It seems many years there's one huge stand-out book that outshines the rest, whether in mass popularity or critical acclaim (or for the true unicorn, both!). This year, however, we had so many outstanding young adult novels that it's incredibly hard to pick a best young adult book of 2016. So, we didn't. Instead we picked 30 stand-out books that if you haven't yet read, you totally need to.
These top-notch YA books are by huge names — Maggie Stiefvater, E.K. Johnston, A.S. King, John Corey Whaley, Sabaa Tahir, and more — and newcomers who are already making their mark on the young adult world. There are series continuations, stand-alones, and the beginnings of what we know will be the next huge set of books we need.
In these stories we're sent to 16th-century England, the underworld, literally across space and time, Prohibition-era Oregon, back to Ketterdam, the time of Dracula, and our never-so-simple everyday modern life. There are fantasies, science fiction stories, magical realism, brutally honest true-to-life contemporaries, historical fiction tales, and everything in between. What they all do have in common is that these 30 books are going to sweep you up into their pages and stay with you for a long time.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
You've never read a book quite like this one, and I mean that in the best way. It's an unconventional, magical realism love story that will wrap you up in its yarn. Miel and Sam have been BFF since she literally spilled out of a water tower when they were children. Miel grows flowers out of her wrist but she crushes and drowns them so the Bonner girls, who everyone knows can enchant any man to fall in love, don't steal them, and Sam holds his own secrets. The two, as you do, fall for each other, but don't expect 300 pages of will-they-won't-they. The story is lush, sexy, and ethereal, making you feel like you've been enraptured by some old fairy tale that, strangely, feels completely modern at the same time.
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
You probably learned in history class that Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey had untimely deaths in 16th-century England, but three YA authors are here to give them new (hilarious) life in My Lady Jane. What if the Nine-Day Queen was never executed for treason? Well, if Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows' imaginations dictated, it would be a super-funny, high fantastical romp through history. It sounds high concept, but it's executed beautifully, giving readers a totally wacky, wisecracking adventure story that has the anachronistic fun of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, but much more successful.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
In The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner brings to life an impoverished Southern small town named after a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the outsiders who live there without shying away harsh realities. Though the story drives its way to a brutal act of violence, what shines is the power of friendship through it all. Dill is the son of an incarcerated extremist preacher who is bullied because of his family. Travis is a kind soul who feels desperately out of place in his hometown, and Lydia dreams of traveling to New York to have a career in fashion. Zentner creates these three teenagers who feel almost impossibly real and show how friendship can withstand anything, often even more than family and romantic love.
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Nicola Yoon proved she wasn't anything close to a one-hit wonder after last year's incredible Everything, Everything with this year's The Sun Is Also a Star. Set over the course of one day, Yoon's sophomore YA novel dodges those standard romance pitfalls, and tells a unique and moving story about two teenagers who find themselves drawn together. It's the worst time for Natasha to fall in love. The realist knows that her family is about to be deported back to Jamaica in less than a day, and no wild dreams can save them. Daniel also hides his dreamy, poetic spirit, instead being the hard-working dutiful student so he can get into Yale. Despite seemingly having all the trappings of romances we've read (and seen) before, Yoon tells a moving, fresh story that will make your heart hopeful.
American Girls by Alison Umminger
Alison Umminger drops some serious truths about what it's like growing up female in America with her debut novel. American Girls centers on lost teenage girl Anna who runs away from home to follow the glam dream of living with her sister in California. But along the way, while doing film research to pay for a flight back home, she finds herself identifying with the infamous "Lost Girls" of L.A. who, following Charles Manson, committed one of the most gruesome murders in U.S. history. Readers start to learn more about Anna, her family, and her history, and via our heroine, uncover an authentic portrait of coming of age as a woman. It's the kind of novel that sticks in your head and won't go away.
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
Alex, who despises magic, in a cruel twist of fate was destined to be a bruja — not only that, but she's destined to be the most powerful witch in her generation. So, to fight against her fate, she attempts a spell to rid herself of her powers — except it fails, and instead her entire family disappears. In a dark Alice in Wonderland-type journey, Alex must now travel to an underworld, known as Los Lagos, to bring them back. Zoraida Córdova's story is enchanting, like a modern day fairy tale and just utterly alive.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
In the aftermath of a rape, E.K. Johnston tells a story that reads like the best possible scenario to come out of the horrific crime — and as such, it becomes a lesson in fighting rape culture that we all need. Hermione Winters is popular; she's the captain of her beloved cheerleading squad. On her cheerleading retreat, she is drugged, raped, and left on a rock in the middle of the lake. Hermione is, of course, traumatized and angry and sad. Unlike so many women, she goes to the police where she finds champions of support, who hold nothing back when searching for her rapist. Her school supports her, her parents believe her, and her best friend is a pillar of understanding. Johnston knows that this isn't the "typical" story of a rape's aftermath, even noting in the afterward that many women do not see even close to the support Hermione does, but though it is a tough read, it's a stark reminder of how we all need to be doing more.
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
The Girl from Everywhere is a stand-out in a year that loved a good time-travel story. (And side note: could I be more obsessed with the cover?) Nix has spent her life time traveling through places both real and fantastical (they are only bound by whether the location has a map, so basically Middle Earth is totes available) aboard her father's pirate ship. But, unbeknownst to his daughter, Nix's father is aiming to find one exact place and time: Honolulu 1868, when his wife died giving birth to Nix. Of course, changing this moment of history would literally wipe Nix herself off the map, and so our heroine is forced to confront where she belongs in this wide-reaching world. Heidi Heilig's twist of including mythical and legendary places to her lush time-traveling family adventure story is a game-changer, allowing for a collision of ancient stories and real-life history in a way that separates the novel from the rest.
We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
Henry believes that aliens have continually abducted him since he was younger, but it was the last abduction that really rattled him. The aliens, he believes, warned him the world was going to end in 144 days, but they gave Henry the power to stop it by pushing a big red button. But, why would he want to save the world? He's losing his grandmother to Alzheimer's, his mother is checked out, his boyfriend committed suicide, and he alternates being bullied by and having sex with the jock at school. Bottom line: The world doesn't seem all that worth saving. That is until he meets the charismatic artist Diego Vera and the two start a relationship. Don't expect any easy "the world is wonderful now" fixes though. Shaun David Hutchinson is much more clever than that, and he knows that these real-life issues are a slog and raw and brutal, making this story meditative, bitterly funny, and far more original than you may predict.
Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King
You can always count on YA innovator A.S. King to drop something totally unique and thought-provoking, but she may have outdone even herself on this one. Teenage Sarah thinks she's having an existential crisis. Maybe that would explain why, despite knowing and being told she's a brilliant artist, she can't draw for crap. And maybe it would explain why she keeps running into herself, six versions of herself to be exact, all across Philadelphia. And finally it would explain why all those version of herself, past and future, seem to be concerned for Sarah's well-being. (Come on, you know A.S. King thinks outside everyone else's box.) It's a book about family dysfunction, trauma, and violence unlike you've ever.
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
New York City, 1977, comes scorching alive in Meg Medina's Burn Baby Burn. You probably know all about the notorious Summer of Sam, the summer blackouts plagued the city, arson attacks seemed regular news, and a serial killer was on the loose. But you haven't heard about the Summer of Sam like Medina tells it. Nora Lopez is 17 and these major issues are like background noise to her daily life problems — like trying to keep her family together. Reading Medina's story will transport you to hazy days of an NYC summer.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
John Corey Whaley is one of YA's A-Listers, and he proves yet again why he belongs there with Highly Illogical Behavior, a funny, heartfelt story that aims to crush the stigma of mental illness. Solomon suffers from agoraphobia and hasn't left his house in three years. A mostly well-intentioned Lisa hopes that by "fixing" and studying Sol, she can earn a scholarship to a top psychology program for college. But Sol, Lisa, and Lisa's boyfriend Clark end up forming a strong bond of friendship — one that tips and rattles based on each of their insecurities, trust issues, and more.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
If you thought your horoscope was bad, the young princess Maya was born with the prophecy that she would marry "death and destruction." This prediction has made her an outcast in her father's kingdom, and Maya's father requires her to sacrifice herself to protect their land from outside rebellions. Little does Maya know that her fate is being thrown into the balance when she is taken by Amar to his homeland: Akaran. There, she rules alongside him in an underworld-type place with plenty of hidden secrets. Chokshi blends a Cupid-Psyche loose interpretation with Hindu mythology to tell a family (and sometimes romance) story that feel lush and alive.
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Amanda Hardy transferred schools her senior year partly in an effort to conceal her secret: She recently transitioned from male to female. But when she bonds with a peer, Grant, who is open and understanding, she wonders if she should reveal her secret and all the past trauma — violence, a suicide attempt, and more — that went along with it. It's an illuminating look into one young woman's experiences, but there's something nearly everyone coming of age or struggling with their identify can take from it. Not only is If I Was Your Girl a captivating story, it's a huge win for the important #ownvoices movement. Author Meredith Russo based this story of a trans young woman on her own personal experiences, and the cover model Kira Conley is a trans woman herself. We need much more representation like this.
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo is a master of fantasy world- and character-building, so clearly we're all thrilled she followed up Six of Crows with a superb sequel Crooked Kingdom. Kaz and his crew pick up where they left off, having just pulled off a near-impossible heist and been double-crossed as one of their own was kidnapped, but their struggles aren't over. Now, a war is coming to Ketterdam as people from all over the world travel to the dark streets to find the secrets of the dangerous drug jurda parem. Dare I say that Crooked Kingdom may even be better (gasp!) than the original?
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown
For those looking for a contemporary love story that hits on current issues, get your hands on Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit STAT, if you haven't already. Joanna Gordon is proudly out already, but when her popular evangelical preacher moves them from tolerant Atlanta to a conservative small town he asks her to deny herself and present as straight. It's something she is willing to do for her family, but the promise gets a whole lot more difficult when she starts to fall for her new friend's sister, Mary Carlson. The story wraps up questions of faith, family, and identity in a totally sweet and compassionate love story that feels utterly authentic.
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
I mean, duh: Maggie Stiefvater's insanely popular Raven Cycle needs no introduction, and its final installment The Raven King was practically the definition of bittersweet. While we finally got another book and wrapped our questions, characters, and stories, ugh that means the series is over now. However, Stiefvater stuck the landing. All along we've known that Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love's death, and now we get to see if the prediction will come to fruition for the love-denying woman. My lips are sealed! Go read!
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
Feminist historical YA lit FTW! Set in a convent in medieval, post-Inquisition France, The Passion of Dolssa is a story centered around and about an almost entirely female cast. (You go, Julie Berry!) Dolssa has been branded a heretic after claiming that God is her lover, and escaping execution, she is rescued by matchmaker Botille, who hides Dolssa in her tavern. But before long, the wrath of the entire Church bears down on them both and they can't stay hidden for long. Female friendship takes center stage here, pressured by issues of faith, organized religion, culture, and basically women's oppression across the entire span of time. (NBD.) More Dolssa please!
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
I could not wait to get my grabby hands on Sabaa Tahir's follow-up to my favorite book of 2015, An Ember in the Ashes, and it did not disappoint. Tahir gracefully pulls us back into the story and gives enough details to remind us what's going on without seeming stilted or distracting. And then we are off on another gritty, dangerous adventure with Elias and Laia, who are now fleeing with an entire kingdom on their trail, including Elias' BFF Helene, trying to find Laia's revolutionary brother. Tahir again masterfully captivates readers, so we're doing the kind of reading where our hands are trying to turn the pages and see what comes next before our eyes can catch up.
Asking for It by Louise O'Neill
Asking For It asks us to confront all of the rape survivor and rape story stereotypes that are perpetuated across our media and culture, and Louise O'Neill isn't afraid to stare those notions right in the face. Emma O’Donovan is exactly the kind of rape survivor we see tormented in court rooms and across social media: She has a very experienced sexual history, she was dressed in a risque manner, she's, frankly, not a very nice person to her friends, she contacted her attackers after the night in question, and she was engaged in consensual sexual activity at one point on the night she was assaulted. Still, she was and no one ever is "asking for it." O'Neill's story is tough and raw and powerful and it will slap you wide awake to what woman have to face in the judicial system, the educational system, social media, and society as a whole. O'Neill has already made herself known as a powerful force in modern feminist literature.
The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters
This isn't the whiny Hamlet you read in high school English. Cat Winters transforms the male-dominated Shakespeare play to a story about biracial Hanalee Denney living in the KKK hotspot of Prohibition-era Oregon, 1923. Her African-American father Hank is struck and killed by a drunk driver, but when his killer is set free from jail, he seeks out Hanalee to warn her: He alleges he didn't harm her father, instead Hanalee's stepfather was behind the murder, slowing poisoning Hank. (Because it wouldn't be Shakespeare without twisted family drama.) Of course, Hanalee can ask the one person who knows for sure, because in true Bard style, Hank has returned as a ghost. There are the same themes of identity, survival, family, and more as in the OG play, but Winter is working in a far more compelling cultural time and place.
The Midnight Star by Marie Lu
Marie Lu's Young Elites series is an ultimate antihero story, and we need female-driven antihero stories so, so much. Our character in question, Adelina Amouteru, seemingly has achieved what she wanted, becoming the leader by any means necessary. Now, her once maligned group of blood fever survivors have the power, and they are able to exact revenge against their former tormentors. But that whole "hero" portion of "anti" hero is starting to disappear, as the power goes to her head and she goes further and further down the darkest path. Even her love Magiano is concerned. So what will happen to Adelina? In Lu's very capable hands, we get an ending to the series that is bittersweet, emotional, and feels true to the beloved (even when they're evil) characters she's drawn.
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
The Female of the Species is about girl power, quite literally. When a man murders her older sister Anna, Alex Craft awakens a violent spirit inside her, directed at men who harm women. But because she fears that her compulsion toward violence will harm those around her, she ostracizes herself from her peers. That is, until Jack Fisher, the star quarterback, notices her. Jack is coping with his own regret and guilt over Anna's death, as he was unwittingly involved, when he starts to pursue Alex. At the same time, PeeKay, nicknamed for her role as the Preachers Kid, gets closer to Alex as she sees how gentle and kind Alex is to the shunned and abandoned animals at the shelter where they work. Mindy McGinnis tells an at times brutal story that doesn't shy away from explicit violence, but it explores what happens when a feminist cause of fighting against rape culture is taken to another level, a level of vigilante justice and vengeful force.
Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Did Erika Johansen's The Queen of the Tearling series get even better as it went on, or is it just me? In book three, The Fate of the Tearling, Kelsea Glynn is now queen of the realm, but her fight is far from over. The Red Queen is gunning for her and the Tear, so in an effort to protect her people, Kelsea offered up herself and her sapphires to the enemy, putting the Mace in charge. Now, the Mace has one goal: Save Queen Kelsea and the entire realm. The story is as ambitious, suspenseful, and gripping as we've come to expect and it's a terrific end to the series (*wipes away tear*).
Beast by Brie Spangler
Brie Spangler makes the magical fairy tale Beauty and the Beast into an achingly human story in Beast. Dylan Ingvarsson has always been teased for being 6'4" and particularly hairy, but the day his school bans hats and long hair is truly brutal. That day, he goes up to the roof to be alone and falls, breaking his leg. Now, Dylan is sent to a group for teenager who self harm, where he meets Jamie, a transgender young woman. The two fall into a love story that breaks stereotypes and has you cheering for everyone (and ourselves) who are cast out of or misunderstood by society.
The Reader by Traci Chee
In Traci Chee's world, books and reading are unheard of (cue all of our collective gasps — the horror!). After her parents are murdered by an assassin, Sefia and her aunt Nin run away into the forest. But now that Nin has been kidnapped, Sefia is on her own. As we book nerds know, though, you're never truly alone if you have a good book by your side, and Sefia learns that when she finds a strange rectangular object passed down to her: a book. Using the book, Sefia sets off on a journey to rescue her aunt and discover the truth about what happened to her parents on that fateful day. For a story about the almost magical power of books, Traci Chee certainly does the tale justice with her own book.
Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
First off: Girl in Pieces is not an easy read, but it's unflinchingly honest portrayal of self-harm is so important to bring the voices of those who suffer to light. 17-year-old Charlie is released early from a facility aimed at supporting young women who cause self-inflicted injury because (ugh, heavy sigh) her lack of health insurance. Now, she's thrust back into the cold world that sent her spiraling in the first place. Healing doesn't come easy in Kathleen Glasgow's raw story, but it doesn't in real life either, and it's never so dark that the story abandons hope.
My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier
My Sister Rosa is a nightmarish thriller that you probably shouldn't read home alone at night. We often think of dangerous people as outsiders, separate from ourselves, but 17-year-old Che Taylor knows that his younger sister Rosa is the biggest threat he knows. Rosa has been showing warning signs that she's a psychopath, but Che's parents don't believe his concerns. Now Che is trapped in the middle, trying to protect Rosa while trying to protect the world from her. Just trust me on this one, I have chills running up my back just thinking about Justine Larbalestier's suspenseful tale.
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
In the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk, legend has it that mythical creatures roam around the outskirts and jinni still practice their magic in secret. Pulling from all sort of cultural legends (Hindu, Arabian Nights, and even the Wild West), Alywn Hamilton weaves together the story of sharpshooter Amani, who is determined to break free of her small town and its culture of female oppression. Except, Amani never quite planned her escape would be as a fugitive running from the Sultan with a foreigner named Jin after dressing as a man and entering in a shooting competition. Romantic, fierce, and totally fun, we're already dying for Hamilton's sequel, coming next year.
And I Darken by Kiersten White
In Kiersten White's historical re-imagining, she tells the story of women forgotten by history. And I Darken is loosely based on the life of Vlad Dracul, aka, Vlad the Impaler, aka the man who became Count Dracula. (Yes, THAT Dracula.) However, in White's story, Dracul becomes Lada Dragula, a ruthless female leader of Wallachia. Princess are "supposed" to be ladylike and gentle, but let's just say Lada Dragula goes in her own direction, and it's so wonderfully dark.