Young adult books are still super popular for a reason. Being a teenager is a time of self definition and so many exciting firsts. It’s a time when people (and therefor) characters are really deciding who they are and who they want to be. And that’s thrilling to read about, whether a YA story is about a character falling in love for the first time, attempting save the world, or standing up for something important they believe in. Even though I would never want to be a teenager again, I still love reading about teenage characters and their stories over and over and over again.
Choosing the best YA books of all time (and only 25 of them!) is certainly a daunting task. I’m not going to try to define the word best, because honestly there is no way to write a list like this that isn’t highly subjective. But I will define YA as books where the characters are teenagers that were published specifically for teenage readers; even if publishers know full well adults will be reading them too. This knocked off a lot of iconic fantasy favorites (I’m looking at you Meg Murray and Alanna of Trebond) where the characters begin as tweens and felt more like middle grade when I looked at them again. It also knocked off books like Catcher in the Rye which is about a teenager, but feels like it is written for an adult audience.
From realistic fiction to fantasy to dystopian to romance, I tried to create a list of the best YA books of all time that represents many different genres and moments in YA history. Without more apologies and explanations from this anxious book blogger, here is my list of the 25 best YA novels of all time.
The Best YA Books of All Time
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders is sometimes called the first young adult novel. Even though this isn’t true, the book is one of the first YA books to gain a lot of attention and is still read in many schools today. It’s also iconic for the fact that S.E. Hinton wrote it when she was just a teenager herself. It tells a story of class warfare, between Ponyboy and the “Greasers” who are poor and the “Socs” who are from the wealthy side of town. The fights between them escalate until things get deadly, testing their friendships and commitment to the gang. I think it’s near impossible to read this book without crying, at least a little bit. And even if you haven’t read it, chances are you’ve heard the term “Stay gold, Ponyboy” at least once in your life.
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Robin McKinley pioneered fairytale retellings in young adult books. In this reimagining, Beauty has been given an ironic and hurtful nickname that refers to her awkward looks. When her father makes a terrible deal with a beast in the forrest, Beauty leaves her family in order to save his life. Beauty and the beast are both stubborn. But a slow burn romance unfolds between the lyrical and lushly written pages. This has been a favorite of YA readers for many generations now.
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
Before love triangles were all the rage, Madeleine L’Engle created a love quadrangle for 15-year-old Vicky Austen. Vicky is spending the summer with her dying grandfather on Seven Bay Island. While dealing with her grief and heartbreak, she finds herself drawn to three different boys: Zachary her boyfriend from last summer, Leo her longtime friend who is also experience family heartbreak, and Adam an intern at the Island’s research center on dolphins. Vicky spends the novel feeling depressed and surrounded by death. It gets so bad that she doesn’t know how to experience joy anymore. But Adam and the dolphins help show Vicky there is still light in this world, even amongst the darkness.
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
Liza meets Annie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They come from very different families, schools, and economic backgrounds. But they quickly bond over their love of art and hopes to build a creative life in their futures. When their friendship becomes romantic, Liza breaks things off because of the homophobia in her school. But eventually in college, Liza accepts her sexuality and sexual orientation. And Annie and Liza get a happily ever after that was rare for queer characters at the time.
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
This iconic YA novel is a celebration of 1980s counter culture and the California punk scene. It is a lyrical, slang-filled story that is all about the vibes. Weetzie Bat is determined to live an unconventional life. She is moving through a Shangri-LA fairytale with her best friend Dirk and the enigmatic My Secret-Agent Lover Man. Parts of the story and writing will probably feel dated, but there is something so weird and magical about this book that it had to be on the list.
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson tells a contemporary Romeo & Juliet story in this book about Ellie and Miah, who both feel like outsiders at their fancy Manhattan private school. Although Ellie is white and Jewish and Miah is Black, the pair instantly fall in love at first sight. They develop a deep romantic and intellectual connection throughout the story. But what starts as a sweet, innocent love story devolves into tragedy with racism, police brutality, and people’s prejudices working to keep them apart.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Told through a first person diary, a third-person screenplay, and sometimes photographs, Monster tells the story of Steve, a 16-year-old on trial for murdering a drugstore owner. While in jail, dealing with the many injustices of incarceration and the legal system, Steve turns to writing a film about his experience as a way to cope. As readers, we don’t know if Steve is guilty or innocent. But, through Myers’ portrayal, we know he isn’t the monster that the district attorney makes him out to be in court. This book is masterpiece in exploring different forms of storytelling, complex themes, and the reliability (or unreliability) of the narrator. It focused on racial injustice and the experience of a Black teenager at a time when Black children were even less represented in books than they are today. It also was the inaugural winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Melinda is turned into a social pariah after she calls the police at the end of summer party of an upperclassmen. She can’t tell anyone why she called the cops and got anyone in trouble. In fact, she stops talking completely at the beginning of her freshman year. Throughout the book, we get clues about what happened to Melinda that night and how the trauma has affected every aspect of her life. This book discusses rape, suicidal ideation, and PTSD openly. It was a groundbreaking YA story for its time. And it still remains a powerful, emotional story.
