Eight YA Reads About Grief, Ranked

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I’m actually not reading loads of books about grief this month, or at least, I think I’m not. (Maybe two is a lot already.) But it seemed about time to make this post before it ended up being a monster, because as time goes on, I’m seeing more and more YA contemporaries coming out that are all about dealing with grief.

It makes sense that grief is always hanging over YA, because YA is basically the genre of dead parents. But there’s a thread through YA, particularly recently, where books are specifically about people working through the loss of a loved one. Here are more than a few that I’ve read, and where I’d rank ’em if you’re thinking of getting into the subject. (Although I have to admit, this ranking was tough.)

(Also: I wanted to include The Lovely Bones but it’s been several years since I read that and I can’t remember if it’s that good. Is it? Maybe I should re-read? Anyway.)

1. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the SunThis was one of my top books of 2016 and it might be among my favourite YA contemporaries, so.

This one frames the event of twins, Noah and Jude, who have lost their mother. One tells the story leading up to her death, while another tells the story of what happens after. The loss shatters their uniquely close friendship, but they have to find a way to make their way back to each other, with a little superstitious magic and a lot of healing through art. (And a gorgeously rendered Northern California setting.)

Other than a couple of hamhanded moments where the book feels like it’s almost speaking a moral directly to the audience, I loved this book, totally corny lost-in-art-creation and destroyed-by-fated-love moments and all. It’s heartbreaking but hopeful. (Also, one of the two romances is a very cute gay romance.)

2. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsI don’t know if I necessarily am more invested in the writing of A Monster Calls over the next couple of ranked books, but its imagery is just so memorable. As is the premise. So you can maybe thank Jim Kay’s illustrations (and Siobhan Dowd’s idea) for this spot on the list.

This book is about a young boy, Conor, whose mother is in the process of dying from cancer. As he struggles to cope with this, an old yew tree wakes up and walks to his window in the guise of a monster who wishes to tell him three stories. By the end of the third, the boy will have to tell his own.

This story will haunt you with the protagonist’s rage at the inevitability of loss, and the way that the horror of death mutes the horror of a monster coming to call.

3. History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

History is All You Left MeSilvera’s most recent book, They Both Die at the End, might also, arguably, be about grief: grief as the slow process of mourning yourself and being mourned while you’re still alive. But this book was also arguably the better of the two, so let’s stick with it.

History is All You Left Me is about Griffin, who lost his best friend and ex-boyfriend, someone he thought was “endgame,” and now someone whose recent boyfriend he has to deal with during the peak of his grief.

My favourite aspect of this book is that it doesn’t need an antagonist; the characters are all emotional for various reasons and make a series of messy decisions that hurt one another, because they’re going through a lot. They’re still all likeable and human, but the conflict grows out of understandable issues they have situationally. Also, like most books framed around grief, this book calls into question who the person gone really is. Unlike some other books, it doesn’t try to have a splashy answer to a mystery, which is a nice change of pace. (Some mysteries are earned. Some just feel like manufactured late-game twists.)

4. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Please Ignore Vera DietzI might like this book more than others once I sit on it a while, but for now, this is where it appears.

This book is about Vera, who has recently lost her best-friend-and-maybe-more, Charlie, but who is also struggling to reconcile two Charlies in her mind: the one she grew up with and fell for, and the Charlie she hated weeks before he was dead. She’s also struggling with what she might know that others don’t about the circumstances of his death, what she has and hasn’t done to save him, and her own life, including a mother who left and a father who wants her to work herself nearly to death.

This book has some moments of magical realism, some moments of digression into the heads of other characters and even inanimate objects, and a lot of inner sarcasm from Vera. That humour and sense of whimsy kept it fresh, and the conflict of not knowing how to feel about the death made it different from other negotiations of grief. I don’t know how invested I was in what happened to Charlie, to be honest, so that mystery wasn’t as interesting to me, but I did really care about Vera by the end.

5. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are OkayWe’re still on the side of the wire of “books I enjoyed and generally like,” but this is about the last one, I think.

The protagonist of this book, Marin, ran across the country to avoid facing the death of her grandfather and caregiver. But now she has to face Mabel, her former best friend who has travelled all that way before winter break to find out why it was she ran away.

We Are Okay is a slow, thoughtful book that dwells on quiet moments between characters. There’s a splash of queer romance in here, but it doesn’t take over the story, keeping the working-through-grief in the foreground. I feel like this was ultimately too short to give me the fleshed-out relationships between people that would’ve made it really hit home for me, but the collection of moments it does provide are moving and hopeful, if melancholy.

6. The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

The Sky is EverywhereAaaand now we’re in the territory of books I just plain didn’t like.

The Sky is Everywhere is…not the worst. But it’s not great. It still has the sense of setting and magic that I’ll Give You the Sun has, and that’s pretty much all of the charm of the story (and a lot of what makes Nelson’s writing special, I think). But the rest, about a girl named Lennie who has lost her sister and there’s a mystery and also a love triangle where one angle is her dead sister’s boyfriend, is mired in melodrama that bogs down the more interesting plot points.

Also Lennie’s poetry is just…sentences of dialogue broken up a little bit. I’m sorry, but I can’t get on board with it.

7. Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Letters to the LostThis book is readable, but in the sense that you would watch a movie like P.S. I Love You, which is not necessarily good but has a bit of a premise to drive it and a lot of obvious emotional manipulation to serve up a good cry.

Yeah. So. Juliet leaves letters by her mother’s grave. Declan finds and responds to them. At first, they remain anonymous to one another, and they don’t exactly like each other at school. But as Juliet unravels the mysteries of Declan and her mother, they get to know each other better. Or something.

This book leans a lot on tropes and clichés. (I get that people who died are inherently mysterious because you can’t ask them anything anymore, but sheesh, does everyone die with a huge secret?) I read it and I didn’t hate it, but I also won’t keep it.

8. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI wanted to like this book a lot, but in the end, it was a struggle to get through.

Julia’s older sister Olga passed away in an accident. Now Julia has the pressure of her mother’s expectations solely on her, and she’s convinced that Olga had a secret. She also has a romance, wants to go to college, jumps around in time a lot, has potentially sketchy relatives (?), has friends who may have serious home life issues, etc.

This book abided by the trope (a big old secret/mystery for the dead person), but left the grief/death aspects so far in the backdrop of an extremely cluttered story that the reveal of it felt like it lacked any impact. Olga’s death felt pretty secondary to everything else going on in this story, so it felt almost weird to use it as an inciting incident for this particular story. This book about grief was…not about grief, but also not particularly about anything else, while still being short enough that it couldn’t quite encompass all the things it was trying to do.

What are your favourite YA reads about grief? (Okay, so favourite is a strong word when we’re talking about books to cry to. Um, the ones that hit home with you the most?) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon! (But maybe less enthusiastically than that? I still have books about grief to read.)

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