When Holden Met Katniss: The 40 Best YA Novels - Rolling Stone
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When Holden Met Katniss: The 40 Best YA Novels

Beloved favorites, underground classics, controversial page-turners, sci-fi sagas and more

Best young adult Novels

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company; Scholastic; Dutton Books; Heinemann

In the past decade, young adult literature has gone from a loosely defined term describing books marketed to teenagers to a cultural force that has spawned such blockbuster hits as Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars (all of which have been made into movies, with Fault hitting theaters on June 6th). Trying to decide on the most essential books in the genre is a bit like trying to empty the ocean using a thimble. We've parsed through hundreds of stories about dystopian societies, supernatural love triangles, awkward first crushes and many a mixed-tape featuring the Smiths to bring you this core collection of classic staples and overlooked gems. Consider it your summer reading list. By Anna Fitzpatrick

I am the Messenger - Markus Zusak

Courtesy of Random House Kids

Markus Zusak, ‘I Am the Messenger’

2002, Pan Macmillan

Zusak has recently been on the public's radar as a result of the 2013 film adaptation of  his The Book Thief, but this earlier work of his is perhaps the better novel. An appropriately cinematic tale of a teenage cab driver on a mysterious mission, I Am the Messenger keeps the reader guessing until the last page.

Jacqueline Woodson, 'Miracle's Boys'

Courtesy of Speak

Jacqueline Woodson, ‘Miracle’s Boys’

2000, Putnam Juvenile

Charlie, Lafayette and Ty'ree are brothers, forced to take care of each other after the death of their mother. Woodson's novel reads like the spiritual successor to S.E. Hinton's the Outsiders, with a story about the hardships of growing up when everything feels weighted against you.

The Uglies - Scott Westerfeld

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Scott Westerfeld, ‘Uglies’

2005, Simon Pulse

Before Divergent, before The City of Bones, before The Hunger Games, there was The Uglies. A milestone in contemporary dystopian fiction, the book sees Westerfeld create a world in which one's Sweet 16 is celebrated with a forced extreme makeover. Of course, everything goes to hell when a couple of teen girls rebel against the system.

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein

Courtesy of Disney-Hyperion

Elizabeth Wein, ‘Code Name Verity’

2012, Egmont

Between this and her follow-up, Rose Under Fire, Wein is revealing herself to be a new master of young adult historical fiction. Nazi-occupied France serves as the backdrop for this book, in which a British spy plane crashes and its two young female occupants are taken prisoner. The story is told by Verity, as she is interrogated by Nazis under the threat of torture. Filled with twists and turns, Code Name Verity is not for the faint of heart. 

Mariko Tamaki, '(You) Set Me On Fire'

Courtesy of Razorbill

Mariko Tamaki, ‘(You) Set Me On Fire’

2012, Penguin Canada

Allison Lee is heading off to college, covered in scars – she has managed to set herself on fire on two separate occasions. Looking for a chance to reinvent herself, Allison becomes friends with the inscrutable Shar. Tamaki perfectly captures the intimacy and intensity unique to female friendships. 

The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater

Courtesy of Scholastic

Maggie Stiefvater, ‘The Raven Boys’

2013, Scholastic

Stiefvater writers fantasy stories that don't feel like fantasy stories, but rather more like the stuff of old myths and legends. In this densely written novel, she deftly weaves together a ghost tale, Welsh mythology and awkward teen love.

Andrew Smith, 'Grasshopper Jungle'

Dutton Juvenile

Andrew Smith, ‘Grasshopper Jungle’

2014, Dutton Juvenile 

Grasshopper Jungle is what would happen if Kurt Vonnegut wrote a YA book. Perpetually horny Austin Szerba accidentally unleashes an army of giant praying mantises and triggers the end of the world. This raunchy, bizarre, smart and compelling sci-fi novel defies description – it's best to go into it with an open mind and allow yourself to be first drawn in, then blown away.

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

J.D. Salinger, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

1951, Little, Brown & Co.

OK, you know about this one: Holden Caulfield, Salinger's 15-year-old protagonist on the verge of a mental breakdown, has long been considered the patron saint of teen angst. Though "Young Adult" was far from being an established genre when this book was published, not putting it on a list like this would feel like a grave oversight.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Benjamin Alire Saenz, ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’

2012, Simon & Schuster

Two boys with completely different personalities become fast friends during one summer, each seeking refuge from their our troubled universe in the other. As their friendship intensifies, so does their understanding of the type of people they want to be in the world.

