The best gritty YA books that explore death, grief, and mourning

Who am I?

I'm a huge bookworm and have enjoyed writing stories of my own since my elementary school days. During junior high, high school, and college, along with a lot of literature courses, I enrolled in every creative writing class I could find. I loved the stories, poems, and novels dealing with hard subjects the most, which (of course) resulted in me writing my own piles of gritty short stories. Those short stories continue to inspire my writing today. No surprise that the novel I’m currently working on is also based on a dark, gritty story I wrote my freshman year of college. Wish me luck on getting this one published, too! 


I wrote...

The Secret Journal of Brett Colton

By Kay Lynn Mangum,

Book cover of The Secret Journal of Brett Colton

What is my book about?

Kathy Colton can’t stand her brother Brett. Her family talks about him as if he were perfect! All Kathy knows for sure is that Brett is dead. And that he died of leukemia when he was seventeen and she was only two. But when Kathy turns sixteen, she discovers her brother’s hidden journal—a journal written especially for her—and learns about the brother she never knew. At the same time, Kathy is mortified by an assignment to tutor the popular high school quarterback Jason West, a football jock who, even worse, is a Mormon. Author Kay Lynn Mangum brilliantly weaves the dual stories of a dying brother and a coming-of-age sister who both learn the importance of loving family and friends and nurturing faith. 

The books I picked & why

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The Outsiders

By S.E. Hinton,

Book cover of The Outsiders

Why this book?

After I read The Outsiders for the first time when I was twelve, I fell in love with dark, gritty novels about teenagers dealing with hard issues and events in their lives. The Outsiders is told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, an orphan living with his two older brothers in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. All three are “greasers” who, along with their fellow greasers, regularly get into scrapes with a brutal gang known as the “Socs”—rich kids whose life mission is to pound any greaser they can find. Ponyboy is used to the drill of being jumped by the Socs on the regular until one fateful night when he’s backed into a corner by the Socs—an encounter that results in a death, spiraling his life into a living nightmare. 

I love this book because it doesn’t have a traditional happy ending, and yet, there’s hope in the end. This novel not only changed the trajectory of my own personal reading and writing, but it completely transformed coming-of-age fiction and opened up a deeper, darker world of YA stories that need to be told.

The Outsiders

By S.E. Hinton,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Outsiders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

50 years of an iconic classic! This international bestseller and inspiration for a beloved movie is a heroic story of friendship and belonging.

Cover may vary.

No one ever said life was easy. But Ponyboy is pretty sure that he's got things figured out. He knows that he can count on his brothers, Darry and Sodapop. And he knows that he can count on his friends-true friends who would do anything for him, like Johnny and Two-Bit. But not on much else besides trouble with the Socs, a vicious gang of rich kids whose idea of a good time is…


The Pigman

By Paul Zindel,

Book cover of The Pigman

Why this book?

The Pigman was the first YA novel I ever read that’s told in two separate voices. Each chapter alternates between two high school sophomores: John Conlan and Lorraine Jenson. The two meet Angelo Pignati, a lonely widower, due to making a random prank phone call asking for a monetary donation to the “L. and J. Fund.” John and Lorraine nickname Mr. Pignati the “Pigman” because of his deceased wife’s collection of ceramic pigs. Their prank call soon leads to friendship, which horrifically ends in tragedy inadvertently caused by John and Lorraine, thus inspiring both to choose to deal with their grief by writing “a memorial epic” of their friend.

I love the writing style of alternating two character voices, which inspired me to write my own first novel in two voices. The dialogue in The Pigman is filled with dark humor and sarcasm, which for me, brings even more shock value to the novel’s tragic ending. Paul Zindel is another author who brought a fresh voice and needed change to coming-of-age novels. Every aspiring YA writer needs to read his work!

The Pigman

By Paul Zindel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Pigman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the best-selling young adult books of all time, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Zindel. John Conlan is nicknamed “The Bathroom Bomber” after setting off firecrackers in the boys’ bathroom 23 times without ever getting caught. John and his best friend, Lorraine, can never please their parents, and school is a chore. To pass the time, they play pranks on unsuspecting people and it's during one of these pranks that they meet the “Pigman.” In spite of themselves, John and Lorraine soon get caught up in Mr. Pignati’s zest for life. In fact, they become so involved that…


A Ring of Endless Light

By Madeleine L'Engle,

Book cover of A Ring of Endless Light

Why this book?

