40 Young Adult Novels Grown-Ups Secretly Love
Looking for fresh reading material? Skip the traditional bookstore aisles and head to the young adult section, where you'll find some of the world's most addictive and compelling literature.
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Coming-of-age books that appeal to people of all ages
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From celebrated writers like Judy Blume to fresh voices like Nic Stone, authors of young adult literature have penned a remarkable collection of literature. While the coming-of-age genre may target young readers, the mature themes that these books tackle—such as love, loss, race, social justice, and overcoming adversity—appeal to readers of all ages.
Like this list of the best short books you’ll ever read, many of these YA books may be short on page count, but they’re long on content. In fact, some of these titles have reached such a wide audience that they’ve been adapted for film or television. Whether you’re into science fiction, historical fiction, or contemporary prose, readers will want to add this collection of YA titles to the list of the books everyone should read in their lifetime. And, if you want to add to your TBR pile without spending another dime, you’ll want to bookmark this list of ways to read books for free online.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Greene
If you’re a fan of books that make you cry, grab the tissues: John Greene’s Turtles All the Way Down is just as gut-wrenching as his blockbuster novel The Fault in Our Stars. In it, protagonist Aza Holmes and her friend Daisy investigate the disappearance of a fugitive billionaire in the hopes of securing a $100,000 reward. Woven in between the suspenseful narrative are themes dealing with Ava’s struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the loss of a parent, and the complexities of friendship.
Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
A National Book Award finalist, Candice Iloh’s 2020 novel Every Body Looking focuses on the story of Ada, who finds independence for the first time when she leaves home for her freshman year at a Historically Black College. A National Book Award finalist, the novel tackles tough subjects such as sexuality, addiction, and race—all while focusing on Ada’s personal journey toward discovering her truths.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
In the first of two Nic Stone novels on this list, the author tackles heavy issues of racism, discrimination, and inequality in his book Dear Martin. Widely considered a “must-read” in the canon of social justice literature, the novel tells the story of Ivy-league-bound Justyce McAllister, a young black teen who becomes a victim of racial profiling following a crime. In the aftermath, he looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers.
Dear Justyce by Nic Stone
In this short but powerful sequel to his bestseller Dear Martin, author Nic Stone once again tackles race relations as they apply to the juvenile justice system. In Dear Justyce, Vernell LaQuan Banks is sitting behind bars at a youth detention center, accused of murdering a police officer, while his neighborhood friend, Justyce McAllister, goes on to attend an ivy league college. Through a series of flashbacks and letters to Justyce, Quan exposes the discrimination and inequality experienced by Black males in the American justice system.
This is My America by Kim Johnson
Kim Johnson’s 2020 debut novel, This is My America, tells the story of Tracy Beaumont, a 17-year-old Black girl trying to save her father, who is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. In the midst of her desperate attempts to save her father, her track star brother is accused of killing a white girl. This powerful and provocative novel confronts issues of race and injustice, which will appeal to socially conscious readers of any age. This is My America is one of the books that could change your worldview.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The recipient of numerous literary honors for young adult fiction, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and focuses on the dichotomy in the life of 16-year-old protagonist Starr Carter, who lives in a poor neighborhood but attends a wealthy suburban prep school. Fun fact: It was a book before it was a hit movie.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star will appeal to older teens who are deep in the throes of their first love. This romantic novel follows the story of two teens, Natasha and Daniel, over the course of a day in New York City, as their paths cross in the midst of two distinct circumstances: Daniel is there for a college interview, and Natasha is trying to stop her parents from being deported. Both the parents of immigrants, Daniel and Natasha must deal with their conflicting cultural backgrounds while growing closer as the day progresses.
