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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Booklist's 50 Best YA Books of All Time
Pulling together the 50 best books of any one genre is a near-impossible endeavor. Now imagine having to consider all genres at once. It’s the kind of task that almost makes you wish it had landed on someone else’s desk. Almost—but not quite. There is something thrilling about staring at a list of thousands of books and psyching yourself up to believe, if even for a short while, that you have what it takes to make such judgment calls.
You don’t, of course. None of us does. But together, you do your best, accepting that your list unquestionably will be imprinted by the personalities behind it—in this case, Booklist staff and contributors. So how did we come up with our list? First, we decided the books had to be published originally as YA and no earlier than the publishing of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, in 1967.
Beyond that, our criteria were broad, even ungainly. “Best YA Books,” though a useful shorthand phrase, quickly proved a flawed one, too. We wanted to pay homage to august classics but also bring to light astounding works of literature that, for innumerable reasons, might have been outshined by bigger names and higher sales. This held true even among titles by a single author (the starkest example: our choice of Robert Cormier’s Tenderness over The Chocolate War). Literary quality was our highest qualifier—but we also made room for books of significant influence.
The result is a list that, indeed, is highly idiosyncratic and sure to send devotees of YA lit into despair—and, we hope, elation as well. Even we ended up surprised by it. How in the world do you end up with a best-of list without Ron Koertge? Shaun Tan? Sarah Dessen? Aidan Chambers? Nancy Farmer? Ellen Wittlinger? Libba Bray? Marcus Zusak? Meg Medina? David Levithan? Yeah, we don’t know either. Strange things happen with only 50 spots to fill. Nonetheless, we’re proud of what we came up with and hope it inspires you to go back and read some old favorites as well as discover some new ones. And, of course, share them all with teens. They, as always, will be the jury that matters.
The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton (Penguin, 1967).
The classic of all classics, Hinton’s tough, tender story about teenage outcasts unassumingly threw down a gauntlet that has lasted half a century. Showing a deep sympathy and understanding for teen characters, Hinton—a teen herself at the time—rewrote the rules for teen lit, a clarion call to future YA authors: be honest, be brave, and, above all, respect your subjects.
The Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. Le Guin (HMH, 1968–1972).
Le Guin’s magic-infused archipelago brims with diversity and meaningful cultural and religious interplay as readers follow the journeys of wizard Geb and priestess Tenar. Comprised of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972), this displays stunning depth and complexity.
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (Harper, 1968).
High-schoolers John and Lorraine think it will be fun to scam old Mr. Pignati out of a few bucks, but when they meet him, they find a friend who gives them the parental support they’ve been missing. Their betrayal of his trust leads to disaster. One of the earliest YA books to show teen life in all its darkness and complexity.
The Friends, by Rosa Guy (Holt, 1973).
Phyllisia, a well-to-do West Indian girl who has just moved to New York, befriends Edith, a desperately poor African American classmate, whom she ambivalently loves and feels ashamed of. Several scenes are jolting, but Guy makes the situation starkly real while showing how Phyllisia’s hardships lead to realizations about herself and her relationships.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, by Alice Childress (Penguin/Puffin, 1973).
Benji is a 13-year-old heroin addict. But he knows he can quit. Characters from his mother to his drug dealer comment in short, first-person monologues that show how family life, neighborhood, racism, and poverty have affected his decisions. Childress’ stylistic choices, including street vernacular, offered fresh perspectives, and the intensity of Benji’s life hit readers hard.
I Know What You Did Last Summer, by Lois Duncan (Little, Brown, 1973).
A master of thrills and suspense, Duncan was equally admired for populating her novels with believable teenage characters and for not talking down to her readers. In this heart-pounding novel, four teens accidentally kill a boy in a hit-and-run and are sinisterly stalked by a vengeful witness. The fear is real.
Forever, by Judy Blume (Atheneum, 1975).
It’s remarkable that a book candidly portraying responsible, consensual sex provoked such controversy, but the story of high-school senior Kath was emphatically banned. That didn’t stop young teens from passing around Blume’s sex-positive and distinctly feminist novel, in which Kath explores her sexuality on her own terms.
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, by Robin McKinley (Harper, 1978).
Future Newbery medalist McKinley’s debut, her first of two “Beauty and the Beast” retellings, was also one of the earliest YA fairy-tale adaptations. This luscious, carefully constructed fable follows homely, curious Beauty as she travels to an enchanted castle to save her father and slowly befriends the Beast, who lives there.
Gentlehands, by M. E. Kerr (Harper, 1978).
