There’s perhaps no category of literature more impactful than YA. These are the books introduced to us at a pivotal point in our lives: when our grasp on the world is changing just as we begin to claim a place in it. Everything during our teen and early adult years is new, strange and intense: our bodies, our relationships, our perspectives on life, love, loss and all that falls in between.
“Young people are actually quite philosophical,” says Nicola Yoon, the best-selling author of heady YA romances like The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything. “They’re at the age when they’re still becoming who they’re going to be, asking themselves big questions like What’s the meaning of life? or How can I make the world a better place? or Is there a God?”
In those formative years, we’re lucky to find books that can make us feel less alone, whether they’re assigned at school, handed down by loved ones or recommended by our peers. Which is why, with the help of a panel of leading YA authors, TIME set out to create a definitive list of the 100 Best YA Books of All Time. In his introduction to the project, panelist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds reflects on the power of books to help young readers understand themselves. “We can become more of who we already are and feel safer within ourselves,” he writes, “simply by meeting characters who call out to us by the names we call ourselves.”
TIME published a list of the best YA books just six years ago, in 2015. What we didn’t know then was how drastically the category—what it represents, who it serves and whose voices it centers—was about to shift. Many of the books that arrived in the next few years were defined by a commitment to social justice and lived up to the standards of the #OwnVoices campaign, a hashtag first created in 2015 by author Corinne Duyvis to recommend more inclusive children’s books. The hashtag, though now being reconsidered, propelled a movement encouraging industry gatekeepers to publish more books written by authors who share the identities of their characters. First-time novelists like Angie Thomas, Erika L. Sánchez, Elizabeth Acevedo, Sandhya Menon and Tomi Adeyemi broke out with commercially successful and critically acclaimed books. Just as one thread of political discourse in the U.S. began to more explicitly acknowledge groups long marginalized and disenfranchised by everything from policy to pop culture, the success of these books pushed many publishers, educators, parents and readers to think critically about what they had long considered staples of YA literature—the books they’ve forever told kids will help them understand the world. What were the underlying messages of those books? Who were they written for? And whose voices did they leave out?
Panelist Adam Silvera, who made his YA debut with More Happy Than Not in 2015, has experienced firsthand how the category has evolved to expand. He credits editors with taking more chances on authors from underrepresented groups. “When I first sold More Happy Than Not, I had feedback from editors where they wanted me to make the narrator straight and white instead of gay and Puerto Rican like me,” Silvera tells TIME. “The intersection of my identities was too difficult for some people to understand back then, but I’ve thankfully seen a lot of publishing [professionals] put in the work to broaden their worldviews.”
For all these reasons, TIME’s updated list of the best YA books of all time is weighted heavily toward the recent past, with more than 50% of the books on the list having been published in the last decade. One year in particular is a strong example of the boom in great YA fiction, with major titles like Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Reynolds’ Long Way Down, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Ibi Zoboi’s American Street and many more celebrated works arriving in 2017.
“I see the readers as the driving force behind that surge, specifically the call for diverse books,” Thomas tells TIME, adding that most of these 2017 titles would likely not have been published 10 or even five years before. “Between the work of librarians, educators, We Need Diverse Books and young people like activist Marley Dias, publishing was forced to face an uncomfortable truth: the books they put in the world for young people did not reflect all young people.”
To make a list of the best YA books requires contending with the fact that there is no single, straightforward way to classify YA, which is read by many adults and has evolved greatly over time from its first usage as a designation by the Young Adult Library Services Association in the late 1960s. Michael Cart, former president of the YALSA, reflected on the ephemeral categorization of books for young readers in 2008: “The term ‘young adult literature’ is inherently amorphous,” he wrote, “for its constituent terms ‘young adult’ and ‘literature’ are dynamic, changing as culture and society—which provide their context—change.”
In its evolution to the present movement toward more diverse and inclusive storytelling, YA has passed through many stages—from the novels of the ’70s that explored coming-of-age in refreshingly frank terms to the splashy fantasy epics and teen-girl-led dystopias of the 2000s to the queer love stories and so-called “sick lit” novels of the 2010s. To create the list, TIME focused on books marketed toward grade levels 8-12 or with characters in that age range and books that explore adolescence, all while recognizing that some books defy categorization.
And we relied on the expertise of YA authors themselves, recruiting a panel of leading writers—Kacen Callender and Jenny Han, along with Acevedo, Reynolds, Silvera, Thomas and Yoon—to join TIME staff in nominating and ranking the top books of the genre. TIME editors conducted additional research and considered each finalist based on key factors, including artistry, originality, accessibility when it comes to mature themes, emotional impact, critical and popular reception, and influence on the young adult category and literature more broadly.
Many of the titles from TIME’s original list appear on this new one. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, while in some ways outdated and even damaging, have lasting influence—and for as long as they will be passed along to young readers, it will remain essential to recognize where they fail as well as where they succeed.
Ultimately, the books on this list are ones that have afforded readers of all ages around the world an opportunity to recognize themselves in all kinds of narratives. Some are thought-provoking dramas, some transporting fantasies. Some are sweet coming-of-age stories and others laugh-out-loud romantic comedies. They all speak to the tensions, anxieties and joys of growing up and discovering who you are. “The function of story, especially for young people,” Reynolds writes, “is to bear witness to their lives, marking them as valuable and seen and part of something.”
See the books featured on TIME’s 2015 YA list here:
This project is led by TIME staffers Lucy Feldman, Annabel Gutterman and Megan McCluskey, with writing, reporting and additional editing by Emily Barone, Eliza Berman, Judy Berman, Madeleine Carlisle, Peter Allen Clark, Samantha Cooney, Leslie Dickstein, Mahita Gajanan, Cady Lang, Shay Maunz and Nik Popil; copy editing by Helen Eisenbach and Megan Rutherford; art and photography editing by Whitney Matewe and Jennifer Prandato; and production by Paulina Cachero and Nadia Suleman. Illustration by Colin Verdi. Photography by Shawn Michael Jones.
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