10 Young Adult novels that don’t suck

Guest post by Megan Davies Mennes
Yep.. The Hunger Games is on here. Photo by GoodNCrazy, used under Creative Commons license.

As a middle school English teacher, I’ve read a lot of young adult literature and, quite frankly, there’s a lot of crap out there (I won’t even climb on my anti-Twilight soapbox). Navigating the muddy waters of YA lit can be akin to, well, teaching middle school, but there really are some amazing reads in this genre.

As a result, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. Some are old standbys, while others are recent publications. They all deal with a greater theme worth discussing and a style that even grown-ups can appreciate. And for those of you who were racking your brains for ways to connect with your adolescent daughter that don’t involve vampires or LMFAO, you’re welcome.

The Outsiders

Hinton’s requisite novel of classism and coming-of-age tells the story of Ponyboy, an orphan from the wrong side of the tracks. He and his fellow greasers are constantly at war with the Socs, the West-side rich kids who enjoy picking fights with the poor kids in town. Not only is the story a timeless struggle of classism and the danger of stereotypes, but the non-stop action and relatable characters make this one hard to put down.

The Giver
The original dystopian novel for kids, The Giver is set in a futuristic world without choice or true emotion. The main character, Jonas, begins to see that things can change for himself and his people after being given an honored, yet painful role in his community. Lowry took her time writing two sequels to the novel, Gathering Blue and The Messenger respectively, and once you reach the ambiguous ending of the original, you’ll be scouring your local library for the next volumes in the series.

The Hunger Games
There’s not much I really need to say about this one, as the recent media hype surrounding the movie has likely clued you in to the plot. I will mention the important message this novel sends to a world increasingly obsessed with spectacle, even at the expense of our fellow man. At the rate our society is devolving, it may only be a matter of time before we’re watching our children kill each other for sport.

We all knew someone in middle or high school who was quiet, strange, and sometimes bullied for the aforementioned qualities, and in Speak we see the world through that person’s eyes. Of course, like many of the wallflowers we once knew, this protagonist, Melinda, is haunted by a memory that transforms her from normal adolescent to ostracized leper who refuses to speak. My one recommendation is that you avoid the Wikipedia page for this novel because it gives the damn secret away in the first sentence of the synopsis (though you’ll probably infer it yourself within the first few pages).

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Set in Mississippi in the 1930’s, this coming-of-age novel follows the Logans, a tight-knit African American family living in the Jim Crow South. Cassie, our narrator, is too young to fully comprehend the level of racism that she’ll endure throughout her life, but we witness a series of injustices through her innocent eyes. Based on all they experience, the Logan children are a symbol of the generation that becomes champions of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for equality.

Told through a series of letters, diary entries, and court reports, Monster is the fictional account of 16-year-old Steve Harmon’s murder trial. The young African American is suspected of serving as a lookout while older guys from his neighborhood rob a convenience store, but the clerk is killed and Harmon is charged for felony murder. As the plot unfolds, we see that this kid, who’s been forced to act callous and indifferent on the mean street of Harlem, is truly a scared little boy facing the possibility of a life behind bars.

Nothing But The Truth

Also told in a similar style to Monster, this book follows the media frenzy after a kid is sent to the principal for reciting the pledge. The kid, who is a trouble-making little punk just trying to get a rise out of his teacher, is portrayed on the news as a true patriot who has been denied the right to honor his country in a public school classroom. A circus ensues, and the veteran teacher responsible for disciplining the student is attacked in the media and threatened with her job and a civil rights lawsuit. This novel is a quick read and a true testament to the damage done by irresponsible journalism bent on sensationalism.

The Chocolate War
Tensions run high when prep school boys are forced to sell chocolate as a campus fundraiser and uphold the social hierarchies of the time. Think Lord of the Flies meets Gossip Girl meets Dead Poets Society. The novel often appears at the top of banned book lists (my own litmus test for awesome), and its controversy is the reason every teenager should read it.

This is the one book on this list that comes with a disclaimer: the language can be a bit crass. But if you’re willing to understand the reason behind said language (a statement on the deterioration of proper speech), then it’s easy to overlook. Set in a future in which all humans are wired with a feed of information which allows them to chat with one another telepathically, learn about the latest and greatest products for sale, and even reach a state of intoxication by purposefully causing their feeds to malfunction, the novel is a satirical warning of excessive consumerism and an increasing lack of privacy as our world shrinks with technology.

Make Lemonade
Written in verse, this novel follows Verna LaVaughn, a 14-year-old high school student who offers to help 17-year-old Jolly babysit her two small children from different fathers. Jolly struggles financially and emotionally to raise her kids without anyone’s help, but Verna’s willingness to lend a hand changes both of their lives forever. Powerful, poignant, and heartbreakingly hopeful, Make Lemonade will remind you how amazing life can be when you’re willing to open yourself up to the experiences of others.

Comments on 10 Young Adult novels that don’t suck

  1. Those are good books. I still have make lemonade and roll of thunder hear my cry, the giver, and speak and the outsiders on my bookshelf. I will pick up make lemonade and read it at least once a year.
    I can’t wait until my kids can read well enough to read these. I’m pretty sure that passing on beloved children book is the reason I i have kids.

  2. I LOOOOVE YA novels – particularly how plot-driven they usually are. Love the classics on here (it should be noted that S.E. Hinton was 16 when she wrote The Outsiders!), and excited to read some of the picks that are new to me. Thanks!

  3. What a fantastic list! I remember how “The Giver” blew my freaking mind as a kid. It was like someone handed me perspective bound in paper. WOW. I am excited to read more quality YA fiction as my kids get older so I can discuss it with them (even it is against their will…)

  4. Go Ask Alice is a good one from when I was a teen. Such a powerful book about being a teen and the pressures of cliques, growing and life.

      • I always felt Go Ask Alice was preachy and contrived- and this coming from a dedicated drug free teenager (and adult). It felt so much like those horrible movies they made us watch in driving school- “if you drive you WILL DIE A HORRIBLE SMEARY DEATH!” “if you do drugs you WILL SELL YOUR BODY FOR SOME SMACK” It’s not a genuine account of drug use.

        Yes, bad things happen and kids should know that, but if presented as the whole (and sole) truth, it doesn’t honor their intelligence, and might have the opposite effect.

        I think kids should read it, but with a disclaimer that ‘just like everything else, think about this critically before taking it at its word”.

  5. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a recent YA novel that I couldn’t put down. It’s set in a near-future San Francisco, where ubiquitous surveillance and guilty-until-proven-innocent attitudes get the innocently subversive protagonists in real trouble. It touches on racial privilege and awkward teenage love in addition to the main thread that privacy is not just for those with something to hide.

  6. Love this list, there are a couple I haven’t read which means yay! To amazon I go!

    I’d really recommend checking out the Sweep series by Cate Tiernan, a great fantasy series/love story to replace Twilight. It’s a great series about a young girl who comes to terms with being a witch after a boy moves to town and shows her how to access magic. It sounds childish but it’s very much not Harry Potter, it’s more like The Craft. I really recommend it to young adults, or parents trying to remember what it was like to be a teen.

  7. I would like to recomend Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.
    ‘In 1995 Walk Two Moons won the Newbery Medal, the United Kingdom Reading Association Award, and the United Kingdom’s Children’s Book Award. In 1996, it received the WH Smith Mind-Boggling Book Award. In 1997, it also won the Literaturhaus Award, Austria, and the Young Adult Sequoyah Award, Oklahoma, USA’
    I didn’t know about these awards until wikipedia informed me… I just remember being totally swept away by this book as a 12 year old. I haven’t read it since, I guess I sort of forgot about it but reading this list of YA fiction is bringing back a lot of memories. Loved Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry as well as the rest of the series. Speak was also memorable.

    • Absolutely! I also liked the prequel to Walk Two Moons, Absolutely Normal Chaos.

      Other. Favourites included anything by Madeleine L’engle, and books with female protagonists (Laura Ingalls Wilder – though those ones were read when younger; Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm, Nancy Drew, Bobsy Twins, Boxcar Children, Narnia series, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Indian Captive, etc)

      I also really liked stories by Eric Wilson about two siblings who would solve mysteries, like Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys, but set in Canadian cities.

      Oh and Rohld Daul (I don’t think I’m spelling it right). I wish I had more of my favourites at my apartment. I don’t often reread “adult” books, but I happily devour my favourite books from childhood.

      I’m not sure what young adult refers to though – most of these books were being read from 8 or 9 on. By the time I was in grade 6 (I’m thinking I was 11 or 12 then), I was reading books from my parents shelves, often John Grisham novels. I do recall in my grade 4 class, my teacher had extra books for two of us to choose from because our reading comprehension skills were above our level – I read a lot of stories based around the Holocaust / WW2 that year.

      Oh, and Kit Pearson novels. I had to look up the name of the book, but I really liked “A Handful of Time”, and read that one many times too.

      My most re-read books were Walk Two Moons, True Confessions, Indian Captive, A Handful of Time, the Giver, all of Madeleine L’Engle, and all of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I still have most of these here with me now, and do enjoy sitting down and reading them still!

      The box set that had Indian Captive and Walk Two Moons had a third book, but I can’t remember the title – it was about a spunky medieval girl who refused to marry the suitors that her parents were attempting to force her to marry. iI really like that one, too, but can’t remember the title of that book.

  8. Oh, The outsiders! I have just had a major flashback to high school…I remember reading it in class and the teacher being impressed that it connected with every one of us, male and female, that is pretty impressive I think! I highly recommend the early works of aussie author Melinda Marchetta (only because I havent read any of the latest stuff!), it is definitely more for girls but I found them really really relatable!

  9. +1 on The Giver, Speak, Feed and Roll of Thunder! Other authors I loved as a kid/teen (well, and still) include Jerry Spinelli, E.L. Konigsberg and Tamora Pierce. The Watsons Go To Birmingham is another great book about civil rights and race relations from a kid’s perspective.

  10. Why is the title of this piece “10 Young Adult Novels that Don’t Suck”? It implies that most other YA novels do, in fact, suck — and that is patently false. YA is nothing more or less than a publishing category, one which has long contained some truly fabulous literature.

    • Many of the most popular YA novels right now are all very similar to Twilight for some reason or another, usually a romance plot with little character or other overarching plot, written in the soapiest writing style possible. There are many YA authors out there who are just looking for a buck, and follow the formulas.
      However, most of my favorites are YA. They have been the most life-changing, with characters who feel like friends at the end of the book. Few adult novels make me feel that way.
      It’s kinda hard to tell which is which until you are reading the book, so this post has been nice. I will have to check out Walk Two Moons, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Monster, and Nothing But The Truth. Thanks OBM!

      • I was just going to say this!

        A lot of YA titles nowadays seemed to have gone the way of Twilight. Simplistic writing, with Mary-Sue characters and not thought-provoking. Which is unfortunate because it gives the category a bad rep, and decent books/authors are overlooked.

        But this can be said about literature in general. I think a lot of books nowadays are being “dumbed-down” because society wants quick entertainment (TV, movies, etc), so books are starting to follow suit…which is disappointing.

      • I actually don’t agree. I think we’re in a golden age of YA right now. And even if this were true, you could just as easily make that statement about ANY publishing category — most of it will probably suck.

        • I’m with Leah. If you really think YA is all crap right now, please go check out the blog Forever Young Adult.

          Then read anything you can get your hands on by Sara Zarr, John Green, E. Lockhart, Jay Asher, Libba Bray, and a host of other brilliant and creative writers who just happen to write YA fiction.

  11. I was so excited to see this list! I absolutely loved some of the novels I read when I was that age, and I still read a few of them. I’m excited to read Speak, as I’ve never heard of it. The Giver is still one of my all-time favorites. To the list, I humbly add The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Letters from Rifka. Also, the trilogy of Juniper, Wise Child, and Colman by Monica Furlong.

  12. I’d recommend Madeleine L’Engle’s The Austin Family series. It mainly follows Vicky Austin’s adolescence and she has some pretty awesome adventures including getting stuck on an iceberg in Antarctica.

      • I sobbed my way through A Ring of Endless Light, as Vicky fell into her depression, but it was such a fabulous book! I still have it on my bookshelf and read it periodically.

        Also, can I just say how awesome it is that the barn was turned into a house? That always intrigued me as a kid.

      • A Ring of Endless Light helped me grieve the loss of three friends and my father– at ages 16, 18, 19, and 20. It’s stayed with me and seems to get better each time I read it. And I will love Adam forever.

    • THIS. Really, anything she’s written is great. I remember seeing her, Jane Yolen, and Bruce Coville doing a panel at a con on YA and banned books. Tammy said, “Hi, my name is Tammy Pierce, and I write books about girls who kick butt.” Jane said, “Hi, I’m Jane and I also write books about girls who kick butt.”

      Bruce leaned in and said, “Hi, I’m Bruce and I write books about butts.”

      Speaking of which-while generally a younger audience, Bruce Coville is also great. Unicorn Chronicles is finally complete, and made me cry.

      Jane Yolen is also great.

  13. I remember reading The Outsiders in junior high. It was manditory reading in our English class…for grade 7? Grade 8? One of those, I can’t remember. STAY GOLDEN PONYBOY!

    The Giver was mandatory reading in elementary school, but I think now it’s been bumped up to junior high.

  14. I’m just finishing my second read-through of Hunger Games. I’ve read or am familiar with most of the books on that list, and I want to make some contributions, too!

