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. What about Ender’s Game? I definitely read it as a teen. It’s a bit mature, but no more so than The Hunger Games.

    The Book Thief is another super-thought-provoking, challenging YA novel for the stalwart young reader….

  2. Loved and still love many of the books on your list! Have to voice my dissent about The Giver, though. Ugh. Also, I will add the Abarat series by Clive Barker to the list. IMHO, one of the best unique fantasy settings in literature.

  3. Ender’s Game is great, as is its companion, Ender’s Shadow. For the right kid, this can also lead to reading the rest of the books in the series, which are much more “adult” but very good.

    I also have to add a +1 for “Feed,” which is a really great book.

    Dune is definitely not technically YA, but it can be read that way – the coming of age of a kid who discovers that he’s been groomed since youth to be a kind of superhero. I like this one especially because it can be re-read over and over again as an adult, and it retains the joy and charm of reading it as a kid even as you discover the layers and layers of politics and ecology and science under it.

    The Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness, is also good and I haven’t seen anyone mention it yet.

    • I just finished the Chaos Walking trilogy. Brilliant brilliant stuff. Better – and significantly darker – than The Hunger Games, which I also loved.

    • I adored Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow and once I got a few years older I went back and read the rest of the series. Such great books. Dune was so great at about 14 but then when I tried to read the rest of the series at that time I just couldn’t wrap my head around it long enough to stay interested. Recently finished the series off though. :]

  4. What about Inkheart/Inkspell trilogy.

    Second the witch of blackbird pond, too!

  5. Great list! I loved The Giver (its still one of my favorite books to this day), and I also loved The Chocolate War. I’d add to this list – A Wrinkle in Time and The Catcher in the Rye. You could even put To Kill a Mockingbird on it, even though I don’t think thats classified as YA and a lot of high schools teach it.

    • I actually did not understand Catcher in the Rye until I was in university. It’s marketed as a YA novel, but I feel like it’s more apt for older teens. I just found Holden supremely obnoxious and felt bad for Phoebe.

  6. May I add:
    Aimee by Mary Beth Miller, it’s about a girl who is accused of killing her best friend, but she is acquitted and the story follows her dealing with the loss and everyone thinking she did it. I really enjoyed it=)

  7. Also, I think a lot of Jodi Picoult’s books – while they’re classified as ‘adult’ do deal with teenage situations. The Pact and Nineteen Minutes are 2 that come to mind that should be read and discussed in every middle/high school english class.

  8. Yes, Annie on my mind! Also, a similar one called Empress of the World, that’s about being true to yourself…Worked well for my straight, albeit curious self…on a side note, bring on the book posts!!

  9. Whilst I haven’t read The Outsiders or some of the others for nearly 20 years (?!) they were fantastic reads. I can’t dispute Twilight for bringing reading back into the spotlight either. Whilst it might be a shitty tween Mills and Boon style book, it encourages kids to have a read. Nothing wrong with that.

  10. Anything by Judy Blume.

    Also, The Graveyard Book might be the best coming of age story ever written. Neil Gaiman is wonderful.

    In middle school, our conservative librarian had my cousin read a bunch of novels and summarize them for her. I read one and couldn’t wait to read the other two in the series, but the librarian deemed them too “magical and subversive.” I spent years looking for the series because I couldn’t remember the author’s name. I was so excited when two years ago someone suggested I read Tamora Pierce, and I discovered that she was the unnamed but beloved author. I would say that the Alanna adventures where really spectacular.

    The same librarian also took away my copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond because it had the word witch in the title. Weird but true. My mother had to get it back for me.

    • MAN! I loved The Graveyard Book! I picked it up at a yard sale last year and read it in a day. Adored it.

  11. I’m a high school English teacher, and while I have a lot of negative thoughts about Twilight, I find something redeeming about the fact that they literally got millions of teenagers reading when reading wasn’t “cool.”

  12. I have to say, the true YA books that had the most profound and positive influence on me as a kid were book by Tamora Pierce. Strong realistic female characters. Great fantasy setting. Funny and emotional and multifaceted. She’s an amazing writer. I’m in college and I still love to read her books.

  13. I recently finished reading the Maze Runner series by James Dashner–a very interesting dystopian, science-fiction series. I highly recommend it.

  14. I was always reading through school and I had so many books that I just devoured. (Rarely any required reading though, now I’m reading those books and going WTF?! why didn’t I read this?!) I accidentally picked up The Giver for summer reading one year and absolutely loved it, along with the other two, but back in school it was actually the wrong book.

    I love all of Madeline L’Engle! I also really enjoyed Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow as a teenager. I’ve reread them a hundred times since, along with the rest of the series. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Sunshine all totally rocked my world. I remember Sunshine being such a pleasant surprise. Another series that rocked my world completely in about fifth grade were The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron. Also had a major obsession with Jack London and Gary Paulsen, but that was my whole scene haha.

    I cannot wait for my son to be old enough to enjoy some of my favorite childhood books.

  15. Okay, there was a series in my early teen hood about a house up on a hill that the girl traveled to the past in and the young male heir of it and her fell in love (Was a really good series).

    Cirque du Freak was a good thought provoking series.
    The Outsider’s, And Then There Were None, The Uglies, The Jessica Darling Series (Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Charmed Thirds, {Something fourths} and Perfect Fifths)

  16. I second the comment about John Green- I love all of his books. Always deep and thought provoking.

    Also, a series worth checking out is the Escape From Furnace series by Alexander Gordon Smith.

  17. I’m a former middle school/high school English teacher (and the only English teacher in the building with her own classroom library). Just finished Insurgent, the second book in the Divergent trilogy. I’ll probably read the third one when it comes out.

    I have to take issue with the title of this post, though, because while there’s plenty of YA crap out there, I think YA crap is proportional to the adult crap being published, so I really wish your title had been more positive.

    So did I miss it, or has no one mentioned the books of Chris Crutcher? I love Crutcher’s books. Chinese Handcuffs, Whale Talk, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, The Sledding Hill… I also got to see him speak twice, and I became an even bigger fan–and developed a little crush, I confess. His books are great for just about all audiences, I think.

    I also second Ender’s Game and Speak, and I can’t believe I haven’t read The Graveyard Book yet. (I started listening to the audiobook on a road trip, but we were in an accident in the middle. The guy who found my Macbook Pro, which we were using to listen to the book, in the snow several hours later says when he picked it up, the computer told him he needed a haircut. I assume that was the book, continuing where we left off.) I’m putting it back on my list.

    I’m off to the library tomorrow to borrow Struck, a new release. The protagonist is a girl who’s survived a lightning strike.

  18. Wow, these comments are bringing back a lot of memories. I loved A Day No Pigs Would Die (super depressing though) and Johnny Tremain. Also loved Tuck Everlasting. My favorite book of all time, since age 12, is To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy in about ten days. Sooooo addicting.

  19. John Marsden is an australian writer who was a favourite in my teen years, he wrote on some hard hitting topics in a fantastic way, like Dear Miffy, Letters From The Inside etc, but his Tomorrow When The War Began series of 7 books is outstanding. I think the first 3 are incredible and the rest range from good to ok, and the first is now a movie also.

  20. I co-run a youth outreach and I highly recommend anything by Ellen Hopkins. She is a fabulous woman and all of her YA novels go deep into real issues that face most teens or their friends.
    She has one adult novel so far and another coming out in a few weeks but I have read all of her books and met her twice and I think every adult and teen should read them.

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