The best under-the-radar YA novels for people navigating grief or loss

Paula Stokes Author Of Girl Against the Universe
By Paula Stokes

Who am I?

I knew when I was in elementary school that I wanted to be a therapist when I grew up, but I took a slight detour after finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology to work as a line cook, retail manager, veterinary assistant, freelance editor, and registered nurse before finding my way back to graduate school. I also released ten young adult novels, many of them populated by characters struggling with mental illness. I understand anxiety, survivor’s guilt, grief, and loss as both a counselor and a human being, and I selected these books because they resonated deeply with me. I hope readers find comfort and connection in their pages.


I wrote...

Girl Against the Universe

By Paula Stokes,

Book cover of Girl Against the Universe

What is my book about?

Sixteen-year-old Maguire has emerged unscathed from multiple tragedies that left others wounded or dead and is (not) dealing with the past by blaming herself. Her survivor’s guilt is so strong she’s decided she’s bad luck and that she must isolate herself from the rest of the world to protect people. But that’s difficult to do when your mom won’t homeschool you and your therapist convinces you to join the tennis team, and you really, really want to be able to get on a plane to attend a memorial service for your brother and father.

Balancing realism and hope, Girl Against the Universe is a funny and uplifting story about a girl with PTSD who learns how to make her own luck, with a little help from the people who love her.

The books I picked & why

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The Meaning of Birds

By Jaye Robin Brown,

Book cover of The Meaning of Birds

Why this book?

Jaye Robin Brown writes complex characters with a deft hand and everyone in this book felt deeply real to me. I didn’t just read about Jess and Vivi’s relationship. I joined Jess on her tumultuous emotional journey. As a mental health counselor, I often encourage people to seek out coping mechanisms to manage adversity, but it’s important to realize that sometimes the thing that made a person whole is inaccessible after trauma or loss, and that healing means forging new paths. This story captures that idea beautifully. Heart-wrenching, but ultimately a story of hope and renewal.


The Last Wish of Sasha Cade

By Cheyanne Young,

Book cover of The Last Wish of Sasha Cade

Why this book?

I used to work as an oncology RN so I generally avoid cancer stories, but this author is a friend so I gave the book a chance, and wow am I glad I did. This story manages to capture the crushing reality of cancer for both the patient and the people who love her, but it’s also funny and mysterious and romantic, with plenty of meaningful things to say about grief. It takes insight and compassion to balance all those elements without ever being disrespectful to or flippant about terminal illness. I powered through this gorgeous book (the cover is even more incredible in person!) in one sitting and finished the story feeling hopeful and inspired.


Sorry for Your Loss

By Jessie Ann Foley,

Book cover of Sorry for Your Loss

Why this book?

The first thing I loved about this book is main character, Pup. He’s the youngest of eight siblings and is trying to navigate the murky waters of adolescence in addition to his grief over the loss of an older brother. Unlike a lot of boys in YA, Pup isn’t particularly smart, talented, attractive, or socially skilled. He’s a “regular guy” in ways that I found incredibly refreshing and endearing. I also haven’t read a lot of YA novels about big families and I loved reading about the complex dynamics here. Pup’s journey toward healing and growth involves photography, and this story captures what it’s like to find your voice and a new way of seeing the world through art. 


Bruised

By Tanya Boteju,

Book cover of Bruised

Why this book?

This book is so ambitious! The author tackles emotional abuse, trauma, grief, survivor’s guilt, self-harm, complicated family relationships, and more without anything feeling glossed over. Main character Daya is prickly and hostile and can be difficult to root for at times, but her portrayal feels spot-on given all she has endured in her life. I’ve always been fascinated by roller derby and it’s brilliant the way the author built her plot around the sport so it is truly integral to Daya’s character’s growth and healing.


Up to This Pointe

By Jennifer Longo,

Book cover of Up to This Pointe

Why this book?

Most books about grief deal specifically with the death of a loved one, but grief isn’t just about death—it’s about major loss. For some of us that might mean the loss of a friendship or relationship or job. In this book, the main character is facing the loss of a lifelong dream.

Despite what TV shows and self-help books tell us, success is not a simple matter of dedication and hard work. Sometimes we don’t achieve our dreams, and stories like this remind us that "failure" is okay, that we have options, that we can choose to pursue the thing we love in a different way, or choose to love something else, or maybe we'll have to take a break to heal and reflect before we choose anything at all. The universe might steal away a dream, but we remain in charge of our happiness.


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