August 25, 2011

There’s so much fantastic young adult (YA) literature out there these days that I’m constantly hearing about new authors/series and being handed books by students who insist “You HAVE to read this!”  These books aren’t just for young adults, either; even if you think YA isn’t your thing, I highly recommend checking some of these out, especially if you have a middle or high schooler in your life.

I do my best to update this list based on my own reading and my students’ suggestions.  Each title is linked to its Amazon listing.



And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)

Perhaps the best mystery novel ever written, this book tells the tale of ten strangers who are all summoned to the same island for an unknown reason.  One by one, people start to die and it becomes clear–this is an island full of murderers.  Who will make it out alive?

Code Name: Verity (Elizabeth Wein)

This incredibly suspenseful novel tracks the story of two friends—both of whom happen to be spies working for the British government during World War II.  “Verity” is captured by the Gestapo and her interrogators are determined to use any means necessary to make her reveal her mission.  Verity crafts her confession, thinking constantly of her best friend Maddie, the pilot she left behind when their aircraft wrecked behind enemy lines.  With twists and turns you won’t anticipate, this is an incredibly inventive and powerful piece of historical fiction.

Divergent (Veronica Roth)

Praised by my male and female students alike, this novel depicts a futuristic Chicago in which society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the friendly), Candor (the honest), and Erudite (the intelligent).  At sixteen, each member of society takes an aptitude test to help them choose whether to remain in the faction they were born into, or transfer their loyalty to another group.  However, when Beatrice Prior takes the test, her results are abnormal; she could fit in equally well in one of three factions.  She is Divergent. [series]

Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)

This novel perfectly captures exactly what it feels like to fall in love for the first time, with all of the glory and angst that such a thing entails.  Adults will love the throwback 80s music nostalgia (remember making mix tapes for your crush?), and teenagers will relate to the realistic portrayal of how difficult it can be to figure out how to fit into your own life.

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

A classic story about a child genius making his way in world where humans face attacks from hostile aliens known as Buggers.  Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is shipped off to Battle School, leaving behind his cruel brother, detached parents, and beloved sister, Valentine.  Can he navigate the isolation, taunting from hostile peers, and rigorous training to become the General his society needs?

The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)

A Holocaust-era novel like no other, this book sparkles with a magical realism that both kids and adults respond to.  Liesel is a foster child and a book thief.  Thanks to her violin-playing foster father, she learns to read, and through reading, learns how to survive.  The twist?  This novel is narrated by none other than Death Himself.  Read the book before you go see the movie!

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

Hazel acts like a normal teenager: sarcastic with her mother, worried about her appearance.  But Hazel has more on her mind than the average sixteen year old—she’s a stage-IV cancer survivor.  The depression that has come with her condition leads her to a support group for sick kids where she meets Augustus Waters, fellow cancer survivor and the love interest Hazel never dared to hope she would have.  A powerful, funny, unusual love story; I couldn’t put this one down.

The House of the Scorpion (Nancy Farmer)

Matteo does not know who—or what—he is really is.  His DNA is the same as El Patrón, a powerful man who rules the country of Opium (what used to be Mexico).  Though the other kids call him a “clone,” Matteo feels human.  And though El Patrón treats his clone lovingly, Matteo fears him.  What will become of Matteo?  What is his true destiny? [series]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

This book has become a kind of cult classic, with a film version starring the lovely Emma Watson to be release later this year (2012).  Charlie is a high school freshman writing letters to an anonymous friend, sharing what it’s like to navigate the overwhelming world of high school: classes, friends (or lack thereof), sex, drugs, depression, exhilaration and depression.  Honest and, at times, painful, this book is ultimately about taking charge of one’s own life, for better or worse.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

The classic of all classics, this poignant story is set in the fictional—but very historically real—town of Maycomb, Alabama in the late 1930s.  What at first seems a charming story about the summer adventures of kids turns into a powerful tale of courage, cruelty, compassion, and moral ambiguity.  I have taught it the past four years, and each year I discover more to love about this book.



Airman (Eoin Colfer)

In the late nineteenth century on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, Conor Broekhart discovers a plot to overthrow the king.  He is accused of being a traitor, thrown into prison, and forced to work under brutal conditions while he plans a daring escape using a flying machine that he must design and build.

Maximum Ride, the Angel Experiment (James Patterson)

The “birdkids” were bred in a laboratory to be 98% human and 2% bird.  In this first book of the series, the youngest member of their “flock” is abducted by the the evil Erasers (part-human, part-wolf), the group finds itself engaged in battle with its creators.

Shattering Glass (Gail Giles)

A group of cool high school boys transform Simon Glass, the school nerd, into one of the most popular boys in school.  But they weren’t expecting that Simon’s newfound popularity might backfire on them.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

Fifteen-year-old Christopher is autistic–gifted mathematically, but hopeless socially.  When he discovers his neighbor’s dog, murdered, Christopher is initially the one accused of the crime.  Innocent, he decides to solve the mystery of the true killer’s identity.  The book is a diary of his efforts.

The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

Thomas wakes up in an elevator, remembering nothing but his own name. He emerges into a world of about 60 teen boys who have learned to survive in a completely enclosed environment, subsisting on their own agriculture and supplies from below. A new boy arrives every 30 days. The original group has been in “the glade” for two years, trying to find a way to escape through a maze that surrounds their living space. They have begun to give up hope when a girl appears for the first time.  [series]

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Alan Bradley)

Set in the English countryside in 1950, it features Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old amateur sleuth who pulls herself away from her beloved chemistry lab in order to clear her father in a murder investigation. [series]

World War Z (Max Brooks)

This “future history” is told in the form of first-person narratives that recall the Great Zombie War.  Characters from around the world describe the outbreak of the zombie virus, the failed cover-up of Chinese politicians, and the devastating war that ensued.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne)

Professor Arronax joins the crew of a submarine in order to investigate a series of recent attacks by a mysterious sea creature.  The creature turns out to be a giant, complex submarine itself, captained by the strange Nemo.  Nemo takes Arronax and another sailor captive, bringing them along on his journey around the world.

Animal Farm (George Orwell)

Perfect for history buffs, this allegorical tale of talking animals seems simple on the surface but reflects deep philosophical ideas and social commentary.  Students without the historical background for this novel will struggle to understand it, but with the proper context in place, this quickly becomes a favorite.

Emma (Jane Austen)

Emma is twenty-one years old and lives a very privileged, sheltered life.  Though she thinks she’s doing good when she befriends young Harriet Smith, who is less well off, Emma ends up making a mess of everything.  This is the novel on which the movie “Clueless” was loosely based.

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
This fast-paced dystopian novel depicts a world in which books and reading are forbidden, and firemen start fires instead of putting them out.  Even those students who might cheer at the thought of no more reading homework will chill when they read about the numbing, de-humanizing society that stamps out all individuality and creativity.

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)

Orphaned at an early age, Jane has a lonely existence until she goes to work as a governess in the house of a mysterious man named Edward Rochester.  Jane and Edward develop a close relationship, despite the boundaries of their class and age, but Edward is supposed to marry another…

Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

The March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy, are living with their mother while their father is off ministering to soldiers during the Civil War.  This book tells the stories of how they pass their days, what they dream of, who they fall in love with, why they fight, and how they survive as a family.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Huck is a teenaged misfit who winds up floating on a raft down the Mississippi River with an escaping slave named Jim.  The two develop a bond and barely escape several “close call” situations on their adventure.

The King Must Die (Mary Renault)

Not explicitly a young adult novel, like many of these classics, but a great fit for older readers interested in ancient myth.  The novel is a re-telling of the mythical hero Theseus, made into a very believable, very human hero.

The Once and Future King (T.H. White)

I first read this Arthurian retelling the summer before my eighth grade year; I still keep a copy on my bookshelf today.  Adventure, romance, Excalibur…all the good stuff.

The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

Young d’Artagnan comes to Paris to join the Musketeers, young men who have sworn their loyalty to the king (almost like a 17th century version of the Secret Service, but with swords).   d’Artagnan and his new friends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, serve King Louis XIV, fall in love with beautiful young women, and fight against the evil Cardinal Richelieu.

Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Pirates!  Buried treasure!  Canons!  A deserted island!  This book is the original pirate story about a young boy who gets caught up in the middle of a dangerous quest for treasure.