One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
YA readers who are fans of mystery/suspense will enjoy One of Us is Lying, a thrilling, fast-paced mystery novel from New York Times bestselling author Karen McManus and the winner of numerous YA literature “Best Novel” awards. Referred to as The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars in reviews, the novel tells the story of five strangers who are assigned detention together—but only four come out alive.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Like The Sun is Also a Star, Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 novel Eleanor & Park tells the story of two star-crossed teenagers whose young love blossoms over the course of a year. A New York Times bestseller and winner of numerous accolades, the story tells the story of—you guessed it—Eleanor and Park, who end up falling in love while sitting together on the school bus every day. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Eleanor and Park build their relationship while living in two different worlds: one loving and idyllic, the other poor and abusive.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
John Knowles’ A Separate Peace has been beloved by both young readers and adults since it was first published in 1959. This timeless coming-of-age classic may make frequent appearances on AP reading lists, but its prose will appeal to readers of all ages. Set in World War II, it tells the story of Gene Forrester and his experiences as he transitions to adulthood after spending his adolescence at an elite prep school in New Hampshire. A gripping and poignant read, it tackles such weighty themes as identity, patriotism, denial, and the effects of war. Look to this list for more classic books that initially got lousy reviews.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Written by author Daniel Handler under the pen name of Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a collection of novels that follows the lives of the Baudelaire children after their parents are tragically killed in a fire. Although considered children’s literature, the series’ spooky and mysterious motifs and Gothic overtones appeal to adult readers as well. The series, which contains 13 increasingly creepy novels in all, has been adapted as original television series for Netflix.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
First published in 1962, Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning A Wrinkle in Time is beloved by generations of readers, both young and old. As the main characters travel from universe to universe to quite literally save the world, the classic sci-fi novel delves headfirst into the themes of good versus and evil and darkness versus light, while exploring the complexities of friendship and one’s purpose in life. The book has been adapted into two distinct film versions, one of which stars Oprah Winfrey as the astral being “Mrs. Which.”
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
In her 2017 debut novel American Street, Haitian-American author Ibi Zoboi tells the story of Fabiola Toussaint, who journeys to American from Haiti with her mother in hopes of finding the American Dream. When her mother is detained upon arrival, Fabiola winds up living with relatives on the corner of American Street and Joy Road in Detroit, where she must navigate the complexities of living in a brand-new world while holding onto her Haitian values and roots. The winner of numerous awards and a National Board Award finalist, the novel provides an honest, unfiltered glimpse into what it’s like to be an immigrant living in the United States.
Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez
This acclaimed 2004 novel by author Julia Alvarez is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Anita de la Torre, who lives under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic with her family. Throughout the novel, members of Anita’s family, who are part of the underground opposition to Trujillo, disappear at the hands of the dictator’s secret police. Anita comes of age while these frightening events unfold, complicating not only her blooming adolescence but also her awareness of the complexities of politics and social justice.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Published in 2014, Brown Girl Dreaming is the autobiography of author Jacqueline Woodson—told in verse. The book, which has won numerous awards for youth literature, chronicles Jacqueline’s life as an African American in the 1960s, South Carolina and New York. Although written as youth literature, the book’s focus on the complex themes of racism, identity. and the civil rights movement will appeal to readers interested in social justice issues.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
This intense 1985 novel is the first in the science fiction series by American author Orson Scott Card. It is set in a futuristic society in which young children are bred for the sole purpose of training as soldiers to fight against an alien army. This series follows the journey of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin as he trains—from the age of six—to become a soldier. His skills and brilliance make him a leader, but also throw him into a world fraught with violence, jealousy, and isolation. Now a major motion picture, the novel has won numerous literary awards and is considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Long before reality TV shows like Survivor and Man vs. Wild were popular, there was Gary Paulsen’s 1986 novel Hatchet. The novel tells the harrowing tale of 13-year-old Brain Robeson, who spends 54 days on his own in the wilderness following a plane crash, aided only by the hatchet his mother gave him before his trip. A fast-paced and gripping read, the book was selected as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read and been the recipient of numerous accolades, including a Newbery Honor.
Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Fans of fantasy fiction will no doubt enjoy Ransom Rigg’s 2011 debut novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Told through both prose and a series of photographs, the novel tells the story of Jacob Magellan Portman, who is on a quest to learn more about the stories his grandfather told him about surviving as a Jew during World War II.
Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
This 1981 novel by the great youth fiction writer Judy Blume deals with the very adult themes of grief, loss, mental health, and addiction. The story is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Davey Wexler, whose father was shot to death during a robbery at the family’s convenience store. The story follows Davey’s struggle to put her life back together after the unexpected tragedy.
Holes by Louis Sachar
Fans of adventure will be intrigued by the 1998 young adult novel Holes by Louis Sachar. The beloved book, which won both a National Book Award and a Newbery Medal, tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, a teenage boy who has been sent to a juvenile detention center called Camp Green Lake for a crime that he didn’t commit. When he arrives, he discovers his fellow inmates digging holes for the warden, each five feet wide and five feet deep, all day long, leading Stanley to believe the Warden is searching for “something” mysterious.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel by acclaimed YA author Laurie Halse Anderson. It tells the story of Mattie Cook and her family’s struggle to survive during the yellow fever epidemic that ravages Philadelphia in 1793—one of the worst epidemics in the nation’s history. Originally published in 2000, the story is more poignant than ever in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, you’ll want to save this list of the best historical fiction books of all time.
