The best audiobooks are pace-y, story-driven, and immersive, with not too many characters to keep track of. And ideally, for those of us with short attention spans or GoodReads challenges to beat, they’ll come in at under ten hours’ worth of listening time.
It just so happens that the above is exactly the recipe for a good YA novel too. So, we reached out to 16 best-selling authors — including Sarah Crossan, Nikesh Shukla, and Alwyn Hamilton — to ask for their recommendations. Read on for the best YA thrillers, fantasies, and classic coming-of-age tales available on audio, with star narration from Ali Wong, Tim Curry, Louise Rennison, and more.
Three of our experts recommended Canadian author Courtney Summers’s innovative true-crime-podcast-inspired YA thriller Sadie. Lauren James, author of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, says: “It’s such a creepy, atmospheric story, and the narration really captured that. It features a podcast investigation alongside the character’s story, and they recorded it just like a real true-crime podcast, with the speaking style and quirks of something like the Serial podcast.” For Lucas Rocha, author of forthcoming Where We Go From Here, Sadie was a revelation: “It was very different from what I’d normally read, so I think the audiobook was incredibly delivered. The production level made it possible for me to really dive into the world of the story.” Rebel of the Sands author Alwyn Hamilton sums up the book’s unique blurring of genres: “By the end, I half believed Sadie was a real missing girl and not a fictional character.” Rocha agrees: “It was as if I were listening to a real true-crime podcast, not a fictional one.”
“I loved this book and its characters as a teenager,” says Kate Weston, author of Diary of a Confused Feminist. Weston decided to revisit the books a few years ago, and was delighted to find out that the audiobook versions were read by none other than Rennison herself. “Hearing Louise Rennison reading it out herself really added a new and hilarious dimension to it. I love hearing her delivering the jokes and acting out the parts (particularly her parents) in such an animated way. It gave me such a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling.”
The coming-of-age novel centres Adam, an American high schooler on the day he comes out to his family. For Matt Killeen, author of Devil Darling Spy, the disorientating format of the book actually makes it ideal for audio. “It has that whole dual-narrative thing. One story is realistic and easy to identify with, and the other is extremely fantastical, and in a way that does not explain itself. The experience travels through you, and you kind of accept the discombobulation that brings, whereas I’m sure as a reader I’d have backtracked, wondering if I’d missed something.”
Nikesh Shukla, author of The Boxer, calls Dear Girls, which is also read by Ali Wong, “the perfect marriage” of stand-up and audiobooks.
Wong wrote Dear Girls as a letter to her daughters, and it’s a brilliant combination of memoir, no-nonsense advice, and unfiltered feminist jokes that’s perfect for teen listeners and Wong’s grown-up fans, too.
Shukla says, “On the page it’s incredibly funny because it is so her voice. Off the page and listening to it, it comes alive because the stand-up rhythms make it even more hilarious and off-the-wall.
“I’ve been taking advantage of the extra time gifted me by lockdown to fill in gaps in my YA canon, and to my shame had never read Twilight before,” says Kiran Millwood Hargrove, author of The Deathless Girls, “It’s a swoon-worthy story, told very well. But it’s not so gripping you can’t be doing chores or something at the same time.”
Ilyana Kadushin’s narration is “mellow and soothing to listen to, but not stupefying. The story is obviously amazing, too, problematic romance aside — I’m transported right back to being a teenager and all that longing for a life not my own!”
Hargrove has even turned her Twilight listen into a kind of remote book club, listening along with friends. She says: “It makes it a community experience, and we are compounding it by watching the films each week as we go.”
Leah Johnson, author of You Should See Me in a Crown, says Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper series is her favourite, hands down. “It’s rare for me to be so incredibly moved while listening to an audiobook that I forget someone is reading a novel to me.”
Set in Brooklyn, the Shadowshaper series weaves magic and art together in a stunning urban fantasy with magical-realism influences. The books are read by actress Anika Noni Rose, whose voice you might recognise as Tiana’s from The Princess and the Frog.
“The way Anika Noni Rose seamlessly navigates between characters and languages makes everything sound like poetry, like music. It felt like closing my eyes and laying my head in the lap of my most compelling auntie, weaving impossible tales while I dreamed.”
Sarah Crossan, author of One, says: “Half Bad was the first YA I’d listened to on audiobook — I’m not much of a fantasy fan, but for some reason setting the story very firmly in reality appealed to me. Also, the narrator, Carl Prekopp was simply superb.” Half Bad, a hybrid of Buffy and Harry Potter set in northern England, tells the story of Nathan Byrn, the son of two very different kinds of witches, torn between his healer mother and murderous, mysterious father. At 14, finally released from the cage he’s lived in all his life, Nathan has to choose a path for himself between dark and light.
