Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
We begin with the basics. J.K. Rowling’s seven-book epic of The Boy Who Lived combines unparalleled worldbuilding with a simple story about the redemptive power of love and friendship in the face of evil. Combine that with humor, detail, and a premise that captures every suburban child’s fantasy of finding out they’re special, and it’s no wonder the wizarding world captured the imagination of so many in our own, both children and adults.
His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy starts as a fantasy world that’s almost like our own, but not quite. A ward of that world’s version of Oxford, Lyra Bellacqua and her shapeshifting spirit companion fall victim to a ring of child kidnappers, discover a rift in the universe, and begin the story’s transition into a sweeping allegory of none other than The Fall. A fantasy series that tackles religion by adapting Milton risks being heavy-handed, but the central love story means Pullman’s tale packs as much of an emotional punch as an intellectual one.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Card’s homophobia aside, Ender’s Game is a touchstone of teen science fiction. Ender Wiggin’s universe isn’t quite post-apocalyptic, but multiple wars with an alien race have shaken its foundation enough to prompt the founding of a children’s military academy by a global coalition. Ender’s tactical genius prevails, but Ender’s Game is merely the first book in a deeply philosophical sequence following Ender into adulthood that includes Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind.
Ender’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card
Published 14 years after Ender’s Game, Shadow merits separate inclusion on this list as a take on Ender’s story from a radically different perspective: that of Bean, his hyper-intelligent best friend from the military academy. While the first novel is essentially the plot of Game retold from Bean’s perspective, the remainder of Bean’s story remains grounded on Earth where Ender’s diverges into space. Books like Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets deal with the political machinations of a future global state, appealing to a more practical-minded reader than Card’s other series.
Abhorsen trilogy, Gareth Nix
Nix’s series is the story of the Old Kingdom, a region where technology doesn’t work, most magic is bound up in a Great Charter, and the magic that isn’t gets used for necromancy. It’s up to the Abhorsen, with his or her toolkit of seven enchanted bells, to police the divide between life and Death, which in Nix’s universe takes the form of a giant river with seven gates. Though fantasy is as jam-packed a sub genre as it can get in the world of YA, Nix’s trilogy is as original as it is engrossing.
Shade’s Children, Gareth Nix
One of Nix’s earlier works (and yes, I’m totally playing favorites here), Shade’s Children is the dystopian story of a world devoid of adults. In the grownups’ absence, which they may or may not have caused, the Overlords have taken over, with the help of Creatures assembled from children brought to the Meat Factory at the age of 14. Resistance is led by Shade, an adult who has survived in the form of a computerized consciousness. It’s pretty bleak, sure, but who said YA couldn’t be dark?
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
Judy Blume made her name by treating young adulthood with unflinching honesty, long before topics like menstruation or middle school bullying were considered fit for popular consumption. Are You There, God? exemplifies Blume’s approach, putting the “adult” in YA with a frank, empathetic story of a girl dealing with early adolescence. Margaret endures it all: bra shopping, menstruation, the pressure to conform. Published 44 years ago, Blume’s most famous novel endures as a classic even for post-smartphone girls.
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
YouTube star and Tumblr darling John Green captured the mainstream’s attention with this notorious tearjerker. It’s a love story between two teenage cancer patients, one of whom is an amputee. The results are predictably tragic, but if you’re able to fight your way through the whole thing, you’re 300 pages closer to understanding the millions of contemporary preteens who devour Green’s work like candy. The Fault in Our Stars is also the first of two books on this list set to get a film adaptation starring Shailene Woodley.
The Giver, Lois Lowry
Lowry’s parable on the virtues of choice introduces us to a world where there’s no such thing as color and children’s lives are largely determined for them at the tender age of 11. For Jonas, that means receiving memories of what life was like before “the Sameness” from the book’s title figure. A haunting exploration of what society stands to lose if it eliminates pain and suffering, The Giver is just 20 years old, but has already worked its way into the pantheon of YA classics.
Divergent, Veronica Roth
The second book to get the Shailene treatment (you might have seen the trailers while catching up with this year’s Oscar hopefuls), Divergent is the latest sci-fi dystopian series to attain massive popularity. Like a hybrid of The Giver and The Hunger Games, Divergent is about a society where children are sorted into one of five “factions” based on their abilities at age 16. Like any good YA protagonist, Beatrice Prior doesn’t fit in. But the series’ conclusion, and fans’ reaction to it, is what sets Divergent apart.
Bartimaeus trilogy, Jonathan Stroud
Jonathan Stroud figures magic probably won’t be as fun as it looks, particularly if it comes in the form of an entrenched ruling class enslaving a horde of spirits from another dimension. We learn about Stroud’s alternate universe, where historical figures like Ptolemy and William Gladstone were actually powerful summoners, through two protagonists: Nathaniel, a young boy who’s gradually corrupted and becomes a power-hungry magician, and Bartimaeus, a puckish spirit who’s witnessed thousands of years of human history. Eventually, Nathaniel is redeemed, but not before the human-spirit relationship gets turned entirely on its head.
The Song of the Lioness, Tamora Pierce
Many a feminist was first indoctrinated by Pierce’s girl-power tale of a female knight in a medieval fantasy world that’s almost as dominated by men as ours was. Alanna is fierce, intelligent, and resourceful; in other words, she’s everything we’d want in a badass female role model. Pierce’s Circle of Magic series is also worth reading, but Song of the Lioness is her first and most notable work, set in the fictional kingdom of Tortall.
