Trends in publishing show up pretty prominently in YA books, likely in part because of how trends for teenagers emerge more broadly. This becomes really evident as you notice the rise and fall of stories filled with vampires or dystopian futures, but it’s also apparent with other themes and topics. Although they never truly disappear—you’ll always have these books—the fluctuations shift. Such is the case with YA books about cults.
YA books about cults are having a moment right now, and they’re going to continue their growth over the next year or two in the category. Perhaps because of the ways they connect neatly with fans of true crime as well as fans of thrillers, YA cult books are a natural fit for those readers.
YA cult books go further than that, though, as they represent the adolescent experience more broadly. Feeling stuck, sheltered, controlled: these are all common teen experiences that push against the innate desire to grow and bloom into a unique and independent person.
What constitutes a cult book, though? For all intents and purposes—and for this list specifically—a cult is a group defined by its devotion to religious, spiritual, or philosophical practices that fall outside of the “norm.” Defining “norm,” of course, is in and of itself challenging, and therein lies what it is that makes cult books so fascinating. Where is the line between a normal religious or spiritual practice and one that becomes obsessive and dangerous?
These books are also scathing critiques of the patriarchy. It’s hard not to notice nearly every book features a female main character seeking freedom. Many times, it comes through the form of a boy who isn’t what he seems to be, further deepening the critique of systems created, cultivated, and thriving from masculine power.
For YA books about cults, it’s vital to acknowledge the serious lack of authors of color, as well as characters of color, in the catalog of titles. There certainly are some, as will be seen here, but it’s a very white array of books. People of color, who’ve been systemically oppressed, don’t have the same kind of freedoms to write these stories, as what constitutes “cult” experience in their lives doesn’t necessarily fall under religious social groups. Rather, their mere existence is oppressed and tamped down under sociopolical systems themselves. This does not mean that there aren’t cults—real or imagined—with people of color. But it does mean they’ve not yet seen their time in YA books.
Let’s hope they get to share those stories, too.
Compelling and Engaging YA Books About Cults
After the Fire by Will Hill
Moonbeam, as well as several other young people, survived a fire that killed dozens of members of the cult to which she belonged. While working through her trauma with a psychiatrist, the FBI has also launched an investigation to find out what happened. Moonbeam, now free, wants nothing more than to find out what happened to her mother after the fire.
Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams
What’s more terrifying: a cult or a pandemic? McWilliams offers those two together in this debut novel.
Agnes always liked her quiet home life in Red Creek, where she looks after her siblings. But a chance encounter with a boy from the Outside leaves her questioning whether or not she really does like it or she’s been led to believe it. Medicine is outlawed in Red Creek, and Agnes’s brother Ezekiel needs insulin to survive. When she escapes with him, leaving the rest of her family behind, she’s confronted with a pandemic and discovers a link between herself and the virus.
The Believing Game by Eireann Corrigan
As punishment for her out-of-control behavior. Greer’s parents ship her off to McCracken Hill, a private, cloistered academy for troubled teens. Greer hates the cult-like world of McCracken. But when she meets Joshua, who introduces her to his mentor, she feels completely taken by the man and finds herself finally feeling understood.
Greer begins to question Joshua, what his motives are, and how he came into her life, and as she digs deeper, she discovers a new world of danger.
Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett
Ash’s mother has disappeared, and she’s convinced her mom has returned to Quivara, Kansas, home to the spiritual commune that she’d once escaped from. Her mother is nowhere to be found among the town and its sinister history and traditions, which begin to plague Ash and her memory.
It’s no surprise when a boy captivates her attention and begs her to look deeper at the history of Quinvara…and no surprise when the boy himself might not be all he seems. This is a cult book with serious horror flavor to it for those who liked their stories especially dark and wicked. It’s the first in a duology.
