Let's be clear: there is ~no shame~ in loving young adult literature, even if you yourself are, say, an "old" or "regular" adult. In fact, studies show that more than half of YA readers are actually adult-adults, which sort of calls the whole meaning of the phrase into question and makes you wonder if this system of categorizing books by target audience is dumb to begin with. :::takes a deep breath::: In any case, there are a ton of iconic YA novels that you should prioritize on your To Read list, regardless of your age bracket. Here are the 15 essentials.
1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This 2017 novel follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old girl navigating between the poor, mostly black neighborhood in which she lives, and the affluent, mostly white private school where she spends her days. After she witnesses the fatal shooting of her black best friend by a white police officer, Starr is driven to find her voice and become an activist. Angie Thomas initially wrote The Hate U Give (her debut novel that topped the New York Times bestseller list, NBD) as a short story in college, a reaction to the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, and was driven to expand the project into a novel following the subsequent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice and by the Black Lives Matter movement. It's a compelling and vital must-read, especially if you plan to see the Amandla Stenberg-starring Hollywood adaptation coming this fall (which, you should).
2. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
You've probably watched the movie starring some seriously good '80s-era hair of the same name—so why not read the timeless 1967 original? The Outsiders is all the more remarkable when you realize that S.E. Hinton was just 15 years old when she started writing it, and 18 when it was published. Now that you're feeling suitably bleak about your own accomplishments, there's all the more reason to lose yourself in this timeless coming-of-age story about a kid named Ponyboy Curtis, the gang of "greasers" he runs with, and the rival gang of upper-class snobs who represent the wider society that ostracizes kids like Ponyboy and his friends.
3. Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt
The first of seven novels in Cynthia Voigt's The Tillerman Cycle series, Homecoming tells the story of an abandoned set of siblings left to fend for themselves somewhere in Connecticut, sometime in the early 1980s. After their mother leaves them behind in a shopping mall parking lot during an aborted road trip, 13-year-old Daisy and her three younger siblings set out on foot to try and find a new home with their aunt, struggling to make ends meet along the way. And yes, Homecoming is every bit as emotional and engaging a family drama as that summary suggests.
4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Of all Markus Zusak's many YA novels, this is the most popular and enduring. Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief follows a young orphan named Liesel, who gradually comes to understand the horrors of Hitler's regime after she is sent to live with a foster family in 1938. She is taught to read by a kindly decorator named Hans, and begins stealing books that have been earmarked for destruction by the Nazis, while also developing a bond with a Jewish boy whom the family is sheltering. Sharply written and insightful, The Book Thief is also genuinely uplifting despite its dark subject matter.
5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
While it predates the actual term "young adult," William Golding's 1954 debut absolutely qualifies for the genre with the drama centering on a group of pre-adolescent boys stranded on an island and their attempts at survival—which have disastrous consequences, of course. In the middle of an unspecified war, the boys' plane crash-lands on an uninhabited island, and the survivors initially work together to organize and build a society…which deteriorates at a terrifyingly fast speed as the boys lose their grip on reality and morality. Aside from being a horrifyingly gripping read, this is a true modern classic—you probably already read it in high school but you should revisit, trust me—without which countless other books would not exist. Including the next one on this list.
6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Yeah, yeah—we've all seen the movie. But let's not forget just how rich and subtle Suzanne Collins' original book series was, k? In case you've been living under a pop culture-proof rock until now, The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future world in which the government forces 24 randomly-chosen teenagers to fight to the death in the wilderness as a nationally televised annual spectacle. The novels' scrappy teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her little sister's place in the game, and her fight for survival becomes increasingly complex and politically-charged as the series continues. A must-read now, a must-read tomorrow, a must-read forever.
7. Forever by Judy Blume
Judy Blume is both one of America's most beloved authors and—believe it or not—one of the most frequently banned in schools. No Blume novel has drawn more controversy than 1975's Forever, thanks to its detailed and groundbreaking depiction of teenage sexuality, and its references to birth control, masturbation, and a host of other taboo subjects that should not be taboo. It's Blume's candid, grounded prose that makes this story of a high school romance so enduring.
8. Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal
I C O N I C. There's no way to choose just a single novel from the Sweet Valley High series, which spans a mind-boggling 181 books over a twenty-year period. The soapy saga of beautiful blonde identical twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield starts out with pretty routine high school drama—boyfriend stealing, cheerleading tryouts, the odd car wreck—but soon spirals off in some truly wild and genre-hopping directions. Remember the doppelganger who tried to kill Liz and steal her identity? Remember when Liz got held hostage by a bomber? Remember when Jessica dated a literal vampire? If you were obsessed with the SVH books as a tween, they are absolutely worth a second read.
9. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
There are plenty fandom-themed YA novels out there, but one of the first and most definitive was this 2013 gem. The titular fangirl is Cath, a college freshman who's having a rough first semester and takes refuge in writing fanfiction for a Harry Potter-esque book series named Simon Snow. Cath's struggles with social anxiety disorder and her mentally ill father are drawn with insight, as are her sense of isolation and low self-esteem when it comes to dating—and if you get hooked, Rainbow Rowell followed the book up with an actual fantasy novel set in the Simon Snow universe, Carry On.
10. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak has earned a lot of well-deserved accolades for its nuanced depiction of trauma. The novel centers on a 13-year-old girl, Melinda, who becomes mute in the wake of a sexual assault, torn between her desire to repress her memory of what happened and her desire to talk about it. Written in a diary format, the novel draws a lot of its raw power from real life; Laurie Halse Anderson based the story on her own experience of being raped as a teenager.
11. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Let's face it: this is probably one of the first books that comes to mind when you think "YA." There's a reason why this popular tragic teen romance has become such a benchmark—it's damn good. Narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old cancer patient, the novel follows her relationship with a fellow patient, Augustus, who shares her ironic, intellectual outlook on life. Thanks to this tone, the book is dryly hilarious before it gets to the rip-our-your-heart devastating parts, packed with soulful insight that ensures the heartbreak never veers too far into weepie melodrama.
12. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
OK, so children being sent away during war is clearly a major YA theme, but this 2004 book, which begins with its teenage protagonist Daisy being sent away from New York to live with her aunt and cousins on a farm in Britain, during a fictional World War III, stands apart from the rest. Though her homesickness fades as she bonds with her family, Daisy's idyllic new life gets tough fast, and her cousins are eventually left to fend for themselves as the war escalates. Meg Rosoff’s debut is vividly imagined and gripping.
13. Naughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
The first novel in the six-part Noughts & Crosses series introduces a parallel universe with an alternate history: Europeans were enslaved by Africans, rather than the other way around, and in the book's 21st century world white people ("Noughts") are the oppressed, while black people ("Crosses") are the dominant majority. Released in 2001, the book remains completely timely and thought-provoking.
14. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This heartfelt coming-of-age story is comprised of letters, written by introverted teenage protagonist Charlie to an unknown recipient, which address his struggles with mental illness, sexuality, repressed memories, and drug abuse. Though heavy on the angst, Perks balances its darkness with quirk and smarts, and amassed a cult following long before the Emma Watson movie came out in 2012.
15. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
The central teenage duo in this romantic tragedy meet on a bell tower where both plan to commit suicide: popular girl Violet, who's struggling with guilt and grief, and outcast Finch, who is deeply depressed. After talking one another down, they embark on a mission to visit significant sites in their state of Indiana, and develop a romance along the way. Even if the narrative outcome is pretty obvious, Jennifer Niven's writing is evocative and emotional, and there's an authenticity to both characters' pain.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.