The Best Young Adult Novels of All Time (That You've Probably Never Heard Of)
No doubt, there are some amazing young adult novels to read these days. When you go into a bookstore or onto your favorite bookseller’s website, you might find that many (or most!) of the bestselling titles being advertised are written for young adults.
Young adult fiction exploded in popularity at the turn of the 21st Century, with titles from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games flying off the shelves.
With so many books out there, it can be hard to find good reads beyond the best YA fantasy series that get a ton of hype and that everyone knows.
In this blog post, I’ll let you know about some of the best YA books of all time that you probably haven’t heard of yet.
The Rise of Young Adult Fiction
It might surprise you that “Young Adult” it is a fairly new category of literature. It’s so popular these days that it’s hard to imagine young adult fiction not existing! Still, there was a time when young adult novels weren’t being written or published.
In fact, teenagers didn’t even exist until the 1950s!
Before then, people didn’t consider the time between childhood and adulthood to be anything special or notable. You were a child, then you were an adult, and that was that.
So, if there were no teenagers, people were definitely not writing books for them.
Only after there was a cultural shift and people started to pay attention to the formative time between childhood and adulthood did books for teens start to be written.
Young adult fiction—as we know it today—only came onto the scene with books like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), and Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970).
Even since then, young adult novels have changed a lot. While books for teens used to be primarily “issue-based” (dealing with issues teens often face, i.e. sexuality, drug abuse, and bullying), they now make up a richly-written, sweeping, and multi-genre category of literature.
Popular genres explored in young adult fiction include:
- YA fantasy books
- YA science books
- YA dark fantasy books
- YA horror books
- YA contemporary books
- YA historical fiction
- …the list goes on.
Young adult fiction has also become one of the most hyped and advertised categories of fiction. This is because it’s so lucrative for the publishing industry!
It reaches far and wide. Not only are teens likely to have “pocket change” for buying books, but a staggering 55% of YA novels are bought by adults 18 and over.
It’s a category that transcends the audience for which it’s written. I’m looking at you, adult reader of this blog post! YA is for everyone, and YA authors are writing books with that in mind.
So, without further ado, here is my list of the best YA books of all time that you’ve probably never heard of. Since you’re here, you probably already know that my favorite kinds of books are scary books for teens.
I love YA horror books, dark fantasy, and Steampunk (my own YA novel, House of Matchsticks, probably tells you this much!), but the books in this list span a number of genres and themes. Some of them are weird, a few of them will make you cry, and all of them are worthy of your time. Happy reading!
Some All Time Best YA Novels
Symone “Sym” Wates is a young girl obsessed with the Antarctic, polar expeditions, and her biggest crush: Titus Oates, a brave Captain that died years ago on a doomed expedition to the South Pole.
When Sym’s Uncle Victor takes her on her dream trip to the South Pole, Sym soon learns that not everything is what it seems in the cold, frigid air of the Antarctic.
In The White Darkness, Geraldine McCaughrean weaves together a stunning, immersive world and never fails to surprise readers as Sym’s trip turns into a harrowing, nightmarish battle for survival.
I’ll say it again and again and again to anyone that listens … I love this YA novel!
It is severely underrated in the world of young adult novels, if you ask me. The White Darkness won the Printz Award in 2008, so it got about as much hype as book award winners usually get (for the Printz Award, not enough!).
My heart was in my throat for much of The White Darkness, and since reading it for the first time, I’ve made it my personal quest to make sure that this terrifying, moving, suspense-filled gem of a book never fades into obscurity.
McCaughrean is a huge inspiration to me in terms of setup and payoff in stories; I’ve tried to catch some of her light in House of Matchsticks.
You’ll have to tell me if I succeeded! If you like survival stories, unreliable narrators, horrifying villains, and descents into pure madness, The White Darkness is for you.
Bone Gap follows eighteen-year-old Finn O’Sullivan as he grapples with the mystery surrounding his kidnapped friend,
Roza. Finn was there when a frightening man in a black SUV took Roza, and upon being unable to describe the man in any detail to the police, he must deal with the emotional fallout from both his brother, Sean, and the other residents of Bone Gap.
