29 Classic Young Adult Books That Changed The World (And Are Also Great Reads)

Instead of just hot must-reads from recent years, this list is comprised of truly life-changing and genre-changing texts.

Aug 18, 2014 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

Young adult and middle grade are both exploding right now, but did you know that these genres have been alive and well since the 19th century? And that we're still reading classic works from decades ago? We didn't just want to round up hot must-reads from recent years in this collection of classic YA and MG -- we went instead for truly life-changing and genre-changing texts that are also great reads, including some very new novels. Chime in with your own in the comments!

1. "Little Women" (1868-69) by Louisa May Alcott

Originally published in two volumes, this is a fascinating story of four sisters living in New England and coming to terms with their own identities. While there are parts of it that feel a little saccharine, Jo was an early feminist prototype and the compassion and love the sisters had for each other and their community was about more than stereotypical profiles of women as nurturing or emotional. 

2. "Black Beauty" (1877) by Anna Sewell

Written by a Quaker woman who died shortly after its publication, "Black Beauty" was my early introduction to animal welfare, compassion for animals, and the huge gaps between social classes. Don't write this off as a kids' book about ponies: This is in many ways a radical socialist text that has a number of comments on class, culture, and the way people treat animals. 

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My edition of "Black Beauty" is old enough to have been letterpressed, and it features these nifty color plates, too. 

3. "The Little Prince" (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Expéry

Make no mistake: This is not a sweet little novella. This is a book that will, in the words of several xoJane editors, "eff you up." It shouldn't be a big surprise that this book about loneliness, confusion, and loss was written by an author undergoing some pretty severe emotional distress (THANKS FOR PASSING IT ON, ANTOINE). This is an incredibly sad, tortured book that stands among the ranks of middle grade and young adult that seeks to explore and explain the vagaries of the adult world. 

4. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1943) by Betty Smith

This intergenerational story of life in Brooklyn over the early 20th century is a classic for a reason. For one thing, it's good. For another, it's an important narrative about the immigrant experience, tenement living, and the huge changes that occurred in the US in the first half of the 20th century. 

5. "To Kill A Mockingbird" (1960) by Harper Lee

As a white reader growing up in a predominantly white, isolated community, "To Kill A Mockingbird" was one of my earliest introductions to race relations in the US, and it was through conversations with my father about the book that I understood it wasn't just fiction, and wasn't just about the past, either. Lee's classic exploration of injustice and tension in a small Southern town is a tough, but vital, read. 

6. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (1964) by Roal Dahl 

1964 was kind of a banner year for children's literature. This stunning criticism of adults, class, and culture isn't just about sweets. It's darkly sinister, as was most of Dahl's work, and it's also a vivid imagination of a candy factory where it seems like every possible dream could come true...except, of course, for humans to treat each other with decency. It's by no means unflawed (let's talk about Oompa Loompas and racism), but it stands the test of time as a classic. (Penguin's new adult cover is also sparking its share of controversy.)

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7. "Harriet the Spy" (1964) by Louise Fitzhugh

Who isn't obsessed with the snoopy, spunky Harriet, who totally defies the way girls are "supposed to" act while investigating everything and everyone in her neighborhood -- sometimes learning the hard way that sometimes digging too deep uncovers information you don't want. I view this as a really critical feminist text, but it's also a story about growing up, learning some important lessons about the people around you, and the New York City of the mid-century. 

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8. "The Giving Tree" (1964) by Shel Silverstein

First off, let me explain that I hate this book. I hate it with a flaming, poorly-controlled passion. I hate it so much that just thinking about it makes my face turn a little red. It's all about a selfish little brat who takes and takes and takes from this passive tree who's just like "Yeah, whatever, reduce me to a stump, that's cool," and it's supposed to be some sort of enlightening tale of personal growth and development? Are you kidding me? That said, many people do regard it as a classic -- of selfishness and self-entitlement, that is. 

