YA Novels That Will Get You Through College
Young adult novels have a strange reputation in the world of academia as being books that are meant for kids, and not for us wise, old scholars. Surprisingly, though, 55% of young adult novels are actually purchased by adults, particularly adults between the ages of 33 and 44, according to a 2014 report. As a YA writer myself, I have faced a good amount of criticism from my peers in my graduate writing program who believe that anything called young adult could never be consider literary—but I’m here to tell you otherwise. One of the few things that separates a YA novel from an “adult” novel is that sense of immediacy that comes with writing about and through the voices of young people. So, even as we get older, we can still consistently relate to the experiences and insights often present in these awesome books.
Finding extra time to read during college can be a challenge, especially when Netflix exists, but if you ever find yourself wanting to read and not knowing what book to pick up, you may want to consider the ones on this list. These are all novels I read during college and graduate school that I thought helped me in some way to better understand myself and the “grown-up” I was becoming, as well as the kid I used to be.
Dreamland by Sarah Dessen
This novel by Sarah Dessen, published first in 2000, tells the story of Caitlin and her tumultuous relationship with the eccentric Rogerson, which ultimately becomes violent and destructive. It’s such an important read for women, no matter what age they may be. It really highlights the darker side of relationships that often get ignored in many other novels that favor their Prince Charmings and happy endings. When I read this book, I was in college, surrounded by other young women who were desperate to fall in love, no matter what that might mean or what shape that love might take, and it really offered me a new perspective on dating and forgiveness.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
This one runs par with Dreamland in its darkness, but sometimes it’s the books that hit home the hardest that ultimately teach us the most. This novel follows Clay Jensen as he listens to a series of tapes left on his doorstep, recorded by a girl who has just taken her own life. The tapes outline the thirteen reasons why she chose to end her life, and we follow Clay as the mystery unravels, and as he learns about the tidal waves that the tiny butterfly wings of small aches can produce. This one came to me at a time that I really needed it—it served as a reminder that there are never enough reasons to give up, and also that every single person we meet on a daily basis is fighting their own battles we might never know about. There will soon be a Netflix series based on this book starring Selena Gomez.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Told through dueling narratives in different years, two fraternal twins tell the story of how they lost and found each other, as well as themselves, following the death of their mother. This book is a truly amazing piece of literature, and I found myself completely wrapped up in it as I read it for hours at a time. The prose is gorgeous, the characters are one of a kind, and the story unfolds at a beautiful pace. This book came to me during graduate school, and I spent a week during break in a tiny cabin on a mountain in southern California, immersed in it while I composed my own work. Maybe you won’t have a tiny cabin on a mountain to read it in, but any old couch or bus bench will do.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
If you’ve never heard of this one, I’ll take a leap and assume you’ve been living on Mars for the last few years. In 2014, this book was adapted into a feature film, and has since blown up exponentially. The story, though, remains as beautiful and as important as it was when the book first came out in 2012. Our narrator, Hazel, has terminal cancer when she meets Augustus, and the relationship they develop and lessons they learn about life, death, and love are beautifully written and wonderfully complicated. If you are one of the few people who hasn’t read this book, take the time to do so. I read this just before graduating college, a time when a lot of twenty-somethings start to feel a little anxious about the future, and it helped me realize just how lucky I really was to have so much left ahead of me.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This novel was very popular following its initial release back in 1999, and was even adapted into a made-for-television movie starring Kirsten Stewart in 2004. It is the haunting story of high school freshman Melinda, alienated by her peers after an incident at a party at the start of the school year. This book is particularly important in that it breaches the tough subject of rape and consent, and at its time it was pretty revolutionary and progressive in its approach. As a young woman, I felt this book was a vital part of my college career, and I’m certain it has been that for other young women, too.
There’s something really incredible and magical about a book that allows and enables us to completely leave the world we’re in and go somewhere else for a short while. Good books, like these ones, can heal, teach, and forge connections where we might otherwise feel completely alone. Don’t let the “young adult” label fool you—the YA genre is brimming with beautifully written literature just waiting to take us someplace new.
There are a hundred more incredible young adult novels that I could add to this list, and narrowing it down to these four was difficult to say the least. Some honorable mentions were Just Listen and Saint Anything, both by Sarah Dessen, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Looking For Alaska by John Green, The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan, and The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma.