As the world descends further and further into incomprehensible chaos, I find myself looking through my bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. Alongside classics bought in a panic like What Color is Your Parachute? and far too many true crime books sit my old favorite reads from throughout my childhood — and all of them are YA.
I still love YA (short for young adult) books. The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to books aimed at adolescents. I think it has something to do with the conflicts. You crack open a YA book and the issue is either something like “my mom doesn’t like my boyfriend” or “Help! I’m being chased by a Minotaur!” It’s either a manageable problem or something so unmanageable that it creates an escape.
Adult books, from what I have found, are not the same. Every adult book synopsis sounds something like this: “After losing her mother and reuniting with her estranged sister, Tracy must figure out how to love again, starting with herself.” Are you kidding? I don’t want to read that. That’s too close to home. I don’t care about Tracy’s issues, I have my own. Give me something fun or nothing at all.
I have recently been plowing through my old favorite young adult books I read as a, well, young adult, and I have found (thankfully) that many of them still hold up even years — and a writing degree — later. So, I invite you to escape the real world for a while and return to your younger days, when your problems were far simpler and love was always just around the corner. Here are my top picks.
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
This series is incredible. Consisting of four main reads, The Lunar Chronicles is a retelling of four classic fairy tales: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Except it all takes place in the future, so Cinderella is part-cyborg and Snow White lives on the moon. The four women (and a handful of male counterparts) all have to come together to basically save the world from a hyper-evolved moon civilization. I know, I know. I promise it’s laid out in a coherent way.
I cannot recommend this series enough; the villain is fascinating, the characters are all endlessly charming (Carswell Thorne is my favorite, by the way), and the plot will keep you interested until the very end. Plus, it’s fun to return to familiar tales and connect the dots from the classics to the retelling.
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
The only issue that could possibly make Samantha’s summer a bummer is the boy next door, whose sprawling, loud family her politician mother cannot stand. It. Is. Spectacular. The boy next door, Jase, is kind of a dreamboat — and his little brother George is a doll who will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face. As Samantha falls more and more in love with Jase and his adoring family, the harder it is to keep her undercover life at the neighbors’ a secret.
Plus, I so adore non-conflict conflict. After everything, reading about a problem as simple as “I fell in love with the boy next door, but my mother doesn’t like him” is so nice. At least until…something else…happens.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Cather Avery is going off to college with her twin sister, Wren, who is better than her at almost everything and ecstatic to meet new people. All Cather wants to do is write her Simon Snow (an alternate universe Harry Potter) fanfiction and meet as few new people as possible. At least until she meets her new roommate Reagan and the tall, friendly guy always trailing behind her.
A cozy read about falling in love with fictional worlds, going off to college, and farm boys who smile too much, this book is a joy to return to every single time.
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith
Meeting a handsome, British stranger on an airplane? Sign me up. On a flight across the pond to a wedding she doesn’t want to attend, Hadley meets Oliver — a British college student with a mysterious research project and a relentless mission to cheer Hadley up. The book takes place over 24 hours, most of it on an international flight. It is cheesy, predictable, cliche, and I enjoyed reading it at 21 just as much as I did at 12.
Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson
After her best friend — and social safety net — Sloane mysteriously disappears for the summer and leaves her with a task of odd to-dos, Emily is lost. How is she supposed to “kiss a stranger” or find the courage (or opportunity) to go skinny dipping?
In a lesson about moving beyond your comfort zone that is applicable at any age, Emily must figure out how to function and push herself to new heights without her fearless friend as a shield. And along the way, she may or may not meet a charming guy from school determined to help her complete the list before Sloane returns. Highly recommend.
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
What I once aptly dubbed a horror-romance (hormance for short), this book is…interesting. Cassius kills ghosts for a living — it’s a whole new ghost premise, try and keep up — until he meets his match, and then falls in love with her?? Although the legend of the ghost Anna, who is presumably dressed in red, tells the story of a terrifying murderess, Cas’s mission to return Anna to the grave is derailed when he gets to know the real story. This book has it all: a creepy oceanside town, a goofily-named main character and his trusty pet, a bully on the football team, and a floating demon in a white dress.
Oh, and if you get the printed version, the font is red.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Admittedly, this one is not as lighthearted as the rest — and it is definitely not a “hidden YA gem.” However, to this day, I still adore Hazel’s voice and sense of humor (like naming the oxygen tank Philip “because it just kind of looked like a Philip”) and the annoying pretentiousness of it all. I mean “you put the thing that does the killing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to kill you.” Seriously John? What 17-year-old talks like this?
Nevertheless, this was a favorite of mine as a teen for the lovable characters you can’t help but root for, the lessons, and — yes — the romance. And I’d say it still holds up now; I strongly advise you give it another read.
Paper Towns by John Green
I know, I’m officially not thinking outside of the box at this point. Another key example of the eye-rolling pretentiousness of teenagers that I believe John Green patented, I actually appreciated Paper Towns more on my most recent read than I did as a teen. I can see more clearly now the message he was going for and, in a post-COVID world, I have more appreciation for the road trip section (ah, to ditch graduation for a spontaneous road trip with my best friends for a girl who isn’t who I thought she was). There’s a mystery to unravel, revenge best served with fish, and an interesting cast of friends to make jokes along the way. Sometimes there’s a reason why mainstream things are mainstream.
The Hush, Hush Series by Becca Fitzpatrick
My final recommendation is quite possibly my most embarrassing — this is basically in the “guilty pleasure” section of my bookshelf. More in the Twilight vein of literature than anything else, the four-part Hush, Hush series is very good. Nora is a typical teenager until she meets a dark and mysterious guy in chemistry…sound familiar? Soon, she is thrown into a world of (spoiler alert) angels, demons, and forces more powerful than she could imagine — and she’s caught in the middle of it all. I recently dusted this one off and, although cringey and certain sections that seemed to be borderline unhealthy relationship behavior, I could not put it down.
The plot is different enough from the genre that it will keep you on your toes, the mysteries are too intriguing to give up on before you can unwind them, and the foggy Maine town creates the perfect backdrop for yet another battle between good and evil for the heart of a mortal. Plus, the enigmatic leading man is worthy of a whole nother paragraph (*sigh*). At least it will get your mind off of the…well, you know.