Let’s Compile the Anti-Anti-YA Reading List

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 6, 2014

Many of you will already have read Ruth Graham’s Slate.com article, Against YA, with its finger-wagging subtitle, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
While Ms. Graham’s perspective is of course a limited view of the richness and complexity that can be found in literature for teens, it’s not too hard to guess where some of her anxieties come from: the sense that our culture is gradually infantilizing itself and that grownups are few and far between. I’m just not convinced that adults reading YA literature is a sign of the impending immaturity apocalypse.

“Against YA” reads like most media coverage of children’s and YA literature; that is, written by someone outside the field who reads one or two titles and draws conclusions that make those inside the field roll their eyes (Ms. Graham’s own “adult” response to some passages she has encountered in books for teens).Adult readers read YA books for all kinds of reasons – nostalgia and escape may be among those impulses, and there is no shame in that, but there is also so much more in great YA. Through books written for young people, we visit different worlds, we connect with teens and young adults, we challenge our own notions of what it means to be a young person in the world today. And we encounter some damn fine literature. (Octavian Nothing, anybody?)

I’m not sure what is gained by shaming anybody about reading. If Ms. Graham is concerned that adults will become so enamored of the escapist, tidy-ending, light YA fiction she disdains that they will stop reading adult literature, all she has to do is visit a bookstore and ask the clerks what they’ve observed. At the Flying Pig, at least, adults who read YA have not abandoned their Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor, their Rohinton Mistry and Tolstoy; they’ve just added something new to the mix.
Many wonderful bloggers have already responded well and thoughtfully to Ms. Graham’s article. What I’d like to do is to gather a delicious list of complex, literarily rewarding YA titles (which must be realistic fiction, since that is the genre assessed and addressed in the article) that challenge the assumptions therein.
Here are some of Ms. Graham’s issues with YA literature as reading for adults:
1)  “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. [… Crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.”

Wow. This last sentence is one of the most reductive lines in the article. Let’s get on that one posthaste. Come to think of it, though, doesn’t most adult literature present adult perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way? Readers don’t sit back and sneer, ‘What a grownup thing to think!” This us/them view of teenagers and adults is perhaps the aspect of the “Against YA” article that bothers me most. Yes, teenagers are younger, often less experienced humans, and adults are older, often more experienced humans. So what? We have all met teens who have astonished us with their wisdom and compassion, their insight and intelligence, their creativity and drive. And we have all met adults who … have not. But to get back to literature, let’s find those contemporary realistic YA books that present a rich, notuncritical, teen perspective. I’ll toss out Aidan Chambers’ Postcard from No Man’s Land for startersAnd how about Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, a nuanced book with a non-tidy ending? Or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart?
2) Even “the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. […I]f people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.”
Well, who could argue with a false dichotomy like that? Maudlin teen dramas vs. complex adult literature. How about we find some complex teen literature? How about Adam Rapp’s harrowing and brilliant, unforgettable and undeniably YA 33 Snowfish?
Readers, what YA realistic fiction titles — that you think reward adult readers as richly as teens — would you like to add to the anti-anti-YA reading list?

31 thoughts on “Let’s Compile the Anti-Anti-YA Reading List

  1. Rachel

    My candidates would be Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer and No Safe Place by Deborah Ellis. They were recommended to me by my teen daughter, who loved them and wanted to share the pleasure. They turned out to be among the best books I’ve read this year. They feature complex characters, great narrative momentum, and intense emotion. They were also thought provoking, Gil Marsh in a literary, structural and psychological sense, and No Safe Place in a social justice sense.

  2. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

    I read a lot of adult fiction, literary and genre, and have a published adult novel as well as Gringolandia, originally published as YA but now being marketed as an adult novel by Northwestern University Press. So I think I know what I’m talking about when I agree that a number of contemporary realistic YA novels (and dystopian novels as well) stand up admirably along with their adult counterparts. A contemporary novel that I recommend is Maria E. Andreu’s The Secret Side of Empty, which follows an undocumented teenager through the dead end of her senior year. On the dystopian front, Cory Doctorow’s For the Win explores Internet sweatshops around the world and the financial shenanigans that are destroying the lives of 99.9% of the world’s population.

  3. Trip Black

    I am 16 and read anything that catches my eye. The whole idea of YA books seems, to me, like a marketing concept and not a content concept. The label for Nutella shows it spread on bread… nobody should feel bad for only using it on fresh strawberries or frozen bananas just because that is not shown on the label.
    As far as books classed as YA that shouldn’t be limited in any way is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I have recommended this book to many people of all ages from 13 to 60 and not a single one has finished it and been disappointed. The whole idea of books being for certain ages is based on a HUGE assumption that all 12-20 year old people are equally mature and have the same interests.