Legend by Marie Lu
Fans of dystopian novels like The Hunger Games will likely be drawn into the story of the two 15-year-olds in this Marie Lu novel who are born into different economic stratospheres: June is the daughter of an elite family and is training as a solider to defend the Republic, while Day is a criminal living in poverty. When the two meet, they begin to uncover the truth about the sinister society in which they live.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
This fast-paced, gripping tale by Jason Reynolds grapples with the grave after-effects of gun violence. The winner of numerous literary awards for YA fiction, it tells the story of a 15-year-old boy named Will who is seeking revenge for the murder of his brother. The novel’s simple setting—the entire story takes place on an elevator—is juxtaposed with the intricate character interactions that occur as Will journeys floor to floor.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
The 1903 short-but-powerful classic novel The Call of the Wild is widely considered Jack London’s masterpiece. Its central character is a dog named Buck, who is stolen from his home by a gardener to pay gambling debts. Buck is sold to a stranger who cages, beats, and starves him, and then sold again to be trained as a sled dog in Canada. As the book progresses, Bucks’ trials in the wilderness force him to shed his posture as a family pet and instead rely on his animal instincts to survive.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This coming-of-age story by Stephen Chbosky has become a favorite of both young readers and adults because of its honest look at the lives of everyday teenagers. Told through the eyes of 15-year-old narrator Charlie, the novel details the daily trials and tribulations that most teenagers face, but it also tackles hefty and controversial topics like drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and suicide. It also focuses on the roles that friendship, family, and love play in helping us through difficult times.
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Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Readers who return to this classic high school English class book as adults find this William Golding novel to be much more appealing than they thought when it was the first time around. First published in 1954, the novel tells the story of a group of British boys who become stranded on a deserted island following a plane crash. On their own with no adults to guide them, they’re left to fend for themselves. As disasters unfurl and jealousy rages, the boys quickly discover a life without grown-ups is not as freeing or as fun as they believed it would be.
Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene
First appearing in 1930, the Nancy Drew Mysteries are a collection of books with a strong female character that was written by various authors under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. Over the past few decades, Nancy has evolved with the times—to the point where’s now using a cell phone to investigate her never-ending mysteries. Starting with the original novel in the 163-book series, The Secret of the Old Clock, more than 80 million readers have been intrigued by the teenage sleuth as she solves case after case. Today, the imperturbable Nancy is attracting a whole new generation of fans, thanks to a television show launched in 2019.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
This 1984 novel by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros might be a common addition to middle-school reading lists but is enjoyed by readers of all ages. Widely considered a modern classic, it follows a year in the life of 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero, who is growing up as a Hispanic girl in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Partially based on Cisneros’ own life, this coming-of-age story addresses themes related to gender, sexuality, race, and identity while staying true to her culture.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
If you somehow escaped middle school without reading The Outsiders, you’ll want to pick up a copy and read it now. This 1967 novel by S.E. Hinton focuses on two weeks in the life of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, a member of the low-class “Greasers” and their rivals, the well-to-do Socials. Beloved by readers of all generations, The Outsiders was widely considered a groundbreaking piece of literature that paved the way for the entire YA genre—and spawned one of literature’s most famous lines of dialogue: “Stay gold, Ponyboy.” And be sure to check out these other famous one-liners from children’s books.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Told through the eyes of 6-year-old Scout Finch, Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird explores racial tensions in a small town in Alabama. The book, which is widely taught in schools, is also one of the most frequently banned books because of its use of racial slurs, sexually violent content, and harsh look at racial injustice. Despite its controversy, it is widely regarded as one of the best pieces of literature ever published. Here’s a list of other books you might not know were banned.
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
If you’re a grown-up and still haven’t read the Harry Potter novels, ahhh! You don’t know what you’re missing. J.K. Rowling’s tale of the English boy wizard and his arch-nemesis, the dark wizard Lord Voldemort, is nothing short of transcendental. As he grows into a confident teen, Harry struggles with the same issues all peers face: the pressure to fit in, anxiety and stress over grades and homework, and the power of friendship—albeit, with a side of wizardry thrown in for good measure. (And once you read the books, these Harry Potter jokes will make a lot more sense to you.)
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
This trio of coming-of-age fantasy novels by Philip Pullman begins with The Golden Compass, which many critics consider to be one of the finest pieces of young adult literature ever published. Adults will find this award-winning trilogy spellbinding as they follow the adventures of Lyra and Will, two children who travel through vibrant parallel universes that are at once similar to and quite different from our own. Even though it’s targeted at children, the series’ complex themes related to morality, identity, and fate versus free will entice readers of every age. These are the best short books you’ll ever read.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
his 1976 book by Mildred D. Taylor is a candid and compelling look at racism in the South during the Great Depression. As the second in a series of four books about the Logan family, this novel follows protagonist nine-year-old Cassie Logan and her family, as they struggle to keep their land while confronting varying degrees of racism from the white townspeople. As a narrator, Cassie is both brave and naïve; hence, adults can benefit from Cassie’s perspective on what it’s like to be a child living in a racially oppressed environment.
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
If you have a young reader in your house, chances are you’ve heard of The Hunger Games. This dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which includes The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, is set in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem, where children are selected annually to participate in a televised, fight-to-the-death battle called—you guessed it—the Hunger Games. The rebellion inspired by the series’ sharp and spirited hero, Katniss Everdeen, will captivate readers of all ages. As a bonus, actress Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss in the series’ blockbuster movies is spot-on…but you should read the books first. Don’t miss these other movies that were better than the book.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
This award-winning novel by Sherman Alexie was published in 2007 and instantly became a must-read for young adults. It tells the story of Arnold Spirit, a small, stuttering, 14-year-old Native American who suffers discrimination and racism at the hands of his peers. After an incident with a teacher, he leaves his reservation’s poverty-stricken school to attend a school in a wealthier, mostly white school district. Despite the incessant bullying, Arnold remains hopeful and joyful, proving that it is possible to overcome despair, even in our darkest moments. These are the inspiring books every teacher needs to read.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
This 1977 novel by Katherine Paterson has won numerous awards. It’s also been parked on the American Library Association’s list of Most Frequently Challenged Books for numerous years, due to its discussion of death and its depiction of religion—oh, and its use of swear words. It tells the story of the friendship between Jesse and Leslie, who create a magical land for themselves called “Terabithia.” After a tragedy strikes and Leslie dies, Jessie learns to move on. Although it’s targeted at young readers, the novel’s themes of love, death, friendship, and family are relevant to anyone who’s ever suffered through the tragic loss of a loved one.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Published in 2012, this first novel by R.J. Palacio tells the story of August Pullman, a 12-year-old boy who was born with facial birth defects so severe that strangers elicit gasps of shocked surprise at his appearance. As he heads to school for the first time in his life, the bullying and derogatory commentary amplify; he’s called everything from “mutant” to “rat boy” to “monster” by his peers. As Auggie matures and attempts to overcome shame and accept who he is, this novel will reinforce how important it is to be kind to those who are different from us, even when the situation is uncomfortable or awkward.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Despite what the title might lead you to believe, this 2005 award-winning novel by Markus Zusak isn’t a detective novel. Rather, it’s the story of a young girl named Liesel who is living in Nazi-occupied Germany during the Holocaust. In order to read, she had to steal books, even as they are being marked for burning by Nazi bonfires. The novel features a unique point of view; it is narrated by Death itself, who shares Liesel’s story of struggle and survival with the reader. Readers of all ages will appreciate its themes of love, hope, and the power that words have to hurt—or to heal.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This 1999 novel by Laurie Halse Anderson tackles the weighty subject of sexual assault through the eyes of her high-school freshman protagonist, Melinda Sordino, who is raped at a party by an older classmate. She calls 911, but is afraid to tell the police what happens, so she runs off and instead tells no one. As a result of the trauma, she falls into a deep depression and stops talking almost completely. The novel received awards and critical acclaim for its realistic account of the aftermath of rape. Targeted for readers age 14 and up, Speak has been lauded for opening a dialogue about sexual harassment and assault amongst both teens and adults.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Unless you have a tween daughter living with you, it’s probably been a while since you’ve felt anxious about buying your first bra. Don’t worry: Judy Blume’s 1970 masterpiece, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, will help to rekindle those feelings of anxiety, confusion, excitement, and fear that accompany growing up. Follow along as 11-year-old Margaret waits anxiously for Mother Nature to initiate her foray into womanhood, while, at the same time, she navigates tumultuous relationships with her small family and searches for religious meaning. These lessons from children’s books will get you through life’s toughest moments.