Pushing back against the misconception that YA lacks moral complexity (or lacks anything, for that matter—YA’s house has infinite rooms) is like shooting grooslings in a barrel. The protean nature of YA means you can present a dozen examples on the fly to counter any arguments against it. Though often classified as a genre, YA is more than that, its shifting borders encompassing too many forms to list—love stories, psychological thrillers, time-travel tales, horror and fantasy and historical fiction, confessionals, mind-benders, and, yes, more morally complex storytelling than you can shake a library card at. But, for no other reason than to show gratitude that recently rekindled discussion around YA’s worthiness inspired us to revisit some favorites, here are seven great YA novels marked by complex examinations of fate, choice, responsibility, love, and everything else under the sun. You shouldn’t miss them.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by A.S. King
In this strange and beautiful book, King explores moral dilemmas both common (how much do you owe a friend you’ve outgrown, at what point does compliance become enabling) and un (when subject to dark visions of coming disaster, are you responsible for saving the world?). Glory O’Brien is still reeling from her mother’s suicide, and about to leave high school for a future she can’t envision, when she drinks a substance that opens her mind to detailed visions of an America felled by tyranny and stripped of civil rights. She tries to record a history of the future, while making peace at last with her past.
More Happy than Not, by Adam Silvera
This heartbreaker’s not out till June, and I don’t want to risk spoilers, so I’ll keep this short. Aaron Soto lives with his mom and brother in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, in a near-future world that’s just like our own—but for the existence of a memory-suppressing procedure that allows trauma survivors a chance to live a normal life. The procedure, with all its promise and peril—relief from pain; abandonment of responsibility—lurks at the fringes throughout Aaron’s story, one of love and expectation and self-discovery, and of declaring yourself to a world that will never give you a soft landing.
Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers
Regina is a pitiless mean girl at the top of her high school’s food chain—until she puts her trust in the wrong person following a rape attempt by her best friend’s boyfriend. Her friends turn on her, their abuse rapidly escalates, and the only people willing to put a hand out to help are two former victims of her clique’s mindlessly cruel scorched-earth campaigns. Regina endures the growing pains of her stunted conscience, and balancing righteous anger with the knowledge that she’s getting exactly what she once dished out. The book stuns and terrifies with its vividly believable vision of trial-by-peer, and the brutality of a teen world adult rules can’t penetrate.
Feed, by M.T. Anderson
The great thing about Feed is…well, everything. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. But one of the REALLY great things about Feed is its exploration of a callow young man’s first brush with complexity in any form, moral or otherwise. It’s hilarious and terrifying, heart-lifting and dark, set in a future world where everyone has a feed installed in their heads that makes life a constant multimedia assault. Titus is a carefree kid who loves nothing more than his feed and trying to outrun boredom with his overstimulated friends, until a hacking incident takes him offline and bonds him to Violet, a fellow victim with the unheard-of desire to fight the feed. I feel for any reader who doesn’t make time for this book, on any grounds.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson
While on the topic of M.T. Anderson, let’s not forget this jaw-dropper. Octavian is a boy raised in genteel captivity by a group of philosophers, who tend to him and his beautiful mother, an exiled princess, in regimented ways. But the nature of their experimentation, the terms on which Octavian lives in their house, and the truth of how he’s seen by the larger world remain shrouded by the story’s dreamlike atmosphere, until a shocking discovery starts to unravel his life. The book explores gradations of evil, from banal to Grand Guignol, and the terrible consequences of power in the hands of the willfully ignorant.
The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna
To a point this YA novel echoes the central premise of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, about a subclass of clones built for the purpose of providing fresh parts for their originals. But Mandanna focuses her lens on a single clone, Eva, created not as an organ donor but as a full-on replacement in the case of her original’s death. She’s only a teen when her original, Amarra, dies in a car crash, and her attempt to take over the dead girl’s life is choppy and disorienting for both her and her new family. Despite her training, Eva had no choice but to live life as her own person, developing memories and preferences and affections she couldn’t share with Amarra. In a world that believes her life to be less than, Eva must summon the courage to strike out on her own.
Graceling Realm trilogy, by Kristin Cashore
Kristin Cashore’s characters bleed red. They struggle, they endure, they tax themselves to their limits and beyond. While her fantasy world is richly realized and limned in magic, marked by epic quests and great bravery, it’s a dark and dangerous place. Its bravest heroes and most terrifying villains have one thing in common: different-colored eyes that denote their status as Gracelings, people marked by a supernatural gift—to cook, to swim, to read minds, to kill. The pressure cooker of great power produces both monsters and saviors, but even those on the side of good possess abilities so dangerous they have to keep the extent of them a secret—and stay a step ahead of anyone who might use them as a weapon. It’s nuanced fantasy at its finest.