In A Ring of Endless Light, sixteen-year-old Vicky Austin has to come to terms with death from all directions, starting with the funeral service of Commander Rodney presided over by her grandfather, who is dying of cancer. Watching her grandfather deteriorate over the summer on Seven Bay Island is hard as it is, but it’s complicated even more when Vicky has to juggle the romantic interest of three very different guys: Leo, an old friend and Commander Rodney’s son; Zachary, whose attempted suicide caused Commander Rodney’s death; and Adam, her older brother’s friend, who offers her an amazing chance to work with dolphins, something that gives her a break from the constant hard in her life. 

I love this emotionally heavy novel, largely due to Madeleine L’Engle’s beautiful, descriptive writing. A Ring of Endless Light finds beauty in struggle and sorrow, and even in death. Ms. L’Engle’s novels always bring me to tears!

A Ring of Endless Light

By Madeleine L'Engle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Ring of Endless Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In book four of the award-winning Austin Family Chronicles young adult series from Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Vicky Austin experiences the difficulties and joys of growing up.

"This wasn't the first time that I'd come close to death, but it was the first time I'd been involved in this part of it, this strange, terrible saying goodbye to someone you've loved."

These are Vicky Austin's thoughts as she stands near Commander Rodney's grave while her grandfather, who himself is dying of cancer, recites the funeral service. Watching his condition deteriorate over that long summer is almost…


Killing Mr. Griffin

By Lois Duncan,

Book cover of Killing Mr. Griffin

Why this book?

This 1978 suspense novel completely freaked me out when I read it for the first time in high school, because the plot was so horrifyingly believable. Four high school students in New Mexico, angry at their strict, hard-hitting, demanding English teacher, devise a plan to punish him by kidnapping him and giving him the scare of a lifetime. That’s all they meant to do. They didn’t mean to kill him. Mark, the leader of the group, convinces everyone to cover up the death. Susan is the only member not on board with Mark’s way of dealing with their crime. She’s overcome with guilt and wants to come clean to the police. This only results in a domino effect of more tragedies and death before the group’s secret is discovered.

This novel has received all kinds of awards and honors, and richly deserves each one. I love that this novel takes the subject of peer pressure to a darker, uglier level, side by side with the subject of having to deal with unanticipated results of planned actions. A must YA read!

Killing Mr. Griffin

By Lois Duncan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Killing Mr. Griffin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From beloved author Lois Duncan comes a frightening novel about a group of students who set out to teach their malicious teacher a lesson -- only to learn that one of them could be a killer.
Mr. Griffin is the strictest teacher at Del Norte High, with a penchant for endless projects and humiliating students. Even straight-A student Susan can't believe how mean he is to her crush, Dave, and to the charismatic Mark Kinney. So when Dave asks Susan to help a group of students teach Mr. Griffin a lesson of their own, she goes along with them. After…


One Came Home

By Amy Timberlake,

Book cover of One Came Home

Why this book?

Told from the point of view of thirteen-year-old tomboy Georgie Burkhardt in 1871 Wisconsin, the story begins with the funeral of Georgie’s sister, Agatha—a funeral Georgie calls her sister’s first funeral, which Georgie knows won’t be Agatha’s last, and is the reason Georgie leaves town in search of her sister. Even though mere days earlier, the sheriff rode into town with an unidentifiable body wearing her older sister’s blue-green ball gown, Georgie won’t believe the body belongs to her sister. Thus begins her adventure tracking all of the clues and bits of evidence she can find to prove her sister is still alive and bring her home.

The pure adventure of this frontier story pulled me in from page one. The mystery of Agatha’s death, and whether Georgie’s simply in denial over her sister’s death, or just possibly might be the only one in town who’s on the right track about her sister still being alive, kept me turning pages and following Georgie’s adventures to the jaw-dropping conclusion. This book needs to be made into a movie!

One Came Home

By Amy Timberlake,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked One Came Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Newbery Honor Book

An ALA-ALSC Notable Children's Book

Winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel

“An adventure, a mystery, and a love song to the natural world. . . . Run out and read it. Right now.”—Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman

In the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in 1871, Georgie Burkhardt is known for two things: her uncanny aim with a rifle and her habit of speaking her mind plainly.

But when Georgie blurts out something she shouldn't, her older sister Agatha flees, running off with a pack of "pigeoners" trailing the passenger pigeon migration. And…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in teenagers, Wisconsin, and gangs?

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