Meg Rosoff How I Live Now

Courtesy of Wendy Lamb Books

Meg Rosoff, ‘How I Live Now’

2004, Penguin

In this modern fable, New Yorker Daisy is sent to live with her cousins on a farm in England. When a fictional war breaks out, they become isolated from the rest of the world. What first feels idyllic soon turns into a fight for survival. Though the plot might sound epic in scope, the story is told in intimate, lyrical prose. 

J.K, Rowling, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'

Courtesy of Scholastic

J.K, Rowling, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

2003, Bloomsbury

Harry Potter is the rare series that, over the course of its seven books, makes the transition from kid-lit to teen fare. This fifth Potter book is probably the most divisive, but the series is never angstier than it is in The Order of the Phoenix. Those who grew up with Harry remember this as the book in which our beloved boy wizard finally grew up.

Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell

Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Rainbow Rowell, ‘Eleanor & Park’

2013, St. Martin's Press

Rainbow Rowell seemed to burst out of nowhere in 2013 with two blockbuster novels (the other being Fangirl). Set in 1986, Eleanor & Park  is a story of first love told through mixtapes, comic books, secret phone calls and passed notes.

The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath

Courtesy of Heinemann

Sylvia Plath, ‘The Bell Jar’

1963, Heinemann

A towering, groundbreaking classic, this novel, about a college student in New York struggling with extreme depression, has inspired generations of teen girls to become writers. The story of Esther Greenwood is as relevant now as it was when it was first published five decades ago. 

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen - Susin Nielsen

Courtesy of Tundra Books

Susin Nielsen, ‘The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen’

2012, Tundra Books

Nielsen takes a look at some of the more dramatic effects high school bullying can have. Henry is attempting to rebuild his life after his older brother pulled the trigger in a murder/suicide, taking the life of one of his classmates with him. This heartbreaking book examines the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder through a perspective not often considered. 

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

Courtesy of Candlewick Press

Patrick Ness, ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

2008, Walker

In Prentisstown, the population is constantly shrinking, the women are nonexistent and everyone can hear each other's thoughts. On the cusp of his 13th birthday, Todd is delivered the cryptic news that he is in danger and must leave behind everything he knows. This harrowing and immersive book completely reimagines the possibilities of dystopian young adult fiction.

Marie Lu, 'Legend'

Courtesy of Speak

Marie Lu, ‘Legend’

2011, Penguin

Lu presents a dystopian version of the United States in which everything is turned up to 11. June and Day come from completely different backgrounds: she's wealthy and privileged, he's a criminal. When June's brother is murdered, Day becomes the prime suspect. But as the story unfolds, neither one are quite who they were first thought to be.

Malinda Lo, 'Adaptation'

Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Malinda Lo, ‘Adaptation’

2012, Little Brown & Co.

Malinda Lo co-runs the blog Diversity in YA, and understands the need for exciting, fast-paced stories that feature characters often absent from the mainstream. Adaptation is a sci-fi thriller about a teenage girl who wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there, only to find out the world has gone to hell.

Boy Meets Boy - David Levithan

Courtesy of Random House Kids

David Levithan, ‘Boy Meets Boy’

2003, Alfred A. Knopf

In this groundbreaking novel, Levithan imagines a version of small town America in which homosexuality is embraced and celebrated. The story focuses on Paul, a gay high schooler trying to navigate his relationships, both platonic and romantic. 

Alice, I Think - Susan Juby

Courtesy of HarperCollins

Susan Juby, ‘Alice, I Think’

2000, Thistledown Press

This funny, charming novel, the first of a trilogy, follows hapless and ungainly Alice MacLeod as she makes the transition back to regular school after being homeschooled for a year. Filled with larger-than-life side characters and awkward moments that resonate, this is an underrated book.

The Summer Prince - Alayna Dawn Johnson

Courtesy of Scholastic

Alaya Dawn Johnson, ‘The Summer Prince’

2013, Arthur A. Levine

In this dystopian fantasy set in a futuristic version of Brazil, June Costas creates art to rebel against (what else) an oppressive government regime. She finds an unlikely ally in Enki, the universally beloved Summer King, who reciprocates her need to make sense of a chaotic society through art.

David Iserson, 'Firecracker'

Courtesy of Razorbill

David Iserson, ‘Firecracker’

2013, Razorbill

Iserson's background as a comedy writer (he worked for TV shows including The New Girl and Saturday Night Live) shines through in this laugh-out-loud novel. Spoiled and borderline-sociopathic, Astrid gets kicked out of her ritzy boarding school after getting caught cheating. To teach her a lesson, Astrid's parents send her to public school. Though, admittedly, really hard to like at times, Astrid is ultimately a character with a lot of heart. Don't be surprised if this seemingly light novel creeps under your skin.

The Outsiders - S.E. Hinton

Courtesy of Viking Press

S.E. Hinton, ‘The Outsiders’

1967, Viking Press

As the legend goes, Susan Eloise Hinton was a mere 15 years old when she began writing this story about a group of Oklahoma greasers. Frustrated with not seeing any characters in fiction that resembled the people she knew, Hinton created the characters of Ponyboy, Sodapop, Darry and the rest of the gang.

Born Confused - Tanuja Desai Hidier

Courtesy of Scholastic

Tanuja Desai Hidier, ‘Born Confused’

2002, Scholastic

Dimple Lala is a New Jersey teenager of Indian ancestry, existing in that murky cross section between two cultures and feeling as if she doesn't really belong to either. Dimple's story of trying to make sense of what it means to be an American girl (when your skin color and cultural background don't match that of your classmates) is a charming if sometimes painful one about finding a place in the world.

John Green, 'The Fault in Our Stars'

Courtesy of Dutton Books

John Green, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’

2012, Dutton Books

This story about two kids that meet in a cancer support group has made its way into the pop culture lexicon, especially with the film adaptation starring Shailene Woodley due out in early June. What really makes Green's novel shine, however, is not its tearjerker ending, but the witty, insightful voice of narrator Hazel Grace.

The House of the Scorpion - Nancy Farmer

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Nancy Farmer, ‘The House of the Scorpion’

2002, Atheneum Books

The House of the Scorpion is one of those novels that was written for teenagers, yet finds its way onto many adult's bookshelves. It tells the story of Matteo Alacran, a teenage clone, created from the DNA of a dangerous drug lord. Farmer is an expert at keeping readers in suspense: the much-anticipated sequel to this page-turner, The Lord of Opium, was published last year, after an 11-year-gap. 

Walter Dean Myers, 'Monster'

Courtesy of HarperCollins

Walter Dean Myers, ‘Monster’

1999, HarperCollins

Accused of involvement in a violent crime, 16-year-old Steve is on trial for his life. Monster is written in the form of a movie script, with Steve acting as the screenwriter, adding to the story as the events unfold. This is a disturbing novel about the justice system, and what it means to be young and black in America.

If You Could Be Mine - Sara Farizan

Courtesy of Workman Publishing

Sara Farizan, ‘If You Could Be Mine’

2013, Algonquin Young Readers

Sahar and Nasrin are two teen girls and lifelong best friends living in Iran. They are also in love. Though homosexuality is considered a taboo in their society, gender reassignment surgery is not – and Sahar is desperate enough to be with her girlfriend that she considers the latter option. 

Sharon M. Draper Romiette and Julio

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

Sharon M. Draper, ‘Romiette and Julio’

2001, Simon Pulse

In this updated version of Shakespeare's classic, teenagers Romiette and Julio draw the ire of a local gang, who disprove of interracial dating (Romiette is black; Julio is Hispanic). Forbidden love is nothing new in young adult fiction, but the stakes never feel higher than in Draper's take.

Katie Coyle, 'Vivian Versus the Apocalypse'

Courtesy of Hot Key Books

Katie Coyle, ‘Vivian Versus the Apocalypse’

2013, Hot Key Books

You would be forgiven for missing this quiet but powerful book about a Westboro Baptist-style cult by first-time novelist Katie Coyle. Released last year in the U.K., this book will hit the U.S. next year under the name Vivian Apple at the End of the World. (Though author Coyle is herself American – got it?) When a so-called rapture causes the disappearance of her parents (along with most of the adults in her neighborhood), Vivian and her best friend set out on a road trip across America to seek out answers. 

