It’s hard to believe that Tolkien’s classic tale was published nearly 80 years ago, yet is still such an immersive read for fans of the fantasy genre. The Hobbit sees homebody Bilbo Baggins coerced from his idyllic home in The Shire by a motley crew of dwarves and Gandalf the wizard, to help recover the treasure being guarded by Smaug, the last of the great dragons. Bilbo makes for an unlikely hero, providing a sort of coming-of-age narrative as we see him grow (figuratively) throughout the novel. Tolkien’s unpretentious language and comedic touches make this an accessible read for YA audiences, and is sure to capture their imaginations.
Dubbed ‘the original teenage rebel story,’ The Outsiders describes two dramatic weeks in the life of Ponyboy Curtis, a member of the Greasers gang. Things spiral out of control for Ponyboy and his friends when they come to blows with rival gang, the Socs; but will he be able to choose the right path in a society that views him as an outsider? Amazingly, S.E Hinton started this book when he was just 15 and finished it at the age of 16; but its message about class and socio-economic division, as well as the themes of loyalty and friendship, are as poignant today as they were when Hinton was a teenager in the ‘60s.
Set in England during WWII, Goodnight Mister Tom is an emotional read, but an important one that young readers handle surprisingly well. William is evacuated from his home in London to a rural village to live with Tom, an ageing and ill-tempered widower. As we learn about William’s troubled past living with his mother, the focus of the book shifts from the war to the equally difficult issues of child abuse and trauma, with harrowing scenes throughout the narrative. This much-loved book reminds us how war impacts the lives of ordinary people, with a timeless message that love can conquer all.
You know a book is iconic when it becomes part of common language, and young readers who may have heard their parents or teachers exclaim, “It’s like Lord of the Flies in here!” can finally discover what they’re going on about. Golding’s story tells of a group of British schoolboys who have to survive on a deserted island without adults when their plane gets shot down over the Pacific. Things start off well as they enjoy their freedom and try to create a sense of order by electing a leader (Ralph). But events soon take a sinister turn as their mental state starts to unravel and paranoia sets in… will they all make it off the island alive?
We usually think film adaptations can’t beat the original books; and although Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange movie was an award-winning cultural phenomenon, Anthony Burgess’ book has a unique energy that has to be read to be believed. This nightmare vision of the future is told through the perspective of Alex, the leader of a gang of “droogs” who go on a disturbingly violent rampage at the start of the book. Alex is then confined in State Jail 84F, where he is exposed to extreme mind-altering therapy from the authorities. According to the author himself, A Clockwork Orange was intended as “a sort of tract, even a sermon, on the importance of the power of choice.”
Published in 1984, The Wasp Factory is a controversial book told through the voice of sixteen-year-old Francis Cauldhame (‘Frank’). But Frank isn’t like other teenagers, and readers mustn’t be fooled by his naive and at times amusing tone; he is actually a disturbed sociopath with a lot of issues, who turns to extreme violence to vent his frustrations with life. This is by no means a pleasant read and is definitely for readers at the older end of the YA spectrum, but it offers a fascinating reflection on humanity and what it takes to push someone over the edge of civility.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is part of a series of books by Mildred D. Taylor chronicling an African-American family’s struggle in a racist Southern society. Set in 1933 in Mississippi, during the Great Depression, the Logan family work hard to maintain their small plot of farmland; but they face indignity and increasingly violent acts from the local white community. Told through the eyes of nine-year-old Cassie Logan, we see her encounter racial injustice first-hand and follow her family through societal and financial pressures. Mildred D. Taylor has dedicated her life to the accurate telling of black American history, so young readers can start to gain an understanding of this part of history through her work.
Judy Bloom’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret remains one of the most innovative and long-standing YA books of all time. Time magazine even listed it in the top 100 fiction books written in English since 1923, saying that “Blume turned millions of pre-teens into readers […] by asking the right questions – and avoiding pat, easy answers.” First published in 1970, it follows twelve-year-old Margaret Simon as she starts puberty and suddenly has to deal with boys, bras and sanitary towels – struggles that will continue to strike a chord with today’s pre-teens. The novel also raises some interesting questions about identity as Margaret tries to settle her mixed religious background.
If you liked The Hunger Games, Divergent or Delirium then you need to add George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel to your ‘to-read’ list ASAP. Orwell’s chilling dystopia centres on Winston Smith, a worker at the Ministry of Truth who inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in. But with Big Brother and the all-seeing telescreens watching his every move, his disobedience can’t go unnoticed forever. This book’s message about surveillance, control and the power of mass media is perhaps even more pertinent in today’s world than when it was originally published.
