Nothing gets people more riled up about contemporary YA fiction than books that tackle the tough stuff and tackle it in a manner that’s frank. As much as we want to believe teens live happy and easy lives, that’s far from the truth. The books below aren’t afraid to wrestle with the tough issues and present them in honest, painful, and sometimes downright chilling ways. Sometimes, they’re tackled with levity, too.
These books are important not only to know but to read and to share. Shying away from “dark” books is the same as shying away from the “dark” challenges that teens — that people — face every single day. This list is lengthy, but I didn’t want to cut out important topics in the interest of space. And since I know I won’t hit everything, feel free to add additional titles in the comments.
All titles below were published between 2010 and today, and all descriptions come from WorldCat. I’ve tried to note what tough topics they cover and organize them accordingly.
Sex, Sexuality, and Teen Pregnancy
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills: Gabe has always identified as a boy, but he was born with a girl’s body. With his new public access radio show gaining in popularity, Gabe struggles with romance, friendships, and parents–all while trying to come out as transgendered. An audition for a station in Minneapolis looks like his ticket to a better life in the big city. But his entire future is threatened when several violent guys find out Gabe, the popular DJ, is also Elizabeth from school.
The Best and Hardest Thing by Pat Brisson: When she is a sophomore in high school, Molly gets rid of her good-girl image but ends up becoming pregnant and having to make some difficult decisions.
Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez: When Lance begins to date Sergio, who’s bisexual, he’s not sure that it’ll work out, and when his best friend Allie, who has a boyfriend, meets Sergio’s lesbian friend, she has unexpected feelings which she struggles to understand.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr: Told from their own viewpoints, seventeen-year-old Jill, in grief over the loss of her father, and Mandy, nearly nineteen, are thrown together when Jill’s mother agrees to adopt Mandy’s unborn child but nothing turns out as they had anticipated.
I am J by Cris Beam: J, who feels like a boy mistakenly born as a girl, runs away from his best friend who has rejected him and the parents he thinks do not understand him when he finally decides that it is time to be who he really is.
In Too Deep by Amanda Grace: Trying to make her best friend Nick jealous, high school senior Sam becomes involved in a terrible lie that spirals out of control.
Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman: Shapely seventeen-year-old Angel Cassonetti, who lives with her younger siblings and single mother in a house at the Jersey Shore, finds it hard to stay away from ex-boyfriend Joey Sardone.
Kiss It by Erin Downing: Small-town Minnesotan Chastity (Chaz) Bryan wants nothing more than to get some sexual experience before she graduates from high school and moves away, but when she meets an intriguing boy visiting from North Carolina over Christmas break, her tough-girl facade slowly breaks down.
Kiss the Morning Star by Elissa Janine Hoole: The summer after high school graduation and one year after her mother’s tragic death, Anna and her long-time best friend Kat set out on a road trip across the country, armed with camping supplies and a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, determined to be open to anything that comes their way.
The Lighter Side of Life and Death by CK Kelly Martin: After the last, triumphant night of the school play, fifteen-year-old Mason loses his virginity to his good friend and secret crush, Kat Medina, which leads to enormous complications at school just as his home life is thrown into turmoil by his father’s marriage to a woman with two children.
Love Drugged by James Klise: Fifteen-year-old Jamie is dismayed by his attraction to boys, and when a beautiful girl shows an interest in him, he is all the more intrigued by her father’s work developing a drug called Rehomoline.
Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser: Four teenagers from two families–sisters Katie and Julie and brothers Alex and Kyle–meet every summer at a lakeside community in upstate New York, where they escape their everyday lives and hide disturbing secrets.
Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan: Married, pregnant, and living at a “fat camp” in Maine, sixteen-year-old Eleanor has many questions about her future, especially whether the marriage will last and if she should keep the baby.
Purity by Jackson Pearce: Sixteen-year-old Shelby finds it difficult to balance her mother’s dying request to live a life without restraint with her father’s plans for his “little princess,” which include attending a traditional father-daughter dance that culminates with a ceremonial vow to live “whole, pure lives.”
Shut Out by Kody Keplinger: Fed up with the increasingly violent rivalry between the football and soccer teams at Hamilton High, Lissa and other players’ girlfriends go on strike, but the girls will succeed only if their libidos can be controlled longer than the boys’ can.
Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont: Before she can decide what do about her newly discovered pregnancy, sixteen-year-old Sydney is punished for “borrowing” a car and shipped out, along with best friend Natalia, to a wilderness camp for the next six weeks.
My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (also abuse and drug abuse): 16-year-old Angel struggles to free herself from the trap of prostitution in which she is caught.
Mental and Physical Illness
All These Lives by Sarah Wylie: Convinced that she has nine lives after cheating death twice as a child, sixteen-year-old Dani tries to forfeit her remaining lives in hopes of saving her twin sister, Jena, whose leukemia is consuming their family.
I’m Not Her by Janet Gurtler: Brainy Tess Smith is the younger sibling of the beautiful, popular, volleyball-scholarship-bound Kristina. When Kristina is diagnosed with bone cancer, it drastically changes both sisters’ lives. Sometimes the things that annoy us the most about our siblings are the ones we’d miss the most if we lost them.
