19 Best Young Adult Science Fiction Books

young adult dystopia

Most young adult science fiction books are set in weird dystopias and involve awkward, doomed romances. Based on what I remember from high school, this is completely appropriate.

 

19
Panda Ray
by Michael Kandel – 1996

Panda Ray is a rare beast: a fun and weird adventure for young adults where there is no Chosen One. Thank God. I’m a little tired of the Hero’s Journey.

Chris Zimmerman is an alien, or possibly a mutant. Either way, he’s in trouble because he keeps telling his fifth-grade class about his travels through time. His mother finds out and is furious, because those trips are family secrets. His punishment is going to be getting scooped out, wiping out any personality he might have.

So, of course, he and Gramps escape in a spaceship. Then things get seriously weird.

18
Life as We Knew It
by Susan Beth Pfeffer – 2006

High school sophomore Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to Earth, like “one marble hits another.” Worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun. As August turns dark and wintery in northeastern Pennsylvania, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

“Absorbing from first page to last.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

17
Uglies
by Scott Westerfeld – 2005

Uglies is set in a post-scarcity world in which everyone is turned “Pretty” by extreme cosmetic surgery upon reaching age 16.

Under the surface, Uglies speaks of high-profile government conspiracies and the danger of trusting the omnipresent Big Brother. While the underlying story condemns war and all the side effects thereof, the true thrust of the story is that individual freedoms are far more important than the need for uniformity and the elimination of personal will.

16
More Happy Than Not
by Adam Silvera – 2015

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

“[M]andatory reading”
— The New York Times

15
The Maze Runner
by James Dashner – 2009

When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers—boys whose memories are also gone.

Outside the towering stone walls that surround them is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out—and no one’s ever made it through alive.

Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying: Remember. Survive. Run.

“Heart pounding to the very last moment.”
— Kirkus Reviews

14
The Giver
by Lois Lowry – 1993

The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, is set in a society which is at first presented as utopian, but gradually appears more and more dystopian. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to “Sameness,” a plan that has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Twelve-year-old Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with its weight.

The Giver is a part of many middle school reading lists, but it is also on many challenged book lists and appeared on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of the 1990s.

13
Divergent
by Veronica Roth – 2011

Beatrice Prior’s society is divided into five factions—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Beatrice must choose between staying with her Abnegation family or transferring factions. Her choice will shock her community and herself. She also has a secret, one she’s determined to keep hidden, because in this world, what makes you different makes you dangerous.

“A memorable, unpredictable journey from which it is nearly impossible to turn away.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

12
The House of the Scorpion
by Nancy Farmer – 2002

Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested.

His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium—a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster—except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.

Awards include the National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, Newbery Honor Book, and Printz Honor Book.

“Strong, rough, exciting reading.”
— Chicago Tribune

11
The Knife of Never Letting Go
by Patrick Ness – 2008

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him—something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears, too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World?

“Narrated with crack dramatic and comic timing. . . . The cliffhanger ending is as effective as a shot to the gut.”
— Booklist (starred review)

10
Legend
by Marie Lu – 2011

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

“A gripping thriller in dystopic future Los Angeles. This is no didactic near-future warning of present evils, but a cinematic adventure featuring endearing, compelling heroes.”
— Kirkus (starred review)

9
Have Space Suit—Will Travel
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1958

First prize in the Skyway Soap slogan contest was an all-expenses-paid trip to the Moon. The consolation prize was an authentic space suit, and when scientifically-minded high school senior Kip Russell won it, he knew for certain he would use it one day to make a sojourn of his own to the stars. But “one day” comes sooner than he thinks when he tries on the suit in his backyard—and finds himself worlds away, a prisoner aboard a space pirate’s ship, and heading straight for what could be his final destination…

8
Shade's Children
by Garth Nix – 1997

In a futuristic urban wasteland, evil Overlords have decreed that no human shall live a day past their fourteenth birthday. On that Sad Birthday, the children of the Dorms are taken to the Meat Factory, where they will be made into creatures whose sole purpose is to kill.

