If you don’t read Young Adult fiction, you would be forgiven for thinking of it in terms of a few select titles. That’s because the blockbuster book, so rare in the world of literary fiction, still appears regularly on YA bookshelves. Sometimes I think it’s the popularity of these books that make it so easy for adult readers to associate literature for teens only with Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—but that’s only if they’re skimming the surface.
YA writing, even at its most seemingly simplistic, is full of wonder and warmth, is essential to the unending process of understanding one’s self and the world, and happens to be filled with brilliant writers and books you may have never heard of. The diverse group of women I’ve highlighted below are at different points in their careers—some have never published a book, while others have awards and Wikipedia pages. But what they have in common is a commitment to intricate, distinct, powerful stories for and about young adults. Maybe they’ll never have billion-dollar movie deals and household names (though they deserve them!), but each of them has produced work unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
I first fell in love with Sarah McCarry through her blog, The Rejectionist. I loved the badass feminist streak that underscores everything she writes there, and so when she put out the first of her trilogy of YA novels last year, I gobbled it up eagerly. All Our Pretty Songs, this year’s Dirty Wings, and About a Girl, due in July 2015, are a lush collection of interconnected stories that blend ancient Greek myths with more contemporary folklore. They are stories about fame and talent, music and self-destruction, Seattle, the blurry line between best friendship and romantic love, and the legacies left by mothers and fathers. McCarry is a thoughtful, razor-sharp writer, sensitive to dynamics of representation. Her own doing, the cover of the forthcoming About a Girl is the first YA cover to feature two girls kissing.
Brandy Colbert’s debut novel, Pointe, is one of the most impressive first novels I’ve ever read, for any audience. It explores the slowly unfolding aftermath of unthinkable trauma in the life of a gifted young ballet dancer named Theo. What I loved about this book was its complexity and the broadness of its scope. Every character is rendered fully in just a few scenes, and the result is that Theo’s life feels full in the same way real life does: Pointe is not just a story about Theo and her boyfriend or Theo and her dreams, but her relationships with her parents and fellow dancers and rivals and neighbors and everyone in between. Colbert writes about important subjects with unflinching empathy, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
3. Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
The Tamakis are cousins who together have produced two beautiful graphic YA novels—Skim and This One Summer. They are evocative, affecting stories about the particular frustration of being young and coming up against concepts you’re not quite old enough to understand (or that adults assume you won’t be): suicide and sexuality in Skim, love and ennui in This One Summer. The books are filled with beautiful artwork and simple, quiet moments that capture so effectively the very specific confusions of girlhood.
4. Malinda Lo
Malinda Lo’s 2009 novel Ash is a loose, lovely retelling of Cinderella with powerful LGTBQ themes; her 2011 follow-up Huntress takes place in the same fairy tale universe and deals with similar themes of love, duty, grief, and identity. I adore these books: Lo builds immersive fantasy worlds that are as recognizable as our own, and she happens to write the most sumptuous meal scenes I’ve ever read in YA. Addtionally, Lo is one-half of the important blog Diversity in YA, which strives to bring attention to young adult and children’s books by and about people of color.
5. Julie Buntin
Julie Buntin doesn’t have a book published (yet), but when she does, she will quickly be the most popular novelist on the planet and so I’m trying to get you in on the ground floor now. Her first published story, “Phenomenon,” appeared in One Teen Story this past year and is a straight-up stunner. It’s about the loving, tricky, tenuous friendship between two girls in Northern Michigan and it made me laugh, and cry. Julie also authored this affecting essay in The Atlantic about friendship and loss (which earned John Green’s stamp of approval, so you know it’s legit). Soon she will rule over literature for young adults and old adults like a regal, all-knowing queen.