“I like to listen to audiobooks when I’m driving, running, cleaning, etc,” Ben Oliver, author of The Loop, says. “You can really get lost in the story and time can fly by. With Scythe, the story was so good that I found myself just sitting down to listen without any distractions for hours at a time.”
Set in the future where death has been cured, it is the job of “Scythes” to choose and kill members of society to keep the population under control. Oliver prefers an audiobook that forgoes a full cast, and Scythe delivers: “Though it’s a book with several points of view and they could have chosen to use multiple narrators, they went with just one — which I always prefer — and [Greg] Tremblay does an excellent job at performing the story and bringing individuality to each character.”
“It’s an absorbing and intriguing novel right from the first sentence: ‘I am at the top of a hill, and although I know I have done something terrible, I have no idea what it is,’” says Lucy Cuthew, author of Blood Moon. The novel follows Flora, who is experiencing anterograde amnesia, on a quest to find herself and a mystery boy in the arctic.
“It’s a pace-y, adventurous, coming-of-age sort of love story, which unfolds like a thriller or a mystery,” says Cuthew. “At its heart, Flora is trying to work out who she is. Emily Barr is a beautiful writer, and this book has such a voice-lead narrative, it really works as an audiobook. A brilliantly narrated audiobook can be so transformative, and Rosie Jones captures Flora’s voice perfectly.”
Tom Pollock, author of Heartstream, says: “Sabriel is a wonderful story: A young abhorsen (a kind of necromancer meets exorcist) takes on a powerful malign spirit and his army of the dead. It’s got everything: battles, magic, intrigue, a supercilious talking cat. I think I loved the Cat the most, Mogget is the perfect, sarcastic, sneering, yawning, purring companion for their quest.” According to Pollock, the best part is “the perfect match of the gothic, chilling atmosphere with Tim Curry’s voice. He really leans into it, conjuring the world of the old kingdom better than anyone else I could imagine.”
Kat Dunn, author of Dangerous Remedy, says Savannah Brown’s twisty YA meditation on grief and friendship is “a compelling thriller, but doesn’t sensationalise the big issues teenagers face, and stars Syd, a complex queer YA heroine you can’t help rooting for.” Brown, a poet and YouTube personality, reads the book herself in the audio version. “Savannah’s prose is as lyrical and measured as her poetry, and to hear her read it herself is like getting directly into Syd’s mind.”
“I’ve listened to Code Name Verity three times and love it just as much each time,” says Sara Barnard, author of Beautiful Broken Things. It’s one of those books that isn’t restrained by genre or age. Anyone who loves WW2 fiction, or books about young women, or YA, or a great book in general, will love this.”
Code Name Verity is dual narrated, and “both are pitched perfectly,” says Barnard.
For readers looking for something as pace-y and character-driven as a classic YA, but leaning a bit more into the adult category, Patrice Lawrence, author of Orangeboy, swears by Ben Aaronovitch’s urban-fantasy series on audio: “A police procedural with urban-fantasy elements that brings out the geek in me — what’s not to like?”
Lawrence, who read the series in its original format, is now listening to the audio version for the second time. “The anxiety-inducing stress of COVID-19 made it hard to focus. I couldn’t write nor read fiction, but having a familiar book read to me was incredibly soothing.” She adds, “Kobna Holdbrook-Smith sounds like I’d imagined the first-person narrator, Peter Grant, sounds. It’s like the main character is speaking directly to me.
She also loves how Aaronovitch’s books represent London: “It name-checks London history and landmarks I know, from the Barbican and Old Street roundabout to Covent Garden. It also represents London in all its diverse ethnic, faith, sexuality and gender-fluidity. So dive in if you never see yourself in books!”
The short verse novel is just over three hours long and tells the story of fiery slam poet Xiomara Batista as she finds her voice. Deirdre Sullivan, author of Perfectly Preventable Deaths. says: “Poetry is a medium that lends itself so perfectly to being read aloud, in fact some poems seem to demand it. Acevedo’s use of language is powerful on the page, but as she reads aloud, she immerses the reader in Xiomara’s experience so thoroughly that you forget it’s fiction.
“There’s something very special in hearing a poet perform their own work, an extra layer of nuance and emotion that weaves through the words. It’s the closest a reader can get to accessing their intention as they wrote it, I think. Listening to this was a pleasure that felt like a privilege.”
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