The Best YA novel

At, book editor Tina Jordan asks, What’s the best YA novel of all time?

She writes:

As the book editor for EW, I read a lot. I mean, a lot—at least a book a day. (It helps that I have a long commute—at least an hour each way on the train.) And what I’ve been finding of late is that I read more YA than anything else. Not because the books’ plot-propelled arcs make them satisfyingly swift reads (though I find that’s true), or because I don’t have the attention span or chops for “adult” books (please: can we dispense with the belief, once and for all, that YA is meant just for the under-21 set?). No, I’m reading a lot of YUA because I’m finding that some of the best, most innovative work in fiction these days is being done in the genre: gutsy topics, imaginative storylines, utterly fearless writing styoles (like blank verse).

Then Jordan goes on to say how flustered she became when someone asked her what was the best YA novel of all time. I find this question challenging too, because there are books that are great, that are considered great, and those that are no t necessarily “great,” but favorites. Especially because YA has become such a huge category spanning such a long period of time—from L.M. Montgomery to Madeleine L’Engle to Judy Blume to J.K. Rowling to John Green—and now includes the new NA (New Adult) category.

I do think the Harry Potter series is the best because of its many layers, its depth, its characterization and themes, its literary and alchemical scaffolding, its symbolism, and for all the reasons we here love it.

Starting tomorrow, EW is running a bracket game that asks this very question.

You might want to participate, but let’s discuss it here, too. Instead of just the best, let’s have categories.

1)      What do you think are the all time five best YA novels (and include a best, if you wish) and why?

2)      What do you feel are the most influential YA novels and why?

3)      What are your favorites and why?

4)      If you could only have ten YA novels (this includes series) to keep, what would they be?



About Deborah Chan/Arabella

Deborah Chan, previously “Arabella Figg” I read the first three Harry Potter books in 1999 to see what the fuss was about and was hooked. After participating at for several years, and then here at the pub, I joined the Blogengamot in 2009. I enjoy discussing and writing about the books I love, and particularly enjoy looking into characters' psychological and emotional motivations. My husband Rick and I live in Spokane, WA, where I’m a columnist for our newspaper, The Spokesman-Review. Our cat Casey Rose is my gravatar. Butterbeers all around!

14 thoughts on “The Best YA novel

  1. Are we just talking YA and not children’s lit then? Because unfortunately I have a hard time dividing that line… (I mean the beginning of Harry Potter is Children’s Lit and the end is YA – but if we include it in YA, then is it fair to disqualify purely Children’s Lit, like Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book or more historical stuff like the Little House series, Little Women or A Little Princess? (And are the latter two even Children’s or do I just assume they are because I read them in 1st or 2nd grade? I get confused)

    I need someway to know what I should and shouldn’t be including to even possibly answer the questions 😀

    1. Very good questions, Alison. It’s true that HP begins as children’s, but morphs to teen and beyond. I think viewing it as a whole, puts it in YA. Children’s lit wouldn’t qualify in YA, at least for the purpose of this post. I think a separate post on children’s would be a good idea. The older books like Alcott and Montgomery are tough, because young readers enjoy them, but I think they’d qualify as YA.

      Another problem, and I meant to include this is that even 25 years ago many YA books published these days might have been aged up a teense and published as adult. I have several adult books from decades past that would now be categorized as (and some actually are being republished and remarketed as) YA. So there’s a lot of bleed.

      1. Jenna and I just were discussing that on facebook – the fact that YA is a very modern category, and as such, can we really even try to fit classics or other older books into such a framework… Another friend brought up the point of whether it could be defined by the age of the characters, but I really think it has to be the age of the intended reader, but even that definition has some problems (look at how many of us over 21 are reading YA, and look at how many of us were reading adult literature even before we were technically even old enough for YA! So while you can write for an intended reader, that’s not going to be the only audience of a novel). Anyway – will continue to think and look forward to everyone else’s discussions here on the topic!

