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YA may stand for “young adult,” but it comes as little surprise that the genre’s fast-paced plotting, relatable protagonists, and frank approach to difficult themes have come to resonate with readers of all ages. Besides, let’s face it: When it comes to inventive sociopolitical analysis and major cultural trends, YA has always been on the cutting edge. (After all, before Squid Game came The Hunger Games.) Whether you’re looking to branch out into the literary category for the first time or simply want a new read to hunt for in your favorite section of the bookstore, this list of must-read YA titles is for you.
What kind of list would this be without the series that redefined dystopian YA as we know it? In case you need a refresher, The Hunger Games is the first book in the series of the same name, in which 12 boys and 12 girls from the future North American country of Panem are selected every year to compete in a televised battle royale-style fight to the death. When teen hunter Katniss Everdeen becomes a participant in the Games, her defiance sparks a nationwide resistance movement that ultimately swells into a revolution.
If you’re on the hunt for a high school riff on dark academia, look no further. Now in development as a series for HBO Max, They Wish They Were Us is a murder mystery set at an elite Long Island prep school, when Jill—a senior and member of The Players, the school’s vaunted semi-secret society—begins to suspect that the guy who confessed to the murder of her best friend three years ago might not be guilty after all.
High fantasy that’ll sweep you away to another place and time? Check. Magic-wielding teenagers fleeing oppression? Check. Epic adventure spanning a fictional version of pre-Colonial West Africa? Check, check, check. The first book in Adeyemi’s blockbuster Legacy of the Orisha series follows Zélie, a teenage girl with latent magical powers, who must join forces with her non-magical brother and a rebel princess in order to free her nation from an oppressive regime.
Iris, an African tightrope walker in Victorian London, has a secret: she cannot die. Though unable to remember her past, Iris is determined to discover who she is—a quest that grows more complicated when she stumbles across the path of a mysterious group known as the Enlightenment Committee. When a member of the society offers to share the truth about her identity in exchange for her participation in a magical gladiatorial competition, Iris must consider whether some secrets are meant to stay buried.
As a resident of a poor, mostly-Black neighborhood and a student at a mostly-white elite private school, Starr Carter is used to code switching—until the night her childhood friend Khalil gets shot and killed by a white cop while driving Starr home from a party. Starr agrees to come forward as an anonymous witness to the shooting, but when Khalil’s murder sparks national protest, Starr’s two worlds come crashing together.
Thanks to Desiree Akhavan’s incredibly moving film adaptation by the same name, most people know Cameron Post as a story about a lesbian teenager in 1993 whose family sends her to a conversion therapy after she’s caught kissing a girl from her church youth group. But the book is about so much more than that: It follows Cameron in the years following her parents’ death as she comes to terms with her sexuality, grapples with her faith, and reckons with the fact that her family’s love may actually be conditional after all.
Willowdean Dixon has never quite fit in—not with her former beauty queen mother (Will is fat and proud), and not with the shallow, pageant-obsessed girls in her small Texas town (for all she cares, as long as she’s got her best friend Eileen by her side, everyone else can go kick rocks). But when a hot former jock coworker expresses interest in her, Will goes into a tailspin. Desperate to get her confidence back, she decides to take on the ultimate challenge: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant.
In this aged-down riff on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the titular Anna K is the teenage darling of Manhattan society. She’s got the perfect life: a handsome boyfriend; the love and attention of her demanding father; and daily access to luxuries most can only dream of. But when she meets the notorious playboy Alexia “Count” Vronsky at Grand Central, all bets are off—and the closer Anna gets to Alexia, the closer she comes to losing everything.
Simon Spier has a tight-knit friend group, a loving family, and a secret: He’s gay. Not yet ready to come out in real life, he strikes up an anonymous email correspondence with another closeted guy at his school who goes by the pseudonym of Blue. But just when he thinks he and Blue might actually be falling in love, a blackmailing classmate turns Simon’s world upside down by threatening to send all his skeletons tumbling out of the closet—literally.
When 16-year-old thyroid cancer patient Hazel goes to a cancer support group, it’s to make her mother happy, not out of any genuine interest on her part—until she meets a 17-year-old boy in remission named Augustus. The two strike up an immediate bond, and as their relationship grows, both Hazel and Augustus must reckon with their relationships to illness, mortality, and romance.
As a high school senior with a toddler-aged daughter, Emoni Santiago doesn’t have the luxury of putting herself first—not even when it comes to her dream of attending culinary school and becoming a chef. But when her school announces a new culinary arts class that will culminate in a class trip to Spain, Emoni wonders if it might finally be the time to let her talent run free.
Nowadays, movies like Princess Protection Program and books like Tokyo Ever After (also on this list) abound, but without Cabot’s 11-book Princess Diaries series, the “unexpected teenage royals” trope might not exist as we know it today. Teen protagonist Mia Thermopolis is plenty busy pining after her crush and trying not to flunk out of algebra when her dad visits from Europe and reveals some life-changing information: he’s actually the crown prince of a small country named Genovia—which makes Mia, his only daughter, the crown princess.
Described as The Princess Diaries for a new generation, Tokyo follows Izumi as she navigates life and high school in her mostly-white northern California town. But when she discovers her previously unknown father is actually the Crown Prince of Japan, Izumi soon finds herself caught between worlds.
Satrapi redefined comics in the public eye with the publication of her graphic memoir, Persepolis, which follows her life from childhood in Iran up through adolescence and early adulthood in Europe. As a child, young Marji grows up amid the noise and turmoil of the Iranian Revolution. When the Iran-Iraq War takes hold, Marji’s parents send her to boarding school in Vienna, which marks the beginning of a years-long struggle to define the term “home.”
