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Recommended Reading for Children and Young Adults
Previously I wrote recommendation hubs for Science Fiction and Fantasy, but in both of those instances, I felt like I needed to take time out for YA fiction specifically. While the books I list below can technically fall into other various genres, these are the books I would want my children to read, and that is my general criteria for what falls here. Similarly, that’s why I’ve lumped ‘children’ and ‘young adult’ together, because the particular books I’ve chosen have a lot of bleed over. In that regard, these can be hefty novels and do not include picture books specifically meant for children.
With that in mind, here are ten books (in no particular order) that I personally feel every child/tween/teen should read at some point in their lives. Though, admittedly, adults can find a lot of enjoyment in them as well. I’ve focused primarily on modern authors, rather than the classics, since the classics don’t really need much help getting exposure.
I would also like to apologize in advance for the lack of female protagonists on this list. I will try to rectify this in the future.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
by J. K. Rowling
Okay, so I suppose Harry Potter doesn’t need much help with exposure either. But for a book that has inspired a generation of readers, and catapulted myself into the writing craft, I feel it deserves all of the recognition it gets. The story of an eleven-year-old boy who discovers, on his birthday, that he’s a famous wizard, is instantly relatable and immersive in its magical world. I lost track of how many times I’ve re-read this book, but each time I’m sucked into each magical corner of the narrative. Though the series (and its movie counterparts) have ended, the impression Harry Potter has left on the literary world will be felt for centuries, and deservedly so.
The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson and the Olympians is an interesting series in the sense that you’re being fed a constant stream of knowledge without even realizing it. Using Greek mythology as the backdrop for a dyslexic boy growing up in America, we learn quickly that he and his friends aren’t your usual teenagers. Percy’s world then opens up at Camp Half-blood where demi-gods and impossible creatures are as common as the trees around them. Conceptually, this series could be described as the American Harry Potter, but with smart writing and the history of Greek Myth at its back, Percy Jackson stands on its own.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
by Salman Rushdie
For those who are familiar with Salman Rushdie, it may come as a surprise to see him on this list. Written for his son, when he was unable to return home, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a surprisingly heartfelt and entertaining story. Filled with water genies and hoopoes named ‘butt’, there is enough humor, magic and cultural undertones to keep this book relevant and entertaining for years to come.
by Eoin Colfer
A boy genius sets out to uncover a hidden world of magic? That would have been enough to pique my younger self’s interest. But Artemis Fowl is so much more than that. Equal parts techno-spy fiction, fantasy and humor, this series manages to hit all the right notes that kids love.
by Christopher Paolini
I make no attempts to hide that I’m a fan of epic fantasy (I wrote one). And, one of the first epic fantasies I was introduced to was Eragon. Having had very little experience with the genre, I found it to be a great introduction. Following a young boy as he inadvertently hatches his own dragon, we’re taken along on an epic journey across Alagaesia. What could easily be an overwhelming amount of information is streamed to us gradually, immersing us in the world one step at a time. And, the series grows along with its young author, concluding with a satisfying end in ‘Inheritance’.
The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
On the surface, the Graveyard Book, might seem like a dark concept. A boy’s parents are murdered and he goes into hiding in a cemetery where he is then raised by ghosts. But, despite the spooky setup, it’s a very whimsical story. With enough unique creatures and locations for an entire series, Neil Gaiman manages to stuff all of this content into a single, thoughtful book.
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games is a violent book (and series). I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. It’s about random children selected to murder each other in a contest designed to keep the remnants of humanity in line. But, what is unquestionably a grim topic is handled so beautifully that this book has been elevated above its genre. Katniss Everdeen is an imperfect character in an imperfect situation, but the force of the events happening around her is a whirlwind that can’t be stopped. Seeing how Suzanne Collins handles difficult topics leaves me in awe of her as a writer. This is the kind of book that even non-readers should read.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s writing style is so smooth and conversational that it doesn’t even feel like reading. For that reason, I would recommend any of his books, but The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is particularly poetic. Giving us a glimpse into one Native American reservation, we see the struggles of a boy growing up and tackling the difficult question of leaving his people behind. Funny, unapologetic, and strikingly real, this is one book that you won’t be able to put down.
by Pete Hautman
What could easily be misinterpreted as a book with a sociopolitical agenda, Godless is a striking account of a boy struggling to fit in with his peers and his family’s religion. Disillusioned, he creates his own god, unaware of the consequences of those who follow him. Structured like similar stories about unforgettable summers, Godless focuses on the characters more than it does hot button issues, which is what sets it firmly on this list.
by Louis Sachar
Growing up I was a frequent fan of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series. But it wasn’t until I read Holes, much later, that I realized his true level of skill. The story of a boy who’s shipped off to a correctional facility that demands the teens dig holes to ‘build character’. As the story progresses, however, flashbacks to the past reveal deeper motivations for the councilors involved. Holes is a very tight book in that it feels like every scene, no matter how arbitrary, is tied in with something else. Everything feels connected in a natural way and it all adds up to a thoroughly engaging and entertaining story. If you only read one Louis Sachar book, make it this one.
Did I leave your favorite off my list? Add your favorite children’s or YA book in the comments section below.