9. "The Outsiders" (1967) by S.E. Hinton

Ponyboy just can't stay out of print. A classic critique of class and culture, "The Outsiders" is a solid contribution to any library, especially one of the radical bent. Did I mention that Hinton was just 15 when she started writing it, drawing upon her own experiences in school, and that it was published when she was 18? Yeah, the rest of us will just be off moping in a corner over our inadequacies. 

10. "House of Dies Drear" (1968) by Virginia Hamilton 

When Thomas Small moves into a home that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, strange things start happening almost immediately. The house turns sinister and dark, until they realize that the neighbors are trying to frighten them off to access an alleged treasure hid in the tunnels beneath the house. 

11. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1969) by Maya Angelou

One of the few non-fiction entries on this list, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" deserves an entry because it's an absolute must-read about the life of one of the 20th century's most influential and amazing writers, and because it's a painful, sharp exploration of race relations in the United States and what it means to grow up black. This book is an aching narrative of adult betrayal and loss of innocence, and a stark commentary on how humans treat each other. 

12. "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" (1970) by Judy Blume

This book is remembered as a classic text on growing up and going through puberty, which it is, but it's also about struggling with religious affiliation and wanting to understand religion and develop a personal relationship with God (hence the title). While not evangelical in the slightest, the book does explore the struggles of teens pondering religion -- in addition to those wondering about how to speak up to intolerance, and how to deal with pads. (The infamous sanitary belt scene has been adapted for modern readers, so if you have an older edition, treasure it!)

13. "Go Ask Alice" (1971) by Beatrice Sparks

Written like an anonymous diary from the perspective of a teen who's become addicted to drugs, "Go Ask Alice" is pretty clearly an anti-drug screed veiled as fiction (originally Sparks promoted it as a diary that she'd found, edited, and released, but further evidence clearly indicates she was the author and it was pure fiction). While there are definitely parts that read like eye-rolling midcentury "drug awareness" films, others are sharp, insightful depictions of teen life and culture. 

14. "Bless Me, Ultima" (1972) by Rudolfo Anaya

Widely regarded as one of the key voices in Latino literature, Anaya weaves a fascinating and compelling story here as Antonio Marez meets Ultima, who comes to stay with his family and brings a world of magic and mystery into his life. Tony finds himself through his work with her, in a narrative that's winding, evocative, and, at times, deeply chilling. 

15. "The Woman Warrior" (1975) by Maxine Hong Kingston

I have a special affection for the experiences of the Chinese in California, but this really is a classic memoir on growing up Chinese in the state during an era of particular complexity -- when Chinese-Americans faced bans on property ownership, freedom to marry, and other basic rights. If you want a glimpse into mid-century life for Chinese-American children in California, definitely check this out. 

16. "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" (1976) by Mildred D. Taylor

This middle grade novel about race relations in the South during the Depression era is written from the perspective of a sharecropping family struggling to survive during a time when Black families faced routine social and structural violence. It's a sharp critique of race in the US, and a chilling testimony to what families endured. (Let's not forget, either, that sharecropping for Black families was a direct legacy of slavery, and a way for the South to continue to exploiting the Black community.)

17. "Dragonwings" (1977) by Lawrence Yep

Narratives about the Chinese diaspora along the West Coast can be difficult to find for young readers, and this novel explores the story of Moon Shadow, sent to join his father Windrider in far-off America when he's just eight years old. He's never met his father, and discovers a world of tense racial relations and hatred -- followed by a catastrophic earthquake that brings the world tumbling down, but opens new opportunities, too. 

18. "The Song of the Lioness Quartet" (1983-88) by Tamora Pierce

Bad-ass ladies. Premarital sexing. Good-hearted thieves. Feminist classic much? Many of us wore our copies of these books to shreds as kids and some of us still read them as adults. Seriously, if you're going to pick one thing for a young woman in your life, get this series. 

19. "The House on Mango Street" (1984) by Sandra Cisneros

This beautiful narrative on the Latina experience in America takes the reader to the streets of Chicago and opens up fascinating windows through a series of vignettes. I'm a huge fan of books that play with narrative styles beyond the conventional and use them to drive a story, and it's done with great skill here. 