Struggling with his own confusion as to where Roza was taken, as well as his growing attraction to the beekeeper’s daughter, Petey,
Finn must navigate the social world of Bone Gap and his own uncertain mind while unraveling the disturbing mystery of Roza’s disappearance.
Bone Gap is a dreamlike, powerful tale of love, loss, and how the face you wear doesn’t necessarily reveal what’s underneath.
Bone Gap was such an emotional ride for me.
Something about Finn and the other people in Bone Gap, Idaho really resonated with me, and I was on the edge of my seat for the whole story. I’ve not historically been very drawn to magical realism, but something about the way Ruby incorporates it into the novel works so well.
If you’re an Ancient Greek mythology lover like me, you’ll love picking out references to the myth of Hades and Persephone here, as well. A knowledge of the myth isn’t required to love the book, though, so pick it up either way!
Overall, this entry into young adult fiction novel is lyrical, haunting, and a total stunner. And that last line! I get emotional every time I think about it.
On the strange and mysterious Blessed Island, people love and lose each other over centuries.
Midwinterblood is made up of seven overlapping stories, each taking place on Blessed Island at a different moment in its history.
The first story takes place in 2073, when a journalist named Eric is brought in from the mainland to investigate the island’s strange inhabitants.
There, he meets a woman named Merle and cultivates a deep connection with her.
The seven stories in Midwinterblood follow Eric and Merle throughout each of their many lives, going back in time and dealing with their love and sacrifice for each other over hundreds of years.
Okay, I admit it … I’m a huge fan of The Wicker Man (1973).
In fact, it’s my favorite horror movie of all time. So, when I picked up Midwinterblood and realized that it’s inspired by The Wicker Man, imagine my delight!
Beyond this, it’s just a really interesting, moving, and strange YA horror book. When I finally closed the book at the end of the story, I felt like I was emerging from some kind of fever dream … in the best way!
This young adult book also won the Printz (so did Bone Gap … I promise this won’t be a trend through the whole list!) and I think it’s very deserving.
It’s a young adult novel that’s hard to describe, so I usually just push it into people’s hands and say, “Here! Read it! It’s weird and wonderful and a totally original scary book for teens!”
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Ship Breaker follows a boy called Nailer as he works at breaking down grounded oil tankers in America’s Gulf Coast region.
Nailer’s world is poverty-stricken and dangerous, a world where only those with grit and the will to scavenge for copper day in and day out can survive.
When Nailer finds a beached clipper ship all to himself, he thinks he’s hit it rich.
That’s before he goes in and discovers the beautiful, wealthy girl inside, a girl that could be the key to his freedom.
Ship Breaker is haunting.
When I first read it a few years ago, it took me a good couple of weeks to stop thinking about it all the time.
There’s something about the world that Bacigalupi has created here that seems so real and possible, it’s frightening.
Dystopia is a popular theme in young adult fiction (and scary books for teens!) and Bacigalupi has approached it in a completely original way in Ship Breaker.
From my own perspective, this book had a huge impact on me.
Nailer spends a lot of time in the dark, enclosed ventilation ducts inside gigantic, grounded ships, and his sense of claustrophobia and confinement really stuck with me. House of Matchsticks deals with a lot of the same feelings (although in very different contexts!) and, if I think about it, I have Ship Breaker to thank for that.
Read it! It’s a wild ride.
In the glittery, pop punk, bubble gum world of Los Angeles in the late 80s, a teenage girl named Weetzie Bat meets Dirk, the best-looking guy at school, and together they start a journey of friendship and hardship.
Weetzie and Dirk move in together and start a compellingly unusual family, one made up of Weetzie and her boyfriend My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk and his tanned surfer boyfriend Duck, and Weetzie’s companion Slinkster Dog.
Touching on themes of loss, drug abuse, AIDS, pregnancy, and infidelity, Weetzie Bat is a moving and open consideration of platonic and romantic love of all kinds.
This book is a shining, transcendentally colorful urban fairytale.
Although it is a bit dated in some of its discourse, I love the open-hearted, ethereal approach Block has taken to an unconventional story. It’s got a ton of fighting spirit and it speaks out in favor of the disenfranchised, two things that I really adore about the best YA books.
Not to mention the cool names—My Secret Agent Lover Man? Slinkster Dog? They are everything.
Weetzie’s world is so detailed and immersive. It makes we want to put on a denim jacket, rev up a motorcycle, and just cruise the city streets, appreciating the wonder and complexity of all the connections around.
In an attempt to save his sick younger brother, Rudy’s family moves to a remote island.
There, they hope that the magical fish Enki might be able to cure Rudy’s brother’s cystic fibrosis. As time goes on, Rudy becomes increasingly bored and isolated on the island.
That is, until he meets Teeth, a half-boy, half-fish with a torso covered in scales.
The two strike up a complicated friendship, bound together by loneliness. Ultimately, their involvement with one another will lead Rudy to have to make a choice that will impact everything he thought he knew.
Teeth is a strange, wonderful, heartbreaking book.
One of my favorite books of all time is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and there’s so much of it in this young adult novel.
I love how dedicated YA authors are when weaving literary themes into books for teens.
I think some of the best YA books look to the greatest works of literature for their inspiration. With that in mind, Moskowitz’s visceral descriptions of Teeth’s appearance and her approach to his being “other” will feel very reminiscent of Kafka, for those who are interested in that kind of thing.
For those who aren’t, never fear—Teeth is still a stunningly strange and interesting portrayal of friendship, hardship, and isolation sure to hit you right in the feels. There are queer themes here, too!
Sixteen-year-old Sydney Carton has grown up in a society where civilization is expensive—he has the years and years of debt to show for it.
In Syd’s world, children and teens like him pay off their debts by acting as “proxies” to wealthy children, taking all the punishments and consequences for their actions.
Syd is unlucky enough to be paired with Knox, a rich, spoiled teenager that couldn’t care less about acting out, committing petty crimes, and letting Syd take the fall.
But when Knox crashes his car and kills a friend in the process—and Syd must pay the ultimate price for the homicide—everything changes.
If Proxy’s premise sounds familiar, that’s probably because it is partially inspired by Sid Fleischman’s The Whipping Boy.
There’s lots of new ground covered here, though; Proxy is a very well-paced, thrilling, and thoughtful young adult novel that takes themes from Fleischman and runs with them.
The story is a real nail biter, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be railing against the injustice of Syd’s world throughout the whole thing. That’s just the mark of a great dystopia!
I’m a big fan of Proxy for its queer themes, its portrayals of friendship, and its discussion of social responsibility.
If you’re looking for a great young adult fiction title with some excellent sci-fi, Proxy is an awesome and totally underrated book.
SP4RX is an outlaw and BITNITE- aka hacker for hire – that livesillegally in the sub-levels of a tiered, futuristic, class-divided city called Avalon.
In Avalon, a powerful corporation dealing in cybernetics called Structus Industries has launched an efficiency program called the ELPIS Program, the goal of which is to provide low-level workers with robotic limbs and internal networks that will allow them to work for days without breaks.
This enterprise is couched in sparkling propaganda, in which ELPIS users are depicted purging their negative emotions and providing more effectively for their families.
All of this sounds great until SP4RX discovers the real reason behind ELPIS—a strategic plan to enslave the lower classes.
I love cyberpunk, I love graphic novels, and I love SP4RX.
It’s fresh, stylistic, and colored in an incredibly pleasing palette of purple, grey, and black.
If you’re like me, you’ll be so drawn to the unpredictable and anti-heroic SP4RX as well as the novel’s cast of secondary characters, including SP4RX’s business partner, CL1PP3R, and the mysterious and independent systems engineer MEGA. The story is bleak, meaningful, and ultra violent-the marks of a really enjoyable piece of cyberpunk. YA authors are just starting to run with cyberpunk, it seems, so pick SP4RX up and savor it.
It’s equal parts gritty and endearingly tender.
In 13th Century France, Provensa has been shaken by the Inquisition and the bloody Crusades of the Catholic Church. Eighteen-year-old Dolssa de Stigata is a mystic who considers Jesus her beloved and a figure she has an intimate relationship with.
Because of these beliefs, the Catholic Church brands her a heretic, arrests her, and sentences her to death.
In an attempt to escape the death by fire the Inquisitors would have her see, Dolssa flees to the seaside town of Bajas, where a matchmaker named Botille offers her help and a safe place to stay.
When the Church bares down on Bajas, however, it becomes clear that Dolssa might not be able to escape her fate after all.
I can’t say I’ve always been the biggest fan of historical fiction—it’s just not a subgenre that I tend to gravitate towards.
Still, every piece of great historical fiction I pick up sells me more on the subgenre as a whole, especially when they’re the best YA books!
The Passion of Dolssa is one of those young adult novels. Dark, harrowing, and reflective, this story is about friendship, belief, and the nuances therein.
I learned a lot about Medieval France from this book, and Dolssa’s story (which is really Botille’s) is a fascinating ride. This is a finely-crafted, well-paced, immersive YA book.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction, or those like me who are still just dipping their toes.
In the late 17th Century, Emer Morrissey is an infamous and bloodthirsty teenage pirate who is ready to retire with her riches and escape to another part of the world with her true love.
But just when things are looking up, Emer is slain by an enemy and cursed with “the dust of 100 dogs”.
According to the curse, Emer is doomed to live through the lives of 100 different dogs.
After the hundredth dog, Emer will finally be reborn into a human body. Eventually, nearly 300 years after her first death,
Emer is reborn as Saffron Adams, a teenager with all her years of memories intact, and the location of her still-buried treasure fresh in her mind.
I love stories of idealized pirates in young adult fiction.
There’s just something about adventure and excitement on the high seas!
The Dust of 100 Dogs has a really original premise, a lovably dry main character, and an interlocking story structure that leads to a nicely satisfying conclusion. It’s also very obviously written by a dog lover, which just adds to the whole experience.
With its three different points of view, The Dust of 100 Dogs is a full meal—one to be enjoyed while stretched out in the sunshine, preferably with waves crashing somewhere near and your favorite canine friend by your side.
When Travis Coates is diagnosed with terminal cancer at sixteen-years-old, he is offered the opportunity to have his head separated from his body and cryogenically frozen.
It will then be attached to another body at some later date, when technology has caught up enough to support the transfer. Of course, that’s precisely what happens—Travis’ head is stuck onto another body five years later, and suddenly he isn’t dead anymore.
There’s a catch, though, that he didn’t see coming: everything has changed since he died and was frozen. He’s going to have to play a lot of catch up in order to get his life back in order, and it’s not going to be easy.
The premise of this young adult story is wild, funny, and unpredictable, and that’s just how I found the rest of the book, too.
There’s something very compelling about stories where the dead come back to life and everyone has to deal with the fallout.
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is an all-time favorite on that front.
Noggin, not by any means a YA horror book, deals with the concept in an interesting and meaningful way. The story has tons of heart, a note of truth that underscores the entire plot, and a sharply funny tone that’s hard to put down.
Its themes of change, loss, and letting go will hit lots of readers right in the emotions. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Erik and Thorn are two troubled boys that perceive and receive the world unlike anyone else they know.
Erik believes that he can perform miracles and that he is a holy figure; Thorn hears voices and finds that he can barely function when he ignores their forceful commands.
When Erik and Thorn’s worlds connect, their stories descend into hallucinatory and revelatory darkness.
With poetic, carefully-crafted prose, Downes weaves Erik and Thorn’s lives together with powerful imagery, a strong heart, and more than a little dread.
This young adult novel is so interesting.
