YA Gateway Books: A Primer

"Wait, does it have sparkly vampires in it? Because no."

"Uh, you know we're not in high school anymore, right?"

"Sorry, but I only read real literature."

As a person who preaches the gospel of YA on a daily basis, I've grown accustomed to these types of responses, which are usually accompanied by looks of disdain. I've come to expect the eye rolls and the mockery and even the occasional query about whether or not I'm a total perv. Even with the recent success of The Hunger Games, many people still refuse to believe that books written for teens have any literary merit. But I continue to fight the good fight, because I know the truth, and here it is: YA is awesome, you guys.

Like any good addict, I'm always trying to get other people hooked so we can spend all of our time either doing YA or talking about YA. And the best way to lure people into this world is, of course, with gateway books. In order to exploit people's literary vulnerabilities, I've compiled a list based on common adult preferences. The following novels are so effective, I feel the need to include a Surgeon General type warning.

These books may cause extreme excitement and literary satisfaction. The substance of these books is known to be insanely addictive and may lead to loss of focus, time and the ability to do anything else besides read YA literature.

'The Chaos Walking' Trilogy by Patrick Ness

For sci-fan fans who think the violence in the The Hunger Games was mere child's play.

Set on a distant planet colonized by humans, this trilogy follows the journey of Todd Hewitt, the last boy to be born before all of the women died and men began hearing each other's thoughts, known as "The Noise." Most of the colonists blame the Spackle, the alien species they drove to extinction, for The Noise, and the only person who seems to have the cure is Mayor Prentiss, one of the most deliciously written villains in the young adult genre. After Todd catches wind of the Mayor's sinister plans for him, he escapes along with his dog, Manchee, and the journey that follows is terrifying, brutal and emotionally riveting. Patrick Ness not only writes in a unique and compelling style, he also seems bent on ripping your heart out and then stomping on it repeatedly. Bonus: The first book in the trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is being made into a film with a script adapted by none other than Charlie Kaufman.


'The Fault In Our Stars' by John Green

For readers who prefer modern novels of the slightly quirky variety

John Green is a superstar of the YA world, and for good reason. He writes authentic teens surrounded by ordinary circumstances who somehow become extraordinary, and his wit is rife with charm and whimsicality. This book, his latest, is initially a tough sell, because it's about a girl with cancer. (So if you know anyone in need of a good weaning from Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult, this novel is an especially great choice.) But rest assured, this is not your typical Wind Beneath My Wings tear-jerker, although tears will definitely be shed. The story of Hazel Grace Lancaster is a breathtaking mix of cancer's cruel normality and life's warped sense of humor; it's a tale of bad reality TV and meetings in the Literal Heart of Jesus and Max Mayhem crusades and a trip to Amsterdam and an amazing boy named Augustus Waters. One of my favorite things about the young adult genre is that its writers aren't afraid to take risks, and this gem of a book is one of the most liberating examples I've ever encountered.


'Divergent' by Veronica Roth

For people who still have a Buffy-sized badass heroine hole in their hearts.

Sure, Katniss Everdeen is a tough gal, but if she ever had to rumble with Beatrice Prior, I'd put all of my money on Beatrice. An unlikely heroine, Beatrice has grown up in the selfless, charitable faction of Roth's dystopian version of the United States, where people are put into one of five communities based on their natural abilities. When Beatrice is tested to determine which faction she should choose after her 16th birthday, she discovers that she's equally matched in two areas, including Dauntless, the clan of warriors. Leaving everything behind, she pursues a cutthroat life of weapons training, fighting and basically trying to stay alive, but her greatest challenge comes when she uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to take down the entire society. Honestly, this book should come with a free oxygen bag, because you'll forget to breathe as you race through every action-packed page. Inventive and incredibly intense, Divergent is the first in a trilogy that promises to leave no nail unbitten and no hair unpulled.


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

For readers who like to keep it real... but still escape reality.

The key to quality young adult literature is honesty, and A.S. King has it in spades. She's hilariously honest and achingly honest and terrifyingly honest; she's 31 flavors of honest, is what I'm staying. She's a beautifully frank writer, and in this story of Vera Dietz, a pizza delivery girl in a love/hate relationship with the ghost of her dead best friend, King crafts a deeply moving portrait of adolescence and the pain and exhilaration that comes with it, both for the teenager and for the parent. Vera's dad is layered, complex and utterly lovable, and his flow charts could probably solve world hunger. Even the town pagoda has advice to share, although as we all discovered as teenagers, sometimes it's better not to know everything. This is the kind of novel that wraps around your mind and refuses to let go, which is good, because you won't want to let it go either.


