My Top Ten YA Books (When I Was a Teen)

One of the biggest buzzes in the book world right now is NPR’s latest top-100 list of books. They are compiling a list of the best-ever teen/YA novels, and asking everyone to vote for their favorites. There are 235 finalists, and your challenge is to pick only 10 of them. (To make it a little easier, an entire series like Harry Potter or The Song of the Lioness count as only one vote.)

While I was struggling to get through the list, which has a lot of awesome books on it, I had to think about not only which books I was going to choose, but also why. Which books did I read again and again? Which books changed the way that I saw the world or inspired me to be a different person? Which books are still sitting on my bookshelf, a little worn with time and love, because I dragged them with me through numerous moves and clutter purges? (Some of my books are still in boxes, because a house full of book-lovers will never have enough shelves to support all of our reading habits.)

All of these books were ones that I read as a young teen (maybe a little younger; by the time I was fourteen, I was reading mostly adult stories). There are some YA novels that I’ve read and loved as a grown-up, because I’ve never stopped reading YA, but those don’t make the list. Not all of these are ones that I could vote for on NPR’s list, either. This list is also going to show my age a little (since books like The Hunger Games did not exist when I was a teen), especially since most of them are older books. (I got books from the library, not the New Releases at the bookstore.)1. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
There had to be at least one entry from my all-time favorite author, but this book was even more significant to me. I was introduced to Le Guin by her Earthsea novels and the second one really touched me. The protagonist starts as a young girl in a remote temple who is completely controlled by the two senior priestesses, but as she grows up, she learns to think for herself and forges her own identity. Her eyes open and she sees her temple life, and the people around her, in a whole new light. Of all coming of age stories, I think this one mirrored my own experiences the best, for growing up in a conservative religious home.

2. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
McKinley is another one of my favorite authors and her main character here, Aerin, is my go-to gal when I think of a Strong Female Character. She’s smart, stubborn, unconventional and not afraid to do what she thinks is right, even if it means death or exile from her homeland. And did I mention that she kills dragons? Bonus factors: her numerous animal companions are just as full of personality, from the old warhorse Talat to the king of cats and the queen of dogs. This book sets the bar high for me as a writer, too, because it’s the book I’ve always wanted to write.

3. The Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
I have this love/hate relationship with the Dragonriders of Pern series. I knew at the time that it was full of cliches, inconsistencies, sexism and other problems, yet I also read every book and scoured used bookstores to find copies of The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern and The Atlas of Pern. The Harper Hall books were my introduction to this series and my favorites because they were about a girl who ran away from an unloving home to become a songwriter and musician. I still own a cute shoulder dragon (fire lizard on Pern) for Ren Faire because of this book.

4. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
I did read outside of the sci-fi/fantasy shelves as a teen. I loved reading about Anne’s whole life, from childhood to college to starting her own family. Also, Anne’s job as a teacher may have influenced my own career choices just a little.

5. The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce
I still can’t get enough of Pierce’s Tortall. In my limited bookshelf real estate, I have entire section devoted to hardcover copies of those books. Alanna was my favorite as a teen because of her bold attitude and the way she changed Tortall by becoming a lady knight (now she’s in competition with Beka Cooper for my all-time fav). Bonus: Tamora Pierce blogs about strong women in real life, too.

6. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
If you put “Arthur” somewhere in a book’s description, chances are I’ll read it. This was the book that turned the Arthurian legend on its head for me. I picked this book up in a used bookstore before a trip one summer, and I spent a lot of that vacation nose-deep in this story. It tells the familiar story from the perspective of the women in King Arthur’s life, woven in with a spiritual theme and a good deal of magic. I’m not sure if it’s truly YA–many of the characters age beyond their teen years and it has mature themes–but it touched me more deeply than The Once and Future King.

7. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
I’ve loved this book at every age from childhood to adulthood, but I think the theme of gaining strength and breaking free speaks most strongly to the teen in me. There need to be more unicorn books that appeal to older readers. Dragons are wonderful, I love dragon books, but I want more unicorn books. This may be daunting for writers because Beagle has set the standard so high with this novel. (It is for me.)

8. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
I came out when I was fifteen and I realized that every story I’d read, every love song I knew, was about heterosexual couples. I found Melissa Etheridge and Nancy Garden. This book didn’t just appeal to me because of the lesbian main characters, though: it describes the roller coaster emotions of first love so well that you can almost forget about the gender of the characters (until the inevitable fallout). It’s still one of the best love stories I’ve ever read.

9. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg
I went through a phase where I read a lot of books about troubled teens and mental illness (Girl, Interrupted and Foxfire were also on the list), but this one in particular stuck out for me. Her imaginary kingdom felt so vivid that I understood why Deborah was tempted to live there. I often imagined alternate realities to escape from my own; fortunately for me, mine never became a prison like Deborah’s. Reading about mental illness like this inspired me to study psychology in college.

10. The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, abridged by William Goldman
I have read this book and watched this movie more times than I can count, and owned both in various editions. I put this book on the list mostly because of extreme fangirlishness, but it did affect my life in a small way because a community theater group for teens put on a play using the movie script (with dubious copyright privileges) when I was sixteen and I was lucky enough to be cast as Buttercup. My mom and I slaved over a handmade dress for the wedding, which I still own.

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