The Holocaust is the basis for many fine YA novels, but this book did something different. In a contemporary setting, it brought the subject home in a way that raised questions about personal morality as well as collective guilt. When Buddy and his new girlfriend meet his grandfather, they find him erudite and cultured. They are shocked to learn he may be a Nazi butcher.
Homecoming, by Cynthia Voigt (Atheneum, 1981).
When their mother abandons them in a shopping-mall parking lot, 13-year-old Dicey Tillerman and her three younger siblings set out on foot to find a new home with another relative. Emotionally resonant, the Tillermans’ journey is an endlessly compelling exploration of family, love, and perseverance.
Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (Farrar, 1982).
Garden’s novel, centered on Annie and Liza’s romance, revealed gradually through Liza’s memories, has all the iconic markers of teen romance, but it was truly groundbreaking: this teenage lesbian love story was the first of its kind to have a happy ending.
Sweet Valley High series, by Francine Pascal (Random, 1983–2003).
Who knows how many ghostwriters worked under Pascal to bring to life the adventures of good-twin, bad-twin Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, but the final book tally is 181 (more than 600 counting all spin-offs). And the influence? Incalculable. Pascal’s fast, frothy—and surprisingly dark—mix of romance, class struggle, and mystery set the pace for innumerable future series.
Singularity, by William Sleator (Puffin/Sleuth, 1985).
Sleator might be best known for House of Stairs (1974), but this is his masterwork, a taut, troubling sci-fi psychodrama about twins Harry and Barry, who open a black hole to another universe. The real suspense, though, is in the boys’ abnormal, bad-marriage relationship—and the upsetting twist it takes.
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (Harper, 1986).
Jones’ rollicking novel, full of whimsical magic, complex world building, and snappy repartee between feisty Sophie and Wizard Howl, is the perfect blend of comedy, fantasy, and romance. It’s her stereotype-defying characters, however—particularly clever, brave Sophie—that make this so exceptional.
Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, 1988).
Myers is a stalwart champion of YA, but this novel, about a 17-year-old’s harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam, stands out from the pack, thanks to its bracing, unadorned prose; gut-twisting depiction of the horrors of war; smoothly integrated historical context; and vividly rendered, multifaceted characters.
Dangerous Angels series, by Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins/Charlotte Zolotow, 1989–2012).
Block’s magnum opus began with her debut, Weetzie Bat. The punk-infused fever dream of a narrative follows Weetzie and her best friend, Dirk, as they come of age in a hazy version of 1980s L.A. Spun through with magic realism and navigating hefty social issues, this remains a teen touchstone.
The Silver Kiss, by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 1992).
Long before Edward Cullen entered the teen sphere of influence, Klause penned a romantic horror story born from the vampire legend. As Zoë watches her mother die slowly of cancer, she encounters silver-haired Simon, who possesses a unique relationship with death. Gore and romance blend in a novel well ahead of the vampire craze.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow, 1993).
Eric’s weight and Sarah’s scars brought them together as kids. Swimming has slimmed Eric, but Sarah’s spiral has landed her in the hospital, catatonic. Not really. She’s pretending so her father won’t further abuse her. From the indispensable Crutcher, this is intense and wry, and it punches at big issues.
Toning the Sweep, by Angela Johnson (Scholastic, 1993).
Visiting beloved Grandmama, who is dying of cancer, 14-year-old Emily learns aspects of her African American family’s past that shift her perspective as her family goes through a time of transition. This graceful, powerfully moving novel captures the melancholy, introspection, and self-discovery of adolescence.
The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996).
Van Camp’s debut is the coming-of-age tale of Larry Sole, a member of the Dogrib Nation, in Canada. It has all the youthful experimentation you might expect: sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. But it’s impossible to expect Van Camp’s wild, barreling style, one moment raunchy, the next gritty, the next hallucinatory. Scorching, uncompromising, unforgettable.
The Circuit books, by Francisco Jiménez (HMH, 1997–2015).
Though classified as fiction, Jiménez’s four connected books (The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, 1997; Breaking Through, 2001; Reaching Out, 2008; and Taking Hold, 2015) are heavily biographical, stretching from a child who dreams of an education to, finally, a graduate student living in New York. Written in gorgeous, economical prose, this quartet’s importance continues to grow.
The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole (Front Street, 1997).
Cole’s gut-wrenching, expertly written novel details Linda’s troubled life, including a neglectful mother, abusive parents, and a sexual relationship with a married man, all culminating in witnessing a murder. The disturbing story is related in Linda’s detached, unemotional, and thoroughly haunting first-person narrative.
Tenderness, by Robert Cormier (Delacorte, 1997).
