There are so many reasons to read young adult literature, even after you’ve well passed the age bracket of its target audience. Whether you love reading about comings of age and first loves, living vicariously through different experiences, reading in a category that’s growing in diversity at a far greater rate than most, or something else entirely, there’s definitely a young adult book you’ll love.
If you’re an adult who’s not quite convinced, or just doesn’t know where to start, here’s a handy list of my favorite ways to dip in your toes.
It’s hard to imagine a reader of any age who wouldn’t get completely sucked into this haunting masterpiece, and that’s probably why it’s a bestseller. Written as part novel, part true crime podcast (and if you’re thinking that probably makes a great audiobook, you are extremely correct), this stunner alternates between host West McCray following the case of nineteen-year-old runaway Sadie Hunter and Sadie herself, a girl bent on vengeance as she hunts down the man she’s positive killed her little sister.
Some people hate the use of the word “unputdownable” to describe a novel; I personally can’t imagine a word that better describes it. Summers is an author who takes no prisoners and absolutely does not care how badly she hurts you, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Truly, any Tiffany Jackson book could go in this space; she’s a master of nuanced, highly relevant, current events-inspired psychological thrillers and contemporaries in a way that transcends category.
While you might want to begin with Let Me Hear a Rhyme if you’re an adult missing the 90’s rap scene, or Grown if you watched Surviving R. Kelly and want to spend more time in that conversation, I’m gonna begin at the beginning, which is with this stunning debut.
Allegedly stars a black girl named Mary who stands accused of having killed a white baby when she was only nine — and who’s never refuted that accusation. But when she gets pregnant with her secret boyfriend and sees a future she wants, she decides it’s finally time to share her truth. The question is: will anyone listen?
We Are Not From Here
Some of the most poignant literature is that which paints a brutal and honest picture of what’s going on around us right now. Sanchez’s latest work, about three teens’ arduous, dangerous journey toward the States as they flee gang violence in Guatemala, could not be more relevant.
The story of Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña’s crossing through Mexico is haunting and poignant in its illustration of the threats at every turn and the tremendous risks undertaken by making the journey. It never lets you forget why the chance of success at the end of the crossing seems worth the hell it takes to get there… and that getting to the States is only the beginning of their battle.
Related: 15 Powerful Books About Immigration
The First Time She Drowned
Kletter recently published her first adult novel, East Coast Girls, and if you’ve read her brilliant YA debut, you know she has a rare skill for writing pathos for characters of all ages. The First Time She Drowned is a mother-daughter story about a girl named Cassie who’s finally eighteen and granted independence from the mother who put her in a mental institution years earlier against her wishes.
Now Cassie’s in the tumultuous position of entering adulthood while facing down her past, and exploring the relationship that has, for better and for worse, defined who she is. The book is about the lengths we go to protect ourselves, and of how internalized misogyny can be a generational curse — definitely relevant content (and beautifully written in a literary style) for any age.
Anna-Marie McLemore is YA’s master of magical realism, and each and every one of their books from their Romeo and Juliet-inspired debut, The Weight of Feathers, to The Mirror Season, their upcoming contemporary tackling sexual assault, beautifully exemplifies why.
Infused with gorgeous imagery and inspiration from both Western fairytales and Latinx culture, there’s no wrong pick in McLemore’s entire catalog. Adult readers in particular might appreciate the all ages-relevant themes of loss, grief, and history in the gorgeously botanical Wild Beauty, which is about a family of cursed women whose loves are all doomed to disappear.
The Downstairs Girl
A favorite master of historical fiction, Lee does incredible work in highlighting Chinese American voices in the 19th and 20th century U.S. While all her books are excellent, this is the one where I’d say the youth of the main character is least central to the events of the story.
Set in 1890 Atlanta, The Downstairs Girl stars a lady’s maid named Jo who was abandoned by her parents and lives in a hidden tunnel under the newspaper office at which she finagles herself a gig as an anonymous advice columnist. While she knows readers would be horrified to learn there’s a Chinese American teenager behind Dear Miss Sweetie, she can’t resist using her power to bring issues of racism and equality to light. There’s also A Boy, and he happens to be part of the very family that runs that newspaper, fixing for some very tough choices all around.
Fans of Arthuriana in particular are in for a treat with this debut YA fantasy, which sets a teen girl named Brie at a summer college program and embroils her in an intense world of magic, legend, and power. Not that Brie has any of those things — unless immunity to an attempt to wipe her memory after she witnessed an attack counts.
And it seems it does, because a simple lie helps her infiltrate the group of Legendborn — descendants of the original knights and those who serve them — in a search for the truth she growingly suspects they have regarding the untimely death of the mother she’s still mourning. From its on-point depiction of grief to the brilliant ending I haven’t stopped thinking about since I finished, this is a fantasy novel that will impress even those who think they’ve read it all.
Blood Water Paint
Easily my favorite YA novel-in-verse, this incredibly lyrical and powerful debut is told from the perspective of Artemisia Gentileschi, who began as an assistant to her artist father and rose to become one of the most talented painters in Rome, perhaps best known for her starkly beautiful and violent Judith Slaying Holofernes
It depicts Gentileschi’s rise to talent, the infamous case of her rape and its subsequent trial, as well as how the attack influenced her work. I dare you not to obsessively Google everything about her the minute you finish.
The skill level and complexity of Gilbert’s writing craft is honestly borderline terrifying to me — the way you can feel the dark closing in around the edges at all times and you find yourself getting progressively shorter on breath as you go — and it’s been that way since her first book, about a boy forced to decide how to testify in a murder trial where his father stands accused and he’s the only witness.
Further weighing on the issue are his father’s fame as a noted Christian radio host; the fact that he’s looking at a future in baseball that will put him up against the nephew of the victim; and Trey, Braden’s estranged brother, who’ll be the last family Braden has if his father goes to prison. There are no easy choices to be made and no pretense of them, either. It’s the ultimate “What would you do?” and a reading experience you won’t soon forget.
Dahlia Adler is an editor of mathematics by day, the overlord of LGBTQReads by night, and a Young Adult author at every spare moment in between. She is the editor of the anthologies His Hideous Heart (a Junior Library Guild selection) and That Way Madness Lies, and the author of seven novels, including Cool for the Summer. She lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books.