For as long as the YA genre has existed, there has been the accompanying anxiety over how dark is too dark? Depictions of murder, suicide, and other dark consequences have rattled educators and parents. But as author Maureen Johnson pointed out in a 2011 editorial, “If subjects like these are in YA books, it’s to show that they are real, they have happened to others, and they can be survived.” Dark comedy serves this same purpose, by injecting humor and other moments of levity into books about cancer bucket lists, small-town murders, and the failure of the human body. The ability to laugh in the face of darkness has long been a coping mechanism; here, it lightens otherwise grim stories while imparting a valuable lesson that readers can survive most anything.
Paperback $8.96 | $9.95
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews
Sometimes, the only thing to shake an adolescent out of his existential ennui is leukemia. Not that Greg is the one afflicted—no, he exists solely on the fringes of high school life, but he’s got a clean bill of health. Instead, it’s his childhood friend Rachel who is sick, and Greg’s mother decides he should rekindle their friendship to help her through it. Suddenly, the guy who doesn’t want to get emotionally invested, whose only passion is making films with his buddy Earl, is unlocking anger, fear, and even humor about the whole situation. Best of all, he’s finally taking a risk.
Vernon God Little, by D.B.C. Pierre
Published within five years of the Columbine massacre, Pierre’s Man Booker Prize–winning satire condemns violence, materialism, and U.S. media culture. Vernon Little is a modern-day mashup of Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn, a loner wrongfully sentenced to death after his best friend murders their classmates and the town goes looking for a scapegoat. Unable to trust the police, his court-appointed shrink, a CNN reporter, or even his own mother, Vernon decides his only option is to flee to Mexico. Subsequent shootings in the decade-plus since the book’s publication have brought more murderers than scapegoats to the forefront, but for its time, Vernon God Little was a biting satire.
The F- It List, by Julie Halpern
There’s basically an entire subgenre of YA books in which characters attempt to mend friendships damaged nearly beyond repair. But in Halpern’s book, the stakes are that much higher: Becca ruins everything with her best friend Alex by sleeping with her boyfriend…on the night of her father’s funeral. (Oof.) And by the time Alex is ready to forgive, Becca has cancer. (Double oof.) But it’s in these extremes that Halpern finds humor, as Alex helps Becca shave her head and fulfill her bucket list before it’s too late—bantering all the while, in that way the best of friends and partners in crime do.
Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy
In response to the “sick lit” subgenre, Murphy brings us the story of a girl diagnosed with leukemia, fulfilling her own f- it list…only to find herself in unexpected remission. Suddenly, Alice’s revenge on her cheating boyfriend and former best friends makes her second chance at life a whole lot more difficult; you can’t be a saint when you’re still alive. And then there’s her partner in crime, Harvey, with whom she shared an “okay? okay” kind of moment, only to not be so sure about him when she finds out she’s not dying. All the big revelations Alice had at death’s door pale in comparison to what she has to learn about herself now.
No One Else Can Have You, by Kathleen Hale
This generation’s Fargo, Hale’s debut doesn’t shy away from the grisly details of prom queen Ruth Fried’s brutal murder: she’s discovered in a cornfield, strung up like a scarecrow. But the book also finds dark humor in the fact that Ruth’s death takes place in Friendship, Wisconsin, where everyone is a suspect but also too gosh-darn neighborly to actually point the finger at anyone. Add to that the absurd turn of events that sends Ruth’s BFF Kippy Bushman—an awkward basket case still reeling from her mother’s abandonment—on the hunt for the killer. Few books can sustain ridiculous dark comedy and an engaging mystery.
Going Bovine, by Libba Bray
Points to Bray for the unique idea of having her protagonist contract mad cow disease, and for going completely off the rails from the moment Cameron is diagnosed. Then again, considering he starts the book on “a slow but uncontrollable skid to nowhere,” it seems Cameron’s life was never going to go smoothly—things just speed up once he starts hallucinating punk angel guides, killer wizards, and Norse god-dwarves. As Cameron is thrust into a time-bending battle over the fate of the world, you can’t help but remember that what’s truly at stake is his feverish brain and expiring human body.
The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand, by Gregory Galloway
Remember the absurdly dark montage in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray tries to kill himself to escape the never-ending eternity of February 2? Now imagine an entire book about a disaffected teenager who has ended his life by jumping, drowning, poisoning, bullets…only to come back to life each time. It’s the kind of immortality that’s simultaneously thrilling and boring. But in this case, his friends and family know about his darkly comic attempts to come back from the dead over and over. Not that they can do much about it—until Adam stops to consider how his death, even one that can be reversed, affects those closest to him.