*sad face*

Last week I read and fell head-over-heels in love with Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life. Its themes of loss,  grief, and starting anew resonated deeply, and I’ve found myself thinking often about the story and its wonderfully flawed characters and how profoundly they’ve affected me over the last several days.

I’ve thought, too, about the other contemporaries I’ve read and adored over the last few months: Amy McNamara’s Lovely, Dark and Deep, Hannah Harrington’s Saving June, and Kristin Halbrook’s Nobody But Us. Just like How to Save a Life, these novels are centered around tragedy. Their protagonists deal with death and guilt and unimaginable sadness, and they must learn to find their way through whatever dark burdens life has thrown at them.

Turns out, almost all of my favorite young adult contemporaries are similar in this way: Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road, Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, John Green’s Looking For Alaska, Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer.

I’m not sure what my penchant for literary sorrow says about me, but it’s a fairly safe bet that if a novel is steeped in heart-wrenching sadness, has a strong romantic element, a mature narrative voice, and a conclusion that rings with at least a hint of hopefulness, I’ll probably be a fan.

Tell Me: Do your favorite books have a consistent theme? 

{Oh, and a few links to share: First, today at YA Confidential we’re accepting first page submissions of YA manuscripts for critique by our teen spies. Click HERE for more information. And, via Rebecca Behrens, a fascinating essay by a former Sweet Valley High ghostwriter — how I adored those books growing up! Finally, there’s a March selection for YA Book Club (hosted by Tracey Neithercott). Click HERE to find out what we’re reading. You should most definitely join us!}


30 thoughts on “*sad face*

  1. Rebecca B says:

    Yup, these books are catnip to me. I love anything with a lot of romance and sad, and a little bit of hope at the end. But I also love awkward people and nerds–this is probably why I adore John Green so much.

  2. Jaime Morrow says:

    I’m not sure that I tend to migrate toward YA dealing with tragedy, but I’ve definitely read and enjoyed some. {Hello, The Fault In Our Stars! 😥 } I did pick up a signed copy of Lovely, Dark and Deep when I was at Books of Wonder, so I’ll have to get to that one soon. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      Aaah! I’m so envious that you own a signed copy of LOVELY, DARK AND DEEP, Jaime! I love my pretty hard copy, but I would LOVE to have it signed… Maybe someday. 🙂

  3. Erin Bowman (@erin_bowman) says:

    Seeing as we have similar book tastes, I think I’ve just learned about my own love of literary sorrow through this post. It’s definitely true for my contemp faves, but also my speculative ones as well: The Scorpio Races, The Hunger Games, Under the Never Sky… These all give us characters who have lost greatly and are struggling to overcome some HUGE emotional stakes.

    You mention hope, and I really feel this is the key for me and my book tastes. Even the most grim of stories won’t disappoint if there is a sliver of hope by their close. Loved this post, Katy!

    • katyupperman says:

      I thought about speculative fiction when I was writing this post, Erin, and came up with many of the same titles you named when I was pondering profoundly emotional books. It seems that loss is so much more prevalent in dystopian and fantasy novels, and the protagonist usually has to move on from her grief much more quickly in order to survive the world in which she lives. Death in a contemporary novel is often life shattering, and often the focus of the entire novel. In either case, that hint of hope is huge for me. It’s what makes the journey through the sadness worth it in the end!

  4. Jillian says:

    I’m the odd one out here, it seems! I never gravitate toward heart-wrenching, grief-themed romantic contemps, though every once in a while I’ll be convinced to read one and end up liking it (John Green and Gayle Forman keep winning me over :-D). I prefer speculative fiction with a touch of dystopia and/or dark humor and not a lot of romance… though stunning prose can get me to read almost any genre, and actually the books Erin mentioned in her comment are some of my favorites, so apparently there’s some crossover after all. 🙂

  5. stephscottil says:

    I loved that Sara Zarr book, and almost immediately read two more by her. She has this way of writing about sorrow and tragedy without melodrama, and I also love how the parents feel real and not like charicatures who are out of touch and clueless. She’s one of my favorites.

    • katyupperman says:

      Totally agree, Steph. I loved Jill’s mom in HOW TO SAVE A LIFE. Actually, I loved her dad too which, considering that he was dead for the entirety of the novel, is a true testament to Sara Zarr’s amazing characterizations skills.

  6. Katie L says:

    LOVELY, DARK AND DEEP is one of my favorite reads this year, as is PAPER VALENTINE (Brenna Yovanoff). Also really sad. I’m with you in terms of my contemp reads. Give me some well written grief and sorrow with a splash of romance and I roll over.
    But I’m also a sucker for a post-apocalyptic/dystopian which usually INCLUDE elements of grief and sorrow but aren’t centered around them like the contemps? I think it’s the difference of what is the Big Picture for the characters. In DIVERGENT and INSURGENT by Veronica Roth, Tris loses a lot of people whom she loves, but the bigger picture is that she lives in a dystopian society that’s crumbling (it sits on a throne of lies!). Her grief and sense of guilt is nearly crippling in INSURGENT, but it doesn’t cripple her because it can’t: her big picture is different than Wren in LOVELY, DARK AND DEEP whose grief swallows her and drives her decisions.
    Or maybe, contemp YA like this tends to be character driven while dystopian YA tends to be plot-driven?
    I’m rambling now! The point is, yes, I’m also drawn to the same things, but what themes I start to read in my literature also has to do with what I’m looking for in that moment. When I want to go in, I read dark sad contemp. When I want to go *out*, I read dystopian/post-apocalyptic/sf-f.

