Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

8 of the Best Novels About Grief and Recovering From Trauma

Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

The Book of Otto and Liam by Paul Griner (Sarabande Books).

Liam is the boy, lying in the hospital, in grave condition, a bullet lodged in his head. Otto is his father, a commercial artist whose marriage has collapsed in the wake of the disaster. The Book of Otto and Liam is a brave novel that taps directly into the vein of a uniquely American tragedy: the school shooting. We know these grotesque and sorrowful events too well. From the irredeemable act of the shooter to the anger and devastation of the victims' families, Paul Griner has managed to make an amazing, incredibly powerful book, one that is like no other.

Books can help us through different parts of our lives in different ways. They can help provide answers or camaraderie during times of indecision or questioning, and they can be companions during happy and contented times. They can also help provide solace and comfort during the hard times. I know I’ve always turned to books no matter what: when I was moving for college or for graduate school, when family members or friends were sick or when they died, when I found out I was going to be a mother, and so on.

Especially for things like grief and trauma, novels can be helpful because they show that there is no one way to grieve or heal. There is no “right” way, and grief and trauma and the subsequent healing can look different for everybody. What novels can do, then, is provide companionship and examples. They can be a quiet reminder that you’re not alone, and the stories can help provide hope. If you’re looking for some novels about grief or recovering from trauma, here is a list of some YA and adult books that I think capture an array of journeys.


Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Yes, this is a fantasy novel with Arthurian legend woven through it with secret societies and flying demons, but it is also the story of Bree Matthews, whose mother recently died in an accident. To escape her grief, she goes to UNC for a residential program for gifted high schoolers and to start anew. Except she knows that something wasn’t quite right the night her mother died, and the more she finds out about the happenings on campus, she connects it to her mother’s death. Fantasy aside, this is also a story about coming to terms with grief, and how it can reverberate, even when you try to ignore it.

Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard by Echo Brown

Echo Brown lives on the East Side, where the white rocks get people addicted and living spaces are cramped. But she’s a wizard, and manages to see magic wherever she goes. When she starts going to school on the West Side, where money isn’t a problem and things are different, portals open and Echo finds herself navigating life in two very different environments. But she is haunted: the pain and grief of family trauma, sexual assault, crushing poverty and systemic racism — and she has to reckon with this before it overtakes her.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Leigh Chen Sanders is convinced that after her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird. When she goes to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents, she decides to find that bird. In the process, she learns more about her family and builds new relationships with her grandparents. This is a story of grief and guilt, family secrets, art, hope, healing, and finding who you are, even in unexpected ways.

Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter

What would you do if your body told your future? Celeste Morton lives in a world where girls are born with markings all over their bodies that tell their future. Only women can read these markings, and when they go through puberty, the markings change, solidifying their future. During a “changeling period” when this happens, they are irresistible to men and many are abducted. Celeste’s brother Miles can read these markings, which sets him apart from others. When Celeste changes, she learns a secret that she decides to keep from everyone. What follows is a story of devastation, rebuilding, grief, and hope — along with incisive social commentary on rape culture and misogyny.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

In a small village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer takes a picture: a young girl running toward the camera, away from an explosion that killed her family. The picture immediately becomes famous, catapulting the photographer to fame. The photographer’s best friend becomes obsessed and goes into a deep depression. Her husband gets some friends to find and rescue the little girl and bring her to the States. But will this solve anything? What happens next? Yuknavitch plays with motive and POV, alternately capturing hope, devastation, trauma, grief, and connection.

The Leavers Lisa Ko cover

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Eleven-year-old Deming Guo’s mother Polly is an undocumented Chinese immigrant. One morning, she goes to work and never comes back. A decade later, Deming — now renamed Daniel, after being adopted by white parents — struggles with what he thinks he knows about his mother’s disappearance, and all that he does not. Torn between the memories he has of his old life with his mother and his adoptive parents’ expectations, he finds himself floundering. The book is told from both Deming and Polly’s perspectives, and deftly illustrates the effects of trauma and grief over a long period of time.

The Cure for Grief by Nellie Hermann

When Ruby Bronstein is 10 years old, her beloved older brother becomes a stranger, becoming someone she barely recognizes anymore. This is only the first event that changes the Bronsteins forever, altering their family landscape and bringing grief into their lives. As her family starts to break apart, Ruby seeks out normalcy the best she can. She pushes her anger and sadness deep down, until it becomes a wedge between her and everybody else. Eventually, she needs to decide whether she will ever face her past in order to move forward.

The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Marisol always loved learning about America — but she never thought she would be fleeing her home in El Salvador after her brother is murdered and her family is in danger. She never imagined she’d be caught crossing the border, but she and her sister were. Which means their asylum requests will likely be denied. But then something comes up: she is asked to be a grief keeper. She will take the grief of someone else into her body. It’s still experimental, but it’s a chance she’ll take to keep her and her sister safe. But when she falls in love, she finds out she has to take on her own grief as well.