Top Ten Literary YA Reads by Beth Shaum

Many of us who read YA literature with regularity know what a wealth of great authors are out there writing today. So a rash of recent articles calling for us to only read Classics or proclaiming some books are more equal than others really bothered many of us who are fighting to show everyone what merit YA literature has in the 21st century. Thus this post was born.


So let’s start first with defining what “literary” means. While I like dictionary definitions, I have my own definition of the word and that is a book or piece of writing that can generate a prolific, educated discussion, removed from shallow statements like, “Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob?”


Now I feel that this list is almost arbitrary. I wrote it more to prove a point and generate discussion than to come up with THE ULTIMATE list of 10 literary YA books. So with that in mind, when you’re done reading this list, share with me your favorite literary YA reads.


In the meantime, here are my Top Ten Literary YA Reads:


1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


Despite some criticisms that TFiOS is not an accurate portrayal of how teenagers actually talk and behave, this is one of the most moving pieces of YA lit ever written. And John Green has never been one to pander to popular culture so I don’t think he was going for “typical” anyway. He writes books for people who think critically and thoughtfully. Oh and let’s not forget that the title of this book is an allusion to the great work of Shakespeare, Julius Caesar:


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.



2. This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel


In this prequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, readers can see how Victor Frankenstein’s tragic downfall began at an early age. Want to teach teens about tragic heroes? How about allowing them to read about one their own age? Perhaps it might even be the impetus for them to pick up a classic text like Frankenstein and read it on their own.



3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


When I first read this book, I had to sit with it for a while to really appreciate how truly special it was. But to have Death as a narrator? I bet a lot of authors who write for adults are kicking themselves for not coming up with something so ingenious and “literary.”



4. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson


While many people would have probably chosen Speak for this list, I decided to choose a lesser-known LHA title instead. Wintergirls is much more haunting and poetic in its writing style than Speak and even though it’s been three years since I read this book, the main character of Lia still haunts me.



5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray


I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I love it because it is so full of the humor and wit we are used to seeing from Libba Bray. At the same time, it felt so over-saturated with literary elements that I often found myself forgetting to sit back and comprehend the story. Still, the characters were memorable (a yard gnome who thinks he’s a Norse god? Hilarious!) and I loved that there were lessons to be learned amongst the humor.



6. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray


Most of you would probably assume, as did I, that Beauty Queens is a light, humorous romp on a desert island with ditzy blondes in bikinis. And it is. At first. But the more you read, you begin to realize that this book is also a political statement, an imploring for the reader to question the gender roles and stereotypes we’ve become accustomed to in our society. It has quite the subversive message and yet somehow, Bray manages to do all this with her trademark wit and humor.



7. Liar by Justine Larbalestier


Upon first reading, I would never have labeled this book as literary. But the more I think back on it, there was so much going on that still leaves me with questions and I can imagine the discussions it could generate among teens. In the book, the main character Micah is a compulsive liar with a secret. The secret, you discover in the middle of the story, is so far-fetched and crazy that you wonder: is she a liar because she has to protect her secret or is her secret just part of her lying game? You want to talk to students about the idea of unreliable narrators? Here you go.



8. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly


There are so many beautiful layers and corners to explore in this book that one could not possibly begin to cover them all. People who don’t like historical fiction are at first turned off from the fact that this book deals with the French Revolution, but it is not purely historical fiction; it is actually more a contemporary story since the main character lives in modern times. And the way Donnelly writes of music, both classical and contemporary, with such fluidly and authority, you would swear she moonlights as a music critic.


9. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King


When you’re first introduced to the main character of Vera, you make a judgment about her: that she doesn’t care about school and that she’s turning into an alcoholic. This judgment begins to fall apart once you continue reading and realize that despite working a full-time job, she gets straight A’s in school, enjoys doing her homework, and is only drinking to numb the pain from her best friend’s death. I envisioned lots of thoughtful classroom discussion while reading this book.



10. Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Since the popularity of The Hunger Games, the dystopian genre has been so over-saturated that, when this book first came out, I almost dismissed as just another author trying to cash in on a trend. However, what sets Delirium apart and also makes it “literary” is in the beauty of Oliver’s simple yet lyrical prose. Even further to Oliver’s credit is her ability to subtly weave a developing and evolving protagonist through a suspenseful, page-turning plot. And the idea that love is a disease? That’s certainly not going to generate classroom discussion. 😉

Okay… time to discuss. Do you agree with this list? What titles would you have liked to see on here instead?


Beth Shaum teaches middle school English and literature in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. Her students straddle the line between middle grade and young adult literature in their maturity so she is always on the lookout for appropriate YA reads for her classroom.  Follow her on Twitter: @FoodieBooklvr or read her blog: A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust