15 best young adult books: From historical fiction to romantic comedies
The books we read in our teenage years often become the ones we cherish most in our life, turning to them again and again over the years.
YA – short for young adult – was first used in the 1960s to describe books aimed at those between 12 and 18 but the genre is now increasingly loved by readers of every age. So no one will judge you if they spot you glued to the pages of a book intended for teenagers.
It’s now widely accepted we’re currently in the golden age for young adult fiction, with books tackling all sorts of issues including identity, race, sexuality, growing up and everything in between. These often lead the wider conversation in these matters, making YA fiction one of the most important genres in literature right now.
We were joined by teen testers to read a selection of YA novels that have been published in the last year or so, choosing our favourites based on originality, writing quality, subject matter and how desperate we were to read just one more chapter before turning the light out each night.
The scope and readability of them all was staggering, but these were our favourite page turners we just couldn’t put down.
The best young adult books for 2021 are:
Best overall – ‘All Our Hidden Gifts’ by Caroline O’Donoghue: £6.29, Worldofbooks.com
Best for manga fans – ‘Tsunami Girl’ by Julian Sedgwick: £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
Best for a present – A Box of Stories: £21.99 for four books: £21.99, Aboxofstories.com
Best dystopian – ‘Hawk’ by James Patterson: £6.99, Foyles.co.uk
Best for keeping you up at night – ‘House of Hollow’ by Krystal Sutherland: £7.99, Waterstones.com
Best romcom – ‘Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry’ by Joya Goffney: £6.55, Whsmith.co.uk
Best for wannabe adventurers – ‘Again, But Better’ by Christine Riccio: £11.38, Amazon.co.uk
Best for political intrigue – ‘Number 10’ by C. J. Daugherty: £9.99, Amazon.co.uk
Best for a grown up princess – ‘Tokyo Ever After’ by Emiko Jean: £7.99, Waterstones.com
Best for first love laughs – ‘Love Is For Losers’ by Wibke Brueggemann: £6.55, Amazon.co.uk
Best for teenage confusion – ‘Loveless’ by Alice Oseman: £7.39, Blackwells.co.uk
Best historical novel – ‘The Paper Girl of Paris’ by Jordyn Taylor: £6.69, Worldofbooks.com
Best for the big issues – ‘After the Rain’ by Natalia Gomes: £6.39, Amazon.co.uk
Best modern take on a classic – ‘Roman and Jewel’ by Dana L. Davis: £7.79, Amazon.co.uk
Best new talent – ‘The Sound of Everything’ by Rebecca Henry: £7.64, Heathbooks.co.uk
‘All Our Hidden Gifts’ by Caroline O’Donoghue, published by Walker Books
We were absolutely floored by this debut YA novel from author and journalist Caroline O’Donoghue. Set in contemporary Ireland, the story focuses on Maeve Chambers who feels the odd one out in her family and has fallen out with her best friend, Lily. Then she discovers a pack of old tarot cards at school and starts giving spookily accurate readings to her classmates. Maeve feels like she has finally found something she’s good at and convinces her former best friend to sit for a reading. Two days later, Lily disappears. All Maeve can do is hope her newfound talents are enough to bring her friend back before it’s too late.
A darkly seductive mystery with a supernatural sting in the tail, the novel examines guilt, sacrifice and friendship and we found ourselves growling at anyone who interrupted us during reading. The best bit? It’s the first in a series focusing on four protagonists – Maeve, Lily, Roe and Fiona – who each learn they have an other-worldly gift. Read it now before it’s inevitably turned into a Netflix blockbuster.
‘Tsunami Girl’ by Julian Sedgwick, published by Guppy Books
Best: For manga fans
This powerful and hugely original graphic novel is written in part prose, part manga to tell the coming-of-age story of 15 year old Yuki Hara Jones. She’s caught up in the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami, which forces her to come to terms with the loss of her life as she knows it.
This beautifully written tale is interwoven with Japanese folk tales, ghost stories and the creation of Yuki’s very own manga hero, and reflects on the nature of trauma and how we can overcome it. It is perhaps even more significant after the last 18 months have forced so many of us to face a future that may look different from the one we had envisaged. Our teen tester found it unusually thought-provoking and loved the accompanying illustrations featured throughout by acclaimed Japanese manga artist Chie Kutsuwada.
Stuck for what to give the teenage bookworm in your life? This fantastically priced gift box is a lifesaver that we plan to buy again and again. Every box contains four surprise books by undiscovered authors and senders can choose genres including YA, science fiction and fantasy, crime and thriller and more. The company claims an astonishing 77 million books are destroyed in the UK each year without a significant marketing budget to bring them to readers’ attention. Their mission is to find the undiscovered authors you may never hear of otherwise.
Our YA selection included; The Edge of Everything, by Jeff Giles (£13.34, Amazon.co.uk); The Wren Hunt, by Mary Watson (£6.55, Amazon.co.uk); The Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner (£6.45, Amazon.co.uk) and our favourite, Wild Blue Yonder, by Carlie Sorosiak (£6.16, Amazon.co.uk). These encompassed dystopian fiction, romantic fantasy and even the paranormal, and we loved the fact we were introduced to writers we hadn’t read before. Send this and you’ll be guaranteed brownie points from even the hardest-to-please teen.
Boxes can be bought as a one-off or as a regular subscription for a discounted price. The only reason this isn’t our best buy is the price, but when you balance out the cost of each book inside we still think it’s well worth the money.
‘Hawk’ by James Patterson, published by Young Arrow
One of the world’s biggest selling authors, James Patterson has penned everything from romance to thrillers and written popular series including The Murder Club and the Alex Cross novels. The Maximum Ride series are his gripping, pacey books aimed at YA readers. This is the tenth novel in the series but you don’t need to have read the earlier ones (we hadn’t) to guzzle this down in one sitting, as it’s intended for a new generation of Maximum Ride fans.
It tells the tale of teenager Hawk, who doesn’t know her real name or who her parents were. All she remembers is they told her they would return to the same street corner she now visits every day at the same time. Ten years on, she’s finally ready to give up waiting, but that’s when her troubles really start… We were hooked until the very end.
‘House of Hollow’ by Krystal Sutherland, published by Hot Key Books
Best: For keeping you up at night
This creepily compelling modern fairytale is unsettling from the start, but we couldn’t whip through it quickly enough to find out the mysteries of the glamorous Hollow sisters. The three siblings disappeared without trace on a suburban street in Scotland as children only to return a month later with no memory of what had happened to them.
Ten years later, one of them goes missing again, leaving a trail of clues behind, and her sisters are forced to investigate her final few days. They soon realise they aren’t the only ones looking for her and their puzzling past may at last be catching up with them.
Packed with twists and a sprinkling of supernatural eeriness, this disconcerting tale screams future TV adaptation. Not least because author Sutherland previously wrote Our Chemical Hearts, which premiered on Amazon Prime last year starring Lili Reinhart.
‘Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry’ by Joya Goffney, published by Hot Key Books
We loved this brilliantly written romance with its deftly conceived characters, laugh-out-loud observations and simmering sexual tension. But this is no frothy beach read either, weaving issues of race, identity and cyber bullying throughout the plot.
Quinn keeps lists of everything in her journal, including noting her deepest secrets, greatest fears and the boys she’d like to kiss. One day, her notebook goes missing and an anonymous Instagram account blackmails her into facing her worst fears or having her entire journal shared online. Unsure who to trust, she turns to Carter Bennett – the last person she knows had the notebook, and who Quinn can’t stand – to try to uncover the blackmailer. Along the way, Quinn has to learn to live in the moment, however much she wants to avoid it.
‘Again, But Better’ by Christine Riccio, published by Wednesday Books
Best: For wannabe adventurers
This debut novel from hugely popular BookTuber, Christine Riccio proves she’s definitely not all talk. One of three names behind YouTube’s longest running book club, Riccio is known for her witty reviews, sketches and videos detailing the process of writing her very own novel.
A delightful tale of self-discovery, it follows Shane who is fed up of life at college and craves excitement. She signs up for a term in London determined to do things differently there, to make friends, find love and live her very best life, despite inevitable bumps along the road.
The novel is a little slow to start but it’s hard not to fall for Shane’s dreamy determination as she moves across the world for a new start. Though be warned, you’ll be digging out your passport the minute it finishes…
‘Number 10’ by C. J. Daugherty, published by Moonflower Books
Best: For political intrigue
C. J. Daugherty is a YA big-hitter. A one-time crime reporter and civil servant, her five book Night School series sold over two million copies worldwide. The books have now been optioned for TV and Daugherty returned in late 2020 with Number 10, her first YA novel in five years.
This gripping novel is inspired by her own visits to No. 10 Downing Street while working for the Home Office, when she observed people disappearing into a small door leading below ground level. It tells the story of Gray Langtry, the daughter of the UK’s first female Prime Minister, who discovers a secret network of government tunnels below Downing Street while stuck at home grounded. There, she eavesdrops on a secret plot to depose her mother from power, but who will believe her?
No need to panic once you reach the end either. Daugherty’s follow-up Codename Firefly (£8.99, Amazon.co.uk) is already available for pre-order, due in early September.
‘Tokyo Ever After’ by Emiko Jean, published by Macmillan Children’s Books
Best: For a grown up princesses
A recent pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club, this charming, funny novel adds a quirk to the traditional girl-discovers-her-secret-royal-relations, by setting it in Japan. When Izumi Tanaka discovers her unknown father is actually the Crown Prince of Japan, she travels to Tokyo to discover a new world that couldn’t be more different from the one she knows in small town USA.
Our teen tester loved this novel’s forthright first-person narration and Izumi’s often-clueless attempt to learn thousands of years of tradition, all with the paparazzi hot on her heels. There’s a healthy sprinkling of glamour, a lot of laughs and a forbidden romance that keeps this novel racing forwards until the very last page in a contemporary take on The Princess Diaries. A completely irresistible read.
‘Love Is For Losers’ by Wibke Brueggemann, published by Macmillan Children’s Books
Best: For first love laughs
This book had our teen tester chuckling out loud within just a few pages. A joyous, disarmingly honest book that seems to leap right inside the mind of a teenage girl, this lesbian love story is written in a diary format that makes it a breeze to read in no time.
Phoebe Davis is intent on avoiding love no matter what. She’s convinced that relationships turn brains to mush and make people obsessed with sex, which she’s quite sure she has zero interest in. Throw in death, GCSEs and kittens and she has plenty to deal with already, thanks very much. But then her plan is derailed when she meets Emma and has to rethink her philosophy on life with hilarious consequences.
The fourth novel from the remarkably talented Alice Oseman has already picked up this year’s YA Book Prize and we were equally wowed by it. Georgia has never even had a crush on anyone, but is convinced she’ll find the one for her eventually. When she heads to university with her best friends, the dream turns out to be more complicated than she had bargained for and Georgia wonders why love seems to come so easily for most people but still eludes her. Getting older only seems to leave her more confused than ever.
As Georgia discovers true love comes in many forms, this gorgeously heartfelt story about identity, friendship and the LGBTQ+ community had us smitten from the start.
‘The Paper Girl of Paris’ by Jordyn Taylor, published by HarperTeen
Best: Historical novel
We were almost heading to the Eurostar by the time we’d reached the final chapter of this wonderful debut novel from New York journalist Jordyn Taylor. This cleverly written and surprisingly moving story juxtaposes the plight of two 16-year-old girls in Paris, seven decades apart.
Alice visits the French capital when her grandmother dies and leaves her an apartment that has been locked for 70 years. She sets about finding out why the apartment was abandoned and what secrets her grandmother left behind when she moved to America after World War II. Her discoveries are interspersed with Adalyn’s story, told from Paris under Nazi occupation with war raging all around. Packed with mystery, romance and finely woven family complexities, this novel is a must for historical fiction fans.
‘After the Rain’ by Natalia Gomes, published by HQ
Best: For the big issues
Keep the tissues close at hand for this phenomenal novel, which is set amidst the painful aftermath of a terror attack. Teenagers Alice and Jack are complete opposites who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb goes off in London. Struggling to deal with the fallout of a day they never imagined, their unlikely new friendship helps them find a way to cope, and the tender alternate narration of this novel brings each character to life beautifully. Startling, well written and confronting issues of mental health, terror and friendship without flinching, it’s a book that will stay with you long after it’s finished.
‘Roman and Jewel’ by Dana L. Davis, published by Harlequin
Best: Modern take on a classic
Think you’ve read every possible retelling of Romeo and Juliet? This sweetly romantic, funny and utterly contemporary take on Shakespeare’s original proves there’s always room for improvement.
Shot through with a dash of Hamilton cool, Davis’ version is set in New York where Jerzie Jhames is desperate to land the lead role in Broadway’s hottest new show, “Roman and Jewel”, a hip-hop era based on… well, you know the rest. The course of true love and theatre never runs smooth though, and Jerzie ends up as understudy to the lead while falling head over heels for male star Zeppelin Read. When a video of the two rehearsing goes viral, everyone suddenly has an opinion on who the leading lady should be. Expect a fun, fast-paced look at fame, friendship and love on and off the stage.
‘The Sound of Everything’ by Rebecca Henry, published by Everything with Words
Best: New talent
Some people are just annoyingly talented but it’s hard to begrudge 22-year-old school librarian Rebecca Henry, who won the Everything with Words YA competition in 2019. She is now firmly establishing herself as the genre’s most exciting new voice with this outstanding debut novel The Sound of Everything.
Tackling thorny issues of self-harm, cyber bullying, foster care and family ties, this exquisitely perceptive book focuses on Kadie who has just arrived in yet another foster home, feeling she can only truly trust herself. She is tough, resilient and hardened to a world that has never given her a chance. Then she meets Lips and wonders if she has finally found a friend she can rely on or if her long-buried secrets will always get in the way. A sensitive, mesmerising coming-of-age novel, this is a must-read for any YA devotee.
There’s not a bad book here and this list could have been twice as long. YA fans are spoilt for choice with the wealth of ferociously innovative talent out there and every one of these novels will appeal equally to adults and teens. If you want to be truly gripped, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue will have you enthralled. But if you really don’t know where to start, treat yourself to A Box of Stories, a brilliant introduction to this powerful genre.
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