13 Hard-Hitting YA Novels To Read ASAP

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Among my favorite types of books to read are hard-hitting YA novels. I love looking at heavy, challenging issues through new perspectives, and when coupled with the perspective of a teenager—already struggling with all that adolescence brings with it—it allows me to consider my own positions and instincts were I to be in their position then, as well as now in my adult years. This passion for hard-hitting YA novels was definitely helpful when I pinch hit recently with our Tailored Book Recommendation service (AKA offering book recommendations up), as so many readers were looking for these kinds of books. It was a great opportunity to flex my librarian reader advisory skills and my passion for things tough and challenging.

Find below a range of hard-hitting YA novels that I’ve read and loved. I’ve tried to go a bit deeper into the back list,  as well as further into some lesser-known titles worth picking up. Of course, authors like Angie Thomas, Adam Silvera, Jason Reynolds, Courtney Summers, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Elizabeth Acevedo, among others, have this tone and mood locked down in YA. They’ll always be solid, reliable authors for readers seeking tough books. Here are even more.

Likewise, if you love one of these books, be sure to explore the other books by these authors, as chances are they have even more excellent titles from which to choose.

13 Hard-Hitting YA Books

American Road Trip by Patrick Flores-Scott

When Teo’s brother Manny comes home from a tour of duty, he’s not who he was before. Not a bit. But it’s their sister Xochitl who decides it’s time to deal with both Manny’s challenges—and T’s own struggles—by taking them from their rental by SeaTac down to Hatch, New Mexico, where they’ll spend the summer helping Manny find treatment for his PTSD with their uncle, who himself struggles post-service. This book digs into race, class, and mental health, while also inviting readers on a unique road trip.

Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus

Kraus’s books are always a trip, but this one gets deep into what it is that makes us human. Liv’s father, an ardent believer in aliens, went missing two years ago after he claimed to have been abducted. Though she doesn’t believe that to be true, she and her best friend still go out weekly to check the traps her father sent for aliens. But Liv is fed up playing into this fantasy and prepares to take down the traps…and comes face to face with a creature that’s clearly not human. But what is it?

Liv and her best friend are forced now to sit with this creature and make some hard choices. Do they believe it to be what—or who—they think it is? Or do they release the creature to local authorities?

This book grapples with what humanity is, what aliens are, and is by turns enraging and engaging.

Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown

Told in a nonlinear fashion, this fabulist book is about literal Black girl magic. It’s about race and poverty, about intergenerational trauma, and about the ways Black women have always been systemically oppressed. Echo herself is dark skinned and experiences not only racism, but also colorism; this becomes a huge challenge for her when she’s given the opportunity to thrive in a new living situation, where she sees what looks like a healthy, functioning interracial relationship.

Brown’s debut novel is about Black pain, but it’s also about Black magic, Black resilience, and Black lives that can thrive, even when the world around them wants them not to. It’s a challenging read for all that we see Echo and her family go through, as well as how Brown chooses to tell the tale in disparate timelines and in vignettes. The payoff, though, both for Echo and for the reader, is more than worth it.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie Kuehn is a master of hard-hitting YA books that skirt the line between contemporary thriller, horror, and fantasy.

When Jamie’s sister went to juvenile detention two years ago for burning down a neighbor’s barn he was, in a word, relieved. Cate had started becoming more and more unhinged, doing things that were destroying her and harming her relationships with others. But now Cate is out, and she’s hell-bent on ensuring that Jamie knows the truth.

She’s anything but unhinged.

A twisty, turning, hard look at mental illness.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos

Set up as a diary, this voice-driven novel follows Macy as she navigates her tumultuous home life—one with an inconsistent mother, a father in prison, and a younger brother in the foster care system because of repeat CPS visits—with understanding why it is her best friend has been pulling away from her. Her best friend, as it turns out, has been battling her own home life demons, too. Which is really the overarching exploration here: these are teens living hard, hard lives and still managing to get up every day and go through the motions, much as it leaves an impact on them physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

Macy is, as the title suggests, struggling with mental illness as well, likely brought on by her own life experiences. The actions she takes are raw and terrible to read, but they’re vulnerable and done because of desperation.

Fans of Tiffany Jackson’s books will do great picking this one up, too.

Far From You by Tess Sharpe

Sharpe’s debut novel is one of the best Veronica Mars comps out there, and it features a main character who is bisexual and allowed to be utterly messy and complicated.

Sophie’s been in two major accidents so far. The first left her with an addition to opioids. The second left her best friend dead and her knocked out hard enough she can’t remember the person who attacked them. Worse, even though Sophie was clean, the killer left drugs on her body, leading her parents to believe she’s relapsed and needs more treatment for her addiction.

When she’s able to come back home, she makes it her mission to figure out who killed her best friend and why.

Sharp, dark, and compelling, this book explores addition, complicated family relationships, and the lengths some people will go to cover up the truth.

