YA fiction is one of the most vibrant genres out there right now – so don’t miss out
Words Sarah Shaffi
Although published primarily for readers aged anywhere from 13 to 24 (depending on who you talk to), YA literature is – I strongly believe – for everyone.
Our teens are the years when we change the most rapidly, physically and mentally, undergoing new experiences and meeting new people all the time. That’s why YA literature is so great – it examines a time in our lives that makes us into the people we become. YA literature is full of sophisticated stories, complex characters and examinations of issues that affect us all – from love to family relationships, mental health to sexual politics and more.
So here are 10 YA books that everyone, regardless of how adult they are, should read now.
Starting with the iconic line “I sit this writing in the kitchen sink”, Smith’s novel may often be called a classic, but it’s most definitely also YA literature. It follows teenager Cassandra Mortmain as she navigates life in an unusual family – the Mortmains are a bohemian and impoverished family who live in a crumbling old castle, her father is a struggling writer, her stepmother is an eccentric who loves dancing naked outside in the rain, her beautiful sister is bored with life. Into this come Simon and Neil Cotton, rich American brothers, who capture the attention of both Cassandra and her sister Rose. This is a gorgeous, witty, funny novel about growing up, first loves, and navigating life in a family that’s slightly off kilter.
This is the very first YA novel I read, and for me it’s one of the original British YA books. Junk is a vivid look at love – Tar loves Gemma, but Gemma doesn’t want to be tied down – and at addiction. Told from multiple viewpoints, this unflinching look at heroin addiction never speaks down to its audience. It’s easy to see why adults found it controversial when it was released, but more than 20 years on Junk was clearly ahead of its time.
Along with Burgess, Blackman (who wrote an introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Junk) is one of the founders of British YA in my opinion. Long before The Hunger Games or Divergent, there was Noughts & Crosses, a four-part dystopian series that is finally going to be turned into a TV show (out next year, fingers crossed). Noughts & Crosses follows Sephy and Callum, friends since early childhood who live in a society full of prejudice, racism, distrust and terrorism. As the pair fall in love, they are both opened up to terrible danger. This series is still as relevant and captivating as when it was first released.
O’Neill is one of the most compelling feminist voices writing at the moment, and her first novel Only Ever Yours is still her most powerful and terrifying. In the world of Only Ever Yours, girls are brought up to be one of three things: companions, concubines or chastities. freida (women’s names in Only Ever Yours are not capitalised) is in her final year of school, determined to be chosen as a companion to a rich man, but her insecurities plague her, and her best friend isabel, previously a star at the school, starts to do the unthinkable – put on weight. As the boys who will choose brides from freida’s class begin to arrive, freida must fight for her future. This is a sharp look at how women’s bodies are viewed and commoditised by society, and the damage this can have.
When 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, must find a way out of the tower block they’re in and get the truth out there. The teens, being chased by police officers and local gangsters, must figure out how the killing of their friend fits into a bigger, far more sinister plot, one that is possibly linked to the transformation of the area they live in. Told over the course of 24 hours, this is a thrilling, fast-paced look at corruption, gentrification and found family.
This book has won so many awards, and all of them deservedly so. Thomas’ novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and with a title taken from Tupac’s definition of Thug Life, follows Starr, a teenager who lives in a run-down black neighbourhood but goes to a rich, largely white school, forcing her to code switch. On the way home from a party one night, her friend Khalil is fatally shot by a police officer, even though he has done nothing wrong. Thomas’ novel is an absorbing read, examining racism and prejudice, and following a teenager intent on finding her voice, something we can all relate to.
YA literature often speaks about big issues, which I love. But I also love light, popcorn YA novels, like One of Us is Lying, perfect if you’re a fan of 1980s film classics like The Breakfast Club and Heathers. In McManus’ novel five students – a geek, a jock, a bad boy, a princess and an outsider – go into detention, and only four come out alive. The victim was the creator of a notorious gossip app at the school, and had dirt on the four others in detention. Part murder mystery, part high school narrative, this is a fun novel that does what all books should do – keep you entertained.
Just because a novel is YA doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderfully written, and Crossan is the best example of this. One is the story of conjoined twins Grace and Tippi, who just want real friends and love, and not to be stared at and judged, or treated as one person. Told in verse, this is a gorgeous, literary yet completely accessible novel about identity, sisterhood and soulmates. Crossan is one of the most talented writers on the YA scene at the moment, and every word she writes is both beautifully crafted and effortless.
If you were ever an insecure teenager, happier sitting in your room reading or writing or living via your computer, then Fangirl is the novel for you (and, honestly, me). Twins Cath and Wren used to do everything together, until they went to university. While Wren wants to go out and dance, meet boys and let loose, Cath is happy to sit in her dorm room, writing fanfiction. I love this novel, which is about learning to open your heart to new people and your life to new experiences, so you can really live.
Epic fantasy is hard to do well, but in Children of Blood and Bone Adeyemi adeptly creates a whole new world, as well as compelling and relatable characters. In Orisha, magic has been outlawed, and those who are born with it must remain hidden, their powers stifled. Zelie’s mother was killed because of her magic, and now Zelie, with the help of her headstrong brother and a runaway princess, has the chance to bring magic back to Orisha. Although this initially seems like a classic good versus evil story, Adeyemi creates a nuanced world that has many shades of grey, and that examines prejudice and its effects.
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and event chair, editor-at-large for the independent children’s publisher Little Tiger Group, and co-founder of BAME in Publishing.