E.C. Myers, author of the excellent Fair Coinand Silence of Six series, defines the Young Adult genre as “books [that] generally feature protagonists who are discovering their world and their place in it, usually as individuals. They may be confronting and questioning the things that have always known, including their relationships and their own identity.”
Discovery is key when defining* YA books, as well as the age of the protagonists, who often fall in the 12- to 18-year range. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best Young Adult fiction of all time. From modern novels that are sure to be classics, like Lies We Tell Ourselves and Pointe, to classics that have inspired scores of readers over the decades, like A Wrinkle in Time and The Outsiders, these books are must reads.
Whether you’re just getting into YA or you’re a long-time reader, you’ll want to add these titles to your shelves. Enjoy browsing through the gallery to view the books listed in alphabetical order by title.
Editor’s Note: When it came time to define what is and what isn’t YA fiction, we excluded some beloved books from the list. You won’t find The Chronicles of Narnia, which is geared toward younger readers, or Harry Potter, whose beginning falls under middle-grade fiction. We recognize that these books and many more are exceptional reads, but they simply did not match our definition.
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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007)
A novel that's both heartbreaking and hilarious, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian introduces readers to Junior, a young cartoonist who leaves his reservation school behind… and transfers to an all-white school. He goes from being bullied at home to experiencing the same thing in a new environment, where he has to grapple with racism and stereotyping from his peers.
Written like a diary spanning Junior's school year, the novel invites us to view his family's struggles on the reservation and the alcoholism plaguing those closest to him as he wrestles to find his place in the outside world. It's a story exploring what it means to live the life you want, despite what everyone seems to be telling you, and tackles sexuality, racism, disability and loss.
Alexie's prose is accompanied by drawings from Eisner-nominated cartoonist Ellen Forney, which add to the book's humor and emotional impact.
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All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (2015)
When a young black teen named Rashad is violently beaten by a police officer in a local convenience store—to the point where he is hospitalized and missing day after day of school—the media scoops up the story. The brutal incident is caught on camera, yet everyone from Rashad's peers to citizens across the entire U.S. are divided on what actually happened.
And it's there that Quinn, Rashad's classmate, finds himself determining where his place will be in this story. As a witness to what happened, he's stayed quiet. And the police officer? He's Quinn's best friend's older brother.
Shifting back and forth between Rashad and Quinn's perspectives, All American Boys is a relevant read for today's teens witnessing similar, horrifying events in the news and on social media. It's important to face the world's realities, even when those realities are frightening. Especially when those realities are frightening. Because it shows that these stories—your stories—matter.
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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)
In Benjamin Alire Sáenz's award-winning novel, two teenagers wrestle with broken families and a complex friendship. There's Ari, quiet and reserved, dealing with the aftermath of his older brother's incarceration and his family's unwillingness to talk about it. And then there's Ari's best friend, Dante, who is loud and open.
The book tells the story of their friendship and blossoming feelings, while also dealing with their families. Why is Ari's brother in jail, and why does his family hide it from him? What happened to Ari's father in the war, and why is he so silent? What's it like for Dante, who is sure of his feelings, while Ari can't quite understand them?
Written in lyrical prose, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a narrative of love, friendship, race and sexuality that's impossible to put down.
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Ash by Malinda Lo (2009)
From Cinder to Beastly, Young Adult retellings of fairy tales are always popular. But Malinda Lo's Cinderella retelling, Ash, is the best of the best.
In this fresh take on the tale, Ash is a teen girl dealing with a cruel stepmother after her father dies. But when a fairy appears, it seems like she just might get whisked away to a better life, as promises are made for a better future. Sound familiar? Hold on.
Then Ash meets Kaisa, the king's Huntress. As a new friendship blooms between them and feelings begin to surface, Ash finds herself torn between two potential worlds: the magical one the fairy offers, and the real one with Kaisa.
This beautifully written LGBTQ+ novel retells a classic, and becomes a classic in its own right.
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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)
"I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right."
Markus Zusak's modern classic is set during World War II and introduces readers to Liesel Meminger, a young girl trying to survive in war-torn Germany. She steals books whenever she can, from Nazi book burning to libraries, saving them and finding fictional places in which to escape. Narrated by Death, the novel discusses love, loss and history in one incredibly powerful tome. Inhale the book, and after you've had a solid cry, maybe watch the movie.
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Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (2002)
Tanuja Desai Hidier's debut YA novel weaves a story about culture and wrestling with what you want vs. what your family wants for you. In Born Confused, we meet Dimple, a teen who has followed her family's rules throughout her whole life. But as the end of high school looms and Dimple's dealing with a breakup, her family decides to arrange a meeting with a boy they've deemed "suitable."
She's not thrilled with this decision. But surprise! Dimple finds the guy working as a DJ at a party, spinning music and living his life the way he wants. Humor and swoons are quick to follow.
"They say in the east you love the person you marry and in the west you marry the person you love. But maybe it's a lot simpler than that. Maybe you just love the person you love."
And 10 years after this entertaining book was released, Hidier published a sequel titled Bombay Blues to continue Dimple's adventures.
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Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (2013)
I'm going to count Gene Luen Yang's brilliant, two-volume graphic novel as one title. Volume one, Boxers, tells the story of Little Bao, who is forced to watch his people being taken advantage of by missionaries. Set during the Boxer Rebellion, the book follows Bao as he joins the rebellion against the Westerners. Volume two, Saints, reveals the other side of the conflict from the perspective of Vibiana, a girl who was forced out of her village and has finally found a home with the missionaries.
The heartbreaking narrative is gorgeously illustrated, promising a multifaceted exploration of a painful time in Chinese history.
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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014)
Jacqueline Woodson's striking memoir-in-verse highlights what it was like to grow up during the Civil Rights Movement. The book shifts from South Carolina to New York, offering a portrait-in-poetry of those respective places in the '60s and '70s.
Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the Newberry Honor and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction. In other words, this mixture of history and personal narrative told in stunning free verse is essential reading.
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The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
Chances are, you read (or are currently reading) The Giver in high school. Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning novel frequently makes its way into classrooms, and with good reason. Set in what appears like a utopia, the novel introduces a young boy named Jonas who lives in a pain-free society. The world runs on conformity and contentment—at the price of emotion. So when Jonas is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory and is introduced to past secrets, he finds himself questioning the world around him.
The Giver asks big questions about what people are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe. Would you give up all feeling and color for a life without crime or sickness? And how important is your individuality?
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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
The first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy introduces readers to teen orphan Lyra Belacqua. She has free reign living as a ward of Jordan College, exploring the grounds with her daemon, Pantalaimon. In her world, the souls of children are embodied within these magical beasts and serve as guides for their respective humans.
When Lyra's friend goes missing, taken by an organization that has been attempting to separate children from their daemons, she goes on a mission to save him…and potentially the world. A fantasy novel that touches on religion, belief and family, The Golden Compass proves as imaginative as it is heavy hitting.