Challenge your perceptions with these 9 groundbreaking YA novels

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Sep 14, 2016, 6:02 PM EDT (Updated)

We all have our favorite books from our childhood and teen years, those novels that stuck with us, inspired us, forced us to ask difficult questions or offered a perspective on the world that we didn’t previously consider. Some of these books have become classics -- or modern classics -- weaving their way into the hearts and minds of millions of readers. Books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are recent additions to this list, joining such stalwarts as A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, The Chronicles of Narnia and countless others.

But it seems that the good name of Young Adult literature has become tarnished in recent years. Perhaps due to the proliferation of movie adaptations, or maybe because of the intense fandom surrounding certain franchises, many people have become disenchanted with the entire YA fiction field. Some have even grown to hate it.

In a piece for the education website TES, self-professed English teacher Joe Nutt argued that modern young adult literature is failing its young audience by providing “what amounts to nothing more than gossip fodder, the endless recycling of petty anxieties and celebrity confessions that choke the pages of magazines placed strategically at the supermarket checkout.” But Nutt seems to have narrowed his focus to the point of blindness, focusing only on those novels he specifically finds unacceptable. Judging from his description it would seem that Nutt’s local bookstore only stocks books of the Gossip Girl or Twilight variety. In the complete dismissal of an entire catalog of books, Nutt and those like him have missed out on some of the incredible stories that have filled shelves since the start of the millennium, many of which I’ve attempted to capture below.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy is easily one of my favorite series of the last 10 years, largely because of the way it deals with concepts of masculinity, feminism, and power structures in a book aimed at a young male audience. The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the series and introduces us to Todd, the youngest resident of Prentisstown. This is a town with no women, where everyone can hear the thoughts of everyone else. According to the leaders of Prentisstown all the women were killed when the “Noise” came. But when Todd meets a girl he cannot hear he begins to learn the truth about his home and the men who control it.

The first book only scratches the surface as Todd struggles to deal with the constant and terrifying revelations about the true history of Prentisstown. There are the obvious themes of sexism and power vs. fear, but what really resonates in the series is Todd’s struggle against the toxic masculinity of the society that raised him. 

Feed by M.T. Anderson

We all want the Internet in our brains, right? You definitely won’t once you read Feed, the 2002 novel by M.T. Anderson. The novel follows a group of teenagers who have become completely disenchanted by their futuristic society. They spend all their time partying and shopping online (with their minds!). While partying on the Moon, the protagonist, Titus, and his friends meet another girl named Violet whose controversial stances on their society -- and the feednet -- make her seem strange to the others.

The book presents complex ideas about consumerism, data-mining, and corporate power in a story about kids who are completely oblivious to the dangers of their ever-connected, corporate-backed lives. Where most dystopian novels present the underbelly as the main conflict, Feed presents it almost as background noise. It drives the plot but Titus and his friends remain completely oblivious to its effects on their lives.

Adaptation by Malinda Lo

In her first foray into the world of full-length science fiction, author Malinda Lo manages to pay homage to the genre and portray the complicated struggles of understanding one’s own sexuality all in the story of a teen girl trying to figure out what’s going on in the world around her. Reese wakes up a month after a car accident to discover a world in chaos. As she tries to understand what’s going on and what happened in that month after the accident Reese also has to deal with her growing feelings for Amber and lingering feelings for her best friend David.

Teen fiction draws most of its narratives from teen experiences, setting stories about falling in love against backdrops that make those common themes seem new and interesting. There are lots of stories of straight kids falling in love and a growing number of novels about gay/lesbian teens, but Reese’s story is that of a young girl trying to come to terms with having feelings for people of both sexes. And the government conspiracy angle certainly doesn’t hurt.

Everyday by David Levithan

Many of the books on this list include LGBT characters and themes, but few do it with the nuance of David Leviathan’s Everyday. The novel follows A, a personality that wakes up each day in a brand new body. A has spent their life bouncing from body-to-body, and has even developed a system for dealing with the ins and outs of their confusing life, but none of that prepares A for falling in love.