Dodie Smith’s classic novel merges both romance and coming-of-age narratives, making it a popular choice for YA readers. Set in the 1930s and told by first-person narrator Cassandra Mortmain, the story follows her journey into adulthood as she makes some difficult decisions about love and family. The Mortmain family live in a crumbling castle that Cassandra’s father purchased after the success of his first novel; but having struggled to write a follow-up, ten years on the family is destitute and can barely afford to buy food. When a wealthy American family moves nearby and Cassandra’s sister Rose tries to win over the eldest son Simon, the sisters’ loyalty is truly put to the test…
This sci-fi fantasy novel about good vs. evil centres on thirteen-year-old Meg Murry, whose father – a government scientist – goes missing after being involved in a mysterious project. Meg, her prodigy brother and misfit school friend then go on a fantastical journey across the universe, led by the mysterious Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. While modern readers won’t find it very shocking to have a female protagonist in a sci-fi novel, L’Engle struggled to get it published for this very reason; but since its first publication in 1963, it has been continuously in print.
Despite not having been written solely with a YA audience in mind, Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird often features on school curriculums and YA reading lists – so naturally, it made it onto ours! But why is a book about racial prejudice in the deep South so popular among younger readers? Asides from its language being easily accessible for this age group, the story is told through the perspective of young Scout (Jean Louise) Finch. Although Scout is ‘telling’ the story as an older woman, the events take place when she is between the ages of five and eight, offering an innocent child’s perspective on more serious issues, particularly when a young black man (Tom Robinson) is accused of raping a white woman.
Originally published for an adult audience in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has since become a popular book among younger readers, with protagonist Holden Caulfield becoming something of an icon for teenage rebellion. Told through Holden’s point of view, the narration follows his exact thought processes as he struggles with existential teenage angst and tries to define his personal and sexual identity. One critic has said that it remains “the defining work on what it is like to be a teenager.”
The first novel by author Robert Newton Peck, this coming-of-age narrative is set in peaceful 1920s Vermont and revolves around thirteen-year-old Robert, who is given a prized pet pig for helping his neighbour’s cow to give birth. Robert has a simple country childhood, but just like any boy his age there comes a time when he has to learn to become a man. This semi-autobiographical story is loosely based on the author’s own experience of growing up in a Shaker community, but we think its quiet humour and simplicity will still appeal to the modern reader.
Wrongly accused of stealing a pair of shoes that were destined for a children’s orphanage, fourteen-year-old Stanley is sent to Camp Green Lake – a facility for juvenile delinquents, located in the middle of a desert, where inmates are forced to dig deep holes in the ground. But when Stanley discovers the real reason they are digging holes, he gets the chance to lift the family curse that was placed upon his great-great-grandfather while also making a true friend along the way. We think this YA mystery comedy is still a hugely entertaining read and has universal themes of family, friendship and adversity.
Another one for dystopian fans, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a bleak future where women are used as concubines purely for reproductive purposes, after pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have caused fertility in most of the female population. Set in the fictional Republic of Gilead, this military dictatorship has reorganised society and stripped women of their rights – we see this world through the eyes of Offred, a handmaid who has reoccurring flashbacks of pre-Gilead life. With the Feminist movement witnessing something of a resurgence among today’s young adults, we felt this one had to be included on our list.
Sexual consent remains an important topical issue for young people, and this is something that trauma novel Speak openly confronts. When high school freshman Melinda Sordino calls the police to an end-of-summer party, she is unable to tell her friends why; in fact, she almost becomes unable to speak at all. As she begins to express herself through her art classes, she is gradually able to come to terms with what happened; but will she be able to reclaim her identity, or will she be defined by the events of that night?
Although it wasn’t published long ago, fans of the fantasy genre and strong female protagonists may have easily overlooked Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – which includes The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Set in a series of parallel worlds and supposedly an inversion of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, the books follow Lyra as she discovers a plot to kidnap children and conduct gruesome experiments on them to get rid their ‘original sin’. She then goes on an epic quest, accompanied by gypsies, witches, explorers and – erm – armoured polar bears!
While some dystopic novels are clearly set in a dystopic world, not all is as it seems in Lois Lowry’s haunting novel The Giver. Twelve-year-old Jonas lives a contented life in a seemingly perfect community; but when he is selected to receive special training to become the Receiver of Memory, he starts to uncover the dark secrets behind the veneer of this world.
Adrian Mole remains one of the funniest literary narrators in YA fiction (in our humble opinion!) Throughout the series, which starts with this first instalment, Sue Townsend’s extremely likeable protagonist takes us through the trials and tribulations of adolescent life, from his early ambitions to love interests and failures. A hilarious commentary on ordinary Middle England suburbia which, despite its references to social and political issues in Britain at the time, is still sure to get a laugh from today’s teens.