My smell test for this list was simple: Which novels do teenagers themselves think are incredible? Which ones do they recommend to their friends? Which ones do they want to own, rather than borrow? As a grown-up, and therefore an interloper, figuring this out took a little detective work. I confess to eavesdropping, Twitter-stalking and the like in pursuit of the answers.
I consider this test especially important when it comes to realistic Y.A. novels, the ones that take place in the world as we know it. That is because while audience research shows that all of Y.A has a strong following among adults over age 21, I strongly suspect that it is the Y.A. fantasy novels (paging Leigh Bardugo, Sabaa Tahir, Neal Shusterman) that cross over most frequently into the lives of adult readers.
Of course, the excellent, realistic contemporary novels below are clearly enjoyed by adult readers — like me! But my evidence suggests that they have been cherished in an extra-special, even life-changing way by teenagers, and will continue to hit that sweet spot for the newest crop of kids to discover them.
‘The Hate U Give,’ by Angie Thomas
This has been a staple of best seller lists for few years now, and for good reasons: It provides an ideal story to help teenagers think through questions of justice, racism, activism and personal responsibility, and it’s got catchy writing, perfect pacing and emotional smarts to boot. After a black student at a mostly white private school witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed friend, she has to decide whether or not to speak up and pursue justice for him and for her community. There are also many appealing characters and dramatic moments. (The movie is great too — but don’t let it take the place of reading this gem.)
‘Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel,’ by Val Emmich
Yes, it’s a hit Broadway musical, in the form of a novel — and it works. Both onstage and on the page, the story expertly dissects teenagers’ tortured relationships with popularity and social media. A lonely, anxious teenager writes notes to himself on the advice of his therapist. One of them falls into the hands of a deeply troubled classmate who commits suicide. Partly to help the bereaved parents, Evan pretends he and the boy were close, but struggles under the weight of his secret. The novel fills in scenes only alluded to in the musical, and fleshes out peripheral characters.
‘I’ll Give You the Sun,’ by Jandy Nelson
This heartfelt, breathlessly told novel takes teenagers’ emotional lives seriously without being either sappy or gloomy. An artistic boy named Noah narrates half the story and his daredevil twin sister, Jude, tells the other half. The siblings are close until a family drama wrenches them apart, and they must find their way back to each other. Each experiences an exhilarating romance — Noah’s is with another boy — and an earnest struggle to figure out where their passions in life truly lie.
‘The Poet X,’ by Elizabeth Acevedo
This gorgeous, award-winning novel in verse tells the story of a quiet Dominican-American girl from a religious family who scribbles her frustrations in a notebook and learns to speak her truth when she joins her school’s slam poetry club. There’s a sweet, forbidden romance and an inspiring story of finding your own creative voice. The book’s enduring popularity is a powerful reminder that teenagers groove on poetry, especially when it’s geared to the realities of their lives.
‘We Were Liars,’ by E. Lockhart
This one is a clever psychological thriller and an insightful family saga all in one. A privileged teenager named Cadence, who spends summers on an island owned by generations of her mother’s family, narrates an addictively enigmatic story. Something is amiss on the island, and a sudden tragedy only deepens the mystery — until all is explained in a shocking ending that will make you want to start the book all over again.
‘The Sun Is Also a Star,’ by Nicola Yoon
This novel delivers a romance that is mind-blowing in the best way. Natasha is a science-minded Jamaican girl who is hours away from being deported because of a paperwork error. Daniel is a Korean-American guy who has always been “the good son,” even when it goes against his poetic nature. They meet and catch one others’ eyes while literally crossing the street, and they — and we — have to picture all the improbable ways their futures could work together.
‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ by John Green
Published way back in 2012, this modern classic may already have produced more tears than any book in existence — and that is a good thing, because every teenager needs a genuine emotional workout now and then. Even better when that comes in a plot-driven story written in effortlessly engaging prose. Hazel Grace is a 16-year-old with cancer. At a patient support group she meets 17-year-old Augustus, who’s already lost a leg to cancer. Together they pursue a mysteriously missing writer all the way to Amsterdam, fall in love and, of course, face their own very real mortality. Reading this book has become a rite of passage for some kids, and it’s easy to see why.
Written by Maria Russo