The young adult literature world has a lot to offer — even for those who don’t generally like YA. As someone who favors YA, but also reads adult lit, I am well aware of the differences in writing for different age ranges. However, despite the differences, I truly believe that there is plenty of YA literature that anyone can enjoy.
While there are lots of YA books that don’t feel like YA, there are also plenty of YA books that are just so dang good that everyone should read them. I’ve included a little of both in this list. Additionally, I’ve tried to provide YA recommendations across a range of genres in order to cater to a varied audience.
Usually, making lists like this requires that I do a lot of research and include quite a few books I haven’t actually read. However, I decided for this list to rack my brain for YA books that really and truly knocked my own personal socks off. Thus, there are tons of great books missing from this list because I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet.
The following books delighted, disturbed, and entranced me. I’ve read them all as an adult-aged person, though I can’t claim to be the adultiest of adults. Additionally, many of these books also regularly show up on “best YA of all time” lists. So, if you’re a skeptic, read on for 20 YA books for people who don’t like YA.
Fantasy-ish YA Books for People Who Don’t Like YA
I’m a big fan of fantasy in all of its many forms. I’m an absolute sucker for a fairytale retelling and I love a dystopian novel with fantasy or sci-fi elements. If these kinds of things are also your jam, try some of the books in this section.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust
I loved this feminist fairytale immediately. A sheltered princess, confined to a castle, and forgotten by nearly everyone, meets a dark and handsome soldier with his own secrets. There’s a demon in the dungeon with information the princess wants. And, by the way, the princess is poison to the touch. The story is dark and twisty and delightfully queer, and I think you should read it right now.
Violet Made of Thorns by Gina Chen
Obviously, I really like dark fairytales. In this gem inspired by the Asian diaspora, a morally gray witch named Violet is faced with a tough decision. As a peddler of not-always-true prophecies, which she uses to manipulate her way into favor at court, she shouldn’t balk at the king’s request that she falsely prophesy a love story for the prince. Since the prince hates and plans to fire her, this could be Violet’s chance to keep her lucrative position. However, the consequences could unleash a deadly curse that would endanger the entire kingdom.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
What if I told you that after the Civil War, the dead rose again and united the U.S. against a common enemy? That’s right. This story is about a historic zombie apocalypse. Of course, the oppressive post–Civil War society is built on the back of Black and indigenous people, who are forced to train and become protectors for white folks. Luckily, our heroine is a smart-mouthed, recklessly brave, Black, bisexual badass. This book and its sequel are among my favorites of all time.
Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron
Did I mention I love fairytale retellings? Well, I LOVE queer fairytale retellings featuring people of color even more. Cinderella is Dead is just such a story, with lovable characters and surprising twists that will keep you turning the pages until the very end.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Yep, another fairytale retelling. This one is part of a series called The Lunar Chronicles and takes place in a futuristic society with lots of robots and space travel. Don’t worry, fantasy fans, there’s also plenty of magic, along with a litany of heroines to root for. If you like these, you will probably also like her twisty and heartwrenching Lewis Carroll retelling, Heartless.
Romance-y YA Books for People Who Don’t Like YA
This next bunch of books could be categorized in other ways, but they all have wonderful love stories at the center. Some are flat out romances, while others are romance adjacent. Either way, if you love love, these are for you.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Have you ever sobbed on an airplane while reading a book? Well I have done so several times, most recently at Adam Silvera’s talented hands. The title tells you what you’re in for, but there’s still no way not to fall in love with the two main characters. A mysterious system called Deathcast notifies people at midnight on the day of their death. Mateo and Rufus meet on their death day and spend it together, trying to live it to its fullest. You will cry.
Anne of Greenville by Mariko Tamaki
Yes, this is what you think it is. If you, like me, grew up on Anne of Green Gables, you are in for a treat. This reimagining has all of the quirky, silly accidents and calamities that we’re used to from the original story. However, this book is updated for today’s times. Anne is a queer, Japanese American, artsy romantic who moves to a small town. There she meets her best friend Berry and the girl of her dreams, Gilly. This is a feel-good nostalgic delight.