As influential as is The Chocolate War (1974), Cormier’s stark, divisive pièce de résistance is this mesmerizing plunge into the psychosexual urges of clean-cut teenage serial-killer Eric Poole and his would-be victim, the equally morally complicated Lori. This is Cormier at the apex of his powers, unafraid, as always, to shove us from comfort’s ledge.
This 2001 Printz winner is the story of newcomer Kit, who is enticed by another boy into a game called Death that plays out in deserted mines. Almond has set an enormous task for himself here, tackling the biggest issues, from life and death to the healing power of love, but he succeeds beautifully, knitting dark with light and suffusing the multilayered plot with an otherworldly glow.
Miracle’s Boys, by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin, 2000).
Three brothers have only each other to rely upon after the deaths of their parents in this Coretta Scott King Award–winning novel. Woodson excels at getting to the heart of powerful teen emotions, and this pithy, moving exploration of grief, anger, and healing is especially outstanding.
Hole in My Life, by Jack Gantos (Farrar, 2002).
Gantos’ riveting memoir of the 15 months he spent as a young man in federal prison is more than a harrowing, scared-straight confession: it’s a beautifully realized story about the making of a writer. The spare narrative style and straightforward revelation of truth have, together, a cumulative power that captures a reader’s empathy and imagination.
33 Snowfish, by Adam Rapp (Candlewick, 2003).
The circumstances are bleak in this story of three homeless teens on the run, but Rapp’s earthy, visceral, poetic language draws out startling beauty from true ugliness. Though Rapp doesn’t hold back when depicting gritty realism for teens, this is nevertheless the perfect balance of candor, artfulness, and a glimmer of hope.
How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff (Random/Wendy Lamb, 2004).
This Printz-winning dystopia feels achingly real and of the moment. Daisy, visiting at her British cousins’ farm, is caught up in an occupation of Britain by terrorists. The book’s intensity comes from the juxtaposition of the war’s deprivation and the love affair Daisy shares with her cousin Edmond.
Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan (Harper, 2005).
Lanagan’s second short story collection received near-universal acclaim—it was a Printz Honor Book and won two World Fantasy Awards. Included in the 10 fantasy stories is “Singing My Sister Down,” one of Lanagan’s most widely published pieces, and the tales that follow are equally as strange, lovely, and unnerving.
Looking for Alaska, by John Green (Dutton, 2005).
When Miles Halter arrives at his Alabama boarding school, he is seeking, as Rabelais put it, “a Great Perhaps.” What he finds are friends, pranks, the possibilities of life, and the ambiguities of death. This heartbreaking Printz winner has become a YA icon, and introduced the überpopular Green to a still-expanding audience.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang (Roaring Brook/First Second, 2006).
Yang’s game-changing, Printz-winning graphic novel, illustrated in his bright, cartoonish style, interweaves three stories that, taken together, offer keen, incisive insight into stereotypes, Chinese American cultural identity, and pressures facing children of immigrants.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing series, by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2006–2008).
The sophisticated saga of Octavian Nothing, a black youth in pre-Revolutionary America, unfolds over two volumes—The Pox Party (2006) and The Kingdom on the Waves (2008)—that form an unparalleled work of historical fiction. Satire blends with jarring, troubling realism to tackle racism, freedom, and citizenship.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007).
Arnold Spirit, a goofy-looking dork with a decent jump shot, spends his time lamenting life on the “poor-ass” Spokane Indian reservation, drawing cartoons that accompany (and provide further insight into) the narrative. This National Book Award winner affirms the incredible power of best friends to hurt and heal.
Boy Toy, by Barry Lyga (HMH, 2007).
Lyga raised YA’s bar for sexual content with his vivid, explicit depiction of a boy’s seduction by his teacher. Now 18, Josh relays the residual struggles born of the incident as he becomes involved in a healthy relationship and learns to differentiate between sex and love.
The Chaos Walking trilogy, by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, 2008–2010).
Ness’ wide-ranging speculative-fiction trilogy was one of the most effective works to appear during the dystopian craze. On a distant planet, Todd’s all-male society is infected with Noise, which makes the thoughts of men (and animals) audible. The series explores everything from misogyny to morality—and contains the best talking-dog character ever.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (Tor, 2008).
After a terrorist attack on the U.S. leads to rigorous government surveillance measures, teen hacker Marcus endeavors to launch a techno-revolution to reclaim citizens’ rights. This Orwellian, unsettlingly plausible story throws contemporary issues, such as intellectual freedom, privacy rights, and information access, into sharp and chilling relief.
Living Dead Girl, by Elizabeth Scott (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, 2008).
