YA books that tackle the hard stuff
These days, it seems nothing is off limits in terms of what might be in your TBR pile. Whether you’re a voracious reader of all things wizardry, dystopian, or realistic contemporary, topics we might not have discussed five, ten, fifteen years ago, are now being adapted into feature films and topping the bestseller’s lists.
Books such as The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, that shows both the gritty and sensitive sides of juvenile cancer, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, that tackles Auschwitz while narrated by Death, or The DUFF, by Kody Keplinger, which stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend (need I say more?) which focuses on body image and female friendship (aka frenemies) and off-limits boy-crushes where talk of protection and STDs is the norm.
There are many options out there as the market today is saturated with raw stories and characters in every demographic, be it adult or middle grade, but YA seems to tackle “taboo” subjects with a sense of non-apologetic grace which is what makes it so completely awesome. And of course, while some of us like a lighthearted beach read, there are many authors writing about more serious topics; things we might otherwise shy away from talking about.
Though I’ve barely scratched the YA surface, the authors mentioned below do a kick-ass job of tackling some not-so-easy issues with great voice and characterization to boot. Here’s a quick run-down of some must-haves for your issue-driven library.
When it comes to the ‘R’ word: Some Boys by Patty Blount
Author of Send and TMI, Blount tells the story of Grace Gannon who becomes a social outcast after accusing Lacrosse star and town ‘golden boy, Zac McMahon, of rape. Because of Grace’s studded boots and leather wristlets and the way she carries herself as a bad-ass, no one believes her.
This is for you if: You want to read about a heroine who finds courage, despite having the odds stacked against her, in a realistic contemporary setting. Also a great read for for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.
When it comes to bullying: Cracked by K.M. Walton
In Walton’s gripping debut novel, (to be followed by Empty), Victor is so depressed about being bullied along with his horrific life at home, he takes a bottle of his mom’s sleeping pills to escape it all. Only, when Victor wakes up in the psych ward, his roommate is the boy who’s been beating on him, Bull, who has a pretty terrible life of his own.
This book is for you if: You’re looking for a story about solid personal growth, forgiveness, and redemption in a story you’d least expect it. Fans of Courtney Summers’, Some Girls Are, or Jennifer Brown’s The Hate List, will love Walton’s take on both bullying, and healing.
When it comes to habitual vices: Clean by Amy Reed
Reed’s second YA novel (after Beautiful, before Crazy and Over You) follows five teen addicts in an upscale Seattle rehab. Told from five POVs, Clean demonstrates the process of healing through separate identities in a way that feels like you’re right there with them.
This book is for you if: You’re human. Everyone has something, am I right? For the record, I’m trying to break my daily latte habit by getting a triple instead of a double (isn’t that how it works?). If you’re a fan of gritty YA that tells it like it is, the good, bad, and the ugly, Clean is for you.
When it comes to gender or identity: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz
Etta doesn’t fit in anywhere in Nebraska. When she collides with Bianca, the girl in Etta’s therapy group who seemingly has it all, the two struggle to find their places, and identities, together.
This book is for you if: You’re struggling to find your place in this world, too. Whether it’s identity, race, religion, or whatever else, Moskowitz writes about living outside the stereotypes much like Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an engaging and heartbreaking read about a rural Montana girl who is gay, outed, and sent to “cure” her sexuality.
When it comes to suicide: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
In Niven’s gorgeous debut, Violet and Theodore meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school and save each other from their separate yet equal suicides. What could be a totally tragic story is actually a beautiful guide to live, IMO.
This book is for you if: You want a story of hope in the wake of something so difficult (don’t we all?) and is also great for fans of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why , Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes, or Jodi Picoult’s The Pact.
When it comes to body image: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Never one to shy away from tough topics, Halse-Anderson’s gripping story of best friends, Lia and Cassie, caught in a deadly competition to be the thinnest, shows the ongoing torment of this daily struggle, after one of the girls is found dead, and the other is left to deal with her own body image issues.
This book is for you if: You’re a fan of Erin Jade Lange’s Butter, Skinny by Ibi Kaslik, or Perfect by Natasha Friend. Self confidence doesn’t come easy to everyone. All of these books equally point out how differently we see ourselves, vs. how the world sees us.
When it comes to consensual sex: The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry
Kate’s and her disabled veteran boyfriend, Aiden are everything you’d want to read in a YA book that deals with sex, especially when it’s Kate’s first time. Filled with awkward, honest, and tender moments, these scenes are almost too real (in a good way).
This book is for you if: You’ve ever had a first, second, or third love and you want to experience those tingly feelings all over again. Fans of the adorable Mia and Adam in If I Stay, by Gayle Foreman, all the way to Ignite Me, by Tahereh Mafi, which is the series conclusion of the Shatter Me empire, will fall head over heels for this kind of closeness and intimacy. If you’re looking for more awkward, however uncomfortably real, give Looking For Alaska a read while the incomparable John Green is still fresh on your radar.
When it comes to nearly all of these topics: Ellen Hopkins’ books
Some of Hopkins’ stories are based on true events, which makes her books that much more important. She writes in verse on everything from addiction to abuse, and she does so, beautifully and honestly without sacrificing content.
These books are for you if: You want to hear the cold, hard truths in a rhythmic, poetic way. Though thicker than most YA books, you’ll devour every page in no time flat, because they’re just that good.
While none of these topics are easy, the point is, read, think, discuss. I can only hope to deliver a book with such courage and bravery as these authors (as well as the hundreds I didn’t mention). It’s because of you, we’re able to talk about these things and with an open dialogue comes understanding and with understanding comes a more compassionate world.
And that is the world I want to live in.