20. "The Giver" (1993) by Lois Lowry

Speaking of books that eff you up, this one still gives me chills. Set in a purportedly utopian world, "The Giver" quickly proves to be seriously dark and twisted, with a creepy legacy that will totally linger. I don't want to give anything away in case you haven't read it and/or you're planning on seeing the movie, but trust me, this is the kind of book that will make you question your faith in humanity. 

21. "In the Time of the Butterflies" (1994) by Julia Alvarez

This heartbreaking historical novel about the Mirabal sisters' resistance to Trujillo in the Dominican Republic is an incredibly intense and amazing read. It's narrated by the surviving sister as she documents their experiences under the dictatorship, and their eventual decision to speak up against it. 

22. "The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963" (1995) by Christopher Paul Curtis

They're just your average goofy, lovable family living in Flint in 1963, until they decide to take a visit to their grandmother, and unwittingly land in one of the most important moments in Civil Rights history. This debut novel was a Newbury Honor Book and a recipient of the Coretta Scott King award for its searing fictional portrayal of some of the darkest times in America.

23. "Harry Potter" (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling

This fantasy series had a revolutionary effect on YA and MG, bringing about what some are terming the "YA renaissance." It went on to spur a whole movie series, but more than that, it's surrounded by a world of fans and culture that's truly breathtaking in scope. And it's not just about fantasy, Quidditch, and dragons. Take a closer look: Class critiques are heavily embedded into the series, as are larger themes of right, wrong, and speaking truth to power.  

24. "Monster" (1999) by Walter Dean Myers

Written in an innovative narrative style, "Monster" is the first-person story of Steve Harmon's felony murder trial. While this book is about a trial, it's also about the incredible complexities of race in America, along with the tangled interpersonal relationships we build. 

25. "The First Part Last" (2010) by Angela Johnson

Teen pregnancy is a common theme in YA, but it's hard to get right -- and it's rare to see the black experience represented (unless it's in books that tend to tread upon familiar, stereotyped, and often offensive ground). This sensitive handling of the subject from the perspective of the father challenges assumptions about fatherhood, race, and doing the right thing. 

26. "Summer of the Mariposas" (2012) Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Four sisters find a dead body in the swimming hole they thought was secret, and it launches them into an incredible journey. This retelling of "The Odyssey" sends the sisters through a series of epic and mythical trials, but in the end, the sisters must be brought back to earth, and the challenges they face in the real world. 

27. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (2013) by Sherman Alexie

When a teen handed out copies of this book for World Book Night, the police were called. It's also been the subject of numerous banning attempts. If that doesn't recommend it, I don't know what will. This story of race, class, and culture is drawn from Alexie's own experiences, highlighting reservation life and what happens when a Native teen is flung into the environment of an all-white high school in search of better opportunities. 

28. "All Our Pretty Songs" (2013) by Sarah McCarry

An incredibly lyrical narrative, "All Our Pretty Songs" explores the history of grunge, but it's also about friendships, magical interference, and what happens when your life starts falling apart. It's one of my most highly recommended books for a reason. It slams the myth that literary fiction and YA are mutually exclusive in the head and then knocks it around the ring a few times to boot. 

29. "The Summer Prince" (2013) by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Drawing upon the rich history of speculative fiction written by people of color, "The Summer Prince" is a narrative of a world post-ecological disaster where the few surviving pockets of humanity live in complex cities struggling to survive with innovative technologies and through trading with other groups. Those cities, however, are just as socially and racially stratified as the cities of the past, and that builds to a head in one summer saturated in art, culture, and love. 

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While many discount middle grade and young adult fiction as being for children, or not being relevant, these works have informed society, played a role in the lives of many, and influenced adult fiction, not just children's books. This is just the tip of the iceberg (and my word limit) when it comes to the complexity and depth of this amazing genre and the people who write in it. 

(Many thanks to Malinda Lo and Emily Horner for their help in assembling this list. Their books are great and you should read them too.)