4 Mistresses of Dark Contemporary YA

Lauren Strasnick's Then You Were GoneThere’s no one way to experience adolescence, and no one way to write about it. What’s fantastic about young adult lit is the way it documents all kinds of teenhood, from the more traditional high school paths to the less so; the cheerleaders to the misfits; the haves and the have-nots; and the ones who only seem to have. Those who have more difficult upbringings know that the hardest part of simply existing can be the feeling that you’re suffering alone. Here are four authors who’ve proven time and time again that you aren’t, and that you’ll never have to.

Courtney Summers was my personal intro to contemporary YA as we know it: I fell head over heels for her debut, Cracked Up to Be, and never looked back. Having grown up on The Baby-Sitters Club, my favorite books were the ones where the girls fought; I loved seeing them show some teeth. But every Summers character has teeth, from outwardly invulnerable Parker Fadley to Some Girls Are‘s ousted mean girl, Regina Afton. (For a great “starter kit,” check out What Goes Around, which contains both of those fantastic titles.) After a brief detour from contemporary with her zombie Breakfast Club-esque This is Not a Test, Summers returns to her roots next year with All the Rage, probably my most anticipated 2015 title. When the queen of compelling “unlikeable” characters tells you these are her most vicious ones yet, and comparisons like “Veronica Mars meets Brick” are thrown around, you pre-order that baby, and you do it now.

Amy Reed came so highly recommended to me by trusted friends who love dark contemporary that I bought three of her books before even reading one. I did, of course, proceed to read them all, and man, did they bring out a maternal, caretaking side of me I didn’t even know existed. If I could hug—and feed—all of Reed’s characters, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Part of her rare skill comes in discussing issues without the kind of heavy-handed moralizing we tend to associate with “issue books,” and part is in the way she breaks your heart with the realization that she’s describing very real people, the kind of teens we might want to think don’t exist because acknowledging that they do is too painful. My personal Reed favorite is Over You, which is, to date, the best “toxic friendship” book I’ve read in YA, but start anywhere you like with her books—you can’t go wrong.

Lauren Strasnick is one of those gems I thought was utterly hidden…until I mentioned reading one of her books, and got a billion “Isn’t she the best??” responses. What’s fascinating about Strasnick’s catalog is that every fan I know has a completely different favorite, which tells you she writes books with the potential to hook on to something in your soul. (Mine is Then You Were Gone, in case you’re wondering.) Her writing style is so concise her books can feel a little more like novellas—which is just as well, since you’ll never want to put them down in the middle anyway.

Laura Wiess is the master of writing The Forgotten Girl. The one no one’s even pretending to pay any attention to. The one who’s been abandoned by a poor system, an apathetic culture, a damaging selfishness on the part of her caretakers. I fell in love with Leftovers back in 2008, for its well-constructed dual point of view, fascinating toxic friendship, and perfect last line. It was only later, when incidents like Steubenville were all over the news, that I realized it was also my introduction to the power of rape culture, and an incredibly relevant read more than five years later. Though it remains my favorite of her books, she’s been an instabuy author for me ever since.

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