YA Sci-Fi Starter Kit: 8 Diverse Books That Take You to Other Worlds (and Iowa)

LegendYA sci-fi is a thrilling, shapeshifting genre. It takes you to fantastic places you never imagined before, shows you things about yourself you never knew, and routinely breaks your heart. It just has a habit of doing all those things in space. These 8 books are your launchpad to the diverse and limitless world of YA sci-fi. Wherever they’re set—Earth now, Earth in the future, space, and other planets—there are always overwhelming feels. (Also, monsters). Let’s get started.

Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith
Smith’s spiky, propulsive novel is about the end of the world as experienced by Austin, a shy, confused teen in rural Iowa. Through Austin’s eyes and yearning heart, we experience the intense hormonal confusion and heightened emotions of high school—and a visceral, world-ending horror. Grasshopper Jungle is a hilarious, shocking, painfully heartfelt novel. Austin isn’t always likable, but his honesty, loyalty, and humor shine through as he struggles to understand his sexuality while the world is coming apart. The apocalypse has never been funnier or more emotional than this.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ship Breaker is raw, brutal, and atmospheric, set in a desperate future Earth ravaged by ecological disasters. Nailer is a scavenger who can only survive by stripping parts from the rusting hulks of ships. After a violent storm, a new ship washes up on his beach with a single survivor: Nita, aka, “Lucky Girl.” She’s on the run, and before long, Nailer, Nita, and Tool, a mysterious half-man, half-beast, must escape together, facing violence and prejudice along the way. The pace never lets up in this powerful story of humanity, hope, and acceptance.

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
While a very bored Kady stares out her classroom window, she has suddenly got a ringside seat to the start of a terrifying attack on her tiny planet. That might seem like a good way to get out of class, but Kady, a smart, hilarious, sarcastic girl who needs no one’s help to survive, barely makes it onto an escaping ship. As does Ezra, the annoying boy she just broke up with. Ugh. The ensuing chase across the stars is told through transcripts, surveillance logs, email exchanges, and gorgeous artwork. Illuminae is an epic example of everything YA sci-fi can be.

The Knife Of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness
Set on another planet, book one of the Chaos Walking trilogy is a powerful, beautifully original read. Todd is a lonely teen in a town full of men. A “germ” spread by the indigenous species has killed all the women, and afflicted the remaining men with The Noise: everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts all the time, like Twitter, but worse. When Todd escapes the town with his loyal dog, Manchee, he encounters a girl whose thoughts he cannot hear, and discovers whether the power of friendship and compassion can survive the deadly rage and fury pursuing them.

 Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray
Thane and Ciena grew up on a forsaken planet on the edge of the galaxy, dreaming of flying across the stars for the glorious Empire. They join up for pilot training, but begin to realize the Empire is capable of bad things. You know, like destroying planets. They must choose: which side are they on? Lost Stars is an affecting, deeply emotional love story between two passionate people who find themselves on different paths. It’s set in the Star Wars universe, but you don’t need to know anything about the movies to enjoy this heartfelt novel.

Legend, by Marie Lu
Legend is a shocking, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride through the crumbling sectors of a future Los Angeles. It’s alternately narrated by Day, the Republic’s most wanted criminal, and June, the shining example of a perfect young citizen. Day unknowingly kills June’s brother (awkward), and June sets out to track Day down. They both get pushed closer to the edge and have to make ever tougher choices as the high-velocity narrative hurtles to an ultra-tense finale. Lu weaves psychology, relationships, politics, and the gritty future into a genuinely thrilling adventure.

Rot & Ruin, by Jonathan Maberry
Benny Imura has just turned 15 and is looking for a job, preferably one that lets him kill zombies. He lives in the Californian town of Mountainside. On the other side of the town fence lies the Rot and Ruin, a vast wasteland infested with zombies. Benny hates zombie, but he hates his half-brother Tom even more. Then Benny, his best bud Chong, and Nix, the most awesome redhead in all of YA, are thrown into a dangerous mission with Tom. As their tense, explosive story unfolds, we’re immersed in epic, terrifyingly convincing world-building that demands you consume the rest of the series like a hungry zombie.

Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
This Australian anthology of YA sci-fi and fantasy is well named: it really is a dazzling kaleidoscope of diverse and inventive storytelling. By turns heartbreaking, mind-bending, time-jumping, and magical, this collection of extraordinary stories sparkles with emotion. Ken Liu’s “The Seventh Day Of The Seventh Moon” shimmers with fantastical poignancy, while Garth Nix’s chilling “Happy Go Lucky” plunges into dystopian space horror. All of the stories are driven by a cast of beautifully human characters: POC, LGBT, disabled superheroes, lost souls, bold souls, and those who just feel different. It’s a compelling introduction to genre YA.

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