Melvin Burgess’s top 10 books written for teenagers

From supernatural big-hitters Pullman and Meyer to thrillers from Kevin Brooks and unforgettable imagery from David Almond, the author of Junk lists his favourite teen fiction

Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight

Game-changer … Robert Pattinson, who plays a vampire in the films of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
The author Melvin Burgess published his first book, The Cry of the Wolf, in 1990, but is best known for Junk, his 1996 novel dealing with the tricky and controversial subject of heroin addiction in teenagers. His latest novel, Nicholas Dane, a punchy modern-day adaptation of Oliver Twist, is out now.

“Fiction for teenagers is a comparatively new affair. When I was in my teens no one wrote any at all. You had to go straight from children’s books to adult books without a pause. Even when I started writing in the 1990s, what was called teen fiction was really only for the first two or three years at high school at the most, with one or two honourable exceptions.

“Today, teenage fiction still covers a multitude of sins. It can range from books really written for children, which publishers call ‘teen’ for sales reasons, through books aimed at high-school students up to the age of 14 or so, to books for people nearing the end of their school careers. So here’s a list of the top 10 writers who write (or wrote) especially for people of at least 14. It contains the most influential, the most popular, and in some cases simply the best.”

1. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier

Cormier was writing quality fiction for teenagers way back in the 1970s, which makes him officially the granddaddy of us all. He conquered that most difficult of tricks: writing brilliant thrillers with beautiful prose and startling but believable characters. If he was writing for adults, he’d have won every prize going.

2. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

Chambers’s teen tales were the first that aimed to be really serious literature. His books aren’t for everyone – his dialogue, in particular, clanks alarmingly – but these are intellectually and emotionally challenging books that examine the deeper things that affect teenage lives. It’s not about the girl next door, or how well you’re going to do in the exams. It’s about who are you, why you’re here – and what are you going to do about it anyway?

3. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is famous for its theological mirroring of Paradise Lost, but Pullman’s reputation stands on his storytelling. Setting up the heavenly hordes as an enemy of life got him into trouble, but the imaginative range and wealth of characters, especially in this first book, is wonderful.

4. Junk by Melvin Burgess

My novel Junk was the first truly teenage book to attract a wide readership and deal with serious social issues upfront and honestly. There was a tremendous hue and cry when it first came out. At the time, no one really knew about teenage fiction, and the press were appalled and fascinated that a book talking knowledgeably about drugs and addiction should be awarded a children’s book prize. Is it any good? I can’t say, since I wrote it myself.

5. Skellig by David Almond

Almond’s books contain stories of great beauty and hope – magical realism for young people, written in graceful, accessible prose. There are images in them you will never forget, and Skellig is one of his finest.

6. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Blackman passes the test on all counts: first black woman to sell more than a million books; an OBE; and a huge following. Plus, she manages about the best plotting of anyone writing for young people today. The trilogy of Noughts and Crosses books are thrillers, but with a sharp eye for social, personal and racial politics. No one does it better.

7. Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks

Brooks is another thriller writer, the natural successor to Cormier. His books don’t touch on society in the way Cormier’s do, but they are beautifully written and stylish. His young male protagonists are at once touchingly innocent and knowing, quirky and very sexy.

8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This book, published for teenagers, became a bestseller with all ages. Like many great teen books, it is the voice of the narrator that makes it work so well. Christopher is autistic, and when he feels things aren’t as they seem, he has to find out about them in his own way. Partly because we know more than him, partly because he is so brave and determined, the story makes a fascinating, funny and memorable read.

9. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff’s debut spawned a host of copycat efforts, but it remains ahead of the game. Daisy’s voice is the key: you’ll rarely meet a character with so many facets, so lucidly written. Some find Rosoff’s mucking around with punctuation an irritant, but the book will be read for years to come. 

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Meyer is a game-changer. For years, publishers have been looking for mass-market teen fiction, and she’s the first to have broken through. There’s nothing new here: Meyer is no stylist; her characters are predictable; this is really just good old-fashioned romance with a supernatural twist. But if your brain is mashed from too much studying, curl up with a Twilight and she’ll do the rest.


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