    • katyupperman says:

      I think your observations about character-driven vs. plot-driven are right on, Katie. I usually prefer character-driven stories, but there are some pretty amazing plot-driven stories that have hit me emotionally, especially lately (THROUGH THE EVER NIGHT, SHADES OF EARTH, TAKEN). It definitely depends on my mood and what I’m looking for, but if a book can make me FEEL, I’ll probably love it forever. 🙂

  7. Alexa says:

    I am a complete sucker for books that end on a hopeful note, but not necessarily everything wrapped up, happily ever after. I like the sense that the story continues after the last page.

    Have you read ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell? I think you’d love it given the books you listed here. It was my favourite book of last year.

    • katyupperman says:

      So funny that you mentioned ELEANOR & PARK, Alexa. I just bought it today! I’ve heard so many awesome things about it… Can’t wait to read it!

      And yes, like you, I love a book that has a sense of closure, but also gives the impression that the world the author created will live on. 🙂

  8. Erin Funk says:

    I have yet to read most of the books that you mentioned here, but I know exactly what you mean. I think for a book to be great it has to make you feel something powerful, even if (or maybe especially if) it’s heartbreaking. I know those are the books that stick with me long after reading them, probably because they’re reflections of real life.

    • katyupperman says:

      Yes! Every time I see someone blog or tweet about a book that gives them “all the feels” I’m immediately intrigued. Those are definitely the best kind of books, and I love that everyone has their own idea of what “the feels” are.

  9. Tracey Neithercott says:

    I’m the same way. My favorite books are sad in some way or another, and unlike you, I usually cry. But I keep doing it to myself because I love them so much. You mentioned TWENTY BOY SUMMER, and that’s one book that I didn’t expect to tear me up, but oh man did it. And it’s a testament to the writing that I felt such an emotional connection after one chapter.

    And that, I think, is the main reason all of those books you mentioned are amazing. They make you feel so much. There’s such a connection to the characters that their pain becomes ours, and it’s not about what happens (because plenty of books have sad scenes) but what happens to that character.

    Some of my favorite sad books (in addition to the ones you mentioned) are TFIOS, BEFORE I DIE, THE ROAD, THE BOOK THIEF, and, if I can go way back, THE GIVING TREE.

    • katyupperman says:

      Aww, THE GIVING TREE! Love that one! As you know, I’m definitely not a crier, but THE BOOK THEIF and TFIOS *almost* got me. And HOW TO SAVE A LIFE did! Maybe the moon was full or something, but there’s a scene at the end… Yowza. I’m totally a glutton for emotional punishment, too, because I keep going back and rereading it!

  10. sarahbgoldberg says:

    I agree with a lot of the above comments, but want to chime in with Tracey on BEFORE I DIE, which despite being utterly heartbreaking, is SO full of life. That one made me sob.

    There was a really great article in The Millions last week about TFioS and what my very smart friend Alyssa (@LyssaDee) called tears “as a currency for significance.” (http://www.themillions.com/2013/02/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-crying-john-greens-the-fault-in-our-stars.html) I think that there’s a lot too that, as the author of the article puts it, the idea that “what we’re trying to say” when we tell someone that a book made us cry “is: this book mattered deeply to me, I think it could matter deeply to you too.” I’ve definitely noticed my own tendency to do this. I think that we could debate a lot what this means about what we value when we read (ideas vs. feelings, perhaps), and what this says about the value and function of literature for us.

    And regarding hope at the end, which I’ve heard people often cite as a feature of YA vs. adult literature, I wonder if this means that us YA readers are idealists at heart. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      Thanks so much for linking to Alyssa’s article, Sarah. It’s fantastic, and I agree with so many of her points. Tears equal an emotional connection, and I think that’s what we’re looking for when we read books (or watch movies). Whether we prefer to comedy, romance, science fiction, or erotica, it’s usually a bond with characters that make a story memorable memorable. And yes, I agree that a concluding sense of hopefulness is inherent to YA. I think it’s what makes me adore it so much. 🙂

  11. Katharine Owens says:

    I’m so intrigued by your list of recs– because your list of faves includes many of my all time most loved YA books. Very cool. I want to check them out.
    These sorts of books are so appealing– and I’m not sure why. Is it that we end up caring so much for the characters? Or all the personal growth of the MCs? Or just how well the authors deal with poignant themes? Whatever it is. It’s good.

    • katyupperman says:

      For me, it often is the personal growth of a book’s protagonist that makes it such a compelling, emotional read. But there are some authors (Gayle Forman, Sara Zarr, Melina Marchetta, among others) who are capable of emotionally wrecking me with the simplest of sentences. I love that. 🙂

  12. Alison Miller says:

    Oh gosh. My favorites run the gamut. PERKS. GATSBY. HUNGER GAMES. MAXIMUM RIDE. LOOKING FOR ALASKA. BEFORE I FALL. Probably a hundred more that would take up half your comment space. I just love reading compelling stories with characters I fall in love with, relate to, and root for. Which is what I aim for in my own writing – write what you’d want to read, right?

    Awesome post, Katy!

    • katyupperman says:

      Alison, your writing has everything I love, which is why I’m so grateful to call you a CP. And surprise, surprise… Some of your favorites are mine too. 🙂

  13. Ghenet Myrthil says:

    I’ve read all the books you mentioned except for SAVING JUNE (it’s on my list!) and I’ve enjoyed them all! These books all resonated with me. Probably because we’ve all experienced these emotions and it’s easy to identify with these characters. Plus, these authors are so good at describing grief; it’s hard not to get sucked in.

    • katyupperman says:

      Oh, definitely read SAVING JUNE, Ghenet — I adored it! It’s one of those slow-burn books that you don’t even realize you’re falling in love with until almost the end. And yes… the grief is described in that way where you feel what the protagonist is feeling down to your bones. Loved it!

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