While audiobooks and Young Adult literature have blossomed in the last half-decade, both have been turning out stellar reading experiences for much longer. Together, they’ve long been a force to be reckoned with-and I’m not just talking about Jim Dale and Stephen Fry’s warring takes on Harry Potter. Bahni Turpin, Trina Alvarado, Katherine Kellgren, Dion Graham, Kim Mai Guest, Guy Lockard, Robin Miles, January LaVoy, Fiona Hardingham, Jayne Entwistle, Kirby Heyborne—these are just a few of the masterful performers who have spent years paving the roads of Audible and Overdrive with pure YA gold.
With such a long list of guaranteed A+ listens, it can be intimidating to know where to start. So let us help! These audio experiences are the cream of the YA crop, enough to convert even the pickiest of adult skeptics.
1. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Narrators: Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs
Run Time: 6 hours and 35 minutes
Constructive conversations about the violent racism endemic to the American justice system can often seem impossible to initiate—let alone resolve. And the victims of police violence and racial profiling are often silenced, making their voices impossible to hear. This is what makes Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s novel about a black teen who is beaten by a white cop so important; it’s also what makes Buy Lockard and Keith Nobbs’ audio narration so critical. In Lockard’s resonant, organic reading, Rashad becomes a vibrant, living person whose experience becomes yours. Nobbs’ clear-voiced reading of Quinn, meanwhile-the white classmate who witnesses Rashad’s beating-explores how to productively acknowledge privilege and enter into a conversation about using it to catalyze change.
Listen to a sample here.
2. The Diviners by Libba Bray
Narrator: January LaVoy
Run time: 18 hours and 15 minutes
If I could persuade anyone to give any audiobook a shot, it would be Libba Bray’s rollicking, terrifying, heart-pattering, supernatural, achingly patriotic series. Rock star narrator January LaVoy lends her voice to an eclectic cast of characters, including a bright-eyed radio star, a smoky-voiced flapper, a smart-talking pickpocket, a pair of brothers from Harlem, a pair of witchy sisters from Virginia, a cheerful gay piano player from New Orleans, and no end of unhinged ghosts and demons. There is singing; there is haunting; there is fortune-telling; there is an unflinching, poetic analysis of America’s biggest failures and greatest promise—and LaVoy manages it all with such skill that she sounds like a full cast in one vocal box. It’s so fantastic that the series’ third book even earned a spot on our list of the best audiobooks of 2017.
3. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Narrator: Catherynne M. Valente
Run time: 7 hours and 12 minutes
Catherynne M. Valente, known for her audaciously vast and genre-hopping body of work, narrates the majority of her YA Fairyland series herself. She reads with a dreamy huskiness, which—when describing the general heartlessness of children as preteen heroine September is whisked away to Fairyland on the back of a green leopard wind—plays extra tongue-in-warmly-fond-cheek. In the way of many of the best author-narrators (Neil Gaiman top among them), Valente doesn’t swing wide to differentiate each character’s voice from the rest, instead depending on precise pauses, inflective intonation and a deep faith in the listener to be clever enough to follow context. And considering how clever every finely-wrought sentence of this series is, that’s a faith that, for the careful listeners, is richly rewarded.
Listen to a sample here.
4. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Narrators: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Lincoln Hoppe, Jonathan McClain and a full supporting cast
Run time: 13 hours and 56 minutes
If you miss the early 20th century’s radio plays, then you’ll love the magic found in the experimental space operas Illuminae and Gemina. Each audiobook uses a full cast of 20+ performers and every trick in the digital FX book to render the hacked databases through which the stories are told into compelling, thrilling productions (publisher PRH outlines the process of making Gemina, and its bespoke pop song, here). It is nearly impossible to articulate how bizarre and engrossing these audiobooks are (although, skimming the printed versions of each book might give you an idea), so you’ll just have to check them out for yourself.
5. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Narrator: Alan Cumming
Run time: 8 hours and 20 minutes
Alan Cumming is the perfect performer to take on the wide array of European and other voices in this alternate steampunk history of World War I. Just on their own, the series’ two heroes, Aleksander and Deryn, ask Cumming to become an Austro-Hungarian prince on the run and a female Scottish pilot masquerading as a boy in order to enlist. Cumming not only breathes life into their burgeoning friendship (and later romance), but also the complicated politics and less complicated high-flying thrills and explosions at the heart of this altered Great War. While you do miss out on the incredible illustrations Scott Westerfeld’s print books offer, you gain more for Cummings’ treasure of a performance.
6. My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows
Narrator:: Katherine Kellgren
Run time: 13 hours and 47 minutes
This alternate, Young Adult reimagining of tragic moment in Tudor history is hilarious, which means it needs a narrator with a keen sense of comedic timing. Katherine Kellgren’s intense vocal control is put to great use in all her performances, but in My Lady Jane—with all its shouting and wooing and poisoning and politicking and sudden animal-human transformation-it’s in top form. Plus, the story is told with tongue-in-cheek asides from the authors, which takes on an extra meta-narratorial dimension when performed by Kellgren as literal narrator. It’s narrator-Inception, and it’s magnificent.
7. The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
Narrators: Julie Berry, Allan Corduner, Jayne Entwistle and Fiona Hardingham
Run time: 11 hours and 42 minutes
Densely religious and historic, The Passion of Dolssa might initially look like a strange inclusion for a YA list—until you remember that YA literature is ever ready to subvert expectations. And what is more relevant to YA audiences in the 2010s than a story about adult men in power viciously refusing to believe teen girls and women? In service of the audacity of this (fictional) medieval mystic are audiobook giants Fiona Hardingham (a favorite for Sophie Kinsella), Jayne Entwistle (Flavia de Luce) and Allan Corduner (The Book Thief), who collude to give vibrancy to Botille, impassioned truth to Dolssa and fevered obsession to Lucien, as well as to bring charm to the series of random Provençal peasants whose interviews lend the fictional research an air of reality. It’s a false reality in which Julie Berry, voicing the fictional “writer” at the very end of the story, makes even more believable.
8. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Narrator: Anika Noni Rose
Run time: 7 hours and 21 minutes
As richly textured, diverse and haunted as the New York of Libba Bray’s 1920s Diviners series, the Brooklyn of Daniel José Older’s contemporary Shadowshaper Cypher series matches it with a Hispanic twist. Anika Noni Rose, giving dynamic voice to heroine Sierra Santiago and her joyful collection of family and friends (and to the ghosts and monsters threatening the neighborhood), makes a phenomenal case for more Broadway performers to be hired for audiobook narration. The second book in the series, Shadowhouse Fall, just came out, so get in on the ground floor—Rose optioned the TV and film rights to the series last fall.
9. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Narrator: Laura Knight Keating
Run time: 8 hours 22 minutes
The most classically “YA” of all the titles on this list, the first book in Jenny Han’s fun, contemporary Young Adult romance series is about to be a movie. So now is the perfect opportunity for you to listen to the book before the film adaptation-and to later compare the audiobook and movie performances. Let’s just say that the audiobook sets a high bar. From Lara Jean, the wise-but-young protagonist to her sisters to the many distinct (but not comically so!) male loves in Lara Jean’s life, Laura Knight Keating’s warm and breezy performances prove entertaining throughout all three books.
Listen to a sample here.
10. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green
Narrators: MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl
Run time: 7 hours and 52 minutes
I have never been so at risk of getting hit by a car on a walk than while I was listening to Tiny Cooper singing Broadway in the audio version of the now venerable Will Grayson, Will Grayson and nearly fell over laughing. While John Green has become famous for just about every other book in his catalogue than this one, and David Levithan is about to become a household name for the soon-to-premiere adaptation of Every Day, this is the book that I most fondly associate with each author, due in part to MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl’s performances of the two Wills Grayson (and their shared loved of Tiny Cooper). Pick this one up-just make sure to keep an eye on traffic when you’re listening.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult , Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.