A big part of growing up is coming to terms with death: our own mortality and the mortality of the people we love. For this reason, it doesn’t surprise me that death looms large in young adult literature. From books about sick and dying teenagers, like The Fault in Our Stars and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, to books about the end of the world, like Grasshopper Jungle and Life As We Knew It, stories dealing with this theme continue to be popular in books written for and about teenagers. Death often creates both a high stakes plot and a sense of catharsis in stories. There is enough distance for readers to philosophically and emotionally process the idea of death and mortality.
This summer, I experienced the first death of someone I loved. Since then, I’ve found myself gravitating towards YA books that shift the focus to the people who are left behind. I hadn’t even noticed this trend in my reading until I looked at my top rated books on goodreads and saw the common theme. Whether expected, tragic, or both, these six recently-published books year tackle death, grief, and mourning with nuance and hope.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
This non-linear storyline leaves a lot of what happened to Marin the summer before college for the reader to discover. What we know is that she left early, moving across the country and ceasing contact with everyone from her old life. Despite the title, it’s not at all certain that Marin is okay. Now, her former best friend is coming to visit and she’ll have to stop pretending and confront her grief. This book is beautiful, sparse, and perfectly paced.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
When sixteen-year-old Starr witnesses the police shoot her unarmed, childhood best friend, Khalil, her community responds with both grief and outrage. Now Starr must navigate her place in the growing protest movement, while allowing herself to privately mourn for her friend. This story doesn’t just focus on personal grief, it also shows how many approach this tragedy with hypocrisy and racism. Instead of properly mourning as a community, the police and the media and even students at Starr’s mostly-white prep school try to imply the shooting was Khalil’s fault. Publisher’s Weekly called this book “heartbreakingly topical” and I agree.
History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Griffin’s story is split into the before and after of the drowning of his first love, Theo. In the before, we see Griffin and Theo fall in love and then drift apart as Theo moves to California and starts dating Jackson. In the after, we see Griffin befriend Jackson as the two try to make sense of their grief and unusual connection to each other. With death, mental illness, and heartbreak as prominent themes, I worried this book would be way too sad. While there were tears – oh were there tears – I felt all the feelings while reading. Sadness. Happiness. Anger. Fear. All of them.
The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu
This book takes place in an America with an alternate recent history. After terrorist attacks, American society is obsessed with commemoration and superstition. There are daily moments of silence, and in school students memorize facts about victims instead of traditional history.The main character, Lorna Ryder, experiences personal grief. Her father was killed five years ago in an attack and one of her best friends recently died. But the real drama of the story centers on Lorna’s neighborhood. Rumors state that boys who are loved by Devonairre Street girls are cursed to die. Lorna’s story explores a fear of death and a fear of female sexuality, while showing how society tries to control both.
Girls Like Me by Lola StVil
Told through social media messages and verse, love and grief are deeply entwined in fifteen-year-old Shay Summers’s life. There’s the love she had for her father who died last year and the love she has for her sick best friend, who’s probably going to die soon. There’s also the love she starts feeling for the anonymous boy she messages with online and the love she doesn’t feel for herself due to being overweight and unpopular at school. Shay tries to come to terms with all these loves to begin living her life and discover who she after a prolonged mourning period.
The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood
In pursuit of a new quantum physics formula, Gottie begins to travel back in time. She is unable to control it and revisits last summer, when her grandfather died, over and over again. In her present, she is trying to move on, imagining her future at university and falling in love with her best friend Thomas. But in a physical manifestation of her grief she literally is unable to let go of the past, reliving her worst moments and forcing her to face the ocean of emotions she feels about her grandfather’s death.