The mysterious Shade—once a man, but now more like the machines he fights—recruits the few teenagers who escape into a secret resistance force. With luck, cunning, and skill, four of Shade’s children come closer than any to discovering the source of the Overlords’ power—and the key to their downfall. But the closer they get, the more ruthless Shade seems to become.

“A slick, dark, engrossing novel. Grim, unusual, and fascinating.”
— Horn Book Magazine

7
Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment
by James Patterson – 2005

In this bestseller, Maximum Ride and her “flock”—Fang, Iggy, Nudge, Gasman and Angel—are just like ordinary kids, only they have wings and can fly. It may seem like a dream come true to some, but their lives can morph into a living nightmare at any time.

Angel, the youngest member of the flock, is kidnapped and taken back to the “School” where she and the others were experimented on by a crew of whack jobs. Her friends brave a journey to blazing hot Death Valley, CA, to save Angel, but soon enough, they find themselves in yet another nightmare: fighting off the half-human, half-wolf “Erasers” in New York City. Whether in the treetops of Central Park or in the bowels of the Manhattan subway system, Max and her adopted family take the ride of their lives.

Along the way, Max discovers that her purpose is to save the world. But can she?

6
Ship Breaker
by Paolo Bacigalupi – 2010

In America’s flooded Gulf Coast region, oil is scarce, but loyalty is scarcer. Grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts by crews of young people. Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or by chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life…

“Bacigalupi’s cast is ethnically and morally diverse, and the book’s message never overshadows the storytelling, action-packed pacing, or intricate world-building.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

5
The Girl With All the Gifts
by M. R. Carey – 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts is a wonderful book, which is odd praise for a story about zombies. But it’s surprisingly thoughtful, and at times, even tender, all while managing to be a fast-paced thriller. Every day I looked forward to reading it.

In a post-apocalyptic England, Melanie, along with other children, is imprisoned in a windowless bunker. They are all strapped down and muzzled whenever they leave their cells. No adult is allowed to touch them under any circumstances. Given who these children are, these are reasonable precautions. Then the installation is attacked, and Melanie is freed along with several adults, some who want her alive, some who want her dead, and others who want her dissected.

“Original, thrilling and powerful.”
― The Guardian

4
Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card – 1985

Criticized for its violence (and possibly popular because of it), Ender’s Game shows children on a military space station, training for the war against the evil alien Buggers.

It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, even though the New York Times felt that the plot resembled a “grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction rip-off movie.”

3
A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeline L’Engle – 1962

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was, in L’Engle’s words, “too different,” and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adult’s book, anyhow?”

The book has been in print continuously since its publication in 1962, so apparently it wasn’t too difficult for children. However, it has been too challenging for the more religious adults: it was on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 at number 23, due to the book’s references to witches and crystal balls, the claim that it “challenges religious beliefs,” and the listing of Jesus “with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders.”

2
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins – 2008

Like all great dystopian stories, The Hunger Games features a society gone bad that attacks the good guy (or gal, the spunky and badass Katniss, in this instance).

Some critics have railed against the book’s brutality, but teenagers have always loved stories where other teens die violent, blood-soaked deaths (see: every horror movie ever made).

“[A] violent, jarring, speed-rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense… I couldn’t stop reading.”
— Stephen King

1
Binti
by Nnedi Okorafor – 2015

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself―but first she has to make it there, alive.

“Nnedi Okorafor writes glorious futures and fabulous fantasies. Her worlds open your mind to new things, always rooted in the red clay of reality. Prepare to fall in love with Binti.”
― Neil Gaiman

7 thoughts on “19 Best Young Adult Science Fiction Books

  1. I have, because of your list, just read [and enjoyed] “Binti”.
    Two books I would rate above it are: Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy” (1957), a fierce
    novel against slavery, and “Girl with All the Gifts” [already on your list, but too low].

    I continue to encounter good new material from your lists. Thanks!

    ——- Richard

  2. BTW, I have read five out of the nineteen.
    9. _Have Space Suit – Will Travel_
    7. _Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment_
    5. _The Girl With All the Gifts_
    4. _Ender’s Game_
    3. _A Wrinkle In Time_

    I have seen three of these in movies, “Divergent”, “The Maze Runner”, and “Ender’s Game”.

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