The Gifts that Keep on Giving: My “Go To” YA Books

yabooks6In her Dead Darlings post of July 8, 2014 Why Adults Should Read YA, Emily Ross makes a compelling case for why YA books are not just for kids. I happen to agree. I read a lot of YA books. I could argue that I read them because I’m writing one. But I could also argue that I’m writing one because I read them. When I was growing up I read many of the classic YA’s of the time: Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret, Mom, the Wolfman and Me, Catcher in the Rye, Apples Every Day, to name a few. But back then YA pickings were slim. It was when I started reading books to my own kids that I began to appreciate the volume, the incredible variety and the complexity of the genre. As I’ve been writing my YA novel, I’ve collected a pile of “go to” books for examples of craft and inspiration. This list is by no means exhaustive – I can’t possibly keep up with the amount of great YA books out there — so I’d love to hear about others’ go to YA books. Here’s my list:

Harry Potter —
I must begin my list with Harry Potter. My husband and I read this series aloud to our children as they —  and JK Rowling’s series — grew. Whichever of us wasn’t reading listened attentively along with our two kids, not bearing to miss a single chapter of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s daring exploits. The books present near endless examples of riveting story telling, compelling and richly-drawn characters, magical world-building, metaphors about power, corruption, and racism, and strong female role models. How could you go wrong with Harry Potter as your bible? My love for and appreciation of this series may be what inspired me to try writing YA in the first place.
For voice, my go to book is the smartly-written How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. From the first pages, the 15-year old narrator Daisy crackles with attitude and acerbity as she negotiates her arrival to England from New York City to live with cousins she’s never met amidst the backdrop of war. But her tough exterior is no mask for her emotional yearning boiling just below the surface.




Raising the Stakes is de rigueur in YA action/adventure, so for lessons on throwing stones at my protagonist as she clings to a branch high in a tree, I turn to The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins turns the screws on poor Katniss Everdeen as the reader perches at the edge of her seat, awaiting the next bone-chilling turn. Collins does not disappoint.




Since my book takes place abroad, I eagerly consume YA books based in foreign lands. Endangered is a gripping account of 15-year old Sophie’s nightmarish trek from her mother’s bonobo sanctuary outside Kinshasa, where insurgent rebels have camped out after slaughtering the staff, to an island 400 miles up the Congo River, where her mother is releasing bonobos into the wild. Her journey is a veritable roller coaster of ups and downs as she navigates her way through a series of escalating dangers. Eliot Schrefer’s book presents a strong female character trying to survive a scary situation in a foreign country and is another great example of raising the stakes.


My go to author for complex mysteries and twisty plots in foreign lands is Diana Renn. In Tokyo Heist and Latitude Zero, which take place in Japan and Ecuador, respectively, smart teenager girls solve complicated cases involving stolen goods and murder amid tricky plot twists and deepening mysteries. Renn’s books provide great inspiration for complex story-telling and teenagers’ perceptions of cultural differences.




For family dynamics and teen relationships, my go to writer is Sarah Dessen, author of Just Listen, Along for the Ride, and several others. Her books present realistic situations in which teens are figuring out who they are, what they want, and how to get along in the world. As I develop my protagonist’s relationships with her mother and grandmother, I often turn to Sarah Dessen’s books.




So, for this holiday season, I encourage you to give one of these books to the YA writer in your life. And if you’re writing YA, I encourage you to turn to these books for help and inspiration.

Happy Holidays!


  1. SJP

    What a great list!

    Some other wonderful YAs that I turn to again and again, for my own writing inspiration and sheer pleasure-, include:

    “When You Reach Me,” Rebecca Stead’s winner about a young girl in 1970s Manhattan. Miranda’s voice bursts with personality. She navigates a time-twisting mystery while puzzling out her relationships with family and friends, in a heartwarming and winning way. There’s a fun nod to Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, one of my all-time favorites.

    “Belle Prater’s Boy,” by Ruth White. Again, the voice! It immerses you in a time and place that seems simple on the surface, but so much is happening underneath.

    Another example of episodic storytelling at its best is Richard Peck’s “A Year Down Yonder.” I just find that a compelling voice, full of humanity and wry humor, can rivet me as much as any complexity-laden plot or supernatural element. Maybe more so. I have learned a lot about voice from reading these three books.

    But oh my gosh, there are so many more excellent ones!

    Thanks again for the list!

  2. Yay for Harry Potter and The Hunger Games! I also enjoyed Kristin Cashore’s Fire and Graceling. Both are YA epic / historical fantasies with dynamic female protagonists learning to overcome very different wounded pasts. And right now I’m reading Alison Goodman’s Eon, a YA fantasy inspired by Chinese dragon mythology and spiritual energy. Very thoughtfully written, and more politically driven than action packed (not necessarily a bad thing), but good so far.

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