What boggles my mind is the exponential growth, depth, breadth and excellence of today's young adult fiction. That's as opposed to In My Day™ (a halcyon time that dates me terribly, but doesn't have me going all grumpy old crone just yet). In My Day™ it seemed like there was only Madeleine L'Engle, Choose Your Own Adventures, and Island of the Blue Dolphins. That wasn't all, but you get the idea.
Now? The term "YA" is no longer a four-letter word and is no longer synonymous with limiting, "childish" subject matter, fair-to-middling quality, or soft, weak niche sales. Quite the contrary. The market is booming. The writing is much more sophisticated. More so than standard adult fare often times. That demarcation line of "too old to be reading this" has blurred irrevocably.
Today's YA genres are more specialized & more vast – wizards (duh), dark fantasy, magic realism, horror, and even satire and hard sci-fi. And things like sexuality, gender identity, depression, murder, suicide, and death are routinely (often realistically) addressed as opposed to being exceptions to the rule. Subjects deemed suitable for YA's nowadays were rare or unheard of In My Day™.
And the quality of the books themselves — their construction, lavish illustrations, and packaging — represents a stylistic renaissance. The books look great on your shelves, like books you'd want to pass down from generation to generation, or discover when you're a kid to change your world forever.
Many reasons behind this YA boom are cultural or anthropological. Generally speaking, there are more kids out there. Tweeners happened, as well as "Teh Interweb" revolution. And the significance of a book released in 1997 introducing a character named Harry Potter cannot be discounted. For better AND worse.
Okay, my Rowling Rant: count me as one who surfs the tsunami wave of Potter backlash. But this stems from my three — yes, three — abandoned attempts to get through the first freaking book. Harry spent so much time dickering at the Wizard School Supply Store and the Bank that I couldn't be bothered, at page 100-something, to finish wading through thickets and thickets of Exposition by the Big Fat Wizard Guy & see him to finally get to his first class. And doesn't EVERY book start the same way (locked in his closet with his mean Muggle guardians, spirited away to the Wizard Bookstore, pages of Fat Guy Exposition)? Now a shelf of Potter books later, the "you should really give it another shot" ship hath sailed.
Besides, there's tons of superlative YA out there, thank Zeus. I do have minor quibbles with the unceasing YA volcano:
1) While grateful that J.K. Rowling kicked the door down like a SWAT team raid and unbottled the YA fiction genie, it's been at the expense of other more prolific & more talented authors. It ain't just Harry Potter, folks. To wit: Diane Duane scooped Rowling's "kid wizard" concept more than 10 years before the first Harry Potter novel with her Young Wizards series. The bright side: Duane's OOP books got republished & now she's got a bigger readership (she doesn't have to rely solely on those Star Trek novels).
2) It being a business, everyone and their mothers now wants to write (or worse, merely thinks they can write) a YA novel. Lots of "serious" adult authors are breaking both ankles hijacking the YA bandwagon. I see the appeal – growth market, change of thematic pace, and they probably write them in between their meatier, adult fare.
Some of these are excellent (Michael Chabon's Summerland, Carl Hiassen's Hoot & Flush). Others give me cynical pause, like James Patterson's Maximum Ride. He cranks out 80 cookie cutter thrillers a year so this seems more an unconcealed two-fisted grab at the YA market, or a potential gateway drug for said YA's to go buy Patterson's mediocre Alex Cross tripe-ery once they graduate.
3) Worse than people simply thinking they can write a novel, they go for an entire YA series. Thank Rowling for that too. Multiple books make sense for the readers, writer, and publishing houses. But it runs the risk of lesser writers producing the literary equivalent of a Rocky XVIII.
All great YA fiction has one truism in common: it respects the readership, and treats its readers like adults. This emphasis on "adult" in the phrase "young adult" is clutch. Books that treat kids like kids are anathema. Books that are the metaphorical equivalent of a condescending aunt patting you on the head murmuring "goo-goo-ga-ga" instead of noticing that you can handle something much more maturely.
Here's a list of authors I recommend and others that I'm shilling based strictly on buzz:
Francesca Lia Block is a gorgeously gifted writer. Reading her words is like feasting on a sumptuous, home-cooked meal with fresh ingredients and lots and lots of dessert. Her "Weetzie Bat" cycle of books (mostly collected in her novel Dangerous Angels) is the best place to start.
Cornelia Funke is the third best-selling author in Germany (behind Rowling, natch, and R.L. Stine). But her second runner-up status doesn't diminish her book Inkheart, which comes up with a terrific concept: what if reading books aloud permitted the characters in them to come to life and inhabit this world? And what if it wasn't always the nice characters (Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter) but the not-so-nice (evil) ones too?
MT Anderson and Scott Westerfield are critically acclaimed YA and sci-fi writers. Anderson's Feed and Westerfield's Uglies, Pretties, & Specials trilogy are equal parts speculative, satire, and scary. The best sci-fi also is human and emotionally honest, and these books are all excellent efforts as strong as any "adult" novel in the field.
Eva Ibbotson exhibits more of Roald Dahl's spark on her grocery lists than Rowling has in her entire literary output. She's also been around a lot longer, trucking in the fantastic, the whimsical, and the fabulistic without trying too hard. Good places to start include The Secret of Platform 13, Which Witch?, or Island of the Aunts.
And books I'm judging solely on the merits of their covers and blurbs:
Monster Blood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish – the first book ("Foundling") of an epic, fully-realized, world-building series that is already garnering comparisons to Tolkien (hopefully without all the boring-as-hell Hobbity walking/eating/singing idleness);
Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow (who also does lots and lots of woodcut-esque, old-timey original illustrations for the book);
The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers, a German writer who has penned and illustrated this massively imaginative tome;
Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, who introduces a kick-ass female protagonist who meets a kick-ass female superspy in the secret tunnels and civilization under Manhattan.