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
A regular, nerdy girl finding out she’s a secret princess is one of the coolest YA plots of all time. Mia Thermopolis is a beloved character for the realness of her character and the complete fantasy of her story. From princess lessons to the awkwardness of her mom dating her algebra teacher to people not respecting her choice to become vegetarian. This book also reintroduced the power of series into young adult literature in a big way. While the movie made this story even more popular, the book feels edgier, sassier, and much more real. A true YA classic!
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
This another iconic young adult book from the early 2000s (or the Y2K era as my students now call it). It features the perspectives of four best friends, Carmen, Tibby, Lena, and Bridget, who are about to spend their first summer apart from each other. Right before they are separated, they find a magical pair of jeans in a thrift store that seems to fit all of them perfectly despite them all being different sizes with very different body types. They mail the jeans between them as each character goes on her own adventure of self discovery. The messages of friendship and body positivity stick still stick with me today, even though it’s been over 15 years since I read this book.
Tyrell by Coe Booth
Tyrell is just trying to make it through the week. When his DJ father went to jail, his family became homeless. His mom is checked out, and he just wants to provide a better life for his younger brother. He decides to throw a party with his dad’s old DJ equipment and charge people to get in. Throughout the week Tyrell keeps trying to do the right thing for his family, for his girlfriend Novisha, and most importantly for himself. But figuring out what the right thing is when you don’t have many options is hard. And it’s gets even harder when the stakes are so high.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
In a dystopian future, America has fought a 2nd Civil War over the issue of abortion. Advances in science have created a pretty horrifying compromise between both sides. Instead of allowing abortion, parents are able to “unwind” their children if they are between the ages of 13 and 18. This means donating every one of their organs into different donors so their life technically continues on, just in other people’s bodies. Connor, Risa, and Lev are all set to be unwound, but escape together when something goes wrong on the way to the unwinding center. Now they are thrust into an underground movement helping teenagers resist unwinding and fight against this practice. This is an emotional, character-driven story that is more relevant now than ever.
Ash by Malinda Lo
Ash is an orphan living two different lives simultaneously. At home, she is cruelly mistreated and overworked by her stepmother and stepsisters. But in the woods she has a magical, lush, lyrical life with fairies, romantic adventures, and memories of her beloved mother. She has a chance to escape the life of grief and drudgery, by leaving the human world to belong to the handsome prince of the fairies. But this would mean saying goodbye to Kaia, a noblewoman and huntress who Ash has fallen in love with.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
To me, this book is the perfect balance between a coming of age story and a romance. Anna is being sent against her will to complete her senior year at a boarding school in Paris. She is dumped in a school away from her friends, her family, and the language she knows. But soon she’s accepted into a wonderful group of friends, including the very handsome Etienne St. Clair. It seems like he might have a crush on her…but then she finds out he has a serious girlfriend. Still, something about them seems meant to be. And what would a year in the city of love be, without some romance?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In a dystopian future, children are chosen from each district to participate in a fight to the death for the amusement of the Capital City. The whole thing is televised and treated like a reality show. But when Katniss Everdeen volunteers to go to the games in order to save her sister, she will see how much acting and unreality is necessary to make it through the games alive. This book spurned a huge dystopian resurgence, a popular movie franchise, and a best-selling trilogy. It is a page-turn, heart-wrenching, hands-sweating story from beginning to end.
