Vampires, a pigman and magicians, oh my! The world of ‘young adult’ literature is one where many readers go to find comfort and solace for their feelings of alienation, and confusion, and to let their imaginations soar. YA has been cited as one of the most popular and fastest-growing niches for publishers, and despite the classification it’s not just for adolescents. Grown-up men who enjoy sci-fi, housewives who look for a romantic edge -indeed, enthusiastic readers of all ages and genres might often cite ‘YA’ as one of their favourite areas of new literature. Often the best and most popular YA authors are the ones who take readers to fantastical places they’ve never been while imbibing these worlds with a sense of familiarity, or those who take their readers to places the readers recognize with a new sense of understanding. YA literature isn’t a ‘genre’ in and of itself, though; it encompasses a range of genres from sci-fi and fantasy, right through to teen-angst relationships, historical dramas and social issues. What defines the Young Adult sector is that it’s targeted at an adolescent market – but research suggests that well over half of YA readers are, in fact, over 18. The jury’s out, though, on whether this is more a positive comment about the novels on offer, or a worrying indictment of our generation!
The authors on this list have been selected based on considerations that include the numbers of books sold, awards garnered and overall influence, public profile and legacy. The difficulty in ranking these authors by popularity comes in the fact that every well-know YA author typically sells a lot of novels – and they’re prolific, releasing a lot too. Lois Duncan for example, an award-winning YA mystery writer who’s been in the business for 60 years with over 50 books written (and movie adaptations that include “I Know What You Did Last Summer”) is conspicuously absent from the list because even the author doesn’t have an estimate on how many books she’s sold.
Nobel Prize winner William Golding of “Lord of the Rings” fame is also absent on the technicality that he is not strictly a YA author. M.E. Kerr, who challenged stereotypes and introduced gay teen characters with her books “Deliver Us From Evie” and “Hello, I lied” along with horror writer Christopher Pike and original “Hardy Boys” ghost writer Leslie McFarlane, did not meet enough of the criteria needed to narrow the extensively competitive field to just ten.
The world wouldn’t be the same without the following voices that shaped adolescent minds and the YA genre. These writers have mastered the universal ability to provide answers for problems that seem insurmountable, and companionship in times of loneliness, by reaching deep to the heart of the matter and presenting truth in a way only teenagers can fully appreciate. Ranked by millions of copies sold – but by no means an exhaustive best-selling breakdown of the wide market- these are 10 of the YA authors who defined their genres, their generation and the landscape of literature. For the purposes of creating a more succinct snapshot, we’re only looking at authors who became active after 1900.
10. Paul Zindel: 7+ million copies sold
In 2014, Zindel is perhaps of the more obscure YA authors. Born in 1936 in Staten Island, NJ, Paul Zindel was the literary voice of a generation in the 80s. Zindel, who wrote 40 books for teenagers, was also a successful Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Before passing away in 2003 at the age of 66, the writer was awarded the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents Award, for contributions to young adult literature. And his contribution has been significant, leaving behind a treasury of tumultuous and comedic books that expertly weave realism and insight in the often troubled day-to-day lives of his endearing teenagers. While almost all of his books were bestsellers in their days, ‘The Pigman’, Zindel’s most famous title, has sold far beyond 7 million copies on its own, and has been widely taught in classrooms. While he has been credited with helping to usher in the existence of the YA genre, the empathetic author’s uncanny understanding of the sense of isolation, and love’s passions and frustrations that are so integral to young peoples’ existence, has perhaps been his greatest legacy.
9. S.E. Hinton: 14+ million copies sold
This author was only 17-years-old when she wrote one of the best known classics of YA literature. Susan Eloise Hinton was a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she wrote the 1967 novel, “The Outsiders”. The story, about a group of ‘greasers’, was taken from her own experience as a friend to her two neighbourhood gangs. Hinton, a self-professed tomboy growing up on her mother’s farm, worked part-time in a bookstore until the instant success of her first novel which only grew as she continued to publish. Her books have been adapted to film, and received numerous awards in the genre. But it was her abrasive realism and neoteric voice in “The Outsiders”, which is still taught in classrooms today, that broke ground in the YA genre. Its universal themes of teenagers’ struggles on the outer fringes of society range true. S.E. Hinton, who is known for being a very private writer, still resides in Tulsa.
