I used to think YA novels were only for the Y. But then I re-discovered the unique escapes, and insights into the teenage experience, that well-crafted young adult novels offer.
The genre has come a long way since the days when “Twilight” and Harry Potter dominated. From Angie Thomas to Tahereh Mafi, these titles, most from 2020 or later, are just plain great reads, whether your 16 or 96. I’ve selected some of my favorites, in two categories: novels that take on today’s realities — or provide a distraction from it.
No vampires here, these titles occupy a subset of realistic YA fiction that speaks to Gen Z’s lives and issues.
Angie Thomas’s brilliant “The Hate U Give” (2017) — about Starr Carter, a Black girl whose friend is killed by a white police officer — sits at the top of the pile. Longlisted for the National Book Award, this Coretta Scott King Honor Book was adapted into the 2018 film of the same name. Amid a rising racial justice movement, it should be required reading for all ages.
Thomas’s just-released prequel “Concrete Rose,” set 17 years before “Hate,” traces the hard-knock life of Starr’s dad, Maverick, one of the more complex (and funny) characters in “Hate.”
Thomas brings that same authenticity to 2019′s “On the Come Up,” about teen rapper Bri, which won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
Liz Lawson’s “The Lucky Ones” (2020) deals with related themes. Nearly a year after her twin brother died in a school shooting, May lives with survivors’ guilt and PTSD. Meanwhile, Zach lost his friends when his attorney mother defended the shooter. The two meet as both are trying to rebuild.
Born in Bombay and raised in Illinois, Samira Ahmed is a strong voice in today’s YA scene. Her award-winning “Love Hate & Other Filters” (2018) tells the story of an Indian-American teen whose life is turned upside-down by Islamophobia after a horrific act. “Internment” (2019), set in a near-future United States, centers on Layla Amin and her parents, who are forced into an internment camp for Muslim-Americans. Ahmed’s latest, “Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know,“ revolves around two young women living centuries apart: modern-day Khayyam (who is American, French, Indian, Muslim) and Leila, a member of a harem, 200 years earlier.
Elizabeth Acevedo commanded attention with 2018′s free verse novel “The Poet X,” about a Dominican-American girl discovering slam poetry and navigating life. It won the National Book Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and others. Or try her more recent “With the Fire on High” and current Amazon bestseller “Clap When You Land.”
When the urge to escape from reality strikes, the YA genre offers plenty. If you haven’t read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, start there. The books are better than the movies. Her 2020 prequel, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes“ is also an enjoyable read for fans, going into Coriolanus Snow’s background and the origin of the Games.
Fans of all of the above might try the page-turning Red Queen series from Western Mass.-native Victoria Aveyard. Just plain fun. The New York Times best-selling author’s new YA fantasy series is scheduled to launch this year with “Realm Breaker.”
Sarah J. Maas created a full-blown sensation with her No. 1 New York Times best-selling Court of Thorns and Roses series, the latest of which, “A Court of Silver Flames” came out Feb. 16. Think of these as “Game of Thrones” lite — plenty of sex and fighting — but with a strong female lead and a mostly female cast.
Leigh Bardugo, whose standout adult fantasy titles include “Ninth House,” has a New York Times best-selling YA series, Shadow and Bone — adapted as a movie set to release soon on Netflix — and duology, “Six of Crows.”
Elana K. Arnold offers a feminist retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, in 2020′s “Red Hood.” In a similar vein, “Damsel” (2018) is a commentary on the patriarchy and sexism. Arnold’s “What Girls Are Made Of,” a non-fantasy novel, was a 2017 National Book Award finalist.
Tahereh Mafi’s best-selling dystopian Shatter Me series serves up ultra-readable thrills. Mafi is also a terrific realistic YA novelist. ”A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” about a Muslim girl who deals with Islamophobia right after 9/11, was longlisted for the National Book Award. And mark your calendars: “An Emotion of Great Delight,” her newest, will be available June 1.