This is a guest contribution by Rachel Quin, a freelance marketing professional with over eight years of experience and a passion for books, digital marketing and most importantly, cats.
Whether you’re dealing with your first brutal heartbreak, navigating changing relationships, or just feeling nostalgic for days gone by, young adult fiction is pure escapism for readers of all ages.
Of course, being defined as young adult fiction means many of the best novels are dealing with some pretty hefty topics.
How do you define the best YA books? Is it the ability to deftly tackle a topic parents struggle to talk about without causing emotional damage? Relatable characters that can rip your heart out or make you fall in love? All of the above plus a couple of vampires?
Compiling this list has been an interesting task for me, because while I have read and enjoyed more than my fair share of YA, when I was actually a teenager my mother was surprisingly chilled about my reading materials.
This meant I definitely read a lot of deeply inappropriate books at far too young an age (I’m looking at you, Flowers in the Attic).
But questionable parenting aside, I’ve selected ten of the best young adult books of all time for teens – and every other reader, really.
We’ve got a mix of dystopia, peer pressure, messy break-ups and high school drama that will make you laugh, cry, and maybe a little of both at the same time.
The best young adult books of all time to add to your reading list
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A New York Times bestseller and listed for dozens of awards, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is powerful, emotional and completely beautiful.
A poet herself, Acevedo tells the story of a young Afro-Latino woman who, embarrassed by her changing body and feeling vulnerable, discovers the world of slam poetry.
It’s a world that allows her to express her feelings with words instead of fists and to explore a fierce and growing passion for words.
The whole book is written in verse which provides a rhythmic and completely immersive experience. If you want to really feel the story and get to know Xiomara, our protagonist, I’d highly recommend trying this one out in audiobook.
Poet X is one of those novels that will take up real estate in your head for weeks after you’ve turned the final page.
Good news for adult fiction readers too, Acevedo is publishing her first adult novel Family Lore this summer and it’s just as magical.
Junk by Melvin Burgess
My first experience of Junk was the BAFTA award-winning TV movie made in 1999 which, oddly, was broadcast in a PSHE class during my brief stint in a Catholic high school.
What was clearly intended as a cautionary tale actually became a bit of an obsession for me, as I agonised over the tragic love story of Tar and Gemma.
Tar and Gemma both have different reasons for running away but ultimately, find themselves in an increasingly dire situation as a brief flirtation with adventures becomes a chokehold of addiction that both teens struggle to escape from.
Despite all the controversy about whether this book is *really* a book for kids – it is, it even won the Guardian Children’s fiction award in 1997 – Burgess himself describes Junk as a real experiment compared to his other work. It’s gritty, honest reading that I found utterly page-turning.
The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
I came for the ceramic frog on the jacket, I stayed for the painfully relatable protagonist dealing with a brutal heartbreak and betrayal from all sides.
The subtitle of The Boyfriend List definitely sets you up for a wild ride: 15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, Ruby Oliver.
At just 15 years old, Ruby has a shrink, and she’s also had the worst ten days of her life. This novel is 100% made for Netflix but was written in a time long before streaming services.
While trying to deal with the emotional fallout of losing her first love, Ruby is advised by her slightly wacky therapist to make a list of every boy that she’s ever had the slightest, any-kind-of-anything with.
And somehow, that list ends up being circulated to the whole school. Think Easy A meets To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, with a sprinkle of panic attacks. Essential reading for every teen and a frequent re-read for this fully grown woman.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I know, I’m sorry, but I had to. Because it is one of the best YA novels of all time, and it also just happens to have a hugely popular movie franchise with a seriously hot Finnick in it.
If you somehow haven’t read it yet, The Hunger Games imagines a dystopian future in which North America descends into chaos and finds itself divided into 13 districts, of which only 12 still exist.
Each year, 12 boys and 12 girls are reaped from each district to participate in a battle royale-esque fight to the death, crowning one champion who earns security for life and additional resources for their district.
The Hunger Games sparked my love of dystopian and speculative fiction, imagining alternative realities where atrocities may occur, but there’s room for bravery, compassion and loyalty.
Katniss Everdeen, our main character and the heroine who will ultimately lead a revolution in this three-part series, is deeply flawed and yet tremendously likeable.
There is also a love triangle that will have you declaring for either team Peeta or team Gale. I am firmly team Gale, mostly because I can’t resist tall, dark and handsome. Don’t judge me too harshly.
Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson
The Girls in Love series is one I come back to again and again, even now.
Jacqueline Wilson is undoubtedly the queen of slightly (okay, more than slightly) traumatic reading, her work is full of broken homes, social issues such as poverty and mental health, and occasionally a dead friend that haunts you at school. But Jacqueline always strikes the right tone, making her stories relatable and in many ways, uplifting.
In the Girls in Love series, three best friends Ellie, Nadine and Magda are navigating their own dramas and differences.
Ellie is artistic, Nadine is a goth, and Magda couldn’t be more glamorous. Girls in Love shines a spotlight on the teenage experience.
On the surface, it may seem like getting a boyfriend is the most important thing in the world, but actually, it’s a band-aid for your insecurities. The whole series is full of laugh-out-loud moments, heartache, and the kind of friendship you long for.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A little something for the historical fiction fans, The Book Thief is essential reading for all ages.
This novel is set in 1938 and follows the story of an orphan named Liesel, who finds herself gradually exposed to the full horror of life in Germany at the time while living with a foster family.
After discovering a love of reading, she sets out to save books that have been earmarked for destruction by the regime.
If you’re a history geek like me, your first introduction to this period was probably Anne Frank’s diary (which I also cannot recommend strongly enough).
The Book Thief provides another lens through which to understand the fear and violence of the regime, cleverly narrated by Death itself, while also managing to remain hopeful for a brighter, kinder future in which everyone is free to express themselves without fear of retribution or discrimination.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Hugely popular and for very good reason, The Hate U Give is a modern classic inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her black best friend by a white police officer.
Amongst the devastation and grief, Starr is determined to seek justice. Though standing up to the police could put herself and everyone she loves in danger, she’s inspired to find her voice and become an activist.
Expect this book to put you through the emotional wringer. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll seethe, you’ll rage.
Thomas brings warmth and love to tragedy, crafting a whole cast of characters who go on intensely personal journeys of growth alongside our main character.
It’s a novel that is powerful and important, but also incredibly readable and guaranteed to find a permanent spot on your bookshelf.
One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Crime fiction with a delicious YA twist, One of Us is Lying is a book that I only recently got around to and I wish I hadn’t waited so long.
The concept is simple enough. Five students are sent to detention, but only four survive. It seems open and shut on paper. The driving force behind the school’s notorious gossip app dies after an allergic reaction. But was it an accident?
Intrigued? You absolutely should be. Suddenly, everyone has a motive and questions abound. How did peanut oil end up in the tap water? Who planted the phones that got this ragtag bunch sent to detention in the first place? What was the devastating secret Simon was about to reveal?
A compelling whodunnit that plays out in the halls of high school, this is a perfect mash-up for fans of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and true crime.
TTYL by Lauren Myracle
Reading this one in a world of social media and smartphones, you’ll definitely feel its age, but if you’re an elder millennial who lived through the dawn of MSN Messenger and AOL, there’s a lot of nostalgic charm to be found in The Internet Girls series.
The first book, TTYL, is told in the form of instant messages and charts the friendship of three girls – Maddie (mad maddie), Angela (SnowAngel), and Zoe (zoegirl) – as they navigate the age-old pitfalls of being a teenager.
Boys, underage drinking, weirdly flirty teachers, embarrassing pics popping up online and queen-bees… TTYL is an attempt to process everything in a punchy, surface-level format.
What I found most compelling about this series is that there are so many more layers to the plot. As you’d expect when you’re getting the story via IMs, you find yourself desperately hanging on for the latest update when messages are left on read and phones go unanswered.
The format makes me feel like one of the group, and these days, desperately nostalgic for logging on to MSN for an hour after school.
If you can’t relate to IMs, there was a 10th-anniversary reissue in 2014 that brought iPhones on-board.
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Editor’s note from Lucy: I’ve added this tenth choice to the list as one of the best young adult novels I remember reading as a teen. It’s such a striking book for readers of all ages, I even added it to my list of the best modern classic novels.
Noughts & Crosses is Malorie Blackman’s groundbreaking exploration of race, identity, and social injustice through the lens of a dystopian alternate reality.
The book tells the story of Sephy, a “Cross”, and Callum, a “Nought”, who fall in love in a society where the racial power dynamic is reversed from that of our world.
For more of the best books for young adults to read, head over to…
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