'Before I Fall' by Lauren Oliver

For fans of Mean Girls and Groundhog Day.

Oliver manages to take a tired premise-- What if you had to relive the same day, over and over?-- and make it fresh (not to mention utterly devastating) by focusing on the life of a high school queen bee. Sam Kingston is, pardon my French, a total bitch, and yet, after possibly dying in a car crash and endlessly reliving the day leading up the accident, she unravels into someone with whom we can all identify, whether you were a cheerleader, drama nerd or band geek. Thanks to Oliver's beautiful prose and nuanced characters, this pivotal day in Sam's life is a gut-wrenching exploration of the crushing politics of high school, the human need for acceptance and the power to choose our identity. What could have been the plot for a bad Lifetime movie is, instead, a gorgeously haunting book that will resonate with your soul for weeks after the final sentence is read.


Sarah Pitre

Column by Sarah Pitre

Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse and coordinates events at The Highball, a playground for adults. Tired of feeling like a creepy old lady in the bookstore YA section, she created Forever Young Adult to provide grown-ups with a community where they can gush about young adult literature without shame. In addition to crushing on fictional teenage boys, Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and macaroni and cheese.

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Ward Richardson's picture
Ward Richardson May 11, 2012 - 8:01am

Also, The Takers by R.W. Ridley. If you haven't heard of him, you're missing some stellar storytelling. Post apocalyptic YA.

Korey's picture
Korey May 11, 2012 - 9:03am

Yes! Someone else who loves YA books. I don’t know why they get such bad rap. People are just misinformed. Most of the time books end up in YA because of the age of the protagonist. I liked what Maurice Sendak said about writing and genre in his interview with Stephen Colbert. “I write. It’s someone else that says, That’s for kids!” I agree. Who cares what genre a marketing team applies to a book? What matters is the story and how it affects you. I feel comics get the same treatment as YA. “Aren’t those for kids?” Who do they think writes these books, other kids?  I picked up the first Chaos Walking book and the Fault In Our Stars. I can’t wait to read them. If you haven’t read Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger you should check it out. It’s one of my favorite books from any genre.

Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce May 11, 2012 - 9:21am

'The Chaos Walking' Trilogy by Patrick Ness was VERY good. I personally enjoyed it a lot.

Before I Fall was one of the most stagnant pieces of crap I've ever read. Didn't even finish it. After fifty pages, I stopped because the protagonist was so self absorbed and evil. Not even fun evil like Patrick Bateman. Just a nasty bitch. whose thoughts annoyed me.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 11, 2012 - 11:01am

Great recommendations. I'm going to check a few of these out. Thanks!



Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 May 11, 2012 - 6:45pm

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" - Stephen Chbosky

Read it before they put the movie out.

Stephanie Bonjack's picture
Stephanie Bonjack from Boulder, CO is reading Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith May 12, 2012 - 10:06pm

And let's not forget the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. I never wanted those books to end.

Thanks for this post - it's nice to see I'm not the only one who enjoys YA lit!

poshdeluxe's picture
poshdeluxe May 23, 2012 - 2:35pm

@Typewriter Demigod: The heroine of Before I Fall is definitely a total bitch, but that's what makes the book so amazing. As a reader, we start out hating her and then, by the end, we realize that, whoah, we totally get her now. It's a story of redemption, through and through.

@Korey Kelso: Let me know what you think about Chaos Walking!!

Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce May 24, 2012 - 5:44am

eh, she was too much of a bitch, and not even a fun bitch. That's the problem with having an antihero or heroine as proganonist: if they are too evil or annoying in the beggining, the reader will leave, just like I did.


@Wayne YES!

Dave Gnarlos Angel's picture
Dave Gnarlos Angel May 27, 2012 - 8:58pm

Is the golden gate in the picture from Versailles?

ginasanders's picture
ginasanders March 20, 2018 - 2:59am

I usually read books on something like Instagram marketing trends, but I've recently discovered The fault in our stars. It was the beginning of my YA obsession! Thanks for this list