    Bridge to Terabithia, Shiloh, Maniac McGee, Crash, That was Then, This is Now (sequel to The Outsiders), seconding Letters from Rifka, Number the Stars … The Phantom Tollbooth!

    Okay, some of those are a little lower than YA level. But still very, very enjoyable books to read and discuss.

  15. Definitely recommend “The Thief” and it’s sequels by Megan Whalen Turner.
    The Giver is a classic.
    Also: Maniac Magee, Calico Captive (and The Witch of Blackbird Pond), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Mr. Was, The Golden Compass, Ella Enchanted, Winter of Fire, Airborn (by Kenneth Oppel), Tuck Everlasting, The Goose Girl…Ugh, SOOO many good YA books out there. I frequently get irritated when I find YA books in the Childrens’ section of our library, because I feel like the ones who need to read them most are going to shy away from “childrens’ books” (I did get my library to move two books to YA by pointing out rape or attempted rape scenes).

    • Winter of Fire is still one of my favorite books. It manages to deal with adult situations without being depressing, and it ends on a hopeful high note. Plus it has a strong female lead who seems like a real person (not an unattainable stereotype). Definitely recommend!

    • Oh, yes, I really loved The Thief. And found out that there are three other books in the series, too!

      I would also second (or third, or fifth, or whatever) the Tamora Pierce books. I also love Mercedes Lackey, and the Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop. I loved Nothing But The Truth, and another book in that vein is The Day They Came to Arrest the Book by Nat Hentoff, about the attempt to censor Huck Finn in a school. And of course there’s my old favorite, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

      There are a ton of really awesome YA books out there. And the best of them speak to every single person that reads them.

  16. I unabashedly love young adult literature – including so many books on this list and in the comments! – but right now I’m going through a children’s lit phase.

    I’m rereading a lot of my old favorites (Anastasia Krupnik! Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade!) and wondering if there are any more contemporary (read: not 70s-80s) kids books that people love.

    • Oh, god, Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade! My favourite book until I was like 12. I read it so many times the binding broke and I had to tape the covers back on.

    • so, it’s not exactly contemporary, but it’s more late 90s than 70s-80s: The Adventures of Blue Avenger is one of my offbeat favorite young adult books – perfectly bizarre and hilarious while still being real enough to be appealing.

      and a couple (of older ones) that haven’t been mentioned yet:
      Nicobobinus – the “story of nicobobinus, the boy who could do anything, and his friend rosie, and how they set off one morning to find the land of dragons” is, obviously, awesome.
      and susan cooper’s The Dark is Rising series are some of the best books i’ve read (even now, on re-reading them as more of a jane austen/hemmingway/classics fan and less of a sci-fi/fantasy kid).

  17. I want to note something that bothered me throughout middle school and high school. All of these books have a fabulous reputation and the ones on this list that I have read deserve it. However, a lot of these books are depressing. They deal with very heavy topics and are often quite sad. Being a young adult is extremely difficult, and often the kids required to read these books throughout school are suffering from depression, anxiety, or other alienating disorders. Some lighter, happier YA books should be encouraged as well; I’d love to see some non-depressing literature added to teenage required reading lists.

    • Yes. I remember every book on the summer reading list going into ninth grade was either depressing or tear jerking. As a depressed teenager who read for escapism it was … rough.

    • I see your point, but I would also like to point out that there is value in young adults being able to see their struggles reflected on the page.

      • this.
        Ten years ago I’m not sure I would have felt connected to something upbeat. I also found the bits of light-heartedness that appeared in the “depressing” reading all the more meaningful for their context.

    • The problem is, light books are great, but they don’t teach you anything, and they don’t make you think. The books I returned to over and over were always the ones that made me think, or made me reexamine something about the world. Sure, I would read some light stuff, but most of those books made no lasting impressions.

      Oddly enough, I think “dark” YA books are often more relaxing than their adult counterparts, because they include more small jokes. They tell you that you can be light-hearted, no matter how serious the situation.

      The most appealing thing about a lot of those books, too, was that most were about other kids. Kids who were caught in their circumstances, usually put there by well-intentioned grown-ups who didn’t listen. And it’s always nice to have reassurance that your parents aren’t the only ones who don’t listen.

    • This. When I was in the YA target demographic, I didn’t need literature to make me think about themes like the ones in these books. Real life was forcing me to think about them constantly. My favorite books were the ones that granted me an escape.

  18. I have to put in a plug here for books by John Green, most recently The Fault in Our Stars These are well-written, sometimes troubling, but always hopeful at the end. And, all but TFIOS have teenage male protagonists (dealing with things like feelings), so may relate better to boys than a lot of the popular books.

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