10 YA Coming of Age Novels That are Worth the Read

The young adult section of any bookstore or library can be a mixed bag. From the problematic Twilight to classics like Harry Potter, it can be hard to know where to go from there. Here are 10 amazing books that are not only good within the genre of YA, but incredible on their own.

1. The Book Thief 

Credit: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

When someone asks me for a book recommendation, I will always say The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I read this book in eighth grade and it remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in Nazi Germany, it’s about a poor, illiterate girl named Liesel who is taken in by foster parents. She develops a close relationship with Hans, her foster father, who teaches her how to read and write. As World War II begins, Liesel questions her role in it when the family hides a young Jewish man in their basement with whom Liesel develops a strong friendship. Apart from the amazing characters and intriguing historical backdrop, Zusak’s writing style is unique. His sentences sometimes read more like poetry with the heavy use of metaphors and odd descriptive language that somehow works. If you’re looking to fall in love with every part of a book (and get your heart broken in the process), read this!

2. Cinder 

Credit: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder is a gem in the often mediocre world of YA fantasy. Technically, this is part of a series, but Cinder is the first book and the most self-contained novel in the series. Set in the future after a third world war, two things have happened: people live on the moon and have blended with robots. The book focuses on Cinder, a cyborg orphan girl living as a mechanic in “New Beijing." A play on Cinderella, Cinder lives with her cruel stepmother and two stepsisters, only one of whom is like a real sister. As a cyborg, Cinder is a second-class citizen and longs to run away from her foster mother with her charming android friend, Iko. Her life is turned upside down when the handsome Prince Kai of the Eastern Commonwealth (Asia) comes to her mechanic shop after hearing she’s the best. Although Cinder is the “protagonist-girl-who-doesn’t-know-shes-pretty-but-the-guy-does”, she compromises no part of her personality or appearance and is much more focused on her job and the people she cares about than her crush.

3. Sisi

Credit: Sisi by Allison Pataki

Sisi is a fictional imagining of a very real queen, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with the title alluding to her nickname. The story begins a few years into her reign, a little bit after the birth of her fourth and last child and ends with her death. Stuck in a marriage that turned sour only a few years in, Sisi spends her entire life trying to get away from court and her husband by indulging in expensive trips to her favorite country, Hungary, and a few intense affairs. Allison Pataki manages to create an interesting, factually-based narrative of a complicated woman, despite vainly attempting to keep Sisi a sympathetic protagonist. One of the most interesting aspects of Sisi is how flawed she becomes over the course of her life, from being an absent, at times terrible mother to her immature disregard for her regal duties.

4. Silver Girl 

Credit: Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk

This is the only book on the list that I didn’t strictly enjoy reading, but books are not all about entertainment: sometimes, you have to be challenged. Set in 80’s Chicago amidst the Tylenol murders, Silver Girl follows an unnamed protagonist and her best friend through three years of college. The story centers on the immense complexities of female friendship, class differences, and abuse. It’s a heavy read, but this is a book that will make you think, feel, and understand the deeply flawed protagonist on a level that isn’t often achieved.

5. Wolf by Wolf

Credit: Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

This is another book that’s technically a series, but the first book is self-contained enough to make the list. Yet another historical fiction novel, this book is set in a hypothetical 1956 in which the Axis powers won World War II. The protagonist is a survivor of the Holocaust on whom scientific experiments were conducted. The science experiments have left her with the ability to change her appearance at will. In this alternate timeline, the Germans (who have taken over the world with the Japanese) hold a bike race each year in which the victor gets to dance with Hitler. The book follows Yael as she takes someone else’s identity and lays her life on the line to win the race so that she can kill Hitler. Yael is the gritty feminist heroine we all need in our lives.

6. The Gilded Years

Credit: The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

This is the last historical fiction book on the list, I promise. Similar to Sisi, this book follows a year in the life of a real woman: Anita Hemmings, the first black woman to attend Vassar in the late 1890s. The only reason she is able to attend, however, is because she passes as white and no one knows. An exceptionally intelligent and beautiful girl who has kept to herself for three years, her secret is threatened when she befriends her senior year roommate, Lottie Taylor. Lottie is a New York socialite who takes Anita out into her world of glamour and privilege. The stakes are raised when Anita meets a gorgeous Harvard man, Porter Hamilton, and longs for the life she could have post-graduation as a white woman. The lies start spiraling and Anita struggles to keep her brother out of her precarious life while keeping prying Lottie as far as possible from her secret. Another reason to read this book: a movie starring Zendaya as Anita is in the works.

7. When You Reach Me 

Credit: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

It’s been a while since I’ve read When You Reach Me, but it’s stuck with me ever since. A short but complex read, the book centers around a 12-year-old named Miranda living in NYC with her mom and mom’s boyfriend. She takes the reader through her neighborhood, showing us the homeless “laughing man” who lives on the corner, her apartment and the sandwich shop she ends up working at. After her best friend inexplicably ditches her, Miranda starts getting mysterious notes that tell her to write the anonymous sender a letter with the location of her spare key in order to save his life and the life of her friend. It’s hard to explain the plot without spoiling anything, but the book deals with friendship and time-travel in an intriguing and thought-provoking way. The ending is incredibly satisfying, if a bit sad, and makes you want to go back and re-read it.

8. The Night Circus 

Credit: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

If you’re looking for a book that completely sucks you into its world, read The Night Circus. The plot isn’t particularly compelling, but the surrealist world and prose in the book make it worth the read. The Night Circus is about a magical circus that appears at random in various cities and towns for one night only. The two main characters, Marco and Celia, are illusionist magicians who have been bound in a magical competition connected to the circus their whole lives. Neither of them understands the rules of the competition and upon meeting, they fall in love. They attempt everything in their power in order to avoid beating the other as the magical competition clock ticks and their circus is in danger of disappearing.

9. The Five People You Meet in Heaven 

Credit: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

This book isn’t strictly ‘young adult’, but it can definitely be geared towards that age group. The story follows Eddie, a crippled, grumpy maintenance worker at an amusement park and opens on the day he dies, his 83rd birthday. After dying, he goes through five stages of heaven in which he meets a person who impacted his life or vice versa. Eddie’s five people are a mix of his loved ones and complete strangers, emphasizing that no event is accidental and everyone is connected in some way. Each person he encounters teaches him different things about their lives, both devastating and healing. Eddie’s one regret is not making more of his life outside of being a maintenance worker, but then he realizes that he was an essential part in making the amusement park a safe place for children and died in a successful attempt to save a little girl. This book is a short read (194 pages!) but incredibly powerful in demonstrating how life is a hopeful mix of great and terrible things.

10. 13 Reasons Why 

Credit: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

A controversial choice, I know. However, as usual, the book is much better than the TV show. 13 Reasons Why is about a girl, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves 13 cassette tapes for 13 people explaining the part they played in her life. Clay Jensen, the protagonist, is 10th on the list (in the book). Book Clay listens to all the tapes in one night, making for a short but potent read. The book focuses only on Clay’s journey throughout their small town instead of taking up weeks and involving multiple storylines in the TV show. The rough subject matter makes this an emotional read, but I think it’s important to read about stigmatized topics such as mental illness and assault since they play a large role in many teenager’s lives.

I know how hard it is to not just add books to your ‘to-read’ list and actually read them. If any of these books sounds like one you’d like, I strongly recommend putting it at the top of your list. Happy reading!


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