Young adult literature (or YAL) has increasingly become a well-respected genre far beyond its target demographic, finding its way onto bestseller lists and becoming adapted into popular feature films.
In the past decade, dystopian YAL novels in the vein of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” found a huge following with stories that threw young adults into future worlds haunted by today’s societal fears. We saw a transition in the YAL scene last year, however, as many of the most popular novels were either based in reality or represented the everyday difficulties of their teen audience.
Here’s a quick look at some of the most notable YAL novels of 2016:
Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys
Set amid one of history’s most tragic maritime disasters, Sepetys’ story centers on four teenagers whose lives converge as they attempt to escape a variety of evils aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship sunk by a Russian submarine in January 1945, killing more than 9,000 people.
Sepetys creates vibrant characters whom young readers can easily invest in at an emotional level, and conveys history in a way that doesn’t feel research heavy. The book is fast-paced, as Sepetys creates tension and weaves her story in a way that fosters engagement and interest from beginning to end.
The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner
Zentner tells the story of three outcast teens — Dill, Lydia and Travis — who recount the story from their individual viewpoints throughout the novel. Dill lives in the shadow of a horrendous crime his father, a Pentecostal minister, committed. He’s in love with Lydia, a fashion blogger who can’t wait to leave their small town. Travis, who lives and breathes a world created by his favorite sci-fi author, completes the trio.
The teens enter their senior year each facing different issues. They are outcasts from their peers who together find solace as they confront new challenges. Readers will love the characterization created by Zentner and the representation of small-town life in the South.
The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon
Natasha and Daniel meet on a New York City street and share an instant connection. Natasha and her family are 12 hours from being deported to Jamaica, while Daniel is the archetypical good son: He does what his parents ask and achieves good grades.
Told from alternating points of view, Yoon writes a love story that feels genuine rather than clichéd as she draws the characters together throughout a single day in NYC.
The Star-Touched Queen – Roshani Chokshi
Chokshi’s book follows Maya, the daughter of a Raja, whose horoscope predicts a marriage of death and destruction. Her father ultimately makes her a match, a marriage designed to stem political problems.
Maya adapts well to the role of queen, both as a leader for her kingdom and in her newfound relationship with her husband. However, her kingdom has its own mysteries, and Maya must dig to the root of them to save her life and protect those she cares most about. Readers will love the strong female representation, the beautiful language and rich imagery created by Chokshi.
Holding up the Universe – Jennifer Niven
Niven weaves a story of an unlikely partnering: Libby, an obese teen healing from her mother’s death, and Jack, a well-liked boy who can fit in anywhere but who has secretly started to struggle to recognize the faces of those around him.
The two teens end up paired together through community service, a situation that initially angers them but ultimately leads them to find confidence in each other. Readers enjoyed the love story created by Niven and the rich character development.
A new phase in YAL
Last year marked a welcome change of tone in young adult literature, which had become dominated by dark, imaginary worlds in the past few years. By contrast, many of the most popular books of 2016 were rooted in reality with stories that mimic the troubles of teens living today.
The YAL novels of 2016 deliver hope rather than destitution, allowing teens to see themselves in the characters and recognize the struggles they face — and overcome — are similar to their own.
Caitrin Blake has a B.A. in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.