When it came out in 2012, critics and readers alike heralded Aristotle and Dante for its groundbreaking take on Mexican-American identity, masculinity, and queerness, and its exploration of those themes still holds up today. Set in 1987, the book follows El Paso teenagers Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza and Dante Quintana as they navigate friendship, adolescence, and—of course—the secrets of the universe.
Long before Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky ever graced Netflix, Han’s To All The Boys series had already captured the hearts of legions of fans—and it’s not hard to see why: Following high schooler Lara Jean’s misadventures in life, love, and self-discovery, the books are like a warm hug in YA rom-com form.
When Justyce McAllister—a Black scholarship student at a mostly-white prep school in Atlanta—is thrown to the ground and handcuffed, the only person who can help him make sense of it all is Martin Luther King, Jr. In search of answers, he starts writing a journal to Dr. King. Stone’s debut novel is a stirring meditation on the difficulties of growing up Black in America, and it’s easy to understand why the book returned to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in early 2020, several years after its 2017 publication.
In the near future envisioned by Dimaline’s dystopian novel, dreaming is largely obsolete. Only Indigenous people still have the ability to dream—and are hunted for their bone marrow, which is used in a serum to treat the ailing dreamless, because of it. A harrowing reimagining of past genocides against Indigenous people, The Marrow Thieves marks the emergence in 2017 of an urgent and timely YA series.
Despite being rendered in just black, white, and pink, Laura Dean is a vivid depiction—literally—of the havoc a toxic relationship can wreak on a person’s psyche. No matter how badly she treats her—or how many times they break up—Freddy just can’t stay away from her on-again, off-again girlfriend, Laura Dean. But as her friends begin to drift away, Freddy must decide just how much she’s willing to sacrifice for what she thinks is love.
Acclaimed author Emezi’s YA debut tackles a difficult question rarely addressed in adult literature: How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist? All her life, 15-year-old Jam’s parents and teachers have told her that there are no monsters in the city of Lucille. Then Jam meets Pet, a creature whose purpose is to hunt a monster lurking in Jam’s best friend’s house, and everything she’s been taught is called into question.
Felix Love is pretty sure his name is ironic; as a Black, trans, queer teenager, he’s afraid he might be too “other” to ever get a love story of his own. But when he begins receiving transphobic messages from an anonymous classmate, Felix hatches a revenge plot that pulls him into the path of some unexpected romantic intrigue.
Liz Lighty is a wallflower by nature: All she wants is to leave her small Indiana hometown, study pre-med at her dream college, and play for their world-class orchestra. But when the financial aid she was relying on falls through, she decides to run for prom queen—a title that comes with a school-sponsored college scholarship. It also comes with a brand-new crush: new girl Mack, Liz’s top competition for the crown.
Warning: Don’t read this in public unless you’re okay with cackling like the Joker in full view of strangers. Sort of like Bridget Jones’s Diary for teens, the first book in Rennison’s classic YA series follows Georgia Nicholson as she schemes to win the heart of her high school’s “Sex-God.”
Inspired by his own five-day stay in a psychiatric ward, Be More Chill author Vizzini’s second novel is a deeply honest exploration of mental illness. After a grueling first year of high school, Craig Gilner’s stress begins to manifest in depression and suicidal thoughts. Much to his chagrin, Craig’s efforts to get help land him in a psychiatric hospital, challenging his self-perception and forcing him to do the difficult work of learning how to take care of himself.
One of the forebears of the YA genre, Speak follows high school freshman Melinda Sordino in the aftermath of a sexual assault. After being raped at a party, Melinda calls 911 but cannot articulate what happened to her. After the cops break up the festivities and arrest some of the students, Melinda is ostracized and stops speaking entirely until she can gain the courage to tell the truth about what happened at that party.
In 1991, as he’s coping with the recent deaths of his best friend and his aunt Helen, 15-year-old Charlie starts writing letters to an unknown, unspecified “friend” about his life. When a senior girl named Sam swoops in and befriends him, he begins to develop a crush on her as he is drawn into her larger social circle, including Sam’s openly gay stepbrother Patrick. While navigating the stresses of high school and family life, however, Charlie begins to unearth a long-buried trauma from his past.
August is the misfit; Jack is the golden boy. That’s how it’s always been, complete with Jack keeping August safe and out of trouble. But when Jack begins to experience vivid hallucinations of an elaborate fantasy world, it’s August who has to save the day—even if it means letting Jack draw him into an alternate reality that grows increasingly surreal. The result: a tense and haunting psychological thriller.
As an unenrolled Ojibwe tribal member growing up off the reservation, 18-year-old Daunis is used to never quite fitting in anywhere. The bright spot in her senior year is a burgeoning flirtation with Jamie, the dashing new kid at school and her brother’s hockey teammate. But as much as Daunis likes Jamie, something feels off about him, and when she witnesses a shocking murder, she gets tangled up in an increasingly deadly criminal investigation.
Cross The Breakfast Club with Scream and you’ll get McManus’ debut suspense novel, which is now a series on Peacock. While stuck in detention with four classmates from different cliques, a high school gossip columnist suffers an allergic reaction to peanuts and dies in the hospital. But when an anonymous Tumblr post claims that Simon’s death was no accident, suspicion falls on the remaining four, who must now uncover the truth of what happened that day before it’s too late.
If you’re in the mood for a sweet little love story, try The Witch Boy author Ostertag’s charming graphic novel about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Fifteen-year-old Morgan can’t wait to escape her complicated family, her caring but oblivious friends, and the seemingly perfect island where she lives. Most of all, she can’t wait to join the real world and kiss another girl for the first time. When a mysterious girl named Keltie saves Morgan from drowning, Morgan decides that she might not hate the island so much after all—but Keltie and Morgan are both hiding secrets from one another.
Every item on this page was chosen by an ELLE editor. We may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.