Countless kidnapping books exist in YA, but Scott goes for the jugular in this evocative and often unbearable story. Five traumatic years ago, a girl renamed Alice was abducted, and now her imprisonment hurtles toward a horrific end. Spare, intense vignettes explore Alice’s psyche as she endures things from which there is no recovering.
Nation, by Terry Pratchett (Harper, 2008).
Apparently alone on his island after a tidal wave carries away his community, Mau discovers Daphne, an English girl whose ship landed in the rain forest. Pratchett’s quirky wit, imaginative insight, and broad vision make this an unforgettable survival story about trying to truly understand someone else.
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman (Holt, 2009).
This full-bodied nonfiction account takes on the professional and personal lives of the Darwins, who, though highly congenial, were on opposite sides when it came to God’s role in creation. Though the intersection between science and religion is where the book shines, this also has the relationship pull of a Jane Austen novel.
The Monstrumologist series, by Rick Yancey (Simon & Schuster, 2009–2013).
Though The Monstrumologist (2009) was the Printz Honor winner, this series about monster-hunter Pellinore Warthrop and his apprentice, Will Henry, only gets better with The Curse of the Wendigo (2010), The Isle of Blood (2011), and the shattering The Final Descent (2013). With fanciful Victorian prose, Yancey elevates horror to high lit—and doesn’t skimp on the viscera, either.
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2009).
Self-deception underlies this vivid portrayal of a girl stealthily vanishing into the depths of anorexia. Anderson illuminates a dark but utterly realistic world where every piece of food is just a caloric number and inner voices scream “NO!” with each swallow. A brutal, poetic, and ultimately devastating novel.
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (HMH, 2010).
In admirably clear, accessible language, Bartoletti presents the history of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period. She uses first-person quotes, powerful archival images, and searing stories of people on all sides of the conflicts to help readers understand the conditions that incubated the Klan’s terrorism. Lucid, insightful, and informative.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2011).
Dozens of remarkable YA novels in verse exist, but Wolf’s underrated, virtuosic—even symphonic—take on the Titanic disaster is a juggernaut as big as the infamous iceberg. That iceberg, in fact, offers one of the many voices (along with sailors, wealthy passengers, even a rat) that Wolf uses to construct his beautiful and terrifying tragedy.
The Raven Cycle series, by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2012–2016).
Printz Honor recipient Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races, 2011) crafts an ambitious quartet that follows three prep-school boys, the cursed daughter of a psychic, and a ghost on a quest to locate an ancient, sleeping king in rural Virginia. Lyrical writing melds with Welsh and Celtic mythology to create a wonderful story infused with magic.
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 2013).
Rowell followed her Printz Honor–winning Eleanor & Park (2013) with what is now the yardstick for YA books about fan culture. College starts rocky for Cath, who struggles with self-imposed isolation. She finds comfort—and sometimes a crutch—in the Simon Snow fandom and the popular fan fiction she’s determined to finish writing. An epic writ small: complex, vivid, triumphant.
March series, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illus. by Nate Powell (Top Shelf, 2013–2016).
Lewis and Aydin’s stirring account of the civil rights movement, brought vividly to life in Powell’s cinematic artwork, won a cavalcade of awards (Printz, National Book Award, Coretta Scott King, and more) for a reason: its nuanced take on history in a visually stunning package is both illuminating and galvanizing.
Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook, 2013).
Sedgwick’s experimental Printz-winning novel spans time and genre to narrate the story of Merle and Eric, whose relationship and personalities transform over seven bewitching tales, all of which take place on a mysterious island. Sedgwick makes bold, unconventional choices in this literary novel, and they pay off in spades.
A Volcano beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War against Slavery, by Albert Marrin (Knopf, 2014).
This well-documented, gracefully written book explores the life of nineteenth-century zealot John Brown. Marrin regards this abolitionist as “the father of American terrorism,” a man who would use any means to effect what he believed was his God-given mission: the eradication of slavery in the U.S.
I Crawl through It, by A. S. King (Little, Brown, 2015).
King’s singular imagination and honest, respectful representations of the teenage experience make her one of YA’s finest authors. This title takes her talents to another level with its surreal portraits of four teens looking to escape school bomb threats and personal traumas while confronting life’s most exacting questions.
Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez (Carolrhoda/Lab, 2015).
Pérez’s elegant and devastating Printz Honor winner begins with a real-life 1937 school explosion that killed 300 people in Texas before backtracking to Mexican American Naomi, who struggles with racism, love, and Henry—the father of her siblings and one of the most vivid, complicated villains in YA history.
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