Stuff for the Teen Age
Thirteen YA Novels That Will Bend Your Mind
Some of my favorite YA novels are books that challenge me, that pull my brain in different directions, and make me think, “What the hell just happened?”. Sometimes, it’s because the narrators are choosing not to tell us the whole story, or because for some reason they can’t tell us the whole story. Sometimes, it’s because the author writes the story in such a way that it takes readers a while to figure out what’s going on. Here are thirteen YA novels that will take your brain in unexpected directions!
Placebo Junkies by JC Carleson
Audie is part of a group of young people who volunteer again and again for pharmaceutical trials and medical procedures. They don’t have “real” jobs, but instead go from place to place signing up for as many procedures as possible to make enough money to get by. We suspect that Audie is an unreliable narrator, but we don’t know how unreliable, or if she knows it herself, or if she would admit it if she did know. It’s a dangerous world in which most of the characters regularly ingest medications that have potentially fatal side effects, and it makes for a compelling story.
With Malice by Eileen Cook
Jill wakes up feeling disoriented, and she wonders if she drank too much the night before. Soon she realizes that she’s in a hospital bed, and that something terrible must have happened. She gradually discovers that she was in a car accident and that she’s suffering from memory loss that covers the last six weeks of her life —including her trip to Italy, where the accident occurred! What follows is a page-turner that will keep readers wondering. Did Jill let a man come between her and her best friend? Did she have an affair? Did she crash the car on purpose?
Oblivion by Sasha Dawn
Callie has information trapped in her head about what really happened a year ago when her father and one of his parishioners disappeared. The only problem is that she can’t remember it. Wow, talk about an unreliable narrator! We follow Callie back and forth in and out of blackouts, fugue-like writing states, and her own sanity. She is wrapped in layers of misinformation and fractured memories, and as the novel progresses we start to unwrap those layers, slowly at first and then faster and faster. This is a suspenseful story that will keep readers guessing until the very end.
Fell of Dark by Patrick Downes
This story is told from the POV of two teenage boys, Erik and Thorn, who are living in what I’ll call an augmented reality. Real things — growing up, coping with family problems, going to school are happening — but then weird things are happening too like voices, visions, things that make no sense. Since each part of the story is told through one of these boys’ points of view, we the readers start wondering, okay, is this kid crazy? Is that kid crazy? Did that really happen? Did that really happen? The usual questions run through your head when dealing with an unreliable narrator, but the further you go, the more you start to feel that maybe reality itself is unreliable.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King
Two girls find a bat that they think is just sleeping but then appears to be dead. They put the bat in a jar, the remains of the bat get pulverized, and then they pour liquid over the remains of the bat and drink it, which gives them the ability to look at other people and see into the past and future of their bloodlines. And then the story gets weirder from there.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
This book starts off slowly, with a premise that might make readers wonder for a few pages, "Why am I reading this book about rich kids on their summer vacation?" before realizing that everything is not quite what it seems. Cadence is an unreliable narrator, although readers won't realize just how unreliable until they reach the powerful ending of this book. This is an excellent novel that will reward readers as Cadence's shattered memories are slowly pieced together until they, and she, are finally made whole again.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Roza disappeared months ago, and nobody knows what happened to her. Her friend Finn was the last one to see her, and he knows that she left with a man, but he can’t identify the man who took her. That’s because he has a rare condition that prevents him from distinguishing between faces. When the book opens, Roza is already gone and Finn, who has always been a weird outsider, is now treated like a pariah and beaten up by local bullies on a regular basis. When the action cuts to Roza’s point of view as she tries to figure out how to escape her captor, we become even more invested in the story and in Finn because we know that he was telling the truth all along and there’s still hope that Roza might be saved.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Caden Bosch is the artist-in-residence on a ship that’s going to the Marianas Trench, the deepest point on Earth. He is also a high school student who has been behaving erratically lately. Which of these realities is the “real” reality? And can Caden find a safe place, or will he be lost to the depths forever?
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
This story opens with a fantasy premise — the Leteo Institute has the ability to erase someone’s bad memories — and then turns into a mostly realistic fiction story for a while. We become involved in the story of a boy named Aaron and his relationship with the other boys in his tough neighborhood. Except we imagine that something is going to go wrong. This story contains echoes of many other memory-erasing movies and books like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Total Recall, Slated, and The Program. But it also takes a few unexpected twists along the way.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
This is, honestly, one of the strangest YA books I've ever read. I could tell you that it’s the story of a teen who is trying to deal with a giant insect apocalypse, but that’s just a part of what makes this book memorable. This story is really, really dense like in a "there's so much stuff packed into this story that my head might explode" way. And BTW, if you’re looking for other books that will bend your mind, after you finish reading this book be sure to check out more titles by Andrew Smith!
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
Violet and Orianna were ballerinas and best friends, until two ballerinas who had been tormenting Violet are murdered and Orianna is convicted of the crime. When Orianna is sent to the juvenile detention center, Amber becomes her cellmate. The story is told from multiple points of view, in and out of chronological order, and while parts of the book read like realistic fiction, there is also a strong fantasy element that pulls the pieces of the story together. Several characters see visions of the past and the future and can even see each other across that chronological divide — or at least it seems that way until the very end of the book, when we finally understand that chronology was not what we thought it was.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
What starts as one kind of story (sensitive teenage girl is depressed because her boyfriend died) turns into quite another (her special English class taught by a special teacher has the power to transform her memories, her mind, and even reality). No matter what you think of this book, you will absolutely remember it after you put it down. This would be a great book to spark discussions with teens or even grownups!
Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff
There’s a popular girl named Waverly who feels a lot of pressure trying to keep up the perfect appearance of her life. She feels so stressed out that at night she usually runs instead of sleeping. Marshall is an unpopular boy who doesn’t put any effort into his appearance or his popularity, and he deals with stress by drinking and taking drugs. Then one night when Waverly tries to fall asleep with the help of a scented candle, she finds herself mysteriously transported to be with Marshall. This story is sometimes surreal, sometimes magical, and sometimes bewildering.