Tough Topics: Death, Dying, and Grief

Two young women on cover

These books for middle grades and young adults explore themes related to death and grief in a diverse collection of stories and settings. Through different genres, including fiction, memoir, verse, and fantasy, these books offer readers an unflinchingly honest, yet hopeful, approach to some of life's most difficult losses.

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Alicia Afterimage

Alicia Afterimage
Age Level: Young Adult

Lulu Delacre explores grief by examining her late 16-year old daughter, Alicia, through the eyes of her friends and family after a tragic car accident. Even the young driver who survived is included in this moving and resonant book, which explores teen grief and encourages an open discussion of death and loss.

Brother's Keeper

Brother's Keeper
By: Julie Lee
Age Level: 9-12, Middle Grade

Twelve-year-old Sora and her family live under an iron set of rules in North Korea. But war is coming, and it is the perfect time to escape. The plan is simple: Sora and her family will walk hundreds of miles to the South Korean city of Busan from their tiny mountain village. When an incendiary bombing changes everything, Sora and her little brother Young will have to get to Busan on their own. Can a twelve-year-old girl and her eight-year-old brother survive three hundred miles of warzone in winter?

Clap When You Land

Clap When You Land

Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash. Separated by distance — and Papi’s secrets — the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered.

Elatsoe

Illustration of young woman in black and white landscape
Illustrated by: Rovina Cai
Age Level: Young Adult

Elatsoe — Ellie for short — lives in an alternate contemporary America shaped by the ancestral magics and knowledge of its Indigenous and immigrant groups. She can raise the spirits of dead animals—most importantly, her ghost dog Kirby. When her beloved cousin dies, all signs point to a car crash, but his ghost tells her otherwise: He was murdered. Who killed him and how did he die?

Esperanza Rising

Illustration of young girl floating above the hills
Age Level: Middle Grade
Language: English, Spanish vocabulary featured

Instead of celebrating her 13th birthday in her prosperous Mexican home as she expected, Esperanza must adjust to the murder of her father, the loss of her house and wealth, and her new life as a farm worker in California during the Great Depression. This coming-of-age novel is based on the life of the author's grandmother.

Everlasting Nora

Everlasting Nora

After a family tragedy results in the loss of both father and home, 12-year-old Nora lives with her mother in Manila’s North Cemetery, which is the largest shantytown of its kind in the Philippines today. When her mother disappears mysteriously one day, Nora is left alone. With help from her best friend Jojo and the support of his kindhearted grandmother, Nora embarks on a journey riddled with danger in order to find her mom.

Kiki and Jacques: A Refugee Story

Kiki and Jacques: A Refugee Story
Age Level: Middle Grade

Life could be better for twelve-year-old Jacques. His mother just died, his father is jobless, and his grandmother’s bridal store is on the verge of closing. At least he can look forward to the soccer season — after all, he’s a shoo-in for captain. But the arrival of Somali refugees shakes up nearly everything in his French-American Maine town, even soccer. Jacques isn’t the only star anymore. School, church, sports … everything suddenly seems different.

Locomotion

Locomotion

Through a class poetry assignment, fifth-grader Lonnie reveals the house fire that killed his parents, his separation from his sister, his life in foster care, and his community's struggle with poverty and racism.

Lotería

A girl holding lotería cards
Illustrated by: Dana SanMar
Age Level: Middle Grade
Language: Spanish

In the hottest hour of the hottest day of the year, a fateful wind blows into Oaxaca City. It whistles down cobbled streets and rustles the jacaranda trees before slipping into the window of an eleven-year-old girl named Clara. Unbeknownst to her, Clara has been marked for la Lotería. Life and Death deal the Lotería cards but once a year, and the stakes could not be higher. Every card reveals a new twist in Clara’s fate — a scorpion, an arrow, a blood-red rose. If Life wins, Clara will live to a ripe old age.

Patron Saints of Nothing

Young man with white flames behind him
Age Level: Young Adult

Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin Jun was murdered as part of President Duterte's war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story. Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to reckon with the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth — and the part he played in it.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

Product Description: Cassidy Rain Berghoff didn't know that the very night she decided to get a life would be the night that her best friend would lose his. It's been six months since her best friend died, and up until now Rain has succeeded in shutting herself off from the world. But when controversy arises around her aunt Georgia's Indian Camp in their mostly white midwestern community, Rain decides to face the outside world again — at least through the lens of her camera.

The Astonishing Color of After

Shape of a bird flying toward the sky
Age Level: Young Adult
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird. When Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time and find her mother, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. A luminous debut novel about finding oneself through family history, art, bravery, and love.

