Within the rather polarizing world that is young adult (YA) publishing, approaching novels written for young people (no matter your age) can be intimidating, confusing, and even uninviting. But authors of young adult novels have been unpacking a variety of important issues that teenagers deal with for years. Ranging from current sociopolitical events to the complexities of relationships and life itself, young adult authors are introducing complicated subjects to teenagers with every page.
That being said, YA novels don’t just apply to teenagers and other young adults. While some adult readers choose to stay away from the genre because of its simple writing styles and naive (at times) plots, there are a number of YA novels that can teach even the wisest adult a few lessons. If you don’t know where to start, here are five suggestions.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
A children’s novel written under Raquel Jaramillo’s pen name, Wonder is a triumphant story about a disabled boy and the hostile environment he faces at school—something he eventually overcomes. After being repeatedly bullied by his classmates, Auggie, the book’s main character, disguises himself with a costume on Halloween. He overhears one of his friends, Jack, talking to the ring-leading bully about Auggie’s disfigured face in a derogatory manner. Offended, Auggie decides to quit school, but after some convincing from his sister, changes his mind. Jack receives word that Auggie overheard his conversation with the bully, and stands up for Auggie when they’re paired together for a science project by punching the bull in the face. At the end of the school year, Auggie receives an award for being an exemplary student who faced challenges during the year. Wonder explores themes of bullying and self-acceptance in a middle school setting, and explores the difficulties of relationships, both with people and with pets. It’s a brilliant novel written to build empathy and confidence.
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Known for her popular first YA novel, Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon returns with a book written from the point of view of two New York City teenagers. Natasha, who is trying to keep her family from getting deported, is a practical young Jamaican-American who believes in “science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny.” Daniel is an Korean-American teenager catering to his immigrant parents’ high expectations. The two meet by chance on city streets, and the book follows them as Natasha attempts to deny her feelings for Daniel while Daniel tries to convince her that love is real. The book taps into teenage anxieties that are very real: from anticipating college acceptance letters and the ins and outs of family dynamics to the more complicated natures of deportation and both the social and academic pressures that teenagers face. The Sun Is Also a Star is an incredibly modern love story that explains the inner thoughts and emotions of contemporary teenagers.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
After returning to Los Angeles from her boarding school in Massachusetts for the summer, Suzette is faced with myriad challenges, including reacquainting herself with her brother, Lionel, after a year away, seeing old friends, and trying to find her sexual identity. After Lionel was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Suzette was sent to boarding school because she was taking too much responsibility for her brother. But when she returns for the summer, Lionel confides in his sister that he’s stopped taking his medicine after feeling trapped in a fog. While Suzette attends parties and meets both boys and girls to whom she’s attracted, she bears the burden of Lionel’s secret. After meeting Rafaela at a get together, Suzette finds herself in the flower shop where Rafaela works and asks about the “Help Wanted” sign in the store window. As their implied feelings for each other grow, Lionel falls in love with Rafaela when he comes to pick Suzette up from work. As Suzette struggles with her sexual identity, Lionel goes missing. Little & Lion examines the entire spectrum of teenage life—family, relationships, sex, mental illness, race—and so much more.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
While balancing life between her poor, heavily African-American neighborhood and the affluent, private preparatory school she attends, 16-year-old Starr Carter watches a police officer shoot her unarmed best friend, Khalil. Khalil’s death becomes a national headline, and people are calling him a thug and a drug dealer. As the only witness, Starr is the only person with a first-hand account of the shooting. But at she prepares to give her testimony to a grand jury, Starr begins to receive threats from people in her community. The boundaries between her life at home and her life at school begin to crumble as she realizes that delivering her testimony could change her and her family members’ lives. While unearthing the challenges that black teenagers face in mostly-white schools and classrooms, Angie Thomas also explores activism, police brutality and other events, alongside the meaning of friendship and community in an incredibly intimate way.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
In Rainbow Rowell’s first young adult novel, two self-described “misfits” wade through the challenges of high school in mid-eighties Nebraska. Eleanor lives in a small home with her four siblings, mother, and abusive stepfather, and Park can’t seem to live up to his ultra-masculine father’s expectations. After Park’s nose is broken while defending Eleanor from bullies, Park’s mother grounds him thinking that Eleanor is a bad influence, but Park’s father is proud of him. After discovering Eleanor’s home situation, Park’s mother invites Eleanor to stay with their family—Eleanor accepts and lies to her family about it. Returning home one night, Eleanor finds her mother in a fight with her stepfather, who has destroyed all of her personal items and written inappropriate notes in her school books. Eleanor escapes to her uncle’s house, where she tries to formulate a plan to get to Minnesota with Park. Eleanor ends up moving to Minnesota and her mother follows with her siblings in tow. Park attempts to keep in contact with Eleanor without success, until he receives a postcard reply. Eleanor & Park expertly explores themes of escape, bullying, body image, and abuse while still being relatable and compassionate.