The best dark Young Adult books that don’t insult their readers’ intelligence

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always had a healthy dose of skepticism, having been a scientist before I was an author. I look for the con when something’s too good to be true, even in fiction…so don’t insult me by saying, “a magic amulet that makes everyone nice all the time.” If you want me to believe in pixie dust, tell me what’s in place to keep pixie dust smugglers from rigging the system. I raised smart, critical-minded kids, so I always pointed them to my own favorite young-audience books: those that felt real, even if they were fantastical, instead of ones with the more common “just trust me” attitude. 

I wrote...

The Dream Engine

By Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt,

Book cover of The Dream Engine

What is my book about?

In the gleaming steampunk world of Waldron's Gate, citizens aren't meant to dream–and those who skip their drugs to do so face imprisonment in the asylum of towers. And yet, "Dreaming" of a sort is what Eila Doyle does every day at the Ministry of Manifestation with her mind hooked to the great engine called the Blunderbuss. Builders like Eila use their thoughts to create all the city needs from nothing…or so she believes. 

Recently, though, Eila’s thoughts have been hijacked: visions of a dark conspiracy, a millennium of lies, and the terrible truth of the Ministry’s work. She follows those thoughts to a city hidden beneath Waldron’s quiet streets to find her own terrible destiny and a world where fantasy and reality blur.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Golden Compass

Johnny B. Truant Why did I love this book?

I love how Lyra’s world is so different from ours, yet doesn’t require a huge leap of faith to believe. The science-like attention to detail somehow makes it sensible. Are there talking polar bears who shape metal with their paws and claws? Yes. Are my objections to that bizarre idea addressed so well that I accept it as normal? Also yes. 

The amount of thought put into the world makes the unreal feel very real, in other words. Yes, there are subtle magical forces, witches, and humans tethered to literal spirit animals…but scientists have studied and invented machines to work with all of it the same way we work with forces in our own world that we don’t understand. This series respects its readers' intelligence, regardless of age.

By Philip Pullman,

Why should I read it?

29 authors picked The Golden Compass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

The first volume in Philip Pullman's groundbreaking
HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, now a thrilling, critically
acclaimed BBC/HBO television series. First published
in 1995, and acclaimed as a modern masterpiece, this first
book in the series won the UK's top awards for children's literature.

"Without this child, we shall all

Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live
half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford.

The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands
of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight.

Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences
far beyond her own world...


Book cover of Etiquette & Espionage

Johnny B. Truant Why did I love this book?

I think the main reason I like this book so much—other than its super-cool steampunk aesthetic—is that it flips a tired convention entirely on its head. It takes something questionable and makes it something awesome.

In modern day, the idea of a finishing school for girls is a bit much: an institution meant to train young women to be “proper enough” for polite society. Instead, the school is a training ground for strong and smart spies: the exact opposite of the "docile and obedient” it seems to train. 

I love it when old tropes are subverted to make something newer and better and when opposites (like light/dark and sweet/sinister) are combined. Dangerous Spies armed with manners and the utmost civility? What’s cooler than that?

By Gail Carriger,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Etiquette & Espionage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

It's one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It's quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to finishing school.

Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners-and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might…

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Johnny B. Truant Why did I love this book?

This book was a turning point for me in Harry Potter. There’s darkness in the books before it, but I still feel like Rowling was pulling her punches. Instead of sunshine and rainbows, this is where things got real. 

I steamrolled through it in days and don’t normally read that fast. My wife and I had to buy our own copy, and I had to outrace her so her poorly concealed reactions couldn’t spoil anything for me. 

We finally see how the wizarding world works in good and bad aspects, down to corruption and the fallibility of otherwise-squeaky-clean characters. If wizards and magic were real, this book was the first one balanced enough to make me believe it.

By J.K. Rowling,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

The fifth adventure in the spellbinding Harry Potter saga - the series that changed the world of books forever Dark times have come to Hogwarts. After the Dementors' attack on his cousin Dudley, Harry Potter knows that Voldemort will stop at nothing to find him. There are many who deny the Dark Lord's return, but Harry is not alone: a secret order gathers at Grimmauld Place to fight against the Dark forces. Harry must allow Professor Snape to teach him how to protect himself from Voldemort's savage assaults on his mind. But they are growing stronger by the day and…

Book cover of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Johnny B. Truant Why did I love this book?

If there were children in the world this peculiar, there’d need to be a system to deal with them. I hate it when we’re just expected to accept odd things in fiction without their logical consequences, but this book doesn’t do that. Yep, things would suck for kids like these…which is why they’d need a home and a caretaker as peculiar as they were. 

What I really liked about this book wasn’t the setup, though, so much as the part where we really figure out what’s protecting the Home and why it was created in the way it was. I can’t really say more without spoiling things, but it poses a very interesting dilemma: a choice as gray in scope as any real-world dilemma.  

By Ransom Riggs,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here - one of whom was his own grandfather…

Book cover of The Hunger Games

Johnny B. Truant Why did I love this book?

I love the thought that went into building the world of the Capital and the districts: not just the dystopian aesthetic and the could-easily-be-overdone teen angst it creates, but instead the whole idea of class rebellion and the inevitability of comeuppance. Power corrupts, no matter the person who holds that power…and those without power will never be suppressed for long. 

You have to stick with the whole series to see the full cycle, but this book doesn’t dumb down the “karmic cycle of revenge” like some other YA books do. There are two sides to everything, and while this book has plenty of evil and plenty of good, there are also those oh-so-crucial-to-believability characters who walk the gray areas in between.

By Suzanne Collins,

Why should I read it?

49 authors picked The Hunger Games as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. But Katniss has been close to death before - and survival, for her, is second nature. The Hunger Games is a searing novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present. Welcome to the deadliest reality TV show ever...

You might also like...

Brigitta of the White Forest

By Danika Dinsmore,

Book cover of Brigitta of the White Forest

Danika Dinsmore Author Of Brigitta of the White Forest

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Teacher Poet Tree whisperer Bird lover World builder

Danika's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

For those who enjoy fantasy adventure, the Faerie Tales from the White Forest series offers a new twist on the traditional faerie tales so loved by young readers.

From devastating curses to death-defying quests, Brigitta and her growing collective of misfit friends face greater and greater challenges when destiny calls upon them to “make the balance right again” after the Great World Cry has left their world in elemental chaos.

Brigitta of the White Forest

By Danika Dinsmore,

What is this book about?

Briggy, what happens when the Hourglass runs out?

Brigitta wished she had paid more attention to her Auntie Ferna's lessons. Being able to string a thunder-bug symphony wasn't going to help them now. She didn't know exactly what would happen when the Hourglass ran out, since no living faerie knew a time when the Hourglass didn't protect the forest . . . But even though she couldn't remember the details, she did know that without the Hourglass there would be no White Forest . . . A charming middle-grade fantasy series, "Faerie Tales from the White Forest" watches the journey…

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