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
This YA book for people who don’t like YA works partly because the young characters are dealing with universal struggles like grief and belonging. It’s told in beautiful verse and ends in a twist so heart-wrenching you will never see it coming. If you happen to be on an airplane and don’t want to cry, finish it at home.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Nicola Yoon is so talented it makes me want to puke. Similar to They Both Die at the End, this love story takes place mostly over the course of a single day that the audience already knows will likely end badly. Nonetheless, readers can’t help but root for the protagonists despite the odds.
Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye
This book. THIS BOOK. I cannot even pinpoint exactly why I loved it so much, but I could not stop gushing over it after I read it. I tried not to include many books on this list with extensive high school settings, because I figured people who dislike YA would be turned off by it, but I had to make a few exceptions. This achingly sweet coming out story follows a queer brown boy who, because of a dare, secretly dates the most popular guy in school for a week. Friends, the least believable thing about this book is that any high school kid could be as thoughtful, kind, and swoon-worthy as Bryson Keller.
Painfully Realistic YA Books for People Who Don’t Like YA
Do you want your books to tackle real world problems? Do you enjoy reading about the darker side of humanity and the human experience? Try this next set of books at your own risk.
Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
This is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. Jackson has a knack for writing upsettingly real and haunting YA. After reading this book, I told the friend that recommended it that she had ruined my life. Then I read another book by Tiffany D. Jackson. And then another.
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
This is the true story of an attack on a transgender youth by a Black boy. Slater masterfully explores the nuances on both sides, addressing how the media, courts, and law enforcement treated and mistreated both parties. The story doesn’t feel good, but it is real and it is well written.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
I couldn’t decide whether to include this or Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, since they deal with similar issues and they both do it so well. In the end, I figured this one was slightly less popular and more folks should read it. In it, the two authors wrote as two characters on opposing sides of a case of police brutality. It’s honest and nuanced, much like The 57 Bus.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
I was and am still disturbed by this book. The story follows Riley, a nonbinary teenager, dealing with both being outed and coming out on their own terms. What disturbed me is that at the end, I wasn’t finished. I don’t know if Riley is going to be okay, and I desperately want Riley to be okay.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
While I’m not big on historical fiction, this one got me. When her British spy plane crashes into Nazi-occupied France, Verity is taken into custody. The adventure that follows is so full of twists, turns, and unexpected character developments that I simply could not put it down.
Delightfully Realistic YA Books for People Who Don’t Like YA
Would you like some realistic fiction that won’t make you sad or keep you up at night? Try one of these.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Honestly, you can’t go wrong with Elizabeth Acevedo. I fought hard not to put several of her books on this list. In the end, I settled for my favorite of her works. There’s just something about a spunky underdog protagonist that I can’t resist. Despite poverty, teenage pregnancy, a useless baby daddy, and an absent father, Emoni perseveres toward her big dreams in this poignant tale of family, self-love, and overcoming.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
This is hands-down one of my favorite books of all time. We follow a Black queer girl who needs the scholarship that comes with being prom queen if she is going to pay for her dream college. For adults who don’t like YA, this book includes a sprinkling of ’90s nostalgia along with a stellar story.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
While there’s some intense pain and sadness in this story, it is ultimately beautiful and hopeful. Felix, a trans boy, is viciously harassed and humiliated by an anonymous schoolmate. Despite the abuse, Felix finds his voice, his place in his family and community, and even finds love. I love a happy ever after.
Aces Wild: A Heist by Amanda Dewitt
I’m using realistic loosely here, but who am I to say what really happens in Vegas? This YA book for people who don’t like YA avoids some of the features that typically turn off older readers. Instead of a high school setting, protagonist Jack thrives in the underbelly of Las Vegas with his casino mogul mother. There’s organized crime, betrayal, and family secrets galore. When a rival casino owner and jilted lover seeks revenge, Jack’s mom gets arrested. Ultimately, Jack and his friends have to infiltrate a high-stakes gambling club to clear Jack’s mom’s name.
One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
LOL, okay, this isn’t very realistic, but I didn’t have a category for it. This fabulously twisty mystery has been touted as Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club, which sounds like a great combination for people who grew up on either. A group of kids become murder suspects when, left alone in detention, one of them dies. Lies and secrets abound, and it is ridiculously fun. The sequel One of Us is Next is just as entertaining.
If you can’t find a YA book you like on this list, try these other Book Riot recommendations: