel honors the practice of fandom but also doesn’t take it too seriously. A subplot explores mental illness in a realistic way that neither offers easy answers nor simplifies it. The book is too long and rather plotless, but its warm writing and characters are engaging enough to make it worth your while.
6. A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
This supernatural story about two ghosts adults inhabiting the bodies of teens sounds like a strange premise, but it’s elevated by its lovely prose. It’s truly a literary ghost story.
7. Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore
Imagine if Game of Thrones put Arya at its center and she was a few years older. That’s pretty much all you need to know about these books. It’s technically a three-book series, but each can be treated as a standalone and the third is weak. If you’re going to read just one, pick Graceling, which has an Arya-like protagonist and seven squabbling corrupt kingdoms, or Fire, which has a Daenerys-like protagonist if Daenerys was more guilt-ridden by her father’s terrible legacy.
8. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
If Penny Dreadful was a book about teen girls instead of the best gothic show on television that ended too soon, it would be this book. It has all the juiciest marks of Victoriana and the occult: seances, finishing schools, secret societies, horses and carriages, and nefarious men in top hats. The end of the series admittedly takes too weird of a turn when a dude turns into a tree, but that’s beside the point. Filled with creepy-crawlies, Victorian feminism, and beautiful writing, this four-book series is worth it.
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