The best YA novels for adults

The Books I Picked & Why

Lullabies for Little Criminals

By Heather O'Neill

Book cover of Lullabies for Little Criminals

Why this book?

This would be a perfect choice for a mother-daughter or father-daughter book club. The twelve-year-old protagonist, Baby, will slip under your skin with an astonishing intensity. The odds are against her. She has no mother, a heroin-addicted father, and spends too much time on the streets of Montreal with unsavory characters. And yet, Baby’s spirit and maturity are imbued with a rawness that will make you laugh and cry all at once. When her father tries to bribe her to get her to stop following him, she thinks: “As he shouted out all my favorite things, they seemed so cheap to me. They paled in my desire to be with him.” Baby is smarter than her father, whom she adores. She doesn’t want to end up like him but it’s a struggle. Still, no matter how hard it gets, Baby never gives up and never reveals even a hint of self-pity.


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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon

Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Why this book?

My oldest daughter read this as part of her school’s curriculum. When she told me it was about a boy, obsessed with math, on a hunt for the person who killed his neighbor’s dog, I was intrigued. I started reading and couldn’t put it down because Christopher, the boy who loves math, is such a wonderfully complex character. He has a literal, matter-of-fact thought process that leaves no room for emotions or relationships. He’s excessively observant and logical, creating diagrams to bring order to the chaos he finds. He doesn’t understand metaphors or subtext and speaks bluntly, with no thought as to how his message will be received. During a conversation with a well-meaning neighbor, about his mother’s death, he says: “But I don’t feel sad about it. Because Mother is dead.” Through Christopher, we see the challenges of being on the autism spectrum. We see how others mistakenly perceive him. And we see how one boy is able to harness the gifts he has in order to triumph.


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Speak

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Book cover of Speak

Why this book?

First of all, it’s banned by many school districts and these books are, therefore, the most important and visceral narratives available. From the first two sentences, Speak takes you back to that dreaded and anticipated first day of high school. “It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.” You might think that Melinda Sordino is starting high school in a new area, where she is a stranger. You would be wrong. She knows everyone in her class and they know her. But she is an “outcast.” We don’t know why. This mystery will keep you turning the pages, as you get to know Melinda through short, conversational paragraphs. You can hear Melinda’s self-deprecating yet witty voice as she pulls you into her world, a place we’ve all been at least once. A place where we feel as if the universe is against us. I think this novel should be required reading for all high school freshmen and their parents. Because it would ignite pivotal conversations between generations. Because these discussions might encourage students to seek help when they feel as if they are drowning.


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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Book cover of The Book Thief

Why this book?

What sets this Holocaust novel apart from others, is the unconventional and sympathetic narrator—death. As the story unfolds through Death’s eyes, we become immersed in a small German community of colorful people. Here, an orphaned, illiterate girl, Liesel Meminger, steals books, learns to read and, most of all, discovers the power of words. “The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.” This theme resonates throughout the novel and elevates it to an evocative adult read. Author Markus Zusak’s portrayal of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, forced to make impossible decisions, makes you wonder, what would I have done? Do you hide an injured Jew, as Liesel’s foster father, Hans Hubermann, does, risking your life as well as your family’s? Do you refuse to join the Nazi party, as Hans does, or do you become a member and learn to kill with great aplomb, like the thousands who loaded Jews onto cattle cars, into pits, and into gas chambers? If you’re thinking I’m a fan of Hans Hubermann, you’re right.


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White Oleander

By Janet Fitch

Book cover of White Oleander

Why this book?

My copy of White Oleander is tattered, with lime-green post-it notes sticking out from the pages, and sentences, often paragraphs, highlighted throughout the novel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this haunting, coming-of-age story. I come back to it for two reasons, the clever prose and the relationship between Astrid, the teen narrator, and her mother, in prison for murder. This is how, for instance, Astrid sees herself and her mother: “She was a beautiful woman dragging a crippled foot and I was that foot. I was bricks sewn into the hem of her clothes, I was a steel dress.” As Astrid sinks deeper into the unpredictable and unsafe foster care system, she feels caught between her mother’s destructive hold and her own need for independence. Astrid’s life is upended by her mother’s poor decisions and horrific actions, yet Astrid cannot let go of the woman who gave her life. Could you?


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