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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

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.