5 YA Books That Broke My Heart

Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere

Remember that scene in The NeverEnding Story when giant turtle Morla first appears, and in an attic far, far away, a little boy simply reading about Morla lets loose a mighty scream? That’s a testament to the power of a truly engrossing story, one that can make you shred your vocal cords with nothing more than the words “a big turtle was there also.”

But I’m temperamentally more inclined toward books that make me cry than books that make me scream. Because January’s a post-holiday emotional wasteland anyway, I present my greatest hits list of ugly-cry reads, young adult edition. (DISCLAIMER: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is NOT included here, because it’s already been government-certified as tear-duct napalm, alongside the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up.)

Feed, by M.T. Anderson
A pack of mega-bored teens living in a dystopic future America decides to take a trip to the moon, where protagonist Titus meets an odd, beautiful girl named Violet. The “feed” of the book’s title refers to the constant stream of digital information the kids receive from devices implanted in their brains—and it’s while visiting a club on the lunar surface that their devices get hacked. For Titus and his friends, this means a few strange days without a constant barrage of comforting shopping suggestions and corporate-approved maxims flowing from their chattering feeds. But for Violet, the effects of the hack are longer lasting. The bittersweet, clock-racing love story that follows challenges Titus to question his dysfunctional world, and also challenges the tensile strength of the Kleenex you’ll need to get through it.

Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin
This meditative heartbreaker left me a sodden mess. Zevin imagines the afterlife (as experienced by teenager Liz, who dies in the book’s early pages) as a balmy beachfront town where the dead live their lives backward from point of arrival, growing younger every day until they’re sent back to earth in fresh baby form. Liz’s struggle to let go of her past—and the inherent bittersweetness of growing young again, in both mind and body—make the book a real weeper. Also…dogs end up in Elsewhere. Dogs who can communicate with their new Elsewhere owners, until they turn into pre-verbal puppies and are sent back to earth for their own next time around. For me, Liz’s relationship with her afterlife pup was the book’s loveliest touch.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
“Kiss me, Hardy!” Do you have chills yet? No? Then you haven’t read Code Name Verity, which uses this famous Horatio Nelson quote to staggering effect. It’s a BFF love story about two teenaged British girls in World War II—one a wunderkind pilot, the other a captured spy—that I put off reading for months, not being a habitual reader of historical fiction. Thank goodness the entire internet was conspiring to convince me to pick it up. You’ll read it in a night, then put in an order for Wein’s latest, the recently released Rose Under Fire.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
It’s been 20 years since I last read Little Women (a YA book before the genre existed), and I can still quote the saddest line from memory: “In the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last.” Thus died the sweetest of the March sisters, too good for this world.

The Probability of Miracles, by Wendy Wunder
Campbell Cooper is a dying girl with a bucket list, living her (possibly) last days in the (possibly) magical town of Promise, Maine, where her mom has moved her in the hopes of securing a miracle. Long after Cam’s given up, her mom and sister keep pushing for her, and her end-of-life to-do list—and the appearance of a complicated hottie—wake her up again to what life can offer. It was Cam’s prickly relationship with her mom that kept me hooked, and kept the tears a-flowing.

What’s the saddest YA book you’ve ever read?

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