I was in the sixth grade when a book changed me. I was already a voracious reader, and I loved mysteries and thrillers. Yet something was different about Robert Cormier’s 1977 novel, “I Am the Cheese.” There was an immediacy to Adam Farmer’s narration of his bike journey to visit his father. I hadn’t encountered an unreliable narrator and the lingering impact of an unsettling ending in the books I’d read before this one.
It felt like crossing an important threshold. Books could do more than entertain, I realized. They could change the way you looked at the world and how you viewed yourself in that expanded, powerful universe.
Here are my favorite Y.A. thrillers that tackle social issues, each of which provides entry points for larger discussions.
Unwind, by Neal Shusterman
The first book in a sci-fi dystopian series, “Unwind” takes place after a civil war over reproductive rights. The Bill of Life truce is a compromise — it dictates that life is protected from the moment of conception, but it may be “unwound” during one’s teenage years, i.e., a teen can be disassembled for transplantable parts that will, technically, live on in others. The novel follows three teens who are struggling to escape being unwound after they are slated for “harvest camp.” Sixteen years after it was published, “Unwind” continues to spark conversations about the value of human life.
Which one of Jackson’s books to choose? “Allegedly” is an unflinching view of the juvenile justice system; “Grown” spotlights sexual exploitation in the music industry. But “Monday’s Not Coming,” my introduction to Jackson and her trademark plot twists, is the one that sticks with me the most. Claudia is the only person concerned that Monday, her best friend, is missing. Her investigation soon uncovers the neglect and abuse Monday faced at home. Jackson’s sophomore novel is a wrenching commentary on the ease with which Black children are disappeared in plain sight.
After an environmental catastrophe, humans have lost the ability to dream — that is, everyone except Indigenous peoples. Frenchie is an Indigenous teen on the run from government officials hunting him and others for their dream-laden bone marrow. Dimaline’s dystopian thriller shines a light on government policies that extract resources from Indigenous peoples and communities without regard for the consequences.
Three young men attending Urban Promise Prep become murder suspects after their principal is killed on campus. J.B., Ramón and Trey all struggled to follow Principal Moore’s strict rules, which he promised would turn boys of color into extraordinary men. Using multiple narrators and a variety of formats, including excerpts from police interrogation transcripts, texts and press releases, Brooks weaves a compelling story about the perils of prejudgments. Pro tip: The audiobook features a full, spectacular cast.
Sadie, by Courtney Summers
Speaking of great reads that are even better as audiobooks, I also have to recommend “Sadie,” Summers’s Edgar Award-winning novel about runaway girls. This book blew my mind. The novel opens with Sadie narrating her grief-fueled, desperate search for her sister Mattie’s killer — their mother’s former boyfriend — but abruptly switches to a podcast about missing runaways, and you realize the people being discussed are Sadie and Mattie. Gritty and disturbing, “Sadie” is a powerful example of how an audiobook can elevate storytelling.
The most terrifying stories are the ones that feel like all-too-prescient warnings. In “Internment,” set “15 minutes into the future,” Layla Amin and her family have been forced into an internment camp for Muslim Americans. Layla is determined to alert everyone beyond the barbed wire perimeter to the injustice and brutality of unchecked Islamophobia and racism. The novel’s depiction of the ease with which the forced internment is implemented, the complicity of neighbors and the risks to those who resist feels chillingly plausible. The world is a fragile, beautiful, precarious place. Silence does not serve us.
Angeline Boulley writes books about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is the author of “Firekeeper’s Daughter” and “Warrior Girl Unearthed,” and a former director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education.