Beginner’s Guide to Young Adult Fiction
August 17, 2023
By Elise Damasco and Amber Ilisie
“I volunteer as tribute!”
--Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games
Although this quote, which is from one of the most successful young adult titles, may not sound profound out of context, there’s a reason why those words had Amber convinced she’d win the Hunger Games (she definitely wouldn’t—she’s afraid of bees) and had Elise wanting to take up archery lessons (good thing she didn’t—she’s still haunted by the fact that P.E. was her lowest grade).
We’re both advisory specialists at the library, and we’re passionate about young adult (YA) literature and everything it entails! Whether you’re a die-hard fan of young adult literature or have no idea what The Hunger Games is, here is a brief introduction to the young adult category.
What is young adult literature?
On the surface, the classification of “young adult” (YA) is broad and simple. It is not a book genre, like romance or thriller or science fiction, but rather a category that describes a target age group: teens. Typically, these books are intended for ages 12-18, but there’s room for flexibility in YA. Over the years, YA has expanded to occasionally include college characters. And, more important, regardless of the intended audience, YA has consistently been read and enjoyed by people of all ages.
Young adult literature is on the newer side of book categories. Although some classics like The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937), The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951), and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) have consistently been enjoyed by teenagers, it was not until the 1960s that the term “young adult” gained traction as a descriptor for books. Notably, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (1967) is often marked as one of the first books to be recognized in the young adult category. Books like The Outsiders have played an integral part in candidly showing diverse teenage experiences in book format.
Banned books–what’s appropriate for teens to read?
Although YA has provided teens with books that reflect their experiences and voices, this category has not gone unchallenged. The content of YA books is often hotly debated—what exactly is appropriate for teens to read? Developmentally, 12-18 is a large age range. Is it okay to include profanity in books for teens? How about sexually explicit content? Violence? Racism? Drug use? Should we shield teens from these topics, or is it important that they have access to literature that reflects the real world? Navigating appropriateness in literature can be a rocky road when it comes to adolescents, so it’s no surprise that the American Library Association reports that at least eight of the thirteen most challenged books in 2022 are intended for a young adult audience.
Of course, there are many valid concerns about why some content may not have a place in books written for teens. On the other hand, censoring teen books can take away from meaningful reading experiences and possibly do more harm than good. If you’re interested in reading some of the most frequently challenged young adult books, here are a few to get you started:
- Forever by Judy Blume (1975)
- Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982)
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)
- Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2004)
- Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (2013)
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
Why we read young adult books
Regardless of your favorite genres, and whether or not you’re a teen, there are numerous reasons to read young adult literature. Amber enjoys YA because she loves how it can become an escape from everyday life. Elise enjoys YA for the opposite reason–she loves reading about real-life, everyday experiences. We both started reading young adult way before we were teens and still enjoy it; however, many of our colleagues didn’t start reading YA until they were adults.
Here are some comments from Skokie Public Library staff members on why they read YA:
“I can appreciate that YA books truly give space for teens to explore topics and see themselves reflected back in the text. I think YA does that best of all existing book genres/categories.” – Amber H.
“As a teen, reading YA helped me understand things that were going on in my life or things that were happening to people around me. I've always liked grittier YA, and as a teen that helped me understand things like divorce, death, complicated friendships, dating, mental health issues, etc. I still enjoy the genre because I think it often tackles these themes in a really constructive and honest way.” – Brenna
“I just really like expanding my horizons, discovering new authors, and learning about different perspectives, ideas, and happenings.” – Sharon
“I can’t separate my childhood from all my book memories as those memories are the best parts! I’m a librarian today because YA novels affected me and made me into the reader and librarian that I am.” – Lynnanne
“YA served as a way for me to start delving into more complex stories as a young reader without feeling overwhelmed by vocabulary I didn't know. I remember being absolutely enamored by anything involving spaceships or magic and staying up past my bedtime with a flashlight under my covers. Looking back on it, my mom definitely knew.” – Alex
Types of YA books
Because YA is technically just a target audience–aka, teens!–and not a genre itself, YA books can serve a diverse range of reading tastes. Typical genres like fantasy, romance, and mystery are common for YA, but if you’re looking for something a bit more niche, like magical realism or novels in verse, or even steampunk, YA will also have you covered. Here are some of the most popular genres in the young adult category.
Dystopian fiction imagines society at its worst. Characters often suffer from poverty, illness, or extreme control, with human misery and oppression serving as common themes. This genre is far from exclusive to YA and, in fact, many classics like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and 1984 by George Orwell (1949) are classified as dystopian fiction. For YA, dystopian became especially popular in the 2000s and early 2010s, resulting in an explosion of teen dystopian book series and movie adaptations. Here are some of the most influential YA dystopian titles:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
- Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011)
- Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005)
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009)
- The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
Fantasy involves elements that cannot exist in real life. Although it’s common to have books in this genre take place in a totally new, invented universe, they can also be set in a world that reflects our own. Magic, mythology, and folklore often pop up in fantasy books. Here are a few YA fantasies to try:
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (2015)
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (2005)
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011)
- Cinder by Melissa Meyer (2012)
- Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
- The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh (2022)
YA romance can be anything from sweet to serious to humorous. These books may explore tropes and themes such as first relationships, love triangles, LGBTQ+ identities, and love at first sight. Here are a few YA romances to get you started:
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (2014)
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012)
- The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (2016)
- Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan (2021)
Thriller and Mystery
If you’re a fan of plot twists, suspense, and clues, try YA thrillers and mysteries! They usually focus on some sort of crime or puzzle (i.e., a murder, a disappearance, a suspicious character, a stolen object), and sometimes have underlying themes of justice or even vengeance. Here are some YA thrillers and mysteries that will keep you on your toes:
- Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)
- We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (2014)
- A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson (2019)
- One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus (2017)
- Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé (2021)
Contemporary and Coming-of-Age
Simply put, contemporary fiction consists of stories that take place in our modern world. These books reflect experiences that could happen to real people in real life. Contemporary is especially important to YA because it describes situations and thoughts to which teens may directly relate. It also encompasses an incredibly large array of topics, many of which describe the transition from childhood to adulthood, known as “coming-of-age.” Whether it’s getting into college, going to prom, finding friends, figuring out one’s sexuality, or even heavier subjects like drug abuse and domestic violence, contemporary YA fiction aims to depict the complex lives of teenagers. Here are some examples of contemporary YA:
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015)
- Sadie by Courtney Summers (2018)
- Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (2018)
- The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar (2020)
- Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (2019)