      2. I like books about teens and young adults (and children!) because I think the characters are often so much more fresh and open to life than in books about adults. They are really learning and growing.
        Too many novels about adults reveal how the characters are stuck or lost in their issues, their tragic flaws. I see enough of that all around me in real life.
        Young adult books remind me to stay fresh and curious and young at heart and to not dwell on the past, to keep my imagination open to the intense aliveness of the world and the universe.

  2. “I never write for children. I write for people.” Dr. Seuss

    “I’m almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” C.S. Lewis

    (Apparently it works both ways:)
    “If it can’t be understood by a sympathetic nine-year-old, then your book isn’t any good.” Leo Tolstoy

    “When asked if she writes books for children or adults, Rowling has said, ‘Both. I wrote something that I knew I would like to read now, but I also wrote something that I knew I would have liked to have read at age ten.’
    “Rowling understands that . . . adults carry their childhood experiences with them, and children understand a great deal more than most adults give them credit for. As C.S. Lewis wrote to a child correspondent, ‘I don’t think age matters so much as people think. Parts of me are still 12, and I think other parts of me were already 50 when I was 12.'”
    (from the book JK Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels by Philip Nel).

    “Although Madeleine L’Engle was often labeled a children’s author, she disliked that classification. ‘In my dreams, I never have an age,’ she said. ‘I never write with any age group in mind. When people do, they tend to be tolerant and condescending and they don’t write as well as they can write. When you underestimate your audience, you’re cutting yourself off from your best work.'”
    (I’m not sure if this was quoted in Philip Nel’s book as well, or in Travis Prinzi’s book about Imagination. I copied it down from somewhere.)

    “Tolkien believed that the fairy story answers ‘primordial human desires,’ and that each new fairy story writer is not starting completely afresh, but is adding elements of each age and culture to an ever brewing cauldron of story which has been simmering since the beginning of human consciousness . . .
    “Into the Cauldron of Story, J.K. Rowling threw Harry Potter, perhaps the most potent ingredient to be added since Tolkien . . .
    “By writing these fairy tales within a fairy tale, Rowling has constructed a creative defense of fairy tales.”
    (Travis Prinzi, from Harry Potter and Imagination)

    “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”
    Albert Einstein

    “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
    Albus Dumbledore (via J.K. Rowling)

    I am truly grateful for the Hog’s Head! Long live imagination and children’s and young adult stories!

  3. Okay, we’ve discussed (and very well!) the difficulties and the recent designation of YA, so we know this won’t be perfect. But let’s get to the books!

    Mr Pond conveyed by e-owl: “My own pick for The Very Best Ever is, without hesitation, “The Jungle Book.”

  4. 2) Influential authors and books:

    Those by Alcott and Montgomery, because they changed the way books were written for young people.

    Catcher in the Rye–coming of age. I dislike it, but it opened the disaffected youth genre.

    Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins. She had great a difficulty getting this published because it started with a death, not described and off page, of the main character’s aunt. Publishers didn’t believe death was appropriate for young readers.

    Elizabeth Hamilton Friermood’s period novels of young women becoming empowered and independent through challenging circumstances. These were terrific books and I can’t believe she isn’t mentioned in articles like these.

    L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–fantasy/science fiction.

    Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkein–(adult authors, devoured by teens)–SF/fantasy, hero journey

    Judy Blume–coming of age

    S.E. Hinton–coming of age

    Lois Lowry–dystopian

    J.K. Rowling–coming of age opus and so much more

    Stephenie Meyer–paranormal books

    Suzanne Collins–The Hunger Games was brilliant dystopian

    I’m sure I’m missing other authors, so please fill in!

  5. As in any genre, there is good writing and poor writing. I like to read good writing no matter where it appears. Even books for very small children can be beautifully ‘better.’ So defining a genre can be too limiting and created for someone else’s convenience….libraries and book stores? Reviewers at the NYT? Maybe YA means the characters are YA. Or does it mean there is no sex? There certainly is violence aplenty. Upon reflection, I have decided that just for me, YA means the books I loved when I was young, and books I discovered much later but I would heartily recommend for young people today.

