Books

Best young adult books: the YA novels you will love as an adult

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Sarah Shaffi
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The clue is in the name - YA is for both teenagers and adults.

Young adult literature, or YA, has been having a moment for years now, since the rise of series like Divergent, and standalone books like The Fault in Our Stars.

The appetite for stories about our teenage years is showing no sign of slowing down, and it encompasses all genres, from dystopian mega-hits like The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins to contemporary romances such as To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. It’s easy to see why: YA books can help teens to see themselves in fiction, especially with the recent increase in books about traditionally marginalised communities. They can help teenagers to work through tough situations, such as coming out or grief. And above all, they can be entertaining.

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But you don’t just have to be a teenager to enjoy YA books. There is plenty that appeals to adults as well; after all, we were all teenagers once so can relate to the characters in YA.

And while some may look down on YA because its primary audience is young people, they’re the ones missing out. The young adult literature scene is filled with excellently written, poetic, beautiful novels full of depth.

Here are 25 YA novels we love as adults, and think you will too.

The Places I’ve Cried In Public by Holly Bourne

The Places I've Cried in Public by Holly Bourne.
The Places I've Cried in Public by Holly Bourne.

Holly Bourne has a knack for writing books featuring believable teenage characters who feel all of life’s emotions, and her latest is no different. The Places I’ve Cried In Public follows Amelie, a college student who’s just been dumped by the love of her life, Reese. As Amelie revisits all the places where she cried over Reese in public, she begins to realise the relationship was not as wonderful as she first thought. This is a book about all-consuming teenage love, and the ways in which society conditions girls and women to view some male behaviours as romantic when they’re anything but.

The Burning by Laura Bates

The Burning by Laura Bates.
The Burning by Laura Bates.

Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates has turned her hand to young adult fiction with The Burning. It follows Anna, who moves to a new town with her mum following a scandal at her old school. As Anna is drawn to the story of Maggie, a local girl accused of witchcraft centuries earlier, she begins to realise her own story has terrifying parallels. Tapping into discussions around the treatment of women on social media, and the way in which the behaviour of girls and boys is differently judged, this is a must-read.

Under A Dancing Star by Laura Wood  

Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood
Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood

Think Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, set in Italy and revolving around a summer romance, and you’ll understand the joy of Laura Wood’s Under a Dancing Star. Bea is growing up in 1930s England and has desires to go to university and make something of herself, but her parents only want her to marry someone rich so she can keep the crumbling family estate alive. When she gets the chance to spend the summer in Italy with her bohemian uncle and his fiancée, Bea meets Ben, a cocky young artist who infuriates her. Sparks fly between the pair, and they’re challenged to have the perfect summer fling, but feeling develop…

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo  

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

The 2017 film Wonder Woman, starring Gal Godot, gave us some of Wonder Woman’s backstory, but if you’re hungry for more ahead of the release of the sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, next year, then Leigh Bardugo’s Warbringer is well worth checking out. This follows Diana, Princess of the Amazons, as a teenager desperate to prove herself to her fellow Amazons. When Diana spots a human girl, Alia, in danger off the coast of Themyscira, she rescues her unaware that Alia is a Warbringer. The pair soon find themselves on the run, trying to escape forces that want to possess Alia and use her to bring about the destruction of the world.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly
Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Cinderella’s story ended with a “happily ever after”, but what about her stepsisters? In her novel, Jennifer Donnelly tells the story of Isabelle, the younger of Cinderella’s two stepsisters. Told she was not beautiful, and forced to stop doing the things she loved – horseriding and fencing – so as not to put off any marriage prospects, Isabelle turned into a bully. Now facing a change in circumstances, she’s forced to examine why she treated Cinderella badly, and change her ways to find her own happily ever after.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Only Ever Yours is The Handmaid’s Tale written for a Millennial audience. In Louise O’Neill’s debut novel, girls are brought up in schools where their only aim is to be beautiful and amenable enough to be chosen as companions (wives) for the ruling elite’s sons. Those who aren’t successful become either chastities, who teach the next generation of companions, or concubines. This excellent novel has a lot of say about our image-obsessed culture and Western beauty standards, plus the damaging effects that these have on young women.

Junk by Melvin Burgess

Before YA was a thing, there was Junk by Melvin Burgess, a book passed around by teenagers like it was contraband. The novel follows a group of teenagers, including Tar and Gemma, who are in the grip of a heroin addiction. Told from multiple points of view, this is an unflinching look at addiction, and holds strong more than 20 years after its first release.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Malorie Blackman is, hands down, a YA legend who continues to write excellent books for young people. Noughts & Crosses is the first in a series (the fifth book, Crossfire, will be released later this year), and examines racial prejudice through a dystopian world. Sephy is a Cross, dark-skinned and beautiful and living a life of privilege and power. Callum is a Nought, pale-skinned and poor. The pair have been friends since childhood, but know that love is out of the question in a world where Noughts and Crosses are bitter enemies. Read Blackman’s excellent novel (and the rest in the series), and then prepare for the TV adaptation, due to hit screens later this year.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas’ debut novel takes its inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s the story of 16-year-old Starr, who is stuck between two worlds: the working-class black neighbourhood where she lives and the wealthy white school she attends. When Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of a childhood friend, who is unarmed, by police, she must decide who she is and if she can speak up about what has happened.

