While many discount young adult fiction as, well, juvenile, this genre is actually quite complex and powerful. It often deals with some very heavy real-world issues like the socio, political and economic issues that both divide and unite us. All of this culminates in capturing that important, self-defining period of time: coming-of-age. Young adult books shape the worldview of their readers and in doing so shape the adults they eventually become.
1. Are You there God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Growing up is painfully awkward, whether you’re dealing with your first period or questioning the existence of your connection with God. No book addressed these issues more head-on or made you feel like less of a freak than this Judy Blume classic. It’s also perhaps the first book to strike profound fear into the heart of every pre-pubescent girl, while also horrifying young boys by introducing them to a lady’s “monthly gift.”
2. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Fed up with his family and over-crowded NYC home, Sam runs away into the woods towards his great-grandfather’s abandoned cabin where he must learn to fend for himself. With a menagerie of critter friends that rivals any Disney princess’ four-legged entourage and plenty of simple living platitudes, it undoubtedly inspired a wave of tiny home-building millennials.
3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Before Sex and the City had you and your besties arguing over whether you were the Carrie or the Miranda of your group, there was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It’s the story of four sisters in New England coming into their own. And it was truly ahead of its time in addressing women’s rights and issues, particularly with Jo embracing #feminism before the term even hit the zeitgeist.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
So it’s a total bummer that everyone’s childhood hero Atticus Finch turned out to be exactly the type of bigot he’d spent his life rallying against. Still, Harper Lee does a flawless job portraying the racially unjust American south through the perspective of a privileged white child, who slowly comes to understand the nuances and hypocrisy of race and politics prevalent in those around her. The fact that it still frequents banned books lists decades after being published speaks volumes to its power and realism.
5. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
While stomping on classic thematic ground a la Grease and West Side Story, The Outsiders once again sheds light on the fact that the world is a divided place. In this case, socio-economic status creates two types of people: Socs, the well-to-do and picture perfect members of society, and Greasers, the misfits. After a Greaser kills a Soc, our Greaser protagonist, Ponyboy, begins questioning everything he knows and lives by.
6. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, everybody was obsessed with the deluge of anonymous epistolary books supposedly ripped directly from the autobiographers’ diaries. But none was more ubiquitous as Go Ask Alice. After moving to a new town, the sensitive and observant unnamed narrator finds herself at a party where she is given a drink laced with LSD. She then falls down a rabbit hole of drug abuse, homelessness, prostitution, a mental breakdown from a bad trip and an eventual overdose. Though it reads like the most convoluted Lifetime movie ever green-lit, teens connect with its depiction of painfully wanting to be liked and the emotional realities of peer pressure.
7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Basically anything by Roald Dahl was a sure-fire hit. But while all of Dahl’s books brandished life-altering lessons that included highlighting adults’ hypocrisy, Charlie’s rag to riches story is perhaps the most memorable and universal. Being a well-mannered, hard-working kid helped Charlie beat out a slew of other kids to land the life of any child’s dream—running a multi-million dollar, worldwide candy brand. Life goals.
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
In this memoir, Maya Angelou depicts her tumultuous childhood while growing up in a small southern town, where she encounters racism, abandonment and the eventual sexual assault from an older man. At its heart, it’s a tale of overcoming adversity through perseverance, determination and self-love.
9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Based on Alexie’s own experiences, it tells the story of Junior, who grows up on the Spokane Indian reservation but finds himself attending an all-white school. The school’s mascot is in fact an Indian, yet Junior finds that few people get him or his heritage. A story of traversing prejudice while still trying to hold onto one’s roots, it’s equal parts funny, gripping and heavy.
10. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
As one of the most beloved collections ever, it’s a perfect example of how YA isn’t just for kids. This seven-book adventure begins with a young wizard uncovering his secret powers, the discovery of which sends him on a magical journey of epic proportions. Redemption, love, perseverance and loss are major themes inked on nearly every page.
11. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This was such an important but difficult read because its central issue is rape. The subject matter forced the tone and voice of the writing to be frank, a bit acerbic, and always on the reader’s level. It was like talking to your best friend, which made the idea that something so awful could happen to someone you know all the more terrifying and real.
There are a millions of YA books that influenced who we have become or defined our younger years. However, we don’t have time or space to capture them all here. Tell us what some of your favorites were.