The global success of the recently completed Hunger Games trilogy has proven that books aimed at younger readers can be every bit as smart, savvy, and morally ambiguous as their adult counterparts. From reincarnated lovers to a horrific kidnapping, here are 10 of the most thought-provoking young-adult books on the market right now.
1) The Eternal Ones by Kirsten Miller
Kirsten Miller gives star-crossed lovers a smart spin in The Eternal Ones. Eschewing the cuddly monster-falls-for-human trope that’s dominating the young-adult genre, Miller instead introduces Haven, a smart and stubborn young girl growing up in an oppressively religious small town. All her life, Haven has been plagued with visions of a girl named Constance who perished in a fire decades earlier. Her grandmother—and the whole town of Snope City, Tennessee, for that matter—thinks she’s harboring a demon. But when Haven sees rich playboy Iain Morrow on TV, she starts to think maybe she was Constance in a past life—and Iain was either the boy she loved, or the one who set the fire. Or both. Miller does a nice job of building a claustrophobic conspiracy that will leave readers guessing whether Iain has chased Haven across multiple lives out of love or something darker right until the very end. The religious debates are handled nicely, as well. Readers won’t be able to put this one down. Thankfully, when they do, they only have to wait until Summer 2011 for the next installment in this addictive new series.
2) White Cat by Holly Black
The Sopranos meets Harry Potter in White Cat, the first book in The Curse Workers series by Holly Black ( The Spiderwick Chronicles). Everyone in Cassel’s family is a curse worker, meaning they can manipulate people’s emotions, memories—even outright kill them—with a simple touch of the hand. Curse working is illegal, but that doesn’t stop a Mafia-like underworld from using their powers to control everyone around them. As far as he knows, Cassel himself can’t work curses, but he’s living with a dark secret of his own—he murdered his childhood best friend, Lila. Black confidently weaves an insidious tale of corruption and greed, building a morally ambiguous world where even the most crooked con artists can’t always tell whether their emotions and memories are their own. Red Glove, the second book in the series, is due in May 2011.
3) Siren by Tricia Rayburn
Summer vacation takes a turn for the sinister in Tricia Rayburn’s Siren. After her sister dies in a cliff-diving accident during the annual family vacation to Winter Harbor, Maine, Vanessa learns that her sister was keeping secrets… secrets that might be connected to the string of mysterious, water-related deaths plaguing the town. Both the narrator and the sleepy seaside town are finely drawn, and Rayburn never strays far from the engrossing plot that updates the lore of a supernatural baddie that’s as old as The Odyssey.
4) Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready
In Shade, the first of a new trilogy by Jeri Smith-Ready, everyone born after the Shift—an unexplained event 16 years earlier—can see and hear ghosts. This has never been more than an inconvenience to Aura, the first baby born after the Shift, until her boyfriend Logan suddenly dies. Before long, Aura is caught between her almost-relationship with Ghost Logan and the very-much-alive Zachary. Smith-Ready avoids the trap of letting her heroine get mired in mourning, instead allowing her to focus on the mysteries of the Shift and her connection to Zachary, who happens to be the last baby born before the Shift. The result is a book that’s impossible to put down and will leave readers counting down the days until the next installment.
5) The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker is a refreshing change of pace from most YA books on the shelves. In fact, it would probably be more at home sitting on a shelf with The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. A steampunk fantasy set in 1913 Missouri, Boneshaker follows spunky tomboy and aspiring machinist Natalie Minks as she tries to uncover the devilish secret behind the traveling medicine show that’s taken up residence in her town… and learn how to ride the fancy bicycle her father built her. The bad guys occasionally fall into the camp of mustache-twirling parodies, but Milford manages to paint some intriguing shades of gray into the Good vs. Evil narrative. Impressively detailed illustrations by Andrea Offermann add to the throwback atmosphere.
6) Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall pulls elements from Mean Girls, The Lovely Bones, and Groundhog Day and spins them into something wholly original and entirely moving. Pretty, popular Samantha Kingston—one of the mean queen rulers of her high school—is stuck in a loop, reliving the day that originally ended in a gruesome car accident which took her life. Samantha is a sharp, acerbic narrator, and the observations about high-school warfare ring true. Oliver’s debut novel proves her to be a fresh new voice in young-adult literature, and her already-growing legion of fans will no doubt snap up her sophomore effort, Delirium, when it hits the shelves in early 2011. This is definitely a book to save for a long weekend, however, as you won’t be able to put it down once you start reading.
7) The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel
For a slim novella—it’s a scant 182 pages— The Beautiful Between packs a real wallop. Connelly, a bookish dreamer who imagines high school as a sprawling fairy tale kingdom and herself as the locked-away Rapunzel, strikes up an unexpected friendship with popular, self-assured Jeremy. After she finds out Jeremy’s sister has leukemia, Connelly is forced to confront everything she thought she knew about her own father’s death years earlier, and why her mother refuses to talk about it. Sheinmel wisely avoids romantically entangling her protagonists, allowing the story to unfold with a realistic, low-drama ease that’s not often afforded in the young-adult genre.
8) Stolen by Lucy Christopher
Make no mistake—Lucy Christopher’s Stolen is a difficult novel to read. If it wasn’t so well-written, in fact, it would be entirely unpalatable. British teenager Gemma is drugged and kidnapped in an airport, whisked away to the remote Australian outback by Ty, a young man who’s decided to withdraw from society, but not without a companion—even an unwilling one. Written as a letter to her captor, Stolen traces Gemma’s descent into Stockholm Syndrome as she begins to feel for her captor. In a sly display of writing prowess, Christopher almost makes it possible for the reader to feel bad for the monstrous Ty, as well. But it’s Gemma’s strength and clear-headed narration that keep the pages turning long after your skin has started crawling.
9) Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
As a novel—novella, really—Elizabeth Hand’s Illyria probably shouldn’t work. Set in a dilapidated Hudson Valley compound inhabited by descendants of a once-famous stage actress, Illyria follows two first cousins, Madeline and Rogan, as they cross the line from childhood best friends to obsessive secret lovers. As obsessed as the duo are with each other, so their aunt is obsessed with reburnishing the clan’s theater fame, whisking Madeline and Rogan away to Broadway shows and pulling strings to get them into their school’s production of Twelfth Night. Hand’s prose is wonderfully claustrophobic, and her unswerving focus on Madeline’s doomed romance with both her cousin and a stage career perfectly captures the unsettling marvel that is adolescent love.
10) The Six Rules of Maybe by Deb Caletti
Deb Caletti ( The Secret Life of Prince Charming, The Nature of Jade) is back with another refreshingly honest look at adolescence. The Six Rules of Maybe has just enough angst to keep it interesting, but not enough to keep it from ringing absolutely true—you might as well be reading your sister’s diary, if your sister is a whip-smart, incisive teenager named Scarlet Hughes. Scarlet is used to fading into the background while her sister Juliet gets all the attention. All the lurking about unnoticed has allowed her to sharpen her observational skills. Little that goes on in the neighborhood escapes her attention, especially since Scarlet has taken it upon herself to look after her motley assortment of neighbors, from the older couple getting swindled by Nigerian scammers online to the introverted Goth girl across the street. Then her pregnant sister unexpectedly moves back home with a new husband, Hayden, in tow. When Scarlet starts falling for Hayden—and Juliet starts falling for her bad news ex-boyfriend—Scarlet’s caretaking abilities are sorely tested. Caletti paints a fine portrait of the dangerous line between altruistic caretaking and using the problems of others to hide from your own.
Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.