It has been an absolute break-out year for young adult literature. With movies like The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, and Mockingjay: Part I practically breaking the box office, and loads and loads of think pieces about adults reading YA fiction, young adult has broken into the mainstream conversation. Hey, you haven’t made it until the haters are tearing you down, right? Subsequently, it was a great year to be a young adult author — but it was an even more amazing year to be a young adult reader, because those authors were up to the challenge.
There were so many amazing YA fiction novels out in 2014 that it was a major challenge to choose only 25 to name. To do so, I eliminated some great choices from deserving authors. Notably, I didn’t include any middle grade books because the nomination possibilities almost became endless. But I would be remiss not to shout out two of my favorite MG books of 2014. The first, of course, is Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful, and National Book Award For Young People’s Literature-winning, book Brown Girl Dreaming. The second is the creator of the Baby-sitters Club Ann M. Martin’s dazzling Rain Reign, about a young girl on the autistic spectrum who goes looking for her beloved dog in a hurricane.
The top 25 best books of 2014 are presented in no particular order, except for my No. 1 book of the year, which is celebrated at the end.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Juvenile)
You don’t have to have read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to enjoy Meg Wolitzer’s YA debut, Belzhar — though I’d recommend it — which is a sort of homage to the classic work. (Sound it out: Bel-Zhar… Bell Jar?) It’s a highly original and beautiful story all on its own. Teenager Jam Gallahue wants to be at home in New Jersey with her boyfriend, but she’s not — and that’s because she’s a a therapeutic boarding school and her boyfriend is dead. Wolitzer’s novel is part romance, part supernatural, part tragedy, part mystery, and entirely a love letter to reading and writing’s power to heal.
Panic by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins)
All YA fans know that Lauren Oliver is no slouch when it comes to telling a killer story, and Panic met and exceeded any expectations. The standalone novel made a small town, called Carp, come alive as she told the story of high school seniors’ game of Panic. Though Panic has the unease and thrills of the best dystopian fiction on the shelves, it’s very much set in our realistic present day, as it questions issues of poverty, fears, and the demons that haunt us through generations.
Conversion by Katherine Howe (Putnam Juvenile)
It’s clear reading Conversion that Katherine Howe not only has deep knowledge and insight about the Salem Witch Trials, but also a deep passion. It’s this love and respect for the subject matter that enhances the novel from good to great. Though the story is based on two real-life Massachusetts events — one historical and one contemporary — it never feels as if you’re reading history. Conversion is alive, present, and resonant on every page. Inter-cut with diaries from the Salem Witch Trials, the story centers on a high school that has become afflicted with a type of hysteria.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Dutton Juvenile)
Though it was Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles that earned him a National Book Award nom, I was partial to Smith’s eccentric Grasshopper Jungle. Though it’s a very LGBTQ-friendly novel in an industry when we still are looking for diverse books, to simply stick on that label and move on would be a huge mistake. Reading Grasshopper Jungle is a wild ride alongside 16-year-old Austin Szerba as he tries to save humanity from extinction by giant preying mantises — but meanwhile, it’s one of the most realistic (yes, realistic) looks inside the mind of an adolescent boy as he struggles with his confusing hormones.
The Walled City by Ryan Graudin (Little, Brown Books For Young Readers)
Reading The Walled City, you feel just as trapped as the characters inside the walls as you’re turning the pages, which makes for an uneasy but completely enjoyable experience. Ryan Graudin has said that the novel’s city Hak Nam is based on the real (but now demolished) Kowloon Walled City in China. Like Kowloon, Hak Nam is a lawless, impoverished, labyrinthine city notorious for drugs and prostitution. That’s why Mei Yee is there — she was sold by her family into a brothel run by drug lords. And her sister Jin has followed her, dressing as a boy to escape the brothels, and determined to bring her Mei Yee to safety. Then there’s Dai who is running out of days to complete his task in Hak Nam and save his own life. Their stories intertwine, twist, and turn, and while they do, you won’t be able to pull your eyes from the pages.
Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic)
The highly anticipated third installment of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle series did not disappoint even the most rabid fans — and believe me, Stiefvater has earned some seriously devoted fans. The entire series has been a thrill ride, but Blue Lily, Lily Blue ups the ante so sometimes you’ll find yourself reading white-knuckled. But perhaps even more impressive is Stiefvater’s ability to make us readers care so desperately for the characters that as they grow and mature, we can’t help but feel emotional.
Six Feet Over It by Jennifer Longo (Random House Books For Young Readers)
You may think that a novel set in a cemetery would be depressing, but as we learn from Six Feet Over It’s protagonist Leigh, it’s really just part of the everyday. After Leigh’s father impulsively buys a graveyard, Leigh is stuck selling gravestones to the bereaved, and she chews on Junior Mints compulsively as they sit across from her in tears. Suddenly, readers (and I hope it wasn’t just me) are laughing at a family’s recent loss. But believe me, there will be tears, too, as Longo deftly weaves in cultural depictions of death, family drama, and the pain of losing a best friend into this darkly funny novel.