The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins
If you’ve been anywhere near a multiplex in the last two years, you know the story of Katniss Everdeen. But Collins nonetheless deserves credit for the sheer brutality of the series’ namesake event, inspired as it may have been by Battle Royale. Whether it’s interpreted as a metaphor for the exploitation of the 99 percent or the dangers of a centralized government, The Hunger Games is an unusually well-executed work of dystopian fiction (and with yet another butt-kicking female protagonist to boot).
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
A coming-of-age story set in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, The Perks of Being a Wallflower shows its protagonist, Charlie, coming into his own through a series of letters. Although there’s drug use, homophobia, and repressed memories of abuse, Perks remains optimistic about Charlie’s future. Though he claims to enjoy The Catcher in the Rye when introduced to it by his English teacher-cum-mentor, Charlie’s far more tolerable than Holden Caulfield in his exploration of teenage masculinity.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Alexie’s story of growing up on a reservation takes many of the typical coming-of-age conventions in YA fiction and transplants them to an all-new location. By delving into alcoholism, poverty, physical abuse, and other issues rampant in the reservation community, Alexie sheds light on the social problems afflicting one of America’s most marginalized groups while centering the story around Arnold Spirit Jr., brought to life by both Alexie’s prose and illustrator Ellen Forney.
Uglies, Scott Westerfeld
Beginning with Uglies and continuing with sequels Pretties and Specials, Westerfeld takes the most universal of all human insecurities and transforms it into the basis for a chilling version of the future. In a Giver-like decision to deprive the world of individuality, society transforms all 16-year-olds into brainwashed, ultra-beautiful “pretties” who live out their youth in hedonistic bliss. Best friends Tally and Shay buck the system when they run away rather than undergo surgery, and societal upheaval ensues.
So Yesterday, Scott Westerfeld
Westerfeld’s acute brand of social criticism is in particularly high form in So Yesterday, in which he takes aim at advertising and corporate appropriation of youth culture by setting his story in a universe barely distinguishable from our own. Like Tally in Uglies, the protagonist’s worldview is upended by a new friend who challenges the idea of selling trends to companies desperate to determine what’s “cool.” It’s not quite enough to counteract the flood of marketing Kids These Days constantly consume, but it’s a start.
Holes, Louis Sachar
Before it was a Disney-produced Shia LaBeouf vehicle, Holes was the simple story of Stanley Yelnats, a kid from a poor family sentenced to dig a hole a day at Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn’t commit. There, Stanley dives into his family history and bonds with his fellow inmates, creating a story that reaches back across generations to create a fairy tale-like narrative of loss and miraculous recovery.
Just Listen, Sarah Dessen
Dessen’s novel might be easily dismissed by some as teen chick lit, but her work is reminiscent of Judy Blume’s in its willingness to address topics traditionally viewed as not for kids. Protagonist Annabel Greene deals with sexual assault, a sister’s eating disorder, and a domineering mother; her love interest, Owen, has been through anger management classes. By becoming closer with Owen, Annabel learns to assert herself, both to her mother and to her peers.
Feed, M.T. Anderson
In a genre full of dystopian visions of the future, Feed‘s might be the darkest of all. The government has been almost entirely replaced by corporations, the environment has been almost completely devastated, and human communication takes place almost solely via “feed,” a sort of in-brain social medium that allows text messages and ads to get beamed straight into our thoughts. Against this backdrop, teenagers Titus and Violet fall in love. Predictably, it doesn’t end well. A sharp cautionary tale against the dangers of Google Glass.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is a Holocaust novel with an unusual narrator: Death himself. It’s the story of Liesel, a bookish (obviously) child sent to foster care after her brother’s passing. Liesel begins to “borrow” books from the well-provisioned home library of the mayor’s wife and share them with Max, a Jew living in hiding in her foster parents’ basement. The film adaptation that premiered in November didn’t get great reviews, but you’ll almost certainly cry before the end of one of the rare works of fiction to translate the darker side of World War II for young adults.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
A magical pair of pants that fits four completely different bodies holds a group of suburban girls together as their lives go their separate ways, first during a series of high school summer vacations and then in college and beyond. Brashares captures adolescent female friendships like no other, twisting one magical element into a story of unparalleled realism. Lena, Tibby, Bridget, and Carmen go through the full gamut of adolescent crises, but their connection (and magical pants) ultimately prevails.
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
L’Engle’s deeply strange work of fantasy tells the story of Meg Murry, a 14-year-old girl who saves her father with the help of her brothers, her high school classmate Calvin, and “the Mrs. W’s.” But the deep emotion of Meg’s journey transcends the sheer weirdness of L’Engle’s invented universe, explaining how Wrinkle and its sequels have remained unassailable classics for upwards of half a century.
Monster, Walter Dean Myers
Written from the perspective of 16-year-old Steve Harmon, Monster narrates a story most readers hopefully can’t relate to: Steve’s trial for murder following the robbery of a convenience store. Presented in the style of a screenplay, his story is a coming-of-age set far away from the affluent, largely white suburbs where most YA novels take place.
Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
One of the most recent books on this list, Rainbow Rowell’s story of a school bus romance follows an interracial relationship in 1980s Nebraska. Smart, heartfelt, and beautifully written, Eleanor & Park is a reminder that YA is a constantly evolving genre, and an encouraging reassurance that there are great books added to its canon every year.