When people think of the term “Young Adult” in books, I’m sure you think of the same old popular ones that are widely praised but heavily criticized. The Hunger Games, Twilight, John Green’s (mostly) underwhelming body of work. These all make up the face of what modern YA is to people not familiar to the genre. This fact disappoints me greatly because that’s not the YA I know and fell in love with in high school. I started reading YA books my junior year back in 2017, and at that time, the landscape had already changed greatly. I don’t think most people realize that the genres that Twilight and Hunger Games belong to, dystopian and paranormal romance, have been dead for most of the decade. I want to make the case that YA, as a genre, should be respected more than it is now, and that more people should pay attention to it in the larger scene of literature.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen the book in the featured image before. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was a smash hit when it released in 2017, and is probably one of the most successful books this generation. It’s even being taught in place of To Kill A Mockingbird in some schools as required reading for it’s themes of racism and police brutality. There’s this idea some people have of YA books being only for teenagers, and that stories can’t have complex themes or deal with mature issues in the same way adult fiction can. Angie Thomas, and a lot of other great YA authors feel that a good book is one that anyone can read and relate to, no matter their age, race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever. The Hate U Give Doesn’t compromise it’s themes because “teens might not get it”. It hits you with intense, graphic details about what black people struggle with in regards to the police, gang violence, and dealing with casual racism in their everyday lives. And it still manages to be a fun, lighthearted story about the importance of family and dealing with toxic friendships. What separates The Hate U Give from bad YA books is that it was written for everyone, because Angie Thomas believed it was a story everyone needed to hear.
Now, I do love The Hate U Give and Angie Thomas’s follow up, On The Come Up, even more, but the real YA books that I think deserve defending are the non-culturally defining ones. The ones I see get ignored by adult fiction readers as just “angsty teen drama”.
First off, I love angsty teen drama, and I don’t think its just because I’m still a teen myself. I feel like people have a much higher chance to take a story less seriously if it’s set in high school, or it stars teenagers in any way, and I get it. Most people don’t want to relive their high school days, or they just see teenagers and teenage issues as whiny little brats who don’t know what the “real world” is yet. But YA books, especially today, are becoming more inventive and fresh, and are tackling subjects that I haven’t seen any other medium do as frequently.
It’s everyone’s favorite word these days: Diversity. YA is becoming an incredibly a diverse genre, ethnically, sexually, culturally, and its all thanks to the #OwnVoices movement being proliferated in the past few years. The full impact of this movement is a topic for another day, but my opinion is I’m for anything that gives us more new and interesting stories, whether it be through a hashtag or not.
Rather than ramble on about what makes YA so great, here are five books that I think showcase the genre’s strengths, in no particular order.
1. Eliza And Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
This was the book that made me fall in love with YA. It’s one of those rare instances I talked about in my previous posts where you expect something be be just okay but end up getting something you’re obsessed with for months on end. I expected this to be a cute, quirky rom-com about a girl who secretly draws comics. What I got was a deep dive into what it actually means to be an online creator, and its repercussions on mental health. There’s so much more that I love about this book that can fit into a post on its own, but to name a few: it’s portrayal of introversion and social anxiety, the feeling of family not being able to understand you and your interests, online friendships having just as much an impact on your life than real life friendships, and the comic story occasionally interrupting the novel and being a story on its own that I’d want to read. Eliza And Her Monsters should be one of the faces of contemporary YA, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets.
2. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
If you haven’t noticed by now, I kind of like stories about teenage girls, especially ones about loneliness. This book reads like a cold winter night. The prose is the most literary out of all the ones here, and it drew me in from the first page. Nina LaCour writes in a way that gives you just enough detail in a scene to come to a conclusion yourself, and also not reveal enough to make you keep reading. It’s about this girl in her freshman year of college whose friend visits her when she’s alone on winter break, and the story behind how she ended up there. The story is entirely focused on one character, and their struggle to simply be “okay”. Read this if you’ve ever felt truly alone, or if you want a bittersweet LGBT romance.
3. The Chaos of Standing Still by Jessica Brody
Hand’s down one of the best YA books I’ve read that deals with grief. Again, it’s technically a rom-com about a girl who gets stuck in an airport and meets a guy, but it’s how she gets to the point of even being ready for someone new to enter her life that’s the interesting part. The main character lost her best friend in a car crash, and has been struggling to get over it since, to the point where she incessantly types questions on her phone and keeps one unread message from said dead best friend locked away for safekeeping. The larger theme of this book is that standing still doesn’t help you get over grief. It might be comforting in the moment, but you’ll eventually have to start moving. And even though moving can be chaotic, it still beats how chaotic your life would be if you hadn’t moved at all. It also makes the very bold claim that airports do indeed suck balls.
4. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Have you also noticed that YA books tend to have really beautiful covers? Whoever designed this seriously needs a raise. Unlike the other books on this list, this one’s story is made up entirely(well, mostly) of poetry. And not the whole Rupi Kaur insta-poet kind of poetry either. The novel is told in a wide variety of poetic styles, following a hotheaded Brooklyn Latina who learns to find her inner voice in poetry. It gave me some serious House On Mango Street vibes when reading, and the author clearly takes inspiration from her Dominican heritage while also making something fresh for a new generation. If you can, listen to the audio book from Audible, which is narrated by Acevedo herself. I’m sure this book can get you at least a little more interested in poetry, as it did for me.
5. The Six Of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo
I don’t really read much fantasy or Sci-Fi in YA, mostly due to the fact that Avatar: The Last Airbender exists, but I really enjoyed the Six Of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo. It’s plot is a standard heist story. Six characters who don’t necessarily trust each other band together to rob some evil rich guy for money. But what’s really special about it is the character dynamics. They bounce off each other like ping pong balls whenever two or more of them are in a room together, and it makes for some entertaining and tension filled moments. Also, a fantasy setting that isn’t just medieval Europe. That alone deserves points for originality. The city of Ketterdam felt a lot like the game Dishonored for me, with its steampunky atmosphere and rampant rodent problems. Add in an elemental magic system that reminds me of Avatar, and you’ve got quite the fun read.
So those are just some of the YA books in recent years that make the genre shine. I’m not saying that YA is perfect or anything, there are plenty of duds and/or generic slop that comes out every year, as with every other medium. But if you’ve neglected to read these kind of books in the past because they’re “just for teens”, please consider giving at least one of the books I mentioned a shot. Maybe you’ll discover a side of yourself you didn’t know existed, all with the help of an angsty teenage girl.