Why Everyone Should Read Young Adult Books

What book do you remember reading in your teenage years? Perhaps it was Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery? Or Lord of the Flies by William Golding? How about Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume? For me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Certainly, the books you read in those teenage years can leave a lasting impression.

Often referred to as ‘coming-of-age’ novels, Young Adult (YA) books are aimed at the teenage market, generally aged 14 – 18 years. They are characterised by a teenage protagonist who will navigate several difficulties and crises and consequently their character will grow and develop throughout the story. These days, the content of Young Adult fiction is as diverse as the teenagers they represent. Indeed, Young Adult fiction is responsible for leading important conversations around topics such as friendship, love, identity, mental health, gender, racism and family.

Interestingly, over half of the Young Adult market are adults, aged 18 – 60. So what attracts adults who already have a plethora of fiction available to them to Young Adult novels?

Firstly, Young Adult books are highly consumable. They pack a big emotional punch and are highly engaging without being overly heavy or distressing. Further, Young Adult books tend to blur the boundaries of genres. After all, teenagers are never dealing with one incident in isolation – they are navigating friendships, love, relationships, school and family whilst opening their eyes to the world and finding their place in it. Such multi-layered story-telling makes for really interesting reading.

Finally, Young Adult novels are so diverse. From fantasy to psychological thrillers, suspense to romantic comedy, drama and mystery. Check out the diversity in this list of 10 Must Read Young Adult Novels.

10 Must Read Young Adult Novels

1. Honeybee by Craig Silvey
In Honeybee, author Craig Silvey presents a truly unique perspective on teenagers in modern Australian society. The story starts late at night, fourteen-year-old Sam steps onto a quiet overpass and notices an old man at the other end of the same bridge, smoking his last cigarette. It’s a chance encounter that ultimately changes both their lives forever – one offering hope, the other offering redemption.

2. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin is startled late one hot summer night by an urgent knock on his window. It’s Jasper Jones, a teenage outcast in the mining town of Corrigan, begging for Charlie’s help. What Jasper will lead Charlie to discover must remain a secret, one which Charlie will carry like a brick in his belly throughout a simmering summer when everything changes. Jasper Jones is a quintessential Australian coming-of-age story made all the better for the hilarious banter between Charlie and his stoic, ever-smiling, cheeky, cricket-mad, Vietnamese best friend, Jeffrey Lu.

3. The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni
Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov. Kiva earns herself the privileged position of working as the prison healer and dreams of one day being free of Zalindov to reunite with her family. But first she must undergo the Trial by Ordeal – a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water and earth. With an incurable plague sweeping the prison, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva is all too aware that her trials have only just begun.

4. 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze by Clayton Zane Comber
Xander Maze loves lists. Then one day, from the palliative care ward at the hospital, Xander Maze’s beloved Nana asks him to write a list of 100 remarkable feats that he can achieve by the end of the school year. But can this list of 100 remarkable feats really save Nana’s life? A thoroughly heart-warming read about never accepting the unacceptable, the power of lists and one boy’s unconditional love for his Nana.

5. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Challenger Deep is a moving and compelling journey of a teenager grappling with his mental health through increased paranoia, anxiety and depression. This story is so cleverly written by Neal Shusterman. Constantly moving between two worlds – Caden’s increasingly detched version of reality, and life onboard an imagined pirate ship journeying to the deep. The startling connections between the two worlds becomes apparent as the story unfolds and it serves to convey what it would be like to sail the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness. 

6. Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
Ghost Bird is a wonderfully original and frightening suspenseful novel by First Nations author, Lisa Fuller. Stacey and Laney are twins. When Laney disappears one night, Stacey can’t believe she’s just run off without telling her. As the days pass and Laney doesn’t return, Stacey begins dreaming of her twin. The dreams are dark and terrifying and Stacey can’t tell what’s real and what’s imagined. All she knows for sure is that Laney needs her help. Will Stacey find her sister in time?

7. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
This is an entertaining whodunnit! The investigator is teenager Pippa Fitz-Amobi, an A-grade student with a shameless love for homework and an obsession with the closed-case murder of schoolgirl Andie Bell from five years ago. Pip aspires to be an investigative journalist so when it comes time to apply for her English extension project, she proposes to use Andie Bell as a case study. But Pip’s investigations soon start to uncover secrets that someone in the town desperately wants to remain hidden. Could the real killer still be out there? And do they now have Pip in their sights?

8. Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein
A psychological thriller from Australian author Sarah Epstein. Tash Carmody has been traumatized since childhood when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival. At the time, nobody believed Tash and she has since come to accept that Sparrow wasn’t real. Now fifteen and mute, Mallory has never spoken about the week she went missing. As disturbing memories resurface, Tash, who struggles with severe anxiety, starts to see Sparrow again. And she realizes Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about a dark secret connecting them. Does Sparrow exist after all? Or is Tash more dangerous to others than she knows?

9. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A teenage perspective on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. After the incident, what Starr says could not only destroy her community, it could also get her killed.

10. All the Bright Places by by Jennifer Niven
All the Bright Places is a tear-jerking romantic drama that will leave you sobbing. Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death. As their friendship grows, Finch knows that it’s only with Violet that he can be himself. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. How far will Violet go to save the boy she has come to love?

A Timeless Portrayal of Female Friendships Set in Naples, Italy

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Cover of the book My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante featuring the face of a young girl looking straight ahead into the distance. The cover image is in black and white and is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Admittedly, I’m a bit late to the party with My Brilliant Friend by Italian author Elena Ferrante; it was originally published back in 2012. Since then, it has sold over 11 million copies worldwide and been made into a successful series for HBO, scripted entirely in Italian.

The story follows two girls, Elena and Lila, as they navigate life from childhood to adolescence, growing up in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples.

Lila is fearless, tough, rebellious and unpredictable. At school, her brilliance and ferocious intelligence soon becomes apparent. By contrast, Elena is quiet, reflective, insecure and diligent. They fascinate and depend on each other, but never in equal measure. Their friendship is complex; layered with love and rivalry; a constant desire to be doing as well, or better, than the other.

‘I devoted myself to studying and to many things that were difficult, alien to me, just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.’

Elena, My Brilliant Friend (page 47)

Both girls have an enormous appetite for learning, knowledge and discovery. However, there is little opportunity for smart girls to escape their oppressive lives in poor, post-war Naples, and the odds are greatly stacked against them. Dangers, hardships and violence permeate their city. Family rivalries and shifting alliances are common place, as is the looming threat of the Camorra – an Italian Mafia-type organisation established in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital. 

While Elena goes on to study at middle school (an opportunity her mother resents), Lila must withdraw from school and instead begins work at her father’s shoe shop, where she is ambitious and determined. Elena and Lila’s paths diverge, but their intense friendship cannot be replaced or replicated, and so their destinies are seemingly entwined.

My Brilliant Friend is without nostalgia and sentimentality and is a timeless portrayal of female friendships. The setting of post-war Naples makes it a gritty, complex, coming-of-age story.

My Brilliant Friend is Book One of the four book series known as the ‘Neopolitan Novels’ by Elena Ferrante. Together, the four novels capture the lives and friendship of Elena and Lila from young girls through to women in their 60s. 

If you haven’t already read My Brilliant Friend, pour yourself a Chianti, settle in and immerse yourself in this honest, heart-breaking and beautiful story of two brilliant friends.

Published 2012 by Europa Editions, 336 pages.

Over 10 million Copies Sold!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Image of the cover of the book Where the Crawdads sing by Delia Owens featuring a girl in a canoe paddling out to sea with a pink sky in the distance. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

I admit, the swamps and marshland of North Carolina aren’t my usual go-to setting for a novel. But in Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens paints such a beautiful picture of this region and demonstrates such care and knowledge of nature beyond aesthetics, that you can’t help being swept away in the peace, light and beauty of coastal Carolina.

As a young girl, Kya is abandoned by everyone in her family. Alone in the family shack on the marshlands of North Carolina with only the seagulls for company, Kya must learn to survive on her own.

But Kya is resourceful and resilient and has talents she doesn’t know exist. Throughout the story, she forms connections with a handful of people from the town. Some of these people become firm friends and an anchor for Kya as she navigates life alone in her marshland home. Others arrive, only to leave her hurt and adrift, with renewed feelings of distrust and abandonment.

As well as weaving a careful story of Kya’s journey through her teen and young adult years, there is also the unraveling story of the town’s star quarterback, Chase Andrews, who has been found dead in the marsh. Soon, Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, is the prime suspect and facing a future in prison, far away from the safety and comfort of her beloved marsh.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel by Delia Owens, a 70 year old, retired wildlife biologist. Prior to penning her first novel, a New York Times article describes Owens as ‘a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia’. 

Perhaps understandably then, the publisher originally only published 28,000 copies of the book. Two years later, Where the Crawdads Sing has sold 8 million copies worldwide. It has topped the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and 2020 for a combined 100 non-consecutive weeks. 

I love that this same New York Times article quotes Owens as saying “I have never connected with people the way I have with my readers…….I wasn’t expecting that.” Seems as though there might more than a little of the author reflected in spirited, nature-loving, loner, Kya. 

Published 2019 by Hachette Australia, 384 pages.

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