The Cemetery Boys by Z. Brewer
A darkly funny book, Brewer’s standalone follows Stephen when he learns that, due to mounting medical bills, he and his family will be moving to a tiny town to live with his grandmother. Things look rough until he meets punk girl Cara and her brother Devon—he likes to pine for Cara and hang out with Devon and his friends, who seem like a solid group to fit in with. The longer Stephen hangs out with Devon, though, the more he’s beginning to see that perhaps their nights in the cemetery aren’t as harmless as they look. It might be that Devon is a leader of more than simply a group of friends.
The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
It’s secret visits to the mobile library on the edge of her community where 13-year-old Kyra begins to learn the reality of her life: her father’s numerous wives, having over 20 siblings, and the fact the Prophet has declared that she’ll be marrying her 60-year-old uncle who already has several other wives. When she meets Joshua on one of her secret trips, she falls for him and must wrestle with the realities of her life as-is or forever leave behind her family to get away from what’s before her.
Come November by Katrin Van Dam
When Rooney’s mother loses her job at the start of her senior year, she doesn’t plan to get a new one. Instead, she’s devoting herself to the Next World Society, a group which believes they’ll all be leaving the planet on November 17. Rooney doesn’t understand, but her mother and younger brother are all-in. How can Rooney keep her family together and save them from a dark future and from disappointment?
The Cresswell Plot by Eliza Wass
Castella and her five siblings live in a busted up home deep in the woods of upstate New York, where they follow the strict rules of God as told to their father. They’re all outcasts at school, ridiculed for their looks, behaviors, and beliefs. But when Castella is partnered for a project with George, she’s exposed to a whole new world outside of her own. Itching to explore, Castella yearns for freedom beyond the woods, but she’s too afraid to do it without her siblings.
When her father announces the family will soon be departing for heaven, Castella knows she needs to act now to save her life and the lives of her siblings.
Devil In Ohio by Daria Polatin
Based on a true story, Polatin’s novel begins when 15-year-old Jules comes home from school to discover a girl named Mae will be staying with her family. Jules’s mother is a psychiatric nurse and Mae is one of her patients.
But the longer Mae stays with them, the weirder she becomes and more the Jules becomes uncomfortable around her. When she discovers a pentagram carved in Mae’s back, Jules pieces together that Mae is a survivor of an embedded cult not far from her home…a cult that’s eager to get Mae back.
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu
Rachel’s family is strictly religious. From deciding what her marriage will look like, her future about bering children, and her current life of deep modesty, Rachel has known no other way than that of this community to which she belongs.
But when Rachel meets a former community member and learns about life outside this system of belief—a girl who has moved back to their small Texas town after escaping and is able to stake her own claim in life—she begins to see there is more out there and she’s eager to see it.
Down From The Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer
Eva wants to be a good disciple to the Righteous Path. She knows she and her family will be saved when Armageddon comes. But now that they’ve moved to the compound in Colorado, things begin to change: their food supplies are going missing, the compound leader is stockpiling weapons, and Eva is the only source of income for her family—she sells jewelry in town and will do so until she marries the compound leader.
When she meets outsiders during her work selling jewelry, Eva begins to wonder if life on the Righteous Path is the right one or if she and her family are pawns in a dangerous game at the compound.
Eden West by Pete Hautman
The Apocalypse will only spare those living in the 20 square miles of Nodd in the land of Grace. This is paradise, the chosen place, full of devotees who are safe from all the wickedness of the world beyond their fence.
At least, that’s the story 17-year-old Jacob has been told again and again. When he meets Lynna, a girl from outside, his world is rattled by the idea that things inside Nodd might not be all that they seem to be.
Family by Micol Ostow
Inspired by and loosely based on the Manson family, Ostow’s novel in verse is a story about young people who feel broken and want nothing more than to belong…even if it means certain ruin for them.
Gated by Amy Christine Parker
The first in a series, Parker’s book follows Lyla, who has been a devoted follower of The Community, where she lives. Her family was selected by Pioneer to join this elite community. When Lyla meets Cody, a boy from the outside, she suddenly begins to wonder whether or not Pioneer is who he pretends to be and whether or not The Community is all it’s cracked up to be.