The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

A teen girl and her younger sister are seeking asylum in the U.S. from El Salvador, where their lives are at great risk. When they make it across the border and are held in a detention facility, Marisol’s interview goes less well than she suspects and she worries her request will be denied. She uses a break in attention by the guards to run with her sister, where she’s picked up by what seems like a nice woman who offers to help her get to New York, where she’s to meet a friend of the family who wants to help them.

The woman informs her she has an offer: she’s actually a government employee and there’s a new procedure that needs a human test subject. The procedure will remove the traumas from someone suffering and give them to an otherwise healthy individual. Marisol can be the participant, in exchange for her asylum request. Fearing deportation, she agrees.

There is so much in this tightly written book about love, family, immigration, race, and grief. For Rey, the white girl struggling with grief who is to be the “giver” of grief to Marisol, grief leads to deep depression and PTSD; the assumption by the wealthy family she’s part of, as well as the government and scientists, is that grief can just disappear. That it can be poured into someone “less worthy” to make someone feel better. The “less worthy,” of course, being a brown girl desperate for freedom. It’s an incredible premise and one that isn’t far fetched.

Heart In a Body In The World by Deb Caletti

Deb Caletti may be one of the most underrated YA authors who has been doing this kind of writing for a long time—but, given this book was a Printz honor, it’s likely one helping her catapult onto the TBRs of far more readers.

Annabelle has been victim an incident that’s shattered her internal world. To clear her head and try to do something, she begins to run. And suddenly, she decides her goal is to run from Seattle to Washington, D.C. She has no real plan but knows this is deeply what she needs and what she wants. This book digs into anxiety, PTSD, toxic masculinity, and the realities of having a female body in the world.

Heroine by Mindy McGinnis

Mickey and her best friend are involved in a terrible car accident that may leave their senior year softball season in doubt. Carolina’s arm is hurt, while Mickey sustains significant damage to her hip that requires being pinned back together. The pain is so tough that her doctor prescribes Oxy for relief, and over the course of the medicine’s ease of her pain, Mickey develops an addition.

McGinnis’s portrayal of one teen’s experience becoming hooked on opioids is anxiety producing in a way that feels all-too-real. Mickey’s addiction is hard to read, especially knowing everything she’s losing in the process of pursuing her drug of choice. It makes her feel great, but she loses her friends, her family, and ultimately, her ability to be a key player on her softball team her senior year. This isn’t an easy read in any capacity, but it’s an eye-opening one and one that really drives home the fact that addiction to opioids can happen to anyone.

I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

This graphic novel is one to pick up immediately if you love Angie Thomas or Nic Stone.

Alfonso Jones cannot wait to play Hamlet in his school’s hip hop version of the play. As he’s out buying his first suit, a police officer mistakes a hanger for a gun and shoots and kills Alfonso on the spot. When Alfonso wakes up in the after life, he’s on a train full of ghosts. These are his guides in the afterlife, all people of color who also lost their lives to police brutality.

Gorgeous and heartbreaking, this book is a must-read.

Turtle Under Ice by Juleah del Rosario

Ariana has disappeared. Her sister Row is first to discover this, but she can’t find any clues as to where she might be. Told in two voices in verse, this is a heart-felt story about grief and the ways it can manifest and emerge so differently for everyone.

A novel in verse that goes deep into what it means to grieve, as well as what comforts can help sooth those dealing with tremendous loss. Told over the course of a single day, readers see a large expanse of life for both Row and Ariana. Both are girls of color who are part Filipina, and their ethnicity is something that furthers the power of exploring grief here—it’s not something palatable, clean, easy, and consumable like the white media and “research” suggests it should be.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

What does it feel like to be lonely? To feel loss deep to your bones? That’s the story in LaCour’s tightly written, emotionally enveloping, and award-winning novel.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since she left for school, leaving California for New York. But she still feels what happened in the last few months of her life there, even if she hasn’t opened up to anyone about it. Not even her best friend Mabel.

So when Mabel comes to visit, Marin will be forced to open up and allow herself to be raw and uncensored about everything she’s feeling and experiencing. Pack some tissues for this one as you cry your way through as many emotions as you can.

We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

Henry’s been abducted by aliens a number of times, but this time, he’s given an ultimatum: in 144 days the world will end, but he can stop it if he chooses to push the big red button.

He’s not entirely sure he wants to save the world, though. Maybe it’s better that it ends.

Hutchinson delivers a fantastic, thoughtful, painful look at grief, loss, and the meaning and purpose of building a life that means something to you. It’s about love and friendship, about family, and it’s also about mental illness and when you know you need to get help because you’re ill—because it’s an illness, not a flaw in your personality. We Are The Ants is also a book about bullying, about what drives us to act, and about the depth each person has to who they are and what it is they love and do.

Want even more? I made sure not to include a single title mentioned over in this round up of hard-hitting YA.