Inspiration Corner, Personal Growth

5 Life Changing YA Books to Accelerate Your Growth

life changing ya books
photo by Valeria Boltneva

Do the words “young adult book” make you cringe? That’s always been my immediate reaction. “YA” brought to mind crushes, vampires, and clunky writing. Besides, who wants to be reminded of their awkward teen years? Luckily, working with middle-school students has forced me to reexamine this limited point-of-view. As it turns out, YA books can be very well-written and pack in some profound lessons, no matter what your age. This is yet another important reminder that — pardon the cliche — you should never judge a book by its cover (or genre). My list of life changing YA books is by no means an exhaustive one, but I chose them based on lessons they taught me about relationships, self-acceptance, and embracing challenges.

Another bonus is that you get through these books relatively quickly — unlike Moby Dick, one of my all-time favorites, but not exactly light reading. Due to this factor, they will accelerate your personal development.

5 Life Changing YA Books

best YA books


1) Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

This book has a delightfully loose feel as we drift through multiple narrators, each on their own journey of self-exploration. The story’s core, though, revolves around Debbie. At the beginning of the story, she’s reading a magazine, noticing how the articles say to “be yourself” but the accompanying photos send the opposite message. She rubs a necklace, making a wish for something, anything to happen, which sets the story into motion.

Criss Cross captures that tingly in-between zone that adolescence seems to be suspended in. Does he like me “that” way or only as a friend? Did we just have a moment, or is it all in my head?

Yeah, I know I said I’m not a fan of books about “crushes.” But trust me, this one is not your typical teen romance. It’s not mushy, nor does it have those moments I’d get watching Dawson’s Creek where, even as a teen, I’d think, “These characters sound wayyy too sophisticated for teenagers.”

Nope, the characters in Criss Cross are 100% authentic teens in all their clumsiness. It captures that feeling of not-knowingness better than any book I’ve ever read. It taught me that it’s ok to be uncertain (this applies to adulthood, too), and that this feeling can actually be euphoric in that it’s filled with infinite possibility.

You can get it on Amazon below.

2) The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

For Jess, life is rough. His parents ignore him, his sisters bully him, and then his parents tell him to stop picking on his sisters! On top of that, money is tight for their family, and Jess can feel the strain.

Jess does have one talent, though, and that’s running. He’s been practicing all summer so he can prove himself to the whole school. His big day comes, he thinks he’s gonna win, but then he gets beat…by a girl!

Leslie, the girl that beats Jess, baffles him. She looks like a boy, doesn’t own a TV (and doesn’t care that this makes her a complete outcast), and is totally nonchalant about winning the race. He decides he can’t be friends with her, not only because he’s a sore loser but also because he’s convinced that hanging out with her will make him even more unpopular than he already is. Thankfully, Leslie is persistent. She takes him to Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods created from their imaginations.

What I learned from this book is that first, we shouldn’t define ourselves based on awards and distinctions. In childhood, this is easy to spot when so many things, from sports to grades in school, are based on competition. In adulthood it’s more subtle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For me, I find myself getting way too wrapped up in website analytics and social media followers…getting green with envy when I read other bloggers’ income reports. It’s important to step back and see the bigger picture.

I also learned that we are the masters of our universe. No matter how drab or downright miserable our current reality may seem, when we reach within ourselves, we can redesign it any way we like!

You can get it on Amazon below.

3) Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Chains is the first book in the Seeds of America Trilogy (all 3 books are worth checking out). It follows Isabel, a young girl, as she attempts to escape her life of slavery during the American Revolution. This book fires on all cylinders: powerful writing, compelling characters, and action on every page. You can read my full review here.

Throughout the story, in addition to her obvious external challenges, Isabel faces many trials. These including taking care of her little sister Ruth, who has epilepsy (which at the time was equated with devil possession), and getting along with Curzon, who is just as headstrong as she is. What she discovers, though, is that any problems she has with them must be set aside if she hopes to overcome the much larger battles ahead of her.

This is an important reminder that maintaining amiable relationships can be challenging, but when it comes to the obstacles life throws our way — illnesses, financial setbacks, natural disasters — fighting with our loved ones diverts much needed energy away from these obstacles. We need to recognize that we are all on the same team and combine our resources to work toward a common solution.

You can get it on Amazon below.

4) Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose has autism, a condition which her father mostly treats as an inconvenience to himself. When she has panic attacks, he tells her to “stop misbehaving.”? At school she’s teased by her classmates, who don’t share her love for homophones and prime numbers. Her sole companion is her dog Rain, who was found during a rain storm. In Rain, she finds comfort and solace.

First, what I liked about this book is that it captures the point-of-view of someone with autism, and quite believably, I felt, from my experience over the years working with autistic children. It captures just how bewildering the world can be and how fixating on random words and numbers, which may seem strange from an outside perspective, can offer peace and even joy. In order for us to develop empathy, it’s important for us to inhabit as many perspectives as possible.

I also admired the book for its realistic approach. Rose does grow and change, but it happens gradually. For instance, a classmate tells Rose that she, too, has a list of homophones. Rose’s first reaction is to tell the girl that she has already thought of the homophones on the list. She stops herself, though, when she realizes that her classmate is just trying to be friendly, and instead gives an “enthusiastic” smile.

This demonstrates that progress is not often dramatic, but it is progress nevertheless. When it takes place, we should take note and reward ourselves.

Finally, Martin makes it clear that although Rose’s father is misguided, he’s not an evil man. He’s simply acting from the limited resources he has. From the book, then, we learn to take a more expansive, open-minded view toward others, even when it’s not easy.

You can get it on Amazon below.

5) The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Brat is a homeless orphan girl just trying to survive during the Middle Ages. After falling asleep in a dung heap to keep warm, she gets discovered by a midwife named Jane, who names her Beetle. Understandably, Beetle feels pretty worthless, and Jane, who’s stern and condescending, doesn’t do much to help matters.

When Beetle is unexpectedly called upon to help Jane deliver a baby, though, she discovers that she might be good at something after all. Throughout the book, her skills begin to increase, and with them, her confidence. This confidence is all-encompassing. She feels better about her appearance and is not afraid to stand up for herself. She renames herself Alyce, signifying her enhanced self-image. Not only has she become self-sufficient, but she takes pride in caring for others. She takes another orphan under her wing, teaching him the same lessons of self-respect and resourcefulness.

This reminded me that we should never let others define how we see ourselves. Additionally, if we don’t like what we see in the mirror, learning a new skill or improving upon an existing one can do wonders for our self-image. Then we can pay it forward by guiding those who are struggling.

Even if we haven’t quite found our footing yet, helping others can still be a great way to enhance our self-esteem and happiness. After I finished school, I felt rudderless and worthless. But when I began tutoring children with learning disabilities, I felt once again like I had a purpose.

You can get it on Amazon below.

What are your favorite YA novels? Or what’s a book you’ve read recently that’s surprised you with its depth?

6 thoughts on “5 Life Changing YA Books to Accelerate Your Growth”

  1. As one of your fifth-grade teachers, I’m happy that you remember something from that time in your life! 😉
    Your recommendations span time and place–interesting! I look forward to checking them out.

    Two more recent coming-of-age novels that I enjoyed are All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, which is a parallel story of a young German boy and a blind French girl during WW II. The writing is simply beautiful.
    Another WW II book that became a movie was The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
    Both are sweet stories about friendship, love, and courage.

    1. Thanks, Mom! By the way, the other night I was leafing through the copy of All the Light We Cannot See that you gave me. I was thinking about possibly assigning it to my American Literature class, but I don’t think it will work since the book takes place in Europe. Nevertheless, your comment is a reminder that I need to read it sooner rather than later!

  2. These are all great choices with great life lessons that definitely extend beyond young adulthood despite the target audience. Bridge to Tarabuthia was always one of my favorites and now I feel like reading it again! LOL! Great post!

    1. Thank you! And yes, it’s definitely worth a re-read! Another one I read as a kid that I’d like to re-read is Dear Mr. Henshaw. I remember our fifth-grade teacher reading it to us in class and she broke down crying. Later I learned it was because my teacher was divorced and I think the experiences of her son mirrored those of the boy in the book.

    1. I know, right?! And thanks for the recommendations! All of these books are new to me so I’m definitely excited to check out! A Family Apart sounds particularly interesting and probably pretty realistic too, given the time period.

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