::Coming of Age::

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (Gabrielle Zevin)

After hitting her head on the steps of her high school, Naomi loses her memories of everything that has happened since the sixth grade.  As she attempts to rebuild her life and rediscover herself, she finds some things about herself that she doesn’t like very much.  With two guys vying for her attention, her parents in the middle of a nasty divorce, and college on the horizon, will Naomi be able to change her past and reinvent her future?

Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)

A traumatic event near the end of the summer has a devastating effect on Melinda’s freshman year in high school.  She struggles through the year, unable to speak about what has happened to her, willing only to express herself with art.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Mary E. Pearson)

When Jenna Fox awakes from a coma, she remembers little about her life before.  Whispers, images, memories, and names haunt her, but she cannot determine what is true and what is false.  Why are her parents being so secretive?  Why is her grandmother so hostile?  As Jenna uncovers the mystery, she learns to accept herself and create her own identity.

The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein) 

My students of both genders have loved this book with its canine narrator, Enzo, who details the life of his owner, Denny, with empathy and remarkable insight.  As Denny marries, becomes a father, and faces a series of truly unfortunate events, Enzo remains his faithful companion and chronicler.  Perhaps the most moving aspect of the book is the way Enzo longs to be human, so that he could communicate with the people he loves.

The Life of Pi: A Novel (Yann Martel)

Sixteen-year-old Pi Patel, his family, and their zoo animals are traveling from India to North America aboard a cargo ship. When the ship sinks and all other passengers are lost, Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger.  He must use his wits and instincts to survive.

The Pigman (Paul Zindel)

John and Lorraine are sophomores in high school when they meet “The Pigman,” a fat, balding old man with a strange enthusiasm for life.  As they become more and more caught up in the Pigman’s world, John and Lorraine are forced to decide what really matters to them and what they want to make of their lives.

Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)

One day, Clay Jenson receives a mysterious package on his doorstep.  It contains several cassette tapes and he’s completely confused until he starts listening to them and hears the voice of his dead classmate Hannah Baker.  On the tapes, Hannah details the circumstances that led to her suicide.  Clay is one of 13 people Hannah wanted to hear the tapes, and he spends the day trying to unravel the mystery of why.


::Dystopian Fiction::

Delirium (Lauren Oliver)

Is love a disease?  Lena Halloway’s society has determined so.  At the age of eighteen, everyone undergoes a surgery that removes their ability to become “infected” with the dangerous emotion; after that, a spouse and a career are chosen for each person.  Lena, whose eighteenth birthday is drawing near, feels safe and comfortable in her managed society, until she meets an intriguing stranger who changes everything. [series]

Feed (M.T. Anderson)

This book is set in a future world where television and computers are connected directly into people’s brains when they are babies. The result is a chillingly recognizable consumer society where empty-headed kids are driven by fashion and shopping and the avid pursuit of silly entertainment–even on trips to Mars and the moon–and by constant customized murmurs in their brains of encouragement to buy, buy, buy.

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, and has been replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year, two young representatives from each district are selected to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part bloody intimidation, the televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem as the participants engage in a fight to the death. When 16-year-old Katniss’ young sister, Prim, is selected as the mining district’s female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. [series]

Uglies (Scott Westerfeld)

In this imagined society, beauty is everything–so at sixteen, everyone undergoes an operation that aggressively transforms your physical appearance.  Tally, an Ugly, can’t wait to become a Pretty, but on the eve of their birthdays, Tally’s friend Shay runs away to join The Smoke, a band of rebels who resist their society’s compulsory beauty.  Before officials will let Tally have her operation, she must follow Shay outside of civilization and into The Smoke and betray the rebels–and her friend. [series]



A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L’Engle)

The story revolves around a young girl named Meg.  Her father, a government scientist, goes missing after working on a mysterious project called a tesseract. Meg sets off on a journey to find him, and along the way, she discovers that the Universe is not quite what it seems.  [series]

Beastly (Alex Flinn)

Kyle Kingsbury is stuck-up and spoiled, a good-looking high school kid who gets everything he wants and is quick to judge others based on appearance.  He makes the mistake of humiliating a girl who happens to be a witch and winds up looking like a Beast, the victim of a spell.  Abandoned by his father and his friends, he learns that the only way to restore his appearance is to find true love.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Gregory Maguire)

Set in 17th-century Holland, this retelling of the Cinderella story is full of surprises.  The two Fisher sisters and their mother have fled to escape a hostile England. Plain but smart Iris and her sister, Ruth, a hulking simpleton, are dazed and terrified as their mother, Margarethe, secures the family a place in the home of an aspiring painter.