8. L.M. Montgomery: 50+ million copies sold
Born in 1874 on Prince Edward Island in Canada, Lucy Maud Montgomery was an only child in a remote town who grew up with the characters she created in her mind. Her real life mirrors the famous feisty red-headed character depicted first in her 1905 novel “Anne of Green Gables.” Unable to find a publisher upon the novel’s completion, Montgomery seemed to lose hope and motivation, stashing the manuscript in a hat box for the next two years. After gaining new resolve, she set out again and this time the book became a reality; it was published in 1908 and was an immediate bestseller. Anne Shirley is one of the most cherished characters in the history of Young Adult literature with her wild spirit and willful desire to follow her heart, despite the social norms of her day. This feminist spirit of the titular character carried through into the author’s real life, when she was the first female to be named a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England. The book has been turned into a long-running international musical, and an award winning Canadian television drama. Montgomery went on to write 20 novels including the popular “Emily of New Moon” series, all set in Prince Edward Island. She passed away in 1942 but her books are still widely read by children today.
7. J.D. Salinger: 65+ million copies sold
“The Catcher in the Rye” is one of a kind. Before the popularity of sequels and series took hold of the literary landscape there was one book to rule them all. The only full-length novel ever produced by a notoriously reclusive writer still sells on average of 250,000 copies a year. This 1951 book, written from the perspective of a young foul-mouthed character by the name of Holden Caulfield, chronicles three days in New York City, following the 17-year-old’s expulsion from prep school. His angry ennui masks a sensitive vulnerability and his confusion of taking on the future as an adult, presenting valuable themes that have been praised by parents and educators alike.
The book was named by Time Magazine as one of the best 100 English language novels between 1923-2005. Salinger, who was born in 1919 in New York, wrote many short stories all focusing on adolescent characters although it is argued he did not expressly write for teenagers. While he is often credited with creating the YA genre, this was a category also developed through the contributions from S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel. Despite the ambiguity as to who the intended audience was originally, there is no doubt Salinger’s book is a seminal coming-of-age story. The author passed away in 2010.
6. Judy Blume: 82+ million copies sold
Judy Blume’s most recognized title, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” was arguably one of her most significant contributions to the YA genre. Previous to its publication in 1970 it could be said there had never been a female voice so relatable and brazenly forthright about private matters as the enigmatic Margaret Simon. Blume’s comedic and embarrassingly real tale of a girl teetering on the edge of adulthood broke ground with its frank first-person openness. The story detailed a young girl’s struggle to pull back the veil on adult issues of sex and religion. Blume further established a voice of newly discovered sexuality with her follow-up “Forever,” published in 1975. The book received a fair share of controversy at the time for its explicit nature that had not ever before been tackled. The writer has also produced many cherished classics in celebration of the underdog, including “Blubber”, “Deenie” and “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.” Blume, now 75, lives in Key West Florida. Her books have been adapted to film and TV, and she continues to influence younger generations including the 20-something trailblazer Lena Dunham.
5. Roald Dahl: 100+ million copies sold
To many, Roald Dahl was a bizarre and thrilling voice that shed light on the vast and limitless expanse of the imagination, with his tales of a flying peach, a charismatic Fox and a dark chocolate factory owner. Dahl, from South Wales, was a rambunctious and mischievous child who eventually became a WWII fighter pilot. A crash landing in Egypt set him on a path of recovery that saw him transferred to Washington D.C. It was there he met fellow writer C.S. Forrester and was encouraged to write.
He has since established himself as a bestselling voice in the YA genre, with his hysterically grim teachings in the ways of the world, from what ugly thoughts to do people’s features, to the consequences of doing what you want, when you want it… ahem, Violet Beauregarde. Of Dahl’s 37 books his inventive and treasured tales include “Matilda”, “The Twits” and “James and the Giant Peach”, with numerous movie adaptations that include the classic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl passed away in 1990 at the age of 74.