    So according to Nana in no particular order with explanatory comments:

    1. Huckleberry Finn- It has passed the test of time and still engages. Mark Twain rules.

    2. Little Women- Ditto

    3. Harry Potter- I almost hesitate to place a box around this with a YA label because it is my belief that young adults probably aren’t old enough to really ‘get’ the full depth of this epic saga. But the crew is under 21 and no one should be denied this experience.

    4. Catcher in the Rye- I add this begrudgingly because I never liked it, but as it’s beloved by so many people I love, I feel it must be included. ‘On the Road’ may be stuck here too as these two were the literary bibles for high school in my day. There were actually two opposing camps. You were Kerouac/Salinger or Huxley/Orwell….if you were ‘cool.’

    5. Lord of the Flies- Classic

    6. Animal Farm- Required reading. Can I put Charlotte’s Web here too?

    7. Great Expectations- Great. ( Heck, my favorite novel when I was 14 was Tale of Two Cities. It was also the first hardcover that was bought just for me.)

    8. Alice Through the Looking Glass and Wizard of Oz- Unabridged and un-Disneyfied

    9. Lord of the Rings- The Hobbits can be considered young adults.

    10. The Three Musketeers and the Hunchback of N.D.- Still holds up for excitement. My father read these to me as a rapt 10-year old. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ too.

    11. The Prydain Chronicles- Read to my rapt 10-year olds by me.

    12. Wrinkle in Time and its mates

    13. everything written by Kurt Vonnegut and Aldous Huxley because they shaped an entire generation. Orwell can be added to this group.

    I just realized I can’t stop. I know many will think some of these books are not YA, and weren’t written with that age group in mind, but a great many of them are still on high school reading lists. And deservedly so.

  6. Can’t forget about the influence of John Green! Especially in the past year or so. I think he writes what teenagers are thinking and feeling in such a unique way. Right now, I’d say his books are the most popular (and some of the most important) currently in the YA genre 🙂

  7. Oh, golly, that is the SECOND COMMENT the internet has dropped for me today. WHY.


    “1) What do you think are the all time five best YA novels (and include a best, if you wish) and why?”

    This feels like picking the five objectively best people you know. Good luck. 🙂 Nearly all the ones coming to my mind are middle grade, anyway.

    “2) What do you feel are the most influential YA novels and why?”

    Influence can be hard to quantify… especially when you don’t always pay good attention to mainstream thought… “The Catcher in the Rye” is a great call for a generation ago, I think. “Harry Potter” is probably that for my generation, but for the ones currently in their teen years, Kelly might be right on with John Green, whose most popular work is probably “The Fault in Our Stars.”

    3) What are your favorites and why?

    Hmm. The ubiquitous HP. Shannon Hale’s “The Goose Girl”. Stephenie Meyer’s “New Moon.” Robin McKinley’s “Spindle’s End” and “The Hero and the Crown.” “Little Women,” of course, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne and Pat books. A lot of middle grade books are clamoring for attention right now, begging to be included….

    4) If you could only have ten YA novels (this includes series) to keep, what would they be?

    I mostly answered this with number 3. I’m sure it’s possible to fill out the ten, but I need to go get my own novels written, now. 😉

    1. I just saw your answer, Jenna. Hmm…why didn’t I get notification?

      Anyway, good lists, Nana and Jenna.

      I hated Catcher, but I do agree as to it’s important influence. Along with other works at the time, including such films as Revel Without a Cause, it pioneered the generation gap in literature and disaffection on the part of youth. It’s searing, honest portrait changed how youth was written.

      I agree about John Green. I love The Fault in Our Stars, but haven’t yet read his others. And I think Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries (and others) were influential in lighthearted contemporary romance.

      Then we have Donna Jo Napoli, Vivian van der Velde, and Shannon Hale popularizing fairy tale reimaginings.

      As for the best? I do believe it should be HP for so many reasons, even if it wasn’t initially targeted there. And I have to think The Hunger Games is close. I may have hated Mockingjay, but THG is a wow. Little Women should be up there, too, as it’s read by just about every girl, and it’s depth requires more maturity than middle grade. A Wrinkle in Time, too. I personally would argue for Elizabeth Pope’s The Perilous Gard, an alchemical take on Tam Lin.

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