The best YA books ever, including Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses and Melvin Burgess' Junk.

Mica Murphy/Penguin

What makes a great young adult novel? Is it the relatable characters? The exploration of big issues? A sense of fun?

We’d argue it’s all of those things, and many more besides. The best YA fiction discusses the things that teenagers are dealing with, from first love to the breakdown of a friendship, from the rising tide of prejudice to the nature of mortality. And YA isn’t just for teenagers; it can also speak to adults as well, helping them reminisce about their own teen years or even be happy that they’re not back there.

But YA fiction can also be entertaining, making us laugh, love and cry.

Here are, in our opinion, the 10 best YA books ever written. Let us know if you agree, or what you think should be on this list, by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk. 

Junk by Melvin Burgess (1996)

Melvin Burgess' Junk is a classic of the genre, and possibly one of the first books to fit the modern definition of YA fiction. It follows teenagers Tar and Gemma, and tells the story of their love for each other, and for heroin.

Told from multiple viewpoints, Junk is a powerful novel, and it proved controversial when it first came out for its unflinching portrayal of drug addiction. But it won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, evidence not only of Burgess' excellent writing and characterisation, but also of the book's bravery in confronting difficult issues.

Initially read by teenagers in secret, and passed around the school corridors clandestinely, Junk is now a firm part of the YA canon.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)

Noughts & Crosses is a bold reimagining of our world, where society is divided into noughts – considered to be less than nothing – and Crosses, who make up the ruling class. In this world exist childhood friends Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a nought. Their friendship has somehow survived, but when they start falling in love with each other they know the world will disapprove.

Malorie Blackman was inspired to write Noughts & Crosses following the police's inept handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder case, and although it's been out for almost 20 years, the book's look at prejudice and racism is still relevant today.

Since the first novel, which has been voted one of the UK's best loved books, Blackman has written more in the Noughts & Crosses series, with the latest novel – Crossfire – released in 2019.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

Make sure you have a box of tissues by your side when reading The Fault in Our Stars, because you are definitely going to cry. A lot. 

John Green's novel follows Hazel, who aged 13 was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which has since spread into her lungs. Although she's been battling the disease for years, she knows her diagnosis is terminal. Hazel's determination to stay aloof and unconnected is shattered when she meets Augustus Waters at the Cancer Kid Support Group, and begins to fall in love. Augustus opens her eyes to a world of adventures, big and small, but also to the potential for great loss and grief.

The Fault in Our Stars is tender and heartbreaking, but also a funny and thrilling look at first love and being alive.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2009)

Suzanne Collins' dystopian smash hit – which spawned a hugely successful film franchise – paved the way for dozens of YA books set in post-apocalyptic worlds.

The Hunger Games takes place in a future America where society is divided into 13 districts. The further away a district is from The Capitol, where society's rich and powerful live, the worse the standard of living and the status of its people.

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 13 with her mother and younger sister Prim. When Prim's name is called as the district's female champion for the Hunger Games, an annual fight to the death between the districts played out for The Capitol's amusement, Katniss volunteers in her place.

The Hunger Games – and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay – introduced one of YA's best modern day heroes, a teenage girl trying to be brave and honourable in the most terrible of circumstances.

Forever by Judy Blume (1975)

Like Junk, YA legend Judy Blume's Forever was passed around in secret by many teenagers, mainly girls, in the decades after its release. It prompted both embarrassed laughter, but was also many young people's first honest introduction to sex and relationships. The fact that it was so often banned made it all the more enticing.

It follows Katherine and Michael, and the development of their love story, and in particular their sexual relationship. The pair and their friends' discussions about sex as a physical and emotional act are nuanced, and offered generations of teenagers an insight that was missing in the teaching of sex education in schools.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)

Angsty teenager who thinks everyone else is the worst, hates everything in his life, and is lost? Check, check, check.

Although The Catcher in the Rye is often classed as a literary classic and was aimed at adults, it's also very much a YA novel.

J. D. Salinger's book follows 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, and tells the story of his unhappiness at boarding school, his fraught relationships with his fellow students (who he thinks are "phonies") and his tense family life.

Holden has become an icon for teenage rebellion, and The Catcher in the Rye is regularly voted one of the best English-language novels of all time.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (2015)

Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a story of coming out and crushes.

The novel follows Simon Spier, a teenager trying – like many other teenagers – to work out who he is. One of the ways he’s doing that is by exchanging emails with a mystery boy called Blue.

But when one of Simon’s emails falls into the wrong hangs, things get complicated. 

Funny, awkward and full of heart, Simon's story has resonated with teenagers and young adults around the world. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2018)

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give is a look at police brutality and how to do what's right, even if that's hard.

Sixteen-year-old Starr straddles two worlds: the poor, largely black, neighbourhood where she lives, and the posh, largely white, school she attends. Although she's used to code-switching depending on where she is and who she's with, it's an uneasy existence.

Starr's worlds are shattered, and the separation between them destroyed, when she is the only witness to a fatal shooting by police of her childhood friend Khalil. Khalil was unarmed, and what Starr chooses to say and do could destroy her community, affect her relationships, and even get her killed. But Starr knows speaking up could be the first step in the long road to justice.

Powerful and gripping, The Hate U Give delves into what it means to speak up in a world that wants to bring you down. 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of a girl growing up in the Deep South in 1930s America.

It follows Cassie, who lives in Mississippi and who doesn't understand why farming his own land means so much to her father. But over the course of the book, as the Ku Klux Klan spreads hatred, Cassie learns about why society is so divided, and of just what it takes to survive in such a world.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is on the younger side of YA, but its compelling story makes it a must read. It won Taylor the Newberry Medal, given annually to the "author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

Think Gossip Girl meets Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club, with a murder thrown in, and you have an approximation of what to expect with One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus.

The novel has a straightforward concept: five students go to detention, and only four come out alive. The student who died, Simon, ran a notorious gossip app. And he knew dark secrets about the teens he was in detention with: Yale hopeful Bronwyn, sports star Cooper, bad boy Nate, and prom queen Addy.

As well as a whodunnit, One of Us is Lying is a look at the nature of gossip and the potentially destructive power of social media. And it's a pure thrill from start to finish.

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