4. Stephenie Meyer: 125+ million copies sold
At the outset, Stephenie Meyer‘s influence on YA literature may seem more superficial than the thematic depth offered by her contemporaries. But there is no doubt that the 40-year-old author, born in Hartford, Connecticut, has made a lasting impact on this generation of young readers with her Vampire/Werewolf forbidden love trilogy. Perhaps her greatest strength is her ability to represent the yo-yoing bliss and heartache of teenage love. She has also breathed life back into the Vampire genre, previously tapped by authors Christopher Pike and L.J. Smith whose careers underwent a resurrection as a consequence of Meyer’s popularity.
“Twilight” debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at #5, in 2005, which went on to be named an “ALA Top Ten Books for Young Adults”. The series continues to be consumed and celebrated worldwide by devoted fans. Meyer, who currently in Arizona, has seen all four of her published books turn into financially lucrative movies, including the sci-fi thriller “The Host.”
3. C.S. Lewis: 200+ million copies sold
Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After participating in WWII as a member of the British Army, Lewis was famously disheartened by the state of humanity and the loss of his friends on the battlefront. He considered himself an atheist until a significant friendship changed his way of thinking. In 1931, after a deep conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis converted to Christianity. This devout religious influence can be found in the mystical adventures of four children who discover an alternate world, part of an enchanted multiverse, through their grandfather’s wardrobe.
The seven book series, starting with “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” in 1950, became one of the most creative and enduring in the genre, currently published in 47 different languages. He is considered an influence for contemporary YA authors like Philip Pullman, as well as adult fiction writers like Lev Grossman. Lewis’ books have been adapted to television, radio, stage and film and he received the Carnegie Medal, a prestigious British Literary Award, for the final book in the Narnia series, “The Last Battle”. Lewis passed away in 1963 at the age of 65.
2. J.R.R Tolkien: 250+ million copies sold
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, known professionally as J.R.R. Tolkien, created a legacy in YA fiction with his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” prequel. The pre-historic era tale, set in an invented world called Middle-Earth, came from an imagination steeped in scholarly knowledge. The author was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford. Growing up in poverty, Tolkien showed an early knack for languages but later, during his university studies, he was sidelined by WWI. Upon return from service, and devastated by the loss of so many of his comrades in arms, Tolkien created “The Book of Lost Tales”. While it remained unpublished in his lifetime, it set the grounds for tales of elves and gnomes, their languages and the wars referenced in later works. “The Hobbit” was published in 1937 to much success, with the “Lord of the Rings” published between 1954 and 1955 to mixed reviews. Those reviews are history now as Tolkien, who needed no help from Director Peter Jackson’s massively successful movies, has long established a world-wide following. His elaborate, multi-layered fantastical tales of moral integrity, and the great battles between good and evil, draws young and old readers alike.
1. J.K. Rowling: 450+ Million copies sold
In a 2007 documentary hot on the heels of the author’s unprecedented success with the Harry Potter series, a camera crew follows Rowling to her old low-income apartment in England, where she started writing as a young mother on welfare. Rowling walked through the rooms refurnished by new tenants. She stopped at the doorway of a teenage girl’s bedroom where, on the bookshelf, sat a row of Harry Potter books. It’s a poignant full-circle moment that causes Rowling to stumble for composure.
Rowling overcame many difficulties of financial and familial pressures to complete the first three books of her series, published in the late 90s. These stories introduced the world to the ethereal, boisterously wonderful world of Hogwarts and three gifted cherub-faced kids. The seven books have led to eight movie creations of her work, numerous awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and incalculable numbers of dedicated Potter fans across the globe. Rowling has made a mark in the collective conscience with her labyrinthine adventures detailing the black, white and grey areas of morality, integrity and humility. Ron, Hermione and of course Harry Potter are fictional characters that have stepped out of the pages to settle in the hearts of many readers – both the young, and the young at heart. Rowling, now 49, currently lives in Edinburgh and is making her foray into adult fiction. Her legacy on the world of fantasy, even less than 20 years after the release of her first ever novel, establishes her as one of the most influential authors in the YA industry, and in literary history.
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