Young-adult literature gets a bad rap. It’s easy to see shelves of paranormal fiction stuffed with vapid female protagonists and obsessive love interests—or worse, the dreaded love triangle—all brought to dozy half-life in barely passable purpose prose, and run the opposite direction, maybe to a nice, safe biography of Abraham Lincoln. But more and more of this genre is making a name for itself, such that “young adult” describes not the quality of writing, but the age of the protagonist. YA lit published in the last few years is chock-full of big themes packaged in spellbindingly inventive plots. And, let’s face it, we’re always learning how to grow up, making these coming-of-age stories delicious literature for readers of all ages, everyone from twelve to one hundred twelve.
1. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
It was a Michael L. Printz Honor book—the coveted prize for young adult literature—for good reason. When a British spy plane crashes in Germany during WWII, its lone passenger, a secret agent, is captured by the Gestapo. Forced to reveal her mission or face a grisly execution, the agent scribbles her intricate confession onto scraps of paper supplied by her Nazi interrogators, weaving her confession with reminisces of her past and the iron-clad friendship she developed with the pilot of the plane that crashed. Called a “fiendishly plotted mind-game of a novel,” its twists and turns will propel you to an astounding conclusion.
And if you still aren’t convinced: It breaks from YA’s tired tradition of love triangles entirely because it’s about two best friends instead of hormone-ridden puppy lovers. And a more charismatic, fallible, and honest pair of friends you could not find. If you find you adore this one as much as we did, check out its companion novel, Rose Under Fire.
2. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman
This is not a story of ordinary dragons. The country of Goredd is preparing to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of an uneasy peace between dragons and humans, when the Crown Prince is murdered—and all signs point to dragons at work. Seraphina Dombedgh, the court musician, is thrust into the turmoil of politics surrounding the treaty with intelligent, unemotional dragons that humans find so threatening.
And if you still aren’t convinced: Hartman’s lyric style is complemented by the music chiming through the story. Her experience with medieval culture and its music sings throughout the novel, blending an enchanting setting with bewitching melody, everything from sackbuts (the trombone’s early predecessor) to megaharmonium (a fictional instrument that’s based on a real one, the organ-like harmonium).
3. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor
The first of a trilogy, Daughter of Smoke and Bone tells the story of Karou, an enigmatic art student with an unusual day job. With a necklace of wish-granting beads and a sketchbook of fantastic monsters and demons, Karou’s story unravels with the elegance of smoke as she learns the true story of the only family she’s ever known and of the war that tore her world apart.
And if you still aren’t convinced: This kind of book will prove it—YA lit is where the epic story went. While adult literature is invested in home stories and realism, YA lit like this is where Homeric stories of gods and heroes. A lovely and ambitious, if not perfectly executed, tale of angels and demons.
4. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
It’s not been 44 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for nothing. Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two normal Indianapolis teenagers—oh, except they met at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Hazel is ultimately terminal, though experimental treatment has delayed her inevitable end for a while. But when she meets Gus, her ending suddenly seems much less certain. Theirs is a love unlikely and unmatched.
And if you still aren’t convinced: Wary of reading another book about cancer kids? Fear not. This is the funniest book about cancer we’ve ever read. Which is not to say that it’s insensitive and inhumane. Its irreverent, laugh-out-loud humor belies its warm heart and serious contemplation of fate, death, and fates worth than death.