25 Morally Complicated YA Novels That Show How Complex Young Adult Lit Really Is
One debut author has shaken up the world of YA fiction, and not in a good way. After a successful stint at the Frankfurt Book Fair, newcomer Scott Bergstrom inked a six-figure deal for his first novel, The Cruelty, which he self-published last year. Feiwel and Friends bought print rights to the book at auction, and Jerry Bruckheimer is involved with its big screen development.
This is a dream come true for any writer. You might be asking yourself, why didn't the author try to publish his novel through the traditional channels in the first place? I mean, the book is obviously good, right, to garner so much attention? Well, according to Bergstrom, he did not pursue traditional publishing because "[t]he morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own."
He continues, "In a lot of YA, the conflict takes place inside a walled garden, set up by outside adult forces. If you think of those stories as a metaphor for high school, they start to make a lot more sense, but that was one thing I wanted to depart from."
Bergstrom doubles-down on this insult by having his protagonist insult the dystopian YA novels she reads. If that seems a bit ironic, it is.
Gwendolyn Bloom is an overweight 17-year-old with "fire engine red" hair who transforms into a svelte Liam Neeson in order to rescue her kidnapped father. On her mission, she makes "all sorts of morally ambiguous choices," which, of course, no other YA heroine has ever had to do, ever.
In response to Bergstrom's white-knight ignorance, the book nerds on Twitter have pushed back against the debut author's insinuations about YA with #MorallyComplicatedYA. In addition to heavy doses of snark — seriously, if you think I'm bad, check out those tweets — YA writers and readers are using the hashtag to recommend the complex works of teen fiction that Bergstrom has overlooked and ignored, particularly featuring writers or characters that are POC and women.
Here are 25 of those titles for your approval.
1. The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda Salisbury
Twylla can kill with her divine touch. For now, she serves as court executioner. But some day soon, she will marry the prince, whose noble blood is immune to her poison. When a man who is not her betrothed gets close to her, and a secret about her future mother-in-law's plans comes to light, Twylla must make difficult choices that will impact everyone's fate.
2. Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
When the U.S. enters WWII, Ida Mae Jones wants to be a WASP: a Women's Airforce Service Pilot. In order to do so, she'll have to hide her black ancestry — and her pilot father's identity — and try to "pass" for white.
3. Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor
Set in post-apocalyptic Africa, Who Fears Death? centers on Onyesonwu: a girl born with a strange magic and a mysterious destiny. As a child of rape, she has no village or tribe. When confronted with the knowledge that someone wants her dead, Onye sets out across the desert to meet her fate head-on.
4. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Aaron's doing OK, all things considered. He's recovering from the grief and shock of his father's suicide, and he's got a great support network. While his girlfriend is away for a few weeks, Aaron strikes up a friendship with Thomas. But when his feelings for Thomas grow beyond friendship, Aaron begins to consider memory alteration as a solution.
5. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Jonas lives in a society without emotions, where everything is peaceful and calm and direct. When he is selected to become the community's new Receiver of Memory, the boy learns for the first time about love, war, happiness, anger, and even death.
6. Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Theo wants to be a ballerina, and she's well on her way to becoming one. She's recovering from her eating disorder and avoiding the wrong kinds of men. But when an old friend returns from a years-long stint in captivity, doing what's right becomes way more complicated.
7. The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman
In one day, four people murdered their friends and family members before committing suicide. A fifth killer lives, but she doesn't have any answers about what happened on what has come to be known as the killing day. Something dark is stirring in the heart of the town, and it's up to a small band of survivors to fight it.
8. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
This study in sibling relationships centers on a pair of fraternal twins. Jude is an outgoing rebel, while her brother Noah is a quiet artist. Somewhere along the line, a wedge gets shoved between them, and they'll have to come back together to get the whole story if they want to repair their bond.
9. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
When her brother is kidnapped, Laia works for the rebels who oppose the harsh Martial Empire in a bid to free him. Sent to a military academy as a spy, Laia meets Elias, the school's top trainee, who secretly opposes the regime.
10. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Kaz is a criminal wunderkind. When the opportunity to pull off the heist of a lifetime lands at his feet, he must pull together six lone wolves to complete the job. They will have to work as a team if they want to get rich — and maybe even save the world in the process.
11. All the Rage by Courtney Summers
Romy was raped by Kellan, but no one believed her when she spoke up. Everyone in town was on his side, and now her only safe place is the one where nobody knows her name. When another girl goes missing, however, Romy must decide whether to risk speaking out again.
12. Dove Arising by Karen Bao
After her mother is arrested, moon-dweller Phaet enlists in the Militia in order to support her siblings. All she has to do is earn enough money to free her mother, and everything will go back to normal. But family secrets might get in the way of her scheme.
13. Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
Amani doesn't want to get married. She hopes her shooting skills will help her escape her dead-end town, but she never expects to get out by skipping town with a treasonous rogue, pursued by an army.
14. Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
Estranged from both his parents, John meets Marisol, who writes his favorite zine. The two grow close, but when affection-starved John mistakes friendship for love, the slip may cost him everything.
15. The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn
Arman steals $2,000 from his meth-addicted stepfather to attend a Big Sur retreat that promises to help him "evolve." But when the charismatic and abusive retreat leader disappears, Arman is left alone to solve the mysteries he uncovers.
16. The Fattening Hut by Pat Lowery Collins
Helen wants to go to school. She does not want to marry. She does not want to eat and eat until she gets fat enough for her husband. And she does not want to undergo the terrifying ritual that happens in the fattening hut.
17. Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten
When Delia dies, June is thrown into a pit of despair at the loss of her best friend. Then Delia's boyfriend shows up. He's convinced Delia was murdered, and wants June's help to solve the case. But when anyone might be lying and everyone has a motive, the stakes rocket skyward.
18. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
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Mary's village is surrounded by the Unconsecrated. If she doesn't get married soon, she'll be forced to become a member of the Sisterhood: the town's governing body. The boy she loves doesn't ask for her hand, but that hardly matters when the village's defenses fail and the Unconsecrated flood in.
19. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
The government gives Juliette a place in the world. It's a place where her power makes sense, a place where she can kill for them. But she longs for freedom, and she's just learning how to take power for herself.
20. The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski
Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Kestrel's social faux pas are always sure to get people talking. After she spends a fortune to buy a handsome slave, tongues start to wag. But the relationship that soon blossoms between these two teens from different races and classes will be pitted against reality: do they stay together and defy social mores, or do they split apart and fight injustice?
21. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
Scotch feels like an outsider, thanks to her mixed-race heritage. To make matters worse, some kind of tarry, black substance has started to cover her skin. When the Chaos kidnaps her brother and turns her neighbors into horrifying creatures, it's up to Scotch to figure out what has caused the supernatural dilemma.
22. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Greaser Johnny kills rich socialite Bob to save the life of his best friend, but no one is really going to believe that story. With the help of their older brothers and friends, Johnny and Ponyboy go on the lam. But their hearts of gold might land them in prison anyway.
23. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
In future Brazil, the people elect a king every five years. He will select the next Queen, and then he will be put to death. When artist June bonds with the new Summer King, Enki, they side with the anti-government rebellion and cope with the fate that draws closer by the second.
24. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Death narrates this tale of a 9-year-old growing up in the Third Reich. After she learns to read, Liesel makes it her mission to rescue the books that the Nazis ban, and shares them with the Jewish man her adoptive family is sheltering.
25. Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz
To cure his brother's cystic fibrosis, Rudy moves to an island where magical half-fish, half-human creatures are eaten medicinally. His brother starts to improve, but Rudy's friendship with a vigilante named Teeth may complicate his feelings about the cure.