Cress by Marissa Meyer (Feiwel & Friends)
It’s hard not to fall in love with The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. From Cinder, to Scarlet, and now to Cress (and soon to be Fairest and Winter), Meyer has taken our favorite fairy tales — often best known for their Disney-fied versions — and somehow made them even more awesome. Cress, as far as I’m concerned, proves that the third time is a charm because it is the best of the bunch, telling the stories of three badass women heroes and the men that follow them. The characters are diverse, complex, interesting and show that there’s way more to the story than what our friend Walt put in animation. Cress is Meyer’s version of Rapunzel, but she’s no damsel in distress in a castle; now she’s a hacker on a satellite that risks her life to protect Cinder and push this series to what will surely be its thrilling conclusion.
The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
It’s hard not to want to sound your barbaric yawp after reading The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. If you think poets can’t be vigilantes than you don’t know Bob Dylan, Ezra Pound, or Ethan Andrezejczak and his friends — the titular poets and high school juniors at a Minnesota arts school. Their school has been overtaken by a reality show crew aiming to film the best and brightest art students, and Ethan thinks the whole thing is an exercise in corruption. The students’ epic poem calling out the reality show goes viral, but then one of the poets decides to become a contestant on the show. Now it’s up to Ethan to save the school. It’s a vibrant, passionate story that, yes, is about poetry, but also the poetry present in true friendship.
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (Candlewick Press)
It’s incredibly difficult to walk the line between compassionate and saccharine, or unabashed realism and exploitation, but Gail Giles does it in Girls Like Us, the story of two special education teenagers hurtling toward adulthood. Quincy and Biddy are matched by their teacher after they graduate their high school’s special ed program and are sent out into the world to find jobs and fend for themselves. Both young women have experienced serious trauma in their lives, and they find understanding in each other even as the world seems to shut them out with prejudice. And yet, even in this tough world, Giles finds the humor and heart and never falters and trips into caricature.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (First Second)
If you’re not a graphic novel reader, This One Summer is a great place to jump into the medium. And if you are a graphic novel reader, you have no excuses to not pick up Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s stunning work. Told during one summer on the precipice of adulthood, the novel perfectly captures that awkward stumble into crushes on boys, watching R-rated movies, arguing with parents, and other signals that, yes, you’re finally a teenager and not a child anymore. And let’s talk about the illustrations: To put it simply, they are gorgeous, and they so perfectly match the setting that you feel like a part of the family’s summer vacation.
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey (Putnam Juvenile)
Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave was a breakout hit of 2013, and all eyes were on him to match the magic with its sequel. Luckily for both him and us readers, he exceeded expectations with The Infinite Sea. If you were looking for a break from the heart-pounding action, you’re reading the wrong series, because the sequel doesn’t let up its white-knuckle grip on readers. The action is non-stop, the pacing is lightning fast, and the depictions of survival are grueling. If you haven’t begun the series yet, do yourself a favor and pick up both books before the third is released.
The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu (Roaring Brook Press)
Make no mistake: The Truth About Alice is a brutal story. But it’s one that has become so commonplace in our society that we need this brutality to shake us. Jennifer Mathieu’s protagonist is cruelly bullied and essentially excommunicated from her high school by her peers and, yes, even her teachers. It all started when rumors circulated that she had had sex with one of the most popular boys in school, and its star athlete. But it really got horrific when people started spreading that she had texted him, and that’s why his car crashed, killing him. The Truth About Alice is told from several perspectives: the bullies, the former friends, boys, girls, and finally the victim herself. And, hopefully, you’ll never think of “harmless” teasing the same way again.
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (HarperTeen)
Too often novels about people with disabilities or disease become novels about those conditions and not about people. Cammie McGovern doesn’t fall into this trap in Say What You Will. In her story about a 17-year-old woman with cerebral palsy and a teenage boy with crippling OCD, she manages to be honest and not condescending. This way, instead of becoming about the “other,” this disease, her story becomes about the resilience of human character and the heartrending ache of first love amid obstacles of any kind.
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking Juvenile)
I was convinced Laurie Halse Anderson was a shoo-in for the shortlist of the National Book Award this year, so she certainly deserves a spot on the list of the best YA books of the year for The Impossible Knife of Memory. Anderson isn’t afraid to broach controversial and difficult subject matter (Speak is essentially a textbook example of an incredible story about rape survivors), and this time she turns her attention to the Iraq War and its effects on returning soldiers. She gives voice to those suffering with PTSD — an issue so, so relevant in today’s society, and to the author herself. Like the character in the story, Anderson’s own father suffered from post-traumatic stress, and perhaps that’s how she’s able to tell such a skilled and eloquent story about the reverberations of war through family.
Noggin by John Corey Whaley (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
Anderson’s competition in the National Book Award field, John Corey Whaley’s Noggin, could not have a more different plot description. And yet, Noggin is just as stunningly relevant, despite its outlandishness. Just before passing away of cancer, Travis Coates decides to have his cryogenically frozen Ted Williams-style. After five years, medical advancements allow his head to be reattached to a new body, and he is once again alive. (You’re not believing my relevancy claim right now, are you?) Amid Whaley’s madcap tale is an emotionally poignant meditation on identity, life, and death.
The Young Elites by Marie Lu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)
Anyone that has read Legend knows that Marie Lu knows her way around a thrilling story. With The Young Elites, the beginning of a new series, Lu may have even outdone herself. A deadly plague has torn through the nation, and now the children of those that died have been marked with scars. Though the rumors are that they may also have been marked with some magical gifts, and these Young Elites are being hunted. Lu’s new series isn’t just a romance, a coming-of-age story, a fantasy, or a historical tale — it’s a little bit of everything, and you’ll have a hard time putting it down.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King (Little, Brown Books For Young Readers)
Put Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future on your running feminist book list. One night, Glory receives the power to see anyone’s infinite past and futures, and what she sees in the future is troubling, to say the least. A second civil war breaks out between men and women in the U.S. after young girls disappear into interment camps and women’s rights all but vanish. Glory takes detailed notes of everything she sees, hoping to be able to avoid the inevitable. Though Printz Honor winner A.S. King tells this story via magical realism, it all feels terrifyingly real.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (Candlewick Press)
It’s kind of hard to believe that this mythical novel is Leslye Walton’s debut. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a multi-generational epic about a family cursed in love. Ava is a completely normal young woman, except that she was born with bird wings. Because of this the pious Nathaniel Sorrows thinks she is an angel (literally) and becomes obsessed with her. The entire story feels like a modern myth; its poetic and beautiful prose will stick with you for long after you close the final page.
The Perfectionists by Sara Shepard (HarperCollins)
Sara Shepard’s completely engrossing novels are like candy — though probably a bit more tart than sweet. Once you open them up, you absolutely cannot stop reading. The Perfectionists managed to take some of the spotlight off of the finale of Pretty Little Liars (no small feat!) and open up an entirely new world to get lost in. The Perfectionists — a murder mystery revenge story — is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word, and it’s another necessary entry into female friendship literature.
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook Press)
The idea for Marcus Sedgwick’s She Is Not Invisible came from a rather spooky coincidence. Because that particular real-life coincidence makes its way into the fictional novel, I won’t spoil it, but it sparks a character’s ongoing obsession with coincidences, so much so that he writes his own book about it. It’s a book within a book. And when the coincidence-hooked character vanishes, his two children and one of their stuffed ravens take off after him from London to New York. The only small hiccup is that Laureth, the older one, is blind, and she’s being lead around by her younger brother. In such few pages, Sedgwick manages to tell an epic tale about fate, coincidence, and self-confidence.
Like No Other by Una LaMarche (Razorbill)
After books like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park (and hey, maybe back since Romeo & Juliet) the market was flooded with obstacle-facing first-love stories, which meant it took a real standout to make any waves. Una LaMarche’s Like No Other is that standout. Jax and Devorah’s Brooklyn-based romance is forbidden because the latter is from a devout Hasidic upbringing and the former is black. The high stakes in their relationship makes this not just a romantic and passionate story, but a gripping one. You’ll be rooting for Jax and Devorah the whole way through.
The Tyrant’s Daughter by J.C. Carleson (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
J.C. Carleston is a former CIA officer, so, yeah, she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to Middle Easten politics and culture. Which is why her novel The Tyrant’s Daughter, about a royal family from an unnamed Middle Eastern country whose patriarch is murdered in a coup and they are forced to flee to the D.C. suburbs feels so alive and real, and it never relies on well-trodden stereotypes. The novel takes front-page newspaper headlines and transforms them into deeply personal, human narratives about the toll unrest can wreak on a family.
I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson (Dial)
Jandy Nelson’s masterful I’ll Give You The Sun was such a revelation that it came within millimeters of stealing away the No. 1 spot of the year. It’s so unlike anything else published recently in YA, and its artistic prose is unparalleled. The novel is about life, love, fate, and art (all the big things!), but at its deepest heart, it’s about finding yourself within your family and the unbreakable power of a twin relationship. You’ll fall absolutely in love with Noah, who is coming to terms with his sexuality as he forms a crush on the new boy next door, and you’ll feel piercing compassion for Jude as she struggles her way through art school and finding her identity. And yes, undoubtedly tears will be shed.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Delacorte Press)
Well, I would if I could. After naming the YA novel the “It Book” of the year, getting stoked about a possible movie adaptation, and ranking it No. 1 for the first half of the year, I’ve said pretty much everything there is to say about how incredible I think this story is. But do yourself a huge favor and find out for yourself just what happened to the wealthy Sinclair family that one summer on their private island, and why it has haunted teenager Cady for years.