The Love And Lies Of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan 

Sabina Khan’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story about an American Bagladeshi teenager. Rukhsana has always tried her hardest to live up to her conservative Muslim parents’ expectations, but it’s getting harder. When she is caught kissing her girlfriend Ariana, Rukhsana’s parents send her to Bangladesh. There, immersed in a world of tradition, Rukhsana finds the perspective she needs in her grandmother’s diary, and realises she needs to fight for the life she wants and her family.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This trilogy of books (comprising of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) spawned a host of YA dystopian fiction, of varying qualities, and it’s still among the best. In the world of the books society is housed in 13 districts, which get poorer the further away from the Capitol they get. Every year, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games, in which two Tributes from each of the districts is thrust into a reality TV show where they fight to the death. When Katniss Everdeen takes the place of her sister as a Tribute, she begins a revolution that could bring down the government. Addictive and full of thrills, this is a brilliant series.

The Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

Many would consider this to be literary fiction rather than YA, but they’re probably also people who sneer at adults reading YA fiction. The book is the story of Holden Caulfield, a disaffected teenager who has just been expelled from another school. Following Holden as he tries to find meaning in his life and find people who understand him, The Catcher in the Rye could not be more a YA book if it tried.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell has a knack for putting on the page exactly the things you felt as a teenager, and still sometimes feel as an adult. Fangirl is the story of twins Cath and Wren who have done everything, including writing fanfiction, together. When they go to university, Wren is keen to break out, explore new things and make friends, while Cath wants to take shelter in her room and keep interacting with people to the internet. This story about being brave will resonate for any adult who is ever uncertain about trying new things.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

If you loved Lana Condor, Noah Centineo and the gorgeous decor in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, then make sure to read the book, which is pure escapist joy. The first in a trilogy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of what happens after love letters written by Lara Jean Covey accidentally get sent to the boys they’re addressed to.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater  

Maggie Stiefvater writes fiction that often takes inspiration from myths and legends. This standalone novel is set in a town which every year holds the Scorpio Races - a race in which people race wild water horses. It’s a dangerous undertaking, but one that Puck Connolly can’t resist if she wants to save her family. Lyrical and magical, this is a beautiful novel. 

Internment by Samira Ahmed  

Internment by Samira Ahmed. Image: Atom Books

Samira Ahmed’s second novel Internment is set in a very near future America where the rights of Muslims have been rapidly eroded. We join the protagonist, Layla, as she and her parents are forced into an internment camp in California. This is a story about the dangers of saying nothing in the face of injustice, and a look back at America’s long history of imprisoning people it considers a danger.

Six Of Crows by Leigh Bardugo  

Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Universe contains a number of books, and Six of Crows and its sequel Crooked Kingdom are fan favourites, for good reason. The duology is the story of a ragtag group of society’s rejects, who must club together to pull off a deadly heist. It’s like Ocean’s 8, but in a steampunk-inspired, magic world.

One Of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus  

Five students go into detention, but only four leave alive. Karen McManus’ thriller is The Breakfast Club meets Gossip Girl, with a dose of murder. When outsider Simon, the creator of a notorious gossip app, dies in detention, there are only four suspect: academic Bronwyn, sporty Cooper, bad boy Nate and prom queen Addy. Simon knew secrets about all of them, but who decided murder was the only way to stop him?

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon  

This debut novel is a rom-com and a great book about girls in STEM. Dimple’s parents have a guy in mind for her, but she wants to do her own thing. At a summer camp before her first year at college, Dimple wants to focus on becoming a web developer, but she keeps getting distracted by hopeless romantic Rishi Patel. Cute is the perfect word to sum up this heartwarming novel.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge  

In the Costa Book of the Year-winning novel The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge writes a book which is part historical fiction, part fantasy. The Lie Tree follows Faith, who discovers a tree which grows healthy and bears fruit if you whisper a lie to it. The fruit of that tree, if eaten, will deliver a truth to the person who consumes it, but only at the expense of the lie being believed. An evocative and sophisticated book that will really make you think.

Toffee by Sarah Crossan  

Sarah Crossan mostly writes in verse, which might initially sound off-putting. But her fiction is accessible and moving, regardless of form. Her newest book is Toffee, about runaway Allison, who hides in a shed of what she thinks is an abandoned house. But the house isn’t empty: its elderly occupant Marla, who has dementia, thinks Allison is an old friend from her past called Toffee. Desperate for a place to stay and used to hiding who she really is, Allison becomes Toffee, but as she grows closer to Marla she begins to ask herself what home and family really is. 

Run, Riot by Nikesh Shukla  

Four teenagers, 24 hours, one council estate. When friends Hari and Jamal record a video of a police officer beating a local gang member to death, they, along with Hari’s twin sister Taran and their friend Anna, need to find a way out of the tower block they’re in to get the truth out. However, it’s not so easy when they’ve got police and local gangsters on their trail. In this novel about gentrification, police corruption and the power of friendship, Nikesh Shukla has created a pacy, at times heart-stopping read. 

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy  

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdrean Dickson, whose former beauty queen mum calls her Dumplin’, has always been at home in her own body. When she starts a new job she meets Bo, and while she’s attracted to him, she’s surprised when he likes her back, leading to a bout of insecureness. To take back her confidence, Willowdeen enters the Miss Clover City beauty pageant, along with several other unlikely candidates, to show that she deserves to be up there as much as anyone else. This is a fun and touching read about loving yourself and your body.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera  

Two YA titans - Becky Albertalli is the author of Love, Simon while Adam Silvera’s books include They Both Die at the End - have come together for this sweet love story. Arthur, in New York for the summer, believes in showstopping romances. Ben, a New Yorker through and through, has fallen out of love with love after a break-up. A chance encounter at a post office brings the boys together, but will the universe keep getting in the way of them getting together? Funny, realistic and with a perfect ending, this will have you hooked.

Clean by Juno Dawson  

When socialite Lexi Volkov almost overdoses, she’s forced into an exclusive rehab facility, where she and her fellow inmates - including the mysterious Brady - must face their demons. This must-read novel is Girl, Interrupted meets Gossip Girl, with Juno Dawson’s own twist.

Images: Supplied by publishers

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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