Never Eighteen by Megan Bostic: Seventeen-year-old Austin, aware that life is short, asks his best friend and secret love, Kaylee, to take him to visit people and places in and around Tacoma, Washington, so that he can try to make a difference in the time he has left.
Radiate by Marley Gibson: Just after making the varsity cheerleading squad the summer before her senior year of high school in Maxwell, Alabama, Hayley Matthews learns she has an aggressive form of cancer in her leg, and she turns to her family, her cheerleading, and her Christian faith to sustain her through her treatment.
Send Me A Sign by Tiffany Schmidt: Superstitious before being diagnosed with leukemia, high school senior Mia becomes irrationally dependent on horoscopes, good luck charms, and the like when her life shifts from cheerleading and parties to chemotherapy and platelets, while her parents obsess and lifelong friend Gyver worries.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Sixteen-year-old Hazel, a stage IV thyroid cancer patient, has accepted her terminal diagnosis until a chance meeting with a boy at cancer support group forces her to reexamine her perspective on love, loss, and life.
Me & Earl & The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews: Seventeen-year-old Greg has managed to become part of every social group at his Pittsburgh high school without having any friends, but his life changes when his mother forces him to befriend Rachel, a girl he once knew in Hebrew school who has leukemia.
Disordered Eating and Weight Issues
Zoe Letting Go by Nora Price: Zoe goes to a facility to help cure her anorexia as she comes to terms with the loss of her friend and her own identity.
The Stone Girl by Alyssa Sheinmel: Zoe goes to a facility to help cure her anorexia as she comes to terms with the loss of her friend and her own identity.
Butter by Erin Jade Lange (also fits under weight issues): Unable to control his binge eating, a morbidly obese teenager nicknamed Butter decides to make live webcast of his last meal as he attempts to eat himself to death.
Cracked by KM Walton: When Bull Mastrick and Victor Konig wind up in the same psychiatric ward at age sixteen, each recalls and relates in group therapy the bullying relationship they have had since kindergarten, but also facts about themselves and their families that reveal they have much in common.
Everybody Sees the Ants by AS King: Overburdened by his parents’ bickering and a bully’s attacks, fifteen-year-old Lucky Linderman begins dreaming of being with his grandfather, who went missing during the Vietnam War, but during a visit to Arizona, his aunt and uncle and their beautiful neighbor, Ginny, help him find a new perspective.
Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti: Bullied at school and neglected by her poor, self-absorbed, single mother at home, high school junior Noelle finally reaches the breaking point after a classmate commits suicide.
Leverage by Joshua Cohen: High school sophomore Danny excels at gymnastics but is bullied, like the rest of the gymnasts, by members of the football team, until an emotionally and physically scarred new student joins the football team and forms an unlikely friendship with Danny.
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: Regina, a high school senior in the popular–and feared–crowd, suddenly falls out of favor and becomes the object of the same sort of vicious bullying that she used to inflict on others, until she finds solace with one of her former victims.
Unlocked by Ryan G Van Cleave: While trying to impress a beautiful, unattainable classmate, fourteen-year-old Andy discovers that a fellow social outcast may be planning an act of school violence.
Speechless by Hannah Harrington: After her behavior causes her to lose her popular friends and results in one person being hospitalized, Chelsea takes a vow of silence.
Physical and Sexual Abuse (Including Hate Crime)
34 Pieces of You by Carmen Rodrigues: After Ellie dies of a drug overdose, her brother, her best friend, and her best friend’s sister face painful secrets of their own when they try to uncover the truth about Ellie’s death.
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown: When seventeen-year-old Alex starts dating Cole, a new boy at her high school, her two closest friends increasingly mistrust him as the relationship grows more serious.
But I Love Him by Amanda Grace: Traces, through the course of a year, Ann’s transformation from a happy A-student, track star, and popular senior to a solitary, abused woman whose love for the emotionally-scarred Connor has taken away everything–even herself.
Exposed by Kimberly Marcus: High school senior Liz, a gifted photographer, can no longer see things clearly after her best friend accuses Liz’s older brother of a terrible crime.
Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams: Living with their mother who earns money as a prostitute, two sisters take care of each other and when the older one attempts suicide, the younger one tries to uncover the reason.
LIE by Caroline Bock: Told in several voices, a group of Long Island high school seniors conspire to protect eighteen-year-old Jimmy after he brutally assaults two Salvadoran immigrants, until they begin to see the moral implications of Jimmy’s actions and the consequences of being loyal to a violent bully.
Live Through This by Mindi Scott: From the outside, fifteen-year-old Coley Sterling’s life seems imperfect but normal, but for years she has buried her shame and guilt over a relationship that crossed the line and now that she has a chance at having a real boyfriend, Reece, the lies begin to unravel.
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney: When Alex, a junior at an elite preparatory school, realizes that she may have been the victim of date rape, she confides in her roommates and sister who convince her to seek help from a secret society, the Mockingbirds.
Shine by Lauren Myracle: When her best friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover the culprits in her small North Carolina town.