Levithan manages to take what might normally be an average teenage love story and turn it into an exploration of identity, wrapped in a fascinating tale that challenges the reader’s idea of gender and sexuality. Since A does not have a body of their own, they don’t identify with a specific gender, rendering all of their feelings on the subject essentially neutral. It’s a bizarre concept at first (at least for some), but it quickly becomes a unique way to view the world. There’s also an excellent sci-fi/conspiracy undertone throughout.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

If bizarre apocalyptic fiction is your thing, or if you really like giant insects, then Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is exactly what you’re looking for. The novel tells the story of Austin as he and his friends fight to survive in the mounting apocalypse, where people are suddenly transforming into giant praying mantises.

The completely outlandish story of the novel creates a compelling backdrop for a familiar tale of growing up and coming to understand yourself. As with Adaptation, Grasshopper Jungle uses its sci-fi narrative to also tell a story about a young person (this time a teenage boy) questioning their sexuality, and dealing with the possibility that he could be in love with his best friend. Plus, giant praying mantises. 

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Clones, drug lords, a search for identity, there are a lot of elements of Nancy Farmer’s 2002 novel The House of the Scorpion that make it at once a difficult and poignant read for young audiences. Matt is a young boy living in a (you guessed it) post-apocalyptic future on the US-Mexican border. He grows up inside one of the largest Opium rings in the world run by a 140-year-old drug lord named El Patron. What Matt doesn’t realize, and what he eventually refuses to believe, is that he is a clone of El Patron created for a single purpose.

The House of the Scorpion has received a number of awards since its publication, including a National Book Award, and it’s not at all surprising. The novel weaves together themes of identity, freedom, and responsibility alongside those of the dangers of power and greed - and the kind of society that is created when those things grow unchecked.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Vivian Apple at the End of the World (or Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the UK) is one of the few young adult novels to focus not on teen romance, but on religion. The debut novel for author Katie Coyle follows Vivian, a teenager living in America at a time when the fictional Church of America has reached a majority of the population. Members of the Church believe they are preparing for the Rapture. Things really kick off when hundreds of people, including Vivian’s parents, disappear leaving people-shaped holes in the roof. 

Vivian Apple at the End of the World uses a tried and true “road trip” narrative to discuss deeper ideas about the dark side of religion, especially those based on a system of capitalism and extreme control of its practitioners. In a field where most stories revolve around the self-searching of growing up and falling in love this one instead focuses on religious identity, morality, and what it means to be a good person.

Noughts and Crosses by Calorie Blackman


Sometimes, the only way to understand a situation is to see it from the other side. This is the basic premise behind Calorie Blackman’s 2001 novel Noughts and Crosses. The book imagines a world in which humans evolved while the continents were still fused. This altered history flips the balance of power between the races on its head, creating a world where people of dark skin (Crosses) take people of light skin (Noughts) as slaves. The novel takes place following the abolition of slavery at a time when there is still heavy segregation between the two groups. It follows two young characters: Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought, as they attempt to navigate a world where their friendship is not only looked down on, but dangerous.

Over the course of the first novel (it was eventually turned into a series), the story challenges its audience to consider the ideas of racism and class structures from a different perspective. By turning history on its head it allows readers, specifically white readers, to understand the history of racism and the struggle for equality by allowing them to identify with the oppressed rather than the oppressor. 

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

In the world of twisted horror/sci-fi Unwind might be at the top of the list, both for its disturbing concept and the way it approaches subjects of abortion, religion, and other sociological concerns. The book takes place in a near-future America where a civil war fought over abortion ended in a disturbing compromise. Parents cannot abort pregnancies, but when the child reaches the age of 13 they can choose to have them unwound, brought to government facilities and harvested for organ donation. Because every part of the child is essentially recycled, they aren’t considered “dead,” so, technically, it isn’t murder.

The main plot of Unwind follows three kids as they escape from the harvest camps. What’s interesting is that the novel doesn’t just present the expected horror of unwinding. Through one of its teen characters, it also introduces readers to people who, due to their specific religious beliefs, see unwinding as an honor. The book presents its young audience with complex ideas about the value of life and the ways we rationalize our terrible decisions.

Don't see your favorites on this list? Let us know what novels changed your Young Adult life in the comments!

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