The Firekeeper’s Daughter

Large butterfly
Age Level: Young Adult

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. She dreams of a fresh start at college, but when family tragedy strikes, Daunis puts her future on hold to look after her fragile mother. The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug.

The Grief Keeper

Illustration of woman with flowing black hair holding onto a man.

Seventeen-year-old Marisol has always dreamed of being American, learning what Americans and the US are like from television and Mrs. Rosen, an elderly expat who had employed Marisol's mother as a maid. When she pictured an American life for herself, she dreamed of a life like Aimee and Amber's, the title characters of her favorite American TV show.

The Land of Forgotten Girls

Two sisters camping out

Soledad has always been able to escape into the stories she creates, just like her mother always could. And Soledad has needed that escape more than ever in the five years since her mother and sister died, and her father moved Sol and her youngest sister from the Philippines to Louisiana. After her father leaves, all Sol and Ming have is their evil stepmother, Vea. Sol has protected Ming all this time, but then Ming begins to believe that Auntie Jove — their mythical, world-traveling aunt — is really going to come rescue them.

The Land of Permanent Goodbyes

The Land of Permanent Goodbyes
Age Level: Young Adult

In a country ripped apart by war, Tareq lives with his big and loving family...until the bombs strike. His city is in ruins. His life is destroyed. And those who have survived are left to figure out their uncertain future. An award-winning author and journalist — and a refugee herself — Atia Abawi captures the hope that spurs people forward against all odds and the love that makes that hope grow. (Note: Some graphic scenes of wartime violence are included.)

The Memory of Light

The Memory of Light

When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: After her suicide attempt, she shouldn't be alive. But then she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she's never had. But Vicky's newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital.

The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil
Illustrated by: Shane W. Evans
Age Level: Middle Grade

Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala — Amira's one true dream. But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey on foot to safety at a refugee camp.

The Silence that Binds Us

Young woman swimming in water
By: Joanna Ho
Age Level: Young Adult

Maybelline Chen isn’t the Chinese Taiwanese American daughter her mother expects her to be. May prefers hoodies over dresses and wants to become a writer. When asked, her mom can’t come up with one specific reason for why she's proud of her only daughter. May’s beloved brother, Danny, on the other hand, has just been admitted to Princeton. But Danny secretly struggles with depression, and when he dies by suicide, May's world is shattered. In the aftermath, racist accusations are hurled against May's parents for putting too much “pressure” on him.

The Trouble with Half a Moon

Ever since her brother's death, Dellie's life has been quiet and sad. When new neighbors move into the housing projects, Corey, an abused five-year-old boy, is often left home alone and hungry. Dellie strikes up a friendship with this little boy who reminds her so much of her brother. This novel authentically captures the diverse community and the characters' grief, anger, and heartbreak.

Towers Falling

New tower above a reflection of Twin Towers

When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Dèja can't help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?

Under the Mesquite

Under the Mesquite
Age Level: 9-12, Middle Grade
Language: English, Spanish vocabulary featured

The oldest of eight siblings in her Mexican American family, Lupita is a talented actress and gifted writer. As she wonders what world she belongs in — across the border, taking her dying mother's place, or building a life of her own — she tells her story in verse, offering intimate access to the daily lives and conversation of family and friends and an outpouring of her innermost thoughts as she tries to find and establish her own identity. 2012 Pura Belpré Award Winner.

We Weren't Looking to Be Found

We Weren't Looking to Be Found
Age Level: Young Adult

Dani comes from the richest, most famous Black family in Texas and has everything a girl could want. So why does she keep using drugs and engaging in other self-destructive behavior? Camila’s Colombian American family doesn’t have much, but she knows exactly what she wants out of life and works hard to get it. So why does she keep failing, and why does she self-harm every time she does? When Dani and Camila find themselves rooming together at Peach Tree Hills, a treatment facility in beautiful rural Georgia, they initially think they’ll never get along ― and they’ll never get better.

What Momma Left Me

An African American teen girl holds her head up while closing her eyes
Age Level: Middle Grade

Serenity is good at keeping secrets, and she's got a whole lifetime's worth of them. Her mother is dead, her father is gone, and starting life over at her grandparents' house is strange. Luckily, certain things seem to hold promise: a new friend who makes her feel connected, and a boy who makes her feel seen.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Illustration of young girl riding a dragon
By: Grace Lin
Age Level: Middle Grade

In the valley of Fruitless mountain, a young girl named Minli lives in a ramshackle hut with her parents. In the evenings, her father regales her with old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man on the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life's questions. Inspired by these stories, Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man on the Moon to ask him how she can change her family's fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest for the ultimate answer.