Who would you trust more? Time Magazine? Or our resident teacher librarian?
Time Magazine recently published its most recent “The 100 Best YA Books of All Time.” They put together the list with a diverse panel of today’s most popular authors in the genre. Although comprehensive, the list, which includes some dated off-brand selections, reflects its compilers’ tastes more so than those of actual, present-day young adults. As a Gen Xer, Judy Blume novels signposted my youth. I not only read Little Women, but Louisa May Alcott’s entire catalog over and over again. Madeleine L’Engle is still my favorite author. These authors made the Time list, but personal love for their work isn’t enough to convince Zoomers to go past the cover of their books.
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As a teacher librarian in Los Angeles Unified School District for the last 10 years, I have a few observations of what turns young adults off certain books. Among these are dated-looking, overly-rounded font, type that’s set too close together, yellowed pages, and mass market, smaller-sized paperbacks (rather than the more commonplace oversized trade ones). There is a lot of talk about readers from all race and ethnic backgrounds seeing themselves represented in YA novels. In my experience, representation is a distant second (or third, or last place) to a good story. Being engaged in the story overrides any characteristic of the protagonists. The cover matters. Not so much because of what the people on it look like, more so that the cover looks “interesting,” the vague word many teenagers use to describe why they decided to pick a particular book up.
There are other trends in the library. For example, just because young adults like one book from an author, doesn’t mean they will want to read another title by the same author, e.g, they love Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, but they won’t pick up Odd One Out or Jackpot. They read the first book in a series exponentially more than subsequent titles in the same series with diminishing returns—even when each volume stops with a cliffhanger.
Currency matters. M.T. Anderson’s 2002 dystopian novel Feed, which reflects the smartphone age we’re living in now, is already too dated. Yet a novel set in a high-action and familiar time in history such as the Holocaust gets the pages turning. The unrelatable setting and reference points of Little Women—no matter how much creative license Greta Gerwig gave herself in the book’s most recent film adaptation, don’t put it over the line for today’s young adults.
Speaking of which, it’s a far stretch to label some of the Time Magazine titles as YA. Some skew to middle grades with 7th grade being the sweet spot: Louis Sachar’s Holes, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, among them. Others are far above a young adult’s interest level despite their teenager protagonists: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free, for example.
With all due respect to Time Magazine’s panel of YA authors, here’s a realistic list of books that you can get young adults to actually finish, based on traffic and feedback from real-life, current-day teenagers. And none of them are from the 1800s.
Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 2007
The very first paragraphs in this National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature describes a teenage girl’s sexual interaction in a car. Zarr grounds this scene with the words, “one hand wrapped around my ponytail.” That is more than enough to get the most reluctant reader to carry on with this heart-ripping story of a girl who is redefining herself. “Love books” are winners with teenagers and authors Sarah Dessen, Kasie West and Deb Caletti as forerunners in this genre. The more “bad boy” the object of affection, the better, except for the most romantic YA novel to date, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, whose titular “good guy” sets the bar for all future love interests.
Pet Sematary, by Stephen King (Doubleday), 1983
Of all the “scary books” that teenagers love to terrify themselves with, King’s classic tale of beloved pets and people being kept alive by burying them in this gross place is perennially popular. While we mostly consider King an adult book author, most people first read him in their middle and high school years. King has been responsible for turning more than his fair share of people onto books. All of his titles are in-demand, from the early horror classics to the later, not-so-thrilling ones. King’s brother-in-horror Darren Shan’s multiple series, among them, The Saga of Darren Shan, The Demonata, Cirque du Freak, The Saga of Larten Crepsley and Zom-B also keep young adults up at night with fear and delight.
One Of Us Is Lying, by Karen M. McManus (Delacorte Press) 2017
Mysteries are a unifying element among all young adults. McManus checks all the boxes with well-developed and multi-layered characters, believable and nuanced interactions, excellent dialogue and a page-turning story that while it lays all the clues, is impossible to determine “whodunnit” until McManus is ready for her reveal. One of Us is Lying started out as a stand-alone novel and is now the first in a series of three and camera-ready. Also from McManus are her equally addicting, Two Can Keep a Secret, The Cousins and the upcoming, You’ll Be The Death of Me. Mary McCoy’s gripping Michael L. Printz Award nominee I, Claudia and historical mystery, Dead to Me, and Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us also fall into the teenage mystery space.
Divergent, by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books), 2011
Dystopian worlds are goals and if they have a film tie-in, all the better. Roth’s Divergent quartet, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy (and its far superior prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes) and Marie Lu’s Legend series are among the top choices for young adults who love an apocalyptic setting better than the real one, and if there’s a love component, preferably a triangle, that’s a lot of objectives met.
Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown and Company), 2005
Unfortunately, the insipid, badly written and morally corrupt Twilight series from Stephenie Meyer is still in regular rotation among teenagers. A much better option with universal and enduring appeal is Rick Riordan multiple fantasy series with their offshoots and companion books, starting with The Lightning Thief. You can justify his shelf space by how constantly his books are in rotation. Love her or hate her, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is another evergreen favorite and a great gateway into the love of reading.
The Summer I Turned Pretty, by Jenny Han (Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers), 2009
Han’s popular series-turned-Netflix film franchise To All the Boys I Loved Before has brought attention to her other books. This trilogy predates Han’s old-fashioned Lara Jean with the equally old-fashioned Belly and a raw story that involves a love triangle between two brothers, soon to be an Amazon limited series. But Netflix has the real literary power as one of the biggest proponents in getting teenagers to read, from Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, to Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and Walter Trevis’s The Queen’s Gambit.
They Both Die at the End, by Adam Silvera (HarperTeen), 2017
As long as there is a teenager dying in a book, whether it is by suicide (preferable) or other means, such as Silvera’s beautiful LGBTQIA+ novel of two doomed teenagers who fall in love on their non-optional dying day, it is the drama of the topic that pulls young adults to these titles. Jennifer Niven’s tiring but well-loved All the Bright Places, Julie Anne Peters’ brutal By the Time You Read This, I’ll be Dead and the aforementioned 13 Reasons Why—despite the butchering it received from Netflix after its first season—keep noses in books.
Five Feet Apart, by Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), 2018
John Green is wholly responsible for making young adults lovers of the “sicklit” novel with The Fault in Our Stars, his delicate and tough book about two terminally ill teenagers. Lippincott’s tale of two teenagers with cystic fibrosis who can’t get within five feet of each other is another such yarn. Nicola Yoon’s low-level Everything, Everything and Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, the excruciating adult novel that teenagers constantly request, hit a similar chord. All eventually became films.
Concrete Rose, by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray), 2021
The prequel to Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is the origin story of the latter’s father, Maverick Carter. Big Mav took up a lot of space in his daughter’s life in The Hate U Give and there was much talk about his past. Readers get to live through it with him in Concrete Rose, which amps up the appeal of The Hate U Give. The writing in both novels is strong and compelling, the characters relatable and the issues investible. Not as attractive is Thomas’ On the Come Up, whose rhymes are fire, but the self-imposed weight on the main protagonist’s shoulders is a little too burdensome.
A Child Called “It,” by Dave Pelzer (Health Communications Inc), 1995
Teenagers love abuse, the more real the better. The crown jewel of abuse stories is Pelzer’s real-life account, the first in a life-long series that includes The Lost Boy, The Privilege of Youth: A Teenager’s Story and A Man Named Dave. These books technically may not fall under the YA category, but that’s who their audience is.
Stolen, by Lucy Christopher (Chicken House Ltd), 2009
This Printz Award nominee is one of many abduction stories than run a close second to abuse stories as far as topics that appeal to young adults. A fit and fine villain kidnaps Gemma at an airport and takes her to a remote location, expressing his intention is to have her fall in love with him and live happily ever after. Other titles that hit the mark in this style are Natasha Preston’s creepy The Cellar, Jaycee Dugard’s true story, A Stolen Life, Tami Charles’ Muted and its twin, Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown.
Candy, by Kevin Brooks (Push), 2005
The more dramatic, the more interest from young adult readers. Candy looks as sweet as her name sounds, but she is a drug-addicted, borderline underage prostitute whom Joe has fallen in love with at first sight and wants to save. Candy’s pimp turns Joe’s innocent world upside down when he comes to retrieve his property. Disturbing descriptions that hit right at your core keep teenagers fixed to these pages as do Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel about rape, Speak (which was a National Book Award Finalist), and her raw memoir, Shout.
Demon Slayer, by Koyoharu Gotouge (VIZ Media LLC), 2018
Manga rules. The more volumes in a series, the better, and if it’s also got accompanying anime, then it’s a 100% winner. Young adults go through these volumes at a clip of two to three a day and devour the whole series within a week. They return to the same ones over and over, re-reading with renewed zeal every time. Gotouge’s Demon Slayer series is the latest in the popular genre, along with Haruichi Furudate’ Haikyū!!, But even the classics Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist and Bleach will keep teenagers reading when prose novels don’t.
What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones (Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers), 2001
Novels in verse are quick, easy and impactful. Sones is a masterful storyteller with her emotionally-driven crafted lines in this gorgeous love story about an outcast boy and a popular girl who discover each other over Christmas break and weather the cruelty of their classmates upon their return to school. Its companion, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, from the point of view of the boy, is equally gorgeous, both of them a one-day read. All of Sones’ novels are in verse and she conveys a great deal in her sparse but rich language. Elizabeth Acevedo’s celebrated National Book Award winner, The Poet X, and her outstanding Clap When You Land are similarly powerful, as is Jason Reynolds’ A Long Way Down, Punching the Air from Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, and the aforementioned Muted from Tami Charles.
Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous (Simon Pulse), 1971
Fifty years after original publication, this painful tale of addiction by Beatrice Sparks, aka “Anonymous”, still resonates. Sparks diary-style writing has cornered the market on difficult issues with numerous books, all equally in-demand by young adults. The topics range from the occult and drugs (Jay’s Journal) to date rape and AIDS (It Happened to Nancy), teen pregnancy (Annie’s Baby), grooming and pedophilia (Treacherous Love), eating disorders (Kim: Empty Inside), living on the streets (Almost Lost) and abusive families and living in foster care (Finding Katie).
Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen (HarperCollins), 2001
Lower-level readers love Mikaelsen’s adventure tale of a bully sentenced to survival on a desert island to get in touch with his most primal self, and, as a result, has a deep and meaningful turnaround in his life. Mikaelsen is an expert at putting nature as the backdrop of his believable redemption stories, which also include Ghost of Spirit Bear and numerous others. Adventure is still a popular genre when told right, such as Todd Strasser’s wonderfully written Boot Camp.
Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel Books), 2011
Sepetys is the star of historical fiction with her deeply researched books on major historical events, but little-known facts about the particular areas she focuses on. Her prose is tangible when she speaks about the atrocities of World War II while her characters are your best friends. Salt to the Sea is a companion book of sorts to Between Shades of Gray. Also from Sepetys is Out of the Easy, the colorful tale of the resilient daughter of a prostitute in 1950s New Orleans and The Fountains of Silence, an intercontinental love story set in the Spanish Civil War.
Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell (Wednesday Books), 2015
The saga of Simon Snow, one of the main protagonists of Carry On, started as fan fiction written by one of Rowell’s characters in her new adult book, Fangirl. The book within the book became so popular in the most meta way that Rowell had to turn it into a real-life series. Carry On is an LGBTQ+ Harry Potter of sorts and the story continues in Wayward Son. One look at the finely drawn fellows on the cover of Carry On and it’s snatched up by teenagers of all persuasions.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (Puffin Books) 1967
Young adults tend to discover The Outsiders in middle school, where the novel’s gang mentality and suspense keep their attention. They want to read it over and over again—no matter how many times you point them in the direction of Hinton’s many other, equally gripping novels such as Rumble Fish and Tex. Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal winner The Giver follows a similar reader trajectory to The Outsiders when readers discover it. Even though the dystopian novel is Book One of a series, the magic doesn’t extend to its following volumes. The other book from Lowry that tends to get picked up is Number the Stars, for its teenager-engaging Holocaust content.
milk and honey, by Rupi Kaur (Createspace), 2014
Kaur’s pocket-sized book of poems cover “love, loss, trauma, healing, feminity and migration.” They speak to young adults across the world and on every level. Kaur’s poetry volumes, which number at just three, have sold over eight million copies and translated into 42 languages. Teenagers carry copies of Kaur’s books in their backpacks and know the words to her poems by heart.