We talk a lot about The Great American Novel — the novels that are considered "the voice of a generation." Basically, these books are not only considered emblematic of the culture at the particular time they were published, but are celebrated as works of the highest literary merit. But there is a lot of controversy surrounding the idea of The Great American Novel, too. Many, including the late great fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin, have called out the fact that most of these "great" novels are written by white men, and that people are so quick to offer the moniker to male writers who need to be "reflected at twice their natural size."
And it's not only women who are constantly left out of The Great American Novel conversation — it's genres, too. Have you ever heard anything but a highbrow literary fiction be given the illusive title of "great?" I didn't think so. But if we're following the actual definition of what it means to be a Great American Novel — a well-written book that perfectly reflects the culture of its time — then why can't a YA book be considered one of these all-important books? Below are 11 YA novels that could definitely be counted among the greatest, and most influential, books of their time.
'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give follows 16-year-old Starr Carter after the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Going behind the headlines and giving voice to the real experiences of people who have dealt with police brutality, THUG offers a powerful look at the lives of families in poor neighborhoods, the experience of teaching those you love about racism, and the ultimate fight for justice.
'Speak' by Laurie Halse Andersen
Speak was considered a groundbreaking novel of sexual assault when it was published in 1999, and it's continued relevancy today only makes its status as a Great American Novel stronger. Melinda was raped by an upperclassman at a summer party. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication. This book continues to be a crucial teen read, 20 years later.
'Love, Hate and Other Filters' by Samira Ahmed
Love, Hate and Other Filters is a searing coming-of-age story that sees Indian-American teen Maya Aziz confronting of Islamophobia in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Detailing the harsh realities of living as a Muslim in America today, while grappling with every day teen concerns like college, new romance and career dreams, this book perfectly captures one of the most crucial American experiences of our modern era.
'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been a mainstay on YA lists since it was first published in 1999. It follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Beloved for its accurate representation not only of teen life in the 90s but of grief, LGBT issues, and mental illness, this book has continued to speak to modern teens.
'Moxie' by Jennifer Mathieu
Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. So Viv creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. Pretty soon Viv realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution. Exploring the realities of patriarchal structures, sexist microagressions, and the failures of white feminism, Moxie is the "girl power" book for a generation.
'All American Boys' by Brandon Kiely and Jason Reynolds
All-American Boys is arguably one of the definitive modern narratives of police brutality. Following the dual perspectives of Rashad — a black teen boy wrongly accused of theft and beaten by a police officer — and Quinn — the white teen boy who witnessed the brutality at the hands of a cop he considers family — this book captures what is at stake for everyone in this fight, All American Boys offers both realism and hope in the face of our current civil rights struggles.
'Far From The Tree' by Robin Benway
Far From the Tree captures the realities of both adoption and the foster care system — two voices that have become increasingly crucial as the debate over women's reproductive health and adoption advocacy. Following three siblings as they reconnect after being given up for adoption by their mother, Benway's book delves into the mental and emotional hardships of adoption, along with the triumphs of family... both those we are born into and those we create.
'The House On Mango Street' by Sandra Cisneros
This classic take on the Latino experience in the U.S., The House on Mango Street follows Esperanza Cordero through a series of vignettes that capture life in a poor Chicago neighborhood, growing up Latino in America, the realities of womanhood, sexual assault, and building a better life for yourself while staying true to your roots. This relatable tale is as crucial now as it was in 1984.
'More Happy Than Not' by Adam Silvera
Though More Happy Than Not is speculative fiction, it so perfectly encapsulates our modern relationship with technology, mental health care, LGBT rights, and more, that it would not be out of place on any Great American Novel lists. Silvera confronts current issues surrounding race, class, and sexuality during one charged near-future summer in the Bronx, that feels so true-to-life the characters jump off the page.
'Aristotle And Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe' by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Filled with the sort of atmospheric and literary writing that fans of The Great American novel love, while also dealing with a modern issues like PTSD, incarceration, the realities of Latino lives in America, and LGBT issues. This beautiful book has been a YA mainstay since its publication in 2012, and it has only grown more necessary since.
'American Street' by Ibi Zoboi
This modern examination of the American Dream follows Fabiola Toussaint on her journey from Haiti to the U.S. After her mother is detained by U.S. immigration, Fabiola is left to navigate her loud American cousins, the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a strange new world all on her own. When a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. American Street takes a look at what it really means, and what is really costs, to make it in America today.