Graceling (Kristen Cashore)

Katsa is a warrior-girl in her late teens with one blue eye and one green eye, which marks her as a Graceling. Gracelings are beings with special talents—swimming, storytelling, dancing. Katsa’s Grace is her ability to fight (and kill, if she wanted to), unequaled in the seven kingdoms. Forced to support a manipulative king, Katsa acts out by forming a secret council that promotes justice over cruelty.

The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkein)

The adventures of Bilbo Baggins & Gandalf are a preview to the epic battle between good and evil that takes place in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Even Gollum and the ring make an appearance in this classic book.


::Female Protagonists::

Boys, Girls, & Other Hazardous Materials (Rosalind Wiseman)

Charlotte (who goes by Charlie) starts her high school career at a new school, hoping for a clean slate. Things look promising when she makes friends the first day and awkwardly reunites, after three years, with ex-best friend/boy-next-door-turned-crush Will. Unfortunately, people from Charlie’s past keep turning up, like Nidhi, who knows a secret that Charlie does not want to have revealed to her new community.

Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta)

For years, three groups—Townies, Cadets (city kids doing a six-week outdoor education program), and Jellicoe School students—have engaged in teen war games in the Australian countryside, defending territorial borders, negotiating for assets, and even taking hostages. Taylor Markham, a 17-year-old who was abandoned years ago by her mother, takes on leadership of the boarding school’s six Houses. Plagued with doubts about being boss, she’s not sure she can handle her Cadet counterpart, Jonah Griggs, whom she met several years before while running away to find her mother.

The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)

Told as a series of snippets or short scenes instead of a longer narrative, young Esperanza Cordero describes her coming-of-age in a poor, Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago.  Vivid and powerful storytelling full of concerns that any girl can relate to, while also revealing the particularities of the author’s childhood circumstances.

The Summer I Turned Pretty (Jenny Han)

Isabel (who goes by “Belly”) lives for the summertime.  Every year, Isabel and her mom go to Cousins Beach and spend their days with Susannah (her mom’s friend) and Susannah’s kids, who are Belly’s best friends.  But the summer that Belly is fifteen, things are different than they’ve been, especially between her and Susannah’s sons, Conrad and Jeremiah.


::Graphic Novels::

Maus (Art Spiegelman)

The gold standard for graphic novels, this allegorical story of the Holocaust is hauntingly powerful in its simplicity.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi)

Marjane is ten years old and living in Tehran when Iran’s Islamic revolution overthrows the tyrannical but modern Shah.  Her country is thrown into turmoil and Marjane struggles to understand the changes taking place at school, within her family, and in herself.  This graphic memoir manages to be both funny and moving while giving an insider’s glimpse into life under a repressive regime.  Note: content & themes are, at times, intense.


::Male Protagonists::

Deadline (Cris Crutcher)

Ben is eighteen years old.  He has been diagnosed with an incurable blood disease.  Instead of spending the end of his life enduring medical treatments, he decides instead to keep his illness a secret from family and friends, and pack a lifetime’s worth of experiences into his final year of living.

Funny How Things Change (Melissa Wyatt)

Remy has lived in a small, West Virginia mountain town for his whole life.  Things are quiet and simple and he’s always liked it that way.  Now that he’s eighteen, he agrees to accompany his girlfriend Lisa as she moves to Pennsylvania for college.  There, his identity switches to that of an outsider and he is confronted by the contrast of a brand-new life with one he knows well.

Hero (Perry Moore)

Thom Creed is a seventeen-year-old basketball whiz with superpowers he hasn’t quite figured out, and a secret he isn’t quite sure he’s ready to reveal.  Thom’s father is a former superhero himself, but offers little help to his son as he tries to figure things out.  Tired of the way things are, Thom runs away, only to become entangled in a dramatic rescue operation.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)

Arnold Spirit, a goofy-looking dork with a decent jump shot, lives on the Spokane Indian reservation but wishes he lived somewhere else.  He spends his time drawing cartoons, which are included in the book.  Encouraged by a teacher, Arnold transfers to a rich white school and immediately becomes unwelcome in both his old community and his new one.