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana
Tara is a student at an academically intense high school on scholarship, and her world becomes even more challenging when she discovers a message from an alternate Earth is received from light years away. On this planet, there’s another Tara, living an entirely different life because of a few changes in choices she’s made—think Sliding Doors, but on another planet.
This discovery at first brings about small shifts on Earth, but soon the shifts grow bigger and bigger, including the shift wherein her mother’s obsessive news watching turns into connecting with a cult.
No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss
Abigail’s parents gave up everything, including their home, to the end-of-times preacher. They thought he was right and that the end times were coming. But now that they’ve lost everything, all Abigail wants is some sense of normalcy. How can she achieve that, knowing she has nothing? Where does she find faith enough in herself to keep her family surviving—and help them return back upright?
The Project by Courtney Summers (February 2021)
Summers isn’t known for shying away from big topics in her fiction, and her upcoming book The Project takes a dive into the world of cults. Lo’s sister Bea joined The Unity Project after her parents died, leaving Lo in the care of her great aunt. Though the group won the approval of the greater community, Lo doesn’t think The Unity Project is all that it seems. She’s out to investigate the truth behind the group, including what it is leader Lev Warren wants from his followers…and, perhaps, Lo herself.
Quiver by Julia Watts
What happens when, in rural Tennessee, a teen whose family follows the quiverfull movement connects with a teen who identifies as a feminist genderfluid socialist vegan?
This book explores cult-like fanaticism, digging into the extremes of social beliefs and practices.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
The Kevinian cult took away Minnow’s life, family, trust, and, when she attempted to escape, it took away her hands, too. With the murder of the Prophet and fire that destroyed the compound, Minnow is at the center of the question of what really happened. This compelling, engaging, and fast-paced read was made into a series for Facebook Watch called Sacred Lies.
The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn
Arman, who has always struggled with chronic illness and anxiety, decides he’s had enough and after stealing two thousand dollars from his drug-addicted step father, arrives at a “self-help” program in Big Sur. It’ll be his chance to “evolve,” so says Beau, the man behind the program. Beau is nothing like he seems—he’s complicated, compelling, and then, he’s gone. The only witness to Beau’s disappearance, now Arman has to rely on himself to get to the bottom of the mystery of what happened to Beau.
A complex, dark, and compelling look at what it is that helps people connect with themselves, as well as what it is that makes someone a leader.
Those Who Prey by Jennifer Moffett (November 2020)
Emily is excited to go to college, but she quickly discovers that it’s much lonelier than she ever expected. Then The Kingdom, an elite group on campus, finds her and begins to offer her the world. Literally, they offer her a boyfriend, friendship, and the chance to join a mission trip to Italy. But it’s anything but a happy trip when money and passports go missing, and the stakes keep getting higher as The Kingdom becomes more manipulative and dangerous.
The Violet Hour by Whitney A. Miller
Harlow is the adopted daughter of the leader of VisionCrest, and while she’s regularly under the eyes of others and needs to be perfect, polished, and ready to take on a leadership role within the group at any time, the voice in her head is something all together different. It wants her to kill.
This is a bloody, dark, and twisted thriller for readers who want a gory, gruesome cult read.
Because this list is limited to 20 titles (okay, 21!), of course it doesn’t include every YA book about cults. But if you’re craving more, a few additional titles for your ever-growing TBR include Girl in a Bad Place by Kaitlin Ward, Karma for Beginners by Jessica Blank, The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson, The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecelia Galante, Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace, The Sisterhood by AJ Grainger, The Right and the Real by Joelle Anthony, The Special Ones by Em Bailey, Starbird Murphy and The World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock, and The Virtue of Sin by Shannon Schuren.
Itching for more great reads? You’ll want to dig into these hard-hitting YA novels.