It’s such a unique entry into the YA universe that I couldn’t help but stick it on this list with the others, although I think it’s very different from all the other books I’ve written about here.
The prose is thick and full of beautiful phrasing that at times reads like a free verse poem. I’m so into books like this—books that challenge what young adult fiction can hold and do in terms of literature.
This isn’t a book to dive into if you like clear-cut, linear narratives. It’s one that keeps you guessing and asks you to really think about what it’s presenting. On top of that, the book is dark, frightening, suspenseful, and totally unique.
Give it a shot! I think you’ll find Erik and Thorn’s voices, at times both distinct and blurred, to be totally unforgettable.
In a dark fairytale version of Brooklyn, New York, Vassa’s stepsister sends her out in the middle of the night to buy light bulbs for their apartment.
There’s more than one reason Vassa should be nervous about this.
Her neighborhood is wild and magical, presenting a multitude of dangers, but the biggest danger is the local convenience store owner: Babs Yagg.
She has the tendency to behead shoplifters and people that cross her. Vassa knows going to her place at night could be a bad idea.
But still she goes, and with the help of her animated wooden doll, Erg,
Vassa might just be able to do more for her neighborhood than pick up a few light bulbs.
Okay, I know I said I’m not usually drawn to magical realism, but maybe I’m wrong because here’s another young adult novel with magical realism in it on this list.
What can I say? I surprise myself.
Vassa in the Night is a strange, magical, whimsical book based on the Russian folktale “Vasilisa the Beautiful”.
As a fan of folk tales and fairy tales, I was super excited to pick this YA book up and even more excited about how much I loved it. Vassa’s neighborhood is unfailingly weird and wonderful—there’s talking dolls, witches, walking hands, and houses on chicken legs.
The story elements are unconventional to readers not used to reading Russian folktales, but they’re totally enjoyable, nonetheless.
It’s fantastical and a little creepy, as most folktale retellings should be; after all, folktales were the original scary books for teens!
Overall, reading Vassa in the Night definitely inspired me to roll with some of the more unconventional story elements in my YA book, House of Matchsticks.
I’m all for making the reader go “WTF?” in the best way possible!
Shutter stars Micheline Helsing, a teenage ghost and monster hunter heir to her famous family’s estate. She’s also a tetrachromat—someone who can see the undead’s auras as part of a prismatic spectrum.
While her colleagues take down ghosts, monsters, and other legions of the undead with firearms and traditional weaponry, Micheline uses guns and her camera: a specially-designed analog SLR with the ability to catch the energy of ghosts on film.
Micheline’s world is one of tireless training, the rules of her strict father, grief over the loss of her mother, and yearning after the only boy she can’t have.
Oh, and relying upon her badass crew: Oliver, Jude, and Ryder.
During a routine ghost hunt, Micheline and her crew come up against something they’ve never seen before: a ghost that somehow eludes Micheline’s camera. When she realizes they’ve been infected with a curse that will kill them in seven days time, Micheline and her boys embark on what could be their last mission.
I can’t express how much I’m drawn to YA books with badass heroines, and Micheline is the ultimate badass heroine, complete with a powerful attitude and a grisly backstory.
She’s so compelling, and together with her super-cool crew, excellent writing, and a detailed, well-crafted world, this book is everything I love about YA fiction.
You can tell the author loves writing action scenes—the action is heartpoundingly intense! Especially when you factor in monsters. Reading this book and seeing how unapologetic the author is with monster design helped me bring the monsters in House of Matchsticks from 1 to 100.
Reading Shutter is best undertaken at the dead of night, with a giant cup of tea that’ll last you for more than a few hours, because it’s almost impossible to put this one down.
Well, there you have it! These are some of the best young adult novels of all time, and the question is … have you heard about any of them?
If you have anything to add, leave a comment below and tell me what you thought about one or more of these awesome reads.
If these are new titles to you, let me know if there’s one that you’re thinking about reading right away.
***Note: this post contains affiliate links. If you choose to use one of the links to purchase a book, I make a small commission.