Winger (Andrew Smith)

This one could also go under the “graphic novel” category, for the chapters are interspersed with comics drawn by the main character, Ryan Dean West, or Winger, as he’s known to his rugby teammates and friends.  A boarding school kid hopelessly in love with his best friend Annie (who thinks of him as a little brother), Winger’s humor makes him a likable narrator, and his honesty about navigating the complexities of a high school social life will ring true for guys.



Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)

Another book-that-became-a-movie, this one tells the wrenching tale of Christopher McCandless, who, after graduating from Emory University, relinquished most of his material possessions and set about traveling cross-country while living out of his truck.  Eventually, he also abandoned the truck, hitchhiking and heading for the Alaskan wilderness, where he eventually died in August of 1992.

Lone Survivor (Marcus Luttrell)

Students with an interest in the military or military history will be fascinated by this account of Navy SEAL Team 10 and their fight against al-Qaeda insurgents during Operation Redwing on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Mao’s Last Dancer (Li Cunxin)

The incredible story of a young man born into a desperately poor family in Communist China who winds up in Houston, Texas as part of a cultural exchange in the late 1970s.  Falling in love with America (and with an American woman), the talented dancer makes a daring choice–to defect to America and abandon his Chinese citizenship.  A fascinating story that was recently made into a movie.

::Science Fiction::

A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin)

A strange boy named Sparrowhawk unexpectedly becomes the apprentice to a great wizard in a land called Earthsea.  Soon, Sparrowhawk learns that he might be more important to the fate of mankind than he ever could have imagined, and that the challenges ahead of him are immense.  [series]

Birthmarked (Caragh M. O’Brien)

In a future world where authoritarian rule forces most to live miserable lives, a select few babies each year are allowed into the Enclave, where a better life is available.  Young Gaia, who is learning to be a midwife, finds herself inside the Enclave for the first time when her parents are sentenced to be executed for reasons unknown to them all.  [series]

War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)

In the book that inspired the recent movie version featuring Tom Cruise, Martians invade the Earth and launch a deadly attack on its inhabitants.  The book’s narrator is an unnamed man who walks through London, detailing the horror of the invasion.


Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery (John Feinstein)

Steve Thomas and Carol Anderson are aspiring young reporters whose writing skills have earned them a trip to the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans. While the pair explores the Superdome, they overhear one of the competing team’s players threatened with blackmail and immediately jump into action, working to expose the scandal.  Full of contemporary references, this one is a must for any basketball fan!  Feinstein has also written other sports books featuring these two characters, Steve and Carol.

Gym Candy (Carl Deuker)

Freshman running back Mick Johnson wants to be a football star so badly that he’ll do anything–even use steroids, or “candy.”  They give him the edge to be bigger, faster, and stronger, but they also come with huge costs to his health, and his social life.

Pop (Gordan Korman)

Marcus moves to a new town before his junior year and spends all summer practicing football, hoping to be part of the school team.  As it turns out, the team has a perfect record and a star quarterback, Troy, who isn’t very welcoming.  Marcus and Troy become rivals, fighting for position on the team, attention from Troy’s father, and the affection of Troy’s ex-girlfriend, Alyssa.

The Blind Side (Michael Lewis)

This is the book on which the famous movie was based.  Left tackle prodigy Michael Oher was born into the Memphis ghetto and endured homelessness and neglect before being taken in by a rich, white family.  Conflicts between the world he left and the world he has entered are escalated when it’s discovered that Oher is an extremely talented player.



  1. […] you’ll see that I’ve added a new tab for “books”—not my own (yet!), but you can find my Eighth Grade Reads list linked there.  I have a few other lists I promise to add soon–Sixth Grade Books (the grade I […]

    Pingback by BLUE CORN PANCAKES — August 25, 2011 @ 1:26 am

  2. I would probably put a parental advisory on Game of Thrones: lots of sex.

    Comment by Mark Bennett — November 29, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

  3. Thank you for this! Would love to see the sixth grade list when you can do it!

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    Comment by Lisa — March 13, 2012 @ 6:58 am

  4. […] putting in one place the smaller lists that have trickled out in various posts over the years: young adult, younger adult, book club favorites, classics, contemporary fiction, contemporary nonfiction.  […]

    Pingback by SUMMER READING, HAD ME A BLAST... — June 8, 2012 @ 9:15 am

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