Legend by Marie Lu
In a nation that is always at war, Jude is a military prodigy from one of the Republic’s most respected families. Day was born into poverty and is a wanted criminal. They are both only 15, but their paths cross when Jude’s brother is killed and Day becomes the lead suspect. Jude vows revenge and to hunt Day down using whatever means necessary. But neither of them has the full picture about what happened or what is going on behind the patriotic veneer the Republic has used to cover up its true actions. Their relationship will make each of them stronger. But it will also tear their lives apart.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Hazel is a 17-year-old living with terminal cancer and trying to make as few connections as possible to spare people from grief when she dies. When her mother forces her to join a teen cancer support group, she meets Augustus. He is currently in remission from osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that caused him to lose one of his legs. The two connect over sharing their favorite books and movies. And, of course, a romance develops between them. But what makes this book stand out is the nuance. It is sad and hilarious, tragic and deeply romantic, philosophical and silly. In the culmination of the book, the two use their Make-a-Wish opportunity to travel to Amsterdam to meet the mysterious, reclusive author of Hazel’s favorite book to try to get answer’s about what happens to the characters after the novel’s ending.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Ari and Dante are two Mexican-American boys with weird names living in El Paso Texas. At first, it seems like they have little in common. But a bond that begins with their names turns into a deep friendship where Ari is opened up to a world of poetry, thoughts, and even learning to swim. Throughout the book, Dante is questioning his sexual orientation. Ari doesn’t want to think about that as much and is more preoccupied with wondering why his older brother is in jail. But their relationship helps each boy define and discover more about himself. A truly perfect love story set against a complicated, dangerous world for boys who don’t conform.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Lara Jean never told any of her crushes she liked them. Instead, she wrote them secret love letters, which she kept in a hat box under her bed never intending to send them. But her junior year, things get turned upside down when she discovers someone has mailed all the letters out. And to keep her sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh from being weird about it, she convinces popular Peter K. (her middle school crush) to pretend they are dating. A love triangle. Fake dating. This story is seriously the best when it comes to pulling off these well known romance tropes. And between the bestselling book and incredibly popular Netflix adaptation, this story remains so beloved by Lara Jean fans.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Jude and her twin brother Noah have always been best friends. In love with each other, their life in Northern California, and their enigmatic mother. But all of this changes when their mother dies in a car accident. And when Jude goes to art school, instead of Noah who has always been the one obsessed with drawing and art. The mystery of what happened between the siblings is explored through two perspectives in two timelines. Jude at age 16 as she attends an art boarding school and commits to a “boy boycott” from dating. And Noah at age 13 as he becomes completely consumed in romantic feelings for the boy who’s just moved next door. Each chapter is a piece of the complicated puzzle that makes up their family story. And each sentence feels like a poem.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Adieh
Khalid is the teenage Caliph of Khorasan, who marries a new girl each night and has her strangled each morning. When her best friend is murdered, Shahrzad volunteers to be his next bride. She has a plan to keep him enraptured with her skillful storytelling and find his weaknesses. But she begins to see a human side to the monster she vowed to get revenge on. As love begins to grow between the pair, Shahrzad discovers there’s more to the story than she knew.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Told completely in free verse poetry, this novel tells the story of one night in 15-year-old Will’s life. In fact, it’s really the story of one elevator ride. When Will see’s his brother shot and murdered in the street, he knows that he is supposed to get revenge. So he takes his brother’s gun to complete what’s expected of him. But on each floor a ghost of a person Will knew who became a victim of gun violence. As Will works through his feelings, not just about his brother’s death but all the violence that’s touched his life, the decision to use his brother’s gun to get revenge doesn’t seem as simple as it did when Will first got into the elevator.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
With a spoiler for a title, there is little doubt that this book is going to be a tear jerker. In fact, it became a trend for readers to post videos of themselves crying after finishing this book. In this story, technology has been invented that can tell you 24 hours before you are going to die. The book begins with Mateo and Rufus both getting the call from Death-Cast: this will be their last day alive. They are strangers but meet up through an app for people to make friends on their end day. What follows is a romance, adventure, and journey of self discovery that feels too expansive to fit into just one day.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Starr feels divided between her two lives: one in her mostly Black neighborhood and the other at her mostly white prep school. These worlds collide when she see’s her childhood best friend Khalil murdered by the police when he was unarmed at a traffic stop. Now everyone has an opinion and everyone wants Starr to tell them what happened. But telling the truth about that night will change virtually all of her relationships, both in her neighborhood and at school. Standing up to the police could put her family, her community, and her own life in danger.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Felix is a Black, queer, transgender teenage boy trying to make it through a prestigious summer art program at a private school. He already feels out of place, when someone publicly posts his deadname and pre-transition photos in the school lobby. His quest for revenge lands him in a weird catfishing, love triangle. Romantic love is something Felix has always longed for and been anxious about. And he never expected his first love would unfold like this.
I know I’ve probably left off many of the YA novels you think are the best. Believe me I left a lot of my favorites too. Forgive me! And if you want to learn more about amazing YA books, check out Book Riot’s podcast Hey YA or peruse some of the most popular young adult books on TikTok.