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Courtesy of Scholastic

Suzanne Collins, ‘The Hunger Games’ (Trilogy)

2008, Scholastic

There was a moment late last year when you couldn't open your browser window without reading a think piece on Catching Fire. In this dystopian Battle Royale With Cheese franchise, of which The Hunger Games is the first installment, kids are forced to fight to the death in a reality-TV style competition – that is, until teenage Katniss Everdeen becomes the reluctant leader of a rebellion against the ruling powers. You've seen the movies, but, if you haven't yet, you need to read the books. 

Gingerbread - Rachel Cohn

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Rachel Cohn, ‘Gingerbread’

2002, Simon Pulse

Much to her parents' chagrin, Cyd Charisse is young, wild and reckless. After one act of teenage rebellion too many, Cyd's mother sends her to New York to stay with her estranged birth father. Convinced she has life all figured out, Cyd is caught off guard when she arrives in a new city to a cold, distant father and half-siblings that are total strangers.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Stephen Chbosky, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

1999, MTV Books

Charlie isn't much of a doer – he prefers to observe life rather than participate in it. That is, until, he starts high school and falls in with a group of misfits that spend their time making zines and staging versions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This charming, deceptively heavy little novel beautifully depicts the sense of relief that comes with finding your tribe.


The Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot

Courtesy of HarperCollins

Meg Cabot, ‘The Princess Diaries’

2000, HarperTrophy

Probably best known for its 2001 film adaptation starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, Cabot's book (the first in a series) is much giddier and wryer than the sentimental onscreen version. New Yorker Mia Thermopolis is thrown out of her element when she is told, out of the blue, that she is heir to the throne of a small European principality. 

Beauty Queens - Libba Bray

Courtesy of Scholastic

Libba Bray, ‘Beauty Queens’

2011, Scholastic

Bray proves again that she is the master of mixing genres with this updated feminist satirical version of Lord of the Flies. After a plane carrying a bunch of teen beauty pageant contestants crashes onto a deserted island, the girls realize they must forget what they know about posing and eyelash curlers and instead fight for their survival. 

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants - Anne Brashares

Courtesy of Random House Kids

Anne Brashares, ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’

2003, Random House

Four lifelong best friends are about to spend their first summer apart. When they discover a pair of blue jeans that fit each one of them as if by magic, the four girls decide to use them to keep in touch with one another while they set off on different adventures. Sure, a pair of pants may not seem like likely subject matter for an emotional coming of age story, but Brashares makes it work.

Shipbreaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

Paolo Bacigalupi, ‘Ship Breaker’

2010, Little Brown and Co.

In a dystopian version of the United States, 15-year-old Nailer is forced to scavenge for materials to help him and his father get by. It is while doing this that he rescues the wealthy Nita, sole survivor of a recent shipwreck. Bacigalupi tells a fast-paced, exciting story without sacrificing substance. 

Forever - Judy Blume

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Judy Blume, ‘Forever…’

1975, Bradbury Press

Blume wrote this novel about a first love after her daughter complained that there were no books available that matter-of-factly depicted sex between teenagers. Though pretty tame by today’s standards, Forever… was met with a wave of controversy and outrage upon first publication. 

Malorie Blackman, 'Noughts and Crosses'

Courtesy of Random House

Malorie Blackman, ‘Noughts & Crosses’

2001, Random House

In this British series, of which Noughts & Crosses is the first book, an alternate history is imagined in which white people were once enslaved and continue to act as second-class citizens to a black ruling class. With this reversal, Blackman takes on the ambitious project of dissecting the way racial privilege works while telling the story of two star-crossed teenage protagonists.

Laurie Halse Anderson, 'Speak'

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Laurie Halse Anderson, ‘Speak’

1999, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Anderson has written more than a half-dozen novels for teenagers, but it is her first book that is the most visceral and iconic. Speak, a story about a high school freshman trying to cope with the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault, was adapted into a movie in 2004 starring a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart. 

Sherman Alexie, 'Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian'

Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Sherman Alexie, ‘Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

2007, Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Junior is ready to leave the Spokane Indian Reservation, where he has lived the first 14 years of his life, and venture off into the all-white high school in the next town over. Ellen Forney’s hilarious illustrations offset Alexie's sharp, sometimes painful novel about surviving high school as an outsider. 

In This Article: Books, Hunger Games

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