  4. Alethea

    I loved Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs, Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler (full disclosure–I’m her web designer, but that has nothing to do with how much I liked the book), My Soon-to-be Sex Life by Judith Tewes… I could go on for ages, and I don’t think I typically read realistic contemporary YA. I could recommend many more fantasy and sci-fi YA, as well as historical and non-fiction, but for the purposes of this list I’ll stick to realistic contemporary.
    These are the best ones I’ve read just in the last 3 years:
    Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaria
    Confessions of a Hater by Caprice Crane
    Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
    The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab
    Since You Left Me by Allen Zadoff
    Stick by Andrew Smith
    Winger by Andrew Smith
    With or Without You by Brian Farrey
    Sister Mischief by Laura Goode
    I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan
    Sean Griswold’s Head by Lindsey Leavitt
    How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
    Breathe My Name by R.A. Nelson
    Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan
    One I keep coming back to (I have read it twice and will likely read it again) is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. I didn’t like TFIOS as much as most of the world seems to have done, but MEDG hit me closer to home in the way I personally deal with painful life events. The film version is also in production and I can’t wait for it to hit theaters.

  5. Mari

    There are so many rich, complex YA novels that it is difficult to remember them all.
    Some that have stayed with me for years:
    The Kings Are Already Here by Garret Freymann-Weyr
    how i live now by Meg Rosoff
    Fighting Ruben Wolfe by Markus Zusak
    Stoner and Spaz by Ron Koertge
    If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
    The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
    Toning the Sweep by Angela Johnson
    Crossing Stones by Helen Frost
    Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
    Deerskin by Robin McKinley
    Bone Dance by Martha Brooks
    Heart’s Delight by Per Nilsson
    Candy by Kevin Brooks
    Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
    Graceling by Kristin Cashore
    The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
    I’m sure there are many more titles I could name if I went through my entire list of books read.
    People who think YA literature is not “literature” simply haven’t read widely or deeply enough.

  6. Kerry

    Realist YA of complexity:
    I Am J by Cris Beam
    Every day by David Levithan (is it realist? I don’t know how to categorize that one)
    Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You – Peter Cameron
    Sorta Like a Rockstar – Matthew Quick
    Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
    The List – Siobhan Vivian
    everything by Chris Crutcher but let’s pick *Whale Talk*
    13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher (a book I don’t especially like, but which is undeniably complex)
    Like the Red Panda – Andrea Seigel (another I dislike, but it surely does not have an “up” ending)
    The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger – Markus Zusak
    Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (I think one could easily make the case for this as YA….)
    And though I know they are sf (i guess?) and not realist, I HAVE to second Patrick Ness’s *Chaos Walking* trilogy, which are truly some of the greatest and best novels I have ever read.
    I’m looking forward to plundering this comment thread for my own to-read list!

  7. Emily

    So many good ones, but here are two of my recent favorites:
    Pointe by Brandy Colbert
    Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

  8. Alison

    Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
    How to Say Goodbye in Robot – Natalie Standiford
    Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
    Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell
    Where Things Come Back – John Corey Whaley
    Anything by Sarah Dessen

  9. Janet Hilbun

    Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Saenz
    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Alexie
    Prisoner of NIght and Fog by Blankman
    (3 of my many, many favorites that I didn’t see mentioned)

  10. Spellbound

    I haven’t read the offending article yet, but I imagine it’s like many articles before it and will similarly make veins throb in my head. As I (constantly, it seems) have to remind other adults: tidy-ending escapist books are written for both adults and teens, and literature is written for both adults and teens. The vast majority of adult books are not literature; to speak as if all adult books are somehow of higher literary merit than all teen books is ignorant and tiresome.
    That being said, the first books that occur to me that hold their own in adult-sized literary merit:
    SOLACE OF THE ROAD by Siobhan Dowd. (I read this before reading THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. If I weren’t aware of young adult vs adult imprints, I would have sworn that Dowd’s was the adult fiction and that Diffenbaugh’s was the young adult fiction. Both dealt with teen girls aging out of the foster care system.)
    LIAR by Justine Larbalestier
    PAPER COVERS ROCK by Jenny Hubbard
    THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon (In England, it was originally pubbed as “YA” and “A” simultaneously. It drives me crazy when adults see it in my YA section and get all insecure because they thought it was an “adult” book and took it seriously.)

  11. Kateri Ransom

    Just off the top of my head…
    The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
    Going Bovine by Libba Bray
    The Tyrant’s Daugher by J. C. Carleson
    Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
    Downriver by Will Hobbs
    I’m sure I could list more

  12. Linda

    If YA wasn’t marked YA most of us would never realize they were for young adults. YA books today deal with subjects like rape, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, disease, parents in prison, the Holocaust, war, mental illness. Of course there are lighter fare YA, just like there is lighter fare adult literature. There are still some deep and great books out there.
    I agree with the people who nominated The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger. I’d add Looking for Alaska by John Green.


    Interesting suggestions. Realism is fine, but I believe J. R. R. Tolkien once asked C. S. Lewis rhetorically who it was that had the greatest vested interest in discouraging escapism. Tolkien’s own answer? Jailers!

  14. Shoshana

    If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan. Lessons from a Dead Girl, by Jo Knowles. 17 and Gone, by Nova Ren Suma. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. So many more (besides the many great ones already mentioned!), but I’ll have to stick with the top-of-my-head ones because I’m off to see The Fault in Our Stars.

  15. Jen

    Complex fiction you say? At ANY age you should be reading Melina Marchetta. Try:
    Jellicoe Road
    Finninkin of the Rock
    Earth shattering? Try: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
    And yes to Laurie Halse Anderson, E. Lockhart, Rainbow Rowell, Kristin Cashore, Jandy Nelson

  16. Ana Death Duarte

    The Hobbit is middle grade mwahahahahah
    Jokes apart, this stuff makes me angry.
    Posted my own answer and made it public on my faccebook page > https://www.facebook.com/ana.eileen.7/posts/1618735661685726
    And posted your own article, also public.
    Feel free to read my answer if u want. Ps. : I am a translator. Of both YA and adult books, and some adult books make me roll eyes more much more than YA-middle grade ones arch – disgusting people.
    Ana Death Duarte

  17. Phillis Gershator

    What a good idea!
    Here are two books that blew me away some years ago and now come to mind for your YA A-list:
    Taste of Salt by Frances Temple
    The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse
    Both dealt very difficult topical issues in such a creative and accessible way.

  18. Louise Brueggemann

    MY BOOK OF LIFE BY ANGEL by Martine Leavitt
    IN DARKNESS by Nick Lake
    GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray
    SKIM by Mariko Tamaki (if we can venture into graphic novels)
    JUMPED by Rita Williams-Garcia
    REVOLVER by Marcus Sedgwick
    SUCKERPUNCH by David Hernandez
    PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi
    LAST NIGHT I SANG TO THE MONSTER by Benjamin Alire Saenz
    ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein
    BLACK JUICE by Margo Lanagan
    DARK DUDE by Oscar Hijuelos

  19. Diane Tuccillo

    How about these for some teen reads with adult appeal (I recommend them all the time!):
    Hush by Eishes Chayil
    Shine by Lauren Myracle
    Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Sepetys
    Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
    Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal
    Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
    Tamar by Mal Peet
    Our teen readers also read a lot of adult books–and also enjoy reading children’s books sometimes–as the adult readers in our community do! Any astute reader, of ANY age, allows him or herself the joy and flexibility of reading whatever appeals, no matter what age audience the book might have been “addressed to/published for.”
    Ruth Graham doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about.
    Diane Tuccillo, Teen Services Librarian, Poudre River Public Library District, Fort Collins, CO

  20. Hannah Ehrlich

    Love this idea! Thank you for starting this, Elizabeth! A couple of my favorites that I recommend to adult, non-YA-reading friends with great success:
    The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta
    Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
    Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
    In Darkness by Nick Lake
    Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan (which, I should say, may have had more meaning for me than for current teens, since I was a teen when Sept. 11 happened)
    Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
    This is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky
    The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
    Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
    A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
    Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
    Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
    I could go on for a very long time, but suffice it to say there are a LOT.

  21. Judith Ridge

    I’d like to add some Australian titles that people may not be so familiar with to the list. (Also did she even READ Eleanor and Park? Seriously?!)
    Big River, Little Fish by Belinda Jeffrey
    Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield
    All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield
    Only Ever Always by Penni Russon
    No Worries by Bill Condon
    Deadly Unna by Phillip Gwynne
    Wild Life by Fiona Wood
    Black Spring by Alison Croggon (not strictly realism, but I defy anyway to call it lacking in complexity)
    The Big Dry by Tony Davis
    Into That Forest by Louis Nowra (also not strictly realism…)
    The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant
    The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky
    and pretty much anything by Sonya Hartnett.

  22. Nicole

    How about “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein!
    I’m still recovering from the emotional beating I took with that book.

  23. Sally Sullivan

    Let me begin by saying I am almost 44 yrs old and a mother to a 13 yr old daughter. Ruth Graham made me fume for days over her ridiculous comments on YA books. These are the books I reccommend for the Anti-Anti-YA Reading list:
    Miss Peregrines Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
    Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewartz
    The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
    45 pounds(more or less) by K.A. Barson
    Pointe by Brandy Colbert
    Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
    The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu


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