I am a firm believer in the right for adults to read young adult novels without apology. In fact, I might consider sending a copy of this article to my representative in Congress because it’s definitely something that should be added onto the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Also everybody be cool about grown-ups reading Y.A.
Y.A. is the literary equivalent of comfort food. Is it wise to subsist entirely on a diet of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese? No. Is it totally okay to have both every once in a while? Absolutely. The raw-vegan-paleo (etc.) diet might keep you fit, but it might also make you a little miserable. The same goes for people who only read “serious” “adult” fiction.
When people think “Y.A.,” The Hunger Games and Twilight tend to come to mind. Understandably, eyes will roll. But there’s actually a wealth of quality fiction intended for young readers that operate on some pretty nuanced themes: the immigrant condition, the existence of God, coming to terms with sexual assault and many others. We’ve compiled a list of 10 such Y.A. novels out of the many that you can and should enjoy guilt free:
1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Hazel Lancaster is a 16-year-old girl recovering from stage IV thyroid cancer. When her parents force her to attend a support group for teens living with cancer, she meets Augustus Waters, an ex-athlete and all-around golden boy who lost a leg to bone cancer. Predictably, they fall in love — but what ensues is anything but your typical teen romance story.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel is the first-person diary of Arnold Spirit, Jr., a.k.a. “Junior,” who is a 14-year-old aspiring illustrator living on a Native American reservation in Spokane, Washington. The story centers on his decision to attend an all-white public high school in nearby Reardan, Washington — a decision that alienates both the reservation community and the off-reservation community he is trying to find a place in. Absolutely True Diary is a powerful picture of youth, self-doubt, discrimination and self-discovery, made especially profound by the fact that it’s semi-autobiographical.
3. The Diviners by Libba Bray
Libba Bray’s supernatural romp through Jazz Age New York is Stephen King meets Heidi Julavits, with a splash of Mary McCarthy. It’s the story of Evie, a vaguely psychic teenager from Ohio who is sent to live with her eccentric, occult-obsessed uncle in Manhattan after an unfortunate episode concerning a Ouija board. At the same time, a serial killer inspired by the Bible is leaving a bloody trail from the Bowery to Harlem — a spree that Evie inevitably gets tangled up in. What The Diviners lays on thick in terms of the paranormal, it more than makes up for in its charming adherence to pre-Depression anachronisms and, of course, the cityscape of a bygone New York.
4. The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
Jennifer Miller’s debut novel is a twisted take on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. It’s an engrossing and lusciously woven campus novel narrated by Iris Dupont, a budding journalist who regularly convenes with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. It’s not clear whether Iris is a bona fide medium or simply crazy, but you’ll be so caught up in the salacious discoveries she digs up about her elite Massachusetts prep school that you won’t really care.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Mark Haddon’s 2003 detective novel is truly one of a kind. The detective in question is 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, a boy with high-functioning autism who is tasked with uncovering the culprit behind a string of dog murders plaguing his suburban neighborhood. If that sounds a tad twee, know that Curious Incident is, in fact, an incredibly poignant first-person account of dealing with disability — but there’s still enough literary “mashed potatoes” to soothe even the most fickle of escapists.
6. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is a Y.A. classic. The 1999 novel is actually a favored tool in middle and high schools across the country for introducing students to the reality of sexual assault. After being raped at a party, Melinda calls the police in a daze — an act for which she is ostracized by her peers. (They nickname her “Squealer.”) Speak is a modern Catcher in the Rye — and like all truly good Y.A. novels, it’s been banned like crazy.
7. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Riggs’ debut novel is one of the few Y.A. books that can actually qualify as magical realism, a notoriously difficult genre to touch, even for writers of so-called “adult” fiction. The story follows Jacob, a 16-year-old boy who travels to Wales following the death of his grandfather, which he attributes to imaginary creatures called “hollowgasts.” Soon, Jacob meets Emma, a pretty but odd girl with intriguing gifts, who brings him to Miss Peregrine’s Home, a sort of island for misfit toys casually caught up in a 1940s time loop.
8. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is arguably one of the most celebrated works of Y.A. fiction in the English language. Set in an alternate world ruled by a single theocracy (the enigmatic “Magisterium”) and people are paired with “daemons,” young Lyra must navigate delicate politics and very real danger to deliver a mysterious instrument to her father. One problem: Lyra lives in Oxford, and her father is on a mission in the Arctic. Encounters with gypsies, witches and talking bears ensue.
9. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
This Bildungsroman by Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros follows Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina woman growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago. It’s a series of short stories, all told from the perspective of Esperanza, that discuss first generation life, ethnic tensions within the Latino community and, of course, the more earnestly teenage issues of sexual self-discovery and outgrowing your family.
10. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Narrated by the personification of Death and set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief follows Liesel, the daughter of intellectual opponents to Hitler’s regime, as she is spirited away to the home of family friends, the Hubermanns, where she will wait out the war. But the Hubermanns have another guest: Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man hiding out in the basement. The Book Thief is a powerful tale of intergenerational friendship and a vivid picture of life in the Third Reich.
Of course, the list above is in no way meant to be all inclusive as the number of Y.A. novels that can and should be appreciated by adults defies the limits of lists.
Regardless, you can help us make this list better! If you know of a fantastic Y.A. novel that everyone should enjoy, but which we happened to miss above, let us know all about it in the comments below.
Jake Flanagin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., where he does story research for The Atlantic magazine and writes about pop culture and social issues. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from New York University and thinks the bagel situation in D.C. is deplorable. In his free time, he likes to watch reruns of Growing Pains and remains steadfastly ambivalent on the issue of Kirk Cameron.
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