Split by Swati Avasthi: A teenaged boy thrown out of his house by his abusive father goes to live with his older brother, who ran away from home years ago to escape the abuse.
Trafficked by Kim Purcell: A seventeen-year-old Moldovan girl whose parents have been killed is brought to the United States to work as a slave for a family in Los Angeles.
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton: The stress of hiding a horrific incident that she can neither remember nor completely forget leads sixteen-year-old Cassidy “Sid” Murphy to become alienated from her friends, obsess about weight loss, and draw close to Corey “The Living Stoner” Livingston.
Stay by Deb Caletti: In a remote corner of Washington State where she and her father have gone to escape her obsessive boyfriend, Clara meets two brothers who captain a sailboat, a lighthouse keeper with a secret, and an old friend of her father who knows his secrets.
Mental Illness, Including Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and More
Dirty Little Secrets by CJ Omololu: When her unstable mother dies unexpectedly, sixteen-year-old Lucy must take control and find a way to keep the long-held secret of her mother’s compulsive hoarding from being revealed to friends, neighbors, and especially the media.
Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J Bick: An emotionally damaged sixteen-year-old girl begins a relationship with a deeply troubled older man.
The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin: A troubled sixteen-year-old girl attending a wilderness school in the Idaho mountains must finally face the consequences of her complicated friendships with two of the other girls at the school.
Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly: When Drea and her mother move in with her grandmother in Bellingham, Washington, the sixteen-year-old finds that she can have real friends, in spite of her Asperger’s, and that even when you love someone it does not make life perfect.
Life is But a Dream by Brian James: When fifteen-year-old Sabrina meets Alec at the Wellness Center where she is being treated for schizophrenia, he tries to persuade her that it is the world that is crazy, not them, and she should defy her doctors rather than lose what makes her creative and special.
The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab: For eight of her sixteen years Carolina Mitchell’s older sister Hannah has been a nun in a convent, almost completely out of touch with her family–so when she suddenly abandons her vocation and comes home, nobody knows quite how to handle the situation, or guesses what explosive secrets she is hiding.
Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown: Seventeen-year-old Kendra, living in the shadow of her brother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, takes a life-changing road trip with him.
Something Like Normal by Trish Doller: When Travis returns home from Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother has stolen his girlfriend and car, and he has nightmares of his best friend getting killed but when he runs into Harper, a girl who has despised him since middle school, life actually starts looking up.
Things I Shouldn’t Think (formerly The Babysitter Murders) by Janet Ruth Young: Imaginative Massachusetts seventeen-year-old Dani Solomon confesses she has been troubled by thoughts of harming Alex, the little boy she loves to babysit, triggering gossip and a media frenzy that makes “Dani Death” the target of an extremist vigilante group.
Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson: A young girl uses crystal meth to escape the pain of losing her mother and grandmother in Hurricane Katrina, and then struggles to get over her addiction.
Clean by Amy Reed: A group of teens in a Seattle-area rehabilitation center form an unlikely friendship as they begin to focus less on their own problems with drugs and alcohol by reaching out to help a new member, who seems to have even deeper issues to resolve.
Narc by Crissa-Jean Chappell: When his little sister is caught with a bag of weed, seventeen-year-old Aaron Foster takes the fall. To keep the cops from tearing his family apart, Aaron agrees to go undercover and help bust the dealer who’s funneling drugs into his Miami high school. But making friends with the school’s biggest players isn’t easy for a waste-case loner from the wrong part of town.
Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos: Accompanied by her brother’s friend, Tyler, sixteen-year-old Rachel ventures through San Diego and nearby areas seeking her brother, eighteen-year-old Micah, a methamphetamine addict who ran away from home.
Recovery Road by Blake Nelson: While she is in a rehabilitation facility for drug and alcohol abuse, seventeen-year-old Maddie meets Stewart, who is also in treatment, and they begin a relationship, which they try to maintain after they both get out.
The Rivals by Daisy Whitney: Alex’s role in the Mockingbirds, an underground student justice system at her elite boarding school, is challenged when she tries to stop a group of students using prescription drugs to help other students cheat, as school officials turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing.
Additional Titles: Two on Technology and Two on Suicide
Note: I want to include many more suicide-related titles, but many of them are related much more to grief than suicide (including, I’d argue, the two here). I plan on writing a lengthy booklist on grief titles in the future.
Going Underground by Susan Vaught: Interest in a new girl and pressure from his parole officer cause seventeen-year-old Del, a gravedigger, to recall and face the “sexting” incident three years earlier that transformed him from a straight-A student-athlete into a social outcast and felon.
Saving June by Hannah Harrington: After her sister’s suicide, Harper Scott takes off for California with her best friend Laney to scatter her sister’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.
Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R Hubbard: The summer Ryan is released from a mental hospital following his suicide attempt, he meets Nicki, who gets him to share his darkest secrets while hiding secrets of her own.
Want to Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman: Insecure about the changes high school brings, Abby ignores advice from her parents and her only friend to “make an effort” and, instead, withdraws from everyone but with Luke, who she met online.