Over the last decade, the young adult boom has overtaken the literary conversation. Sometimes it can seem like mega-series such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are the only things keeping the publishing industry afloat. However, the popularity of young adult fiction has also opened up more space for weird, unreal, dystopian, and/or fantastic works. Many of the college and high school students I teach are eager for more recommendations in this vein. Below are 13 “literary” books that fans of YA will love. Let me be clear: I’m not making any argument about “literary” fiction being better or worse than “young adult” fiction. Genre is often more about marketing than content, and some of the titles below might have been labeled YA if they were published today. These are simply books typically shelved among adult literary fiction that young adult fans will certainly enjoy.
1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Most people know Shirley Jackson for her highly anthologized story “The Lottery,” but the haunting and hilarious We Have Always Lived in the Castle might be her greatest achievement. The narrator, Merricat, is one of the most singular characters in American literature. Try reading this opening paragraph and not wanting more: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
2. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
When Cosimo’s parents try to make him eat snails, the 12-year-old son of an 18th-century baron threatens to climb up a tree and never come down. He makes good on his threat. Cosimo lives out the rest of his life in the treetops, growing, loving, and having adventures in the twisted branches. Italo Calvino is most famous for his wildly experimental novels like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Invisible Cities, but my favorite has always been The Baron in the Trees. This arboreal coming-of-age tale has a mix of humor, wonder, heartfelt feelings, and a plain old sense of fun that young adult readers would love.
3. The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
If your young adult years were like mine, they involved a lot of late-night drives, sexual yearning, and sweaty punk shows. If your young adult years were like the narrator of The Orange Eats Creeps, they involved all of that plus junkie hobo vampires wandering across the country. I don’t know what genre label would accurately define this debut novel (avant-vampire YA? hallucinatory punk horror? experimental goth realism?), I only know it’s a great read.
4. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Kelly Link is a great example of a modern genre-omnivorous author. Her stories show a wide range of influences from horror and fairy tales to literary fiction and science fiction. (Salon called her debut, Stranger Things Happen, “an alchemical mix of Borges, Raymond Chandler and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”) Her third collection, Pretty Monsters, was billed as her first YA book, but there is no reason that YA readers wouldn’t also love her first two collections.
5. Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The most recent book on this list, 2013’s Long Division is a novel that’s confident in its strangeness, that’s going to do what it wants to do and pull you along for the ride. Laymon weaves together a tale of viral YouTube videos, Southern racism, hip-hop lyrics, time-traveling teenagers, and a mysterious novel with no author into one of the most original books in recent years.
6. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
When students of mine get hooked on dystopian science fiction like The Hunger Games and ask me for recommendations, The Lathe of Heaven is the first title I say. Le Guin, a titan of science fiction and fantasy, is at her weirdest — in the best way — in this novel of dreams and shifting futures.
7. Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
Like many authors on this list, Walser’s style is hard to pin down. Jakob von Gunten, published in 1909, follows a young boy who decides to join a bizarre school for butlers. The school, The Benjamenta Institute, has only one lesson plan, “How Should a Boy Behave?” and no teachers except the headmaster and his sister. If you thought your school was strange, give Jakob von Gunten a read.
8. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Re-envisioned fairy tales are all the rage today in both books and film. I’m not sure that anyone has done it better than Angela Carter with her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber. Any reader interested in fairy tales and/or feminist literature should get this ASAP.
9. Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu
With story titles like “Third Class Superhero” and “Two-Player Infinitely Iterated Simultaneous Semi-Cooperative Game with Spite and Reputation,” Charles Yu lets you know he is as influenced by popular culture as he is by writers like Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick. These are hilarious science-fiction-infused stories that adventurous readers both young and old will love.
10. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
This award-winning novel follows the life of a young lovelorn Dominican-American who is equally obsessed with superhero comics and falling in love. Díaz weaves in a history of the Dominican Republic, a look at modern masculinity, and much more among a near-encyclopedic set of references to science fiction, fantasy, comics, and other parts of “nerd” culture. There’s a reason this won multiple awards including the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
11. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
Part meditation on lost love, part metafictional adventure, The People of Paper seems to have prefigured a lot of the magical realist-tinged work of the last decade. The People of Paper includes a lot of metafictional tricks — words cut out of the page, passages blacked out — but they never overshadow the story’s emotional heart.
12. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
Alexie is already known by young adult readers for his 2007 National Book Award–winning YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Readers who loved that novel should check out his debut prose book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This collection of interconnected short stories centers on the lives and struggles of two young Native American men. Alexie started out as a poet, something that’s apparent in his musical and moving prose.
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