Seven YA Novels That Explore Death and the Afterlife


*A note before we get started: This blog post is heavily focused on death. If this is a topic that is
triggering for you, please feel free to skip this one.

Death is a heavy topic, one that causes many of us to feel a strange mix of anxiety and gross fascination. We know it will happen to everyone one day, but that doesn’t mean we like to think about it. So, why can’t we stop thinking about it? Like it or not, death is an unavoidable part of life. Maybe that’s why so many authors, especially those who write stories for young adults, have explored death and the afterlife in their work. Teenagers are at a unique point in their lives when they’re starting to think about big issues like death and their beliefs about what comes after. Many teens may even experience loss for the first time. Books are an excellent way to explore the complex feelings that surround death in a safe, controlled way. The following list contains a handful of novels that we think handle this difficult subject matter in a sensitive, thoughtful manner.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This certified YA classic follows Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenage girl who has spent most of her life living with the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis looming over her head. At the urging of her mother, Hazel begins attending a support group for kids with cancer where she meets Augustus Waters, a fellow “cancer kid.” The two quickly form a connection that leads them on a path of discovery about life, love, and loss.

This story is a realistic take on the experience of teens confronting a terminal illness. Fans of contemporary fiction and love stories will likely find a new favorite with this pick.

Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno

This story is a unique one, a contemporary tale with just a hint of magic. The main character, Lottie, has recently lost her beloved aunt, who also happened to be world famous for writing a bestselling children’s book series about a pair of immortal siblings. Lottie’s aunt left her a list of tasks to complete following her death, with the goal of helping her step out of her comfort zone and challenge her anxiety.

To complete this daunting challenge, Lottie teams up with her aunt’s former student, a mysterious boy harboring a huge secret. This novel has excellent anxiety rep and would be a cathartic read for those who deal with death anxiety.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

In this emotional story, Sam finds herself in a Groundhog Day scenario after a fatal car accident one snowy night causes her to relive her final day on earth over and over again. Dealing with confusion, frustration, and despair, Sam must figure out why she is stuck in this time loop and what she needs to do to escape it—never mind what will happen to her when she does.

This is a novel that will appeal to many different types of readers, as it has a fantastical element yet at the same time feels strongly rooted in the realities of teen life.

Layoverland by Gabby Noone

If you want to laugh about the absurdities of life and death, look no further than this one-of-a-kind story. After getting into a head on collision (which was so not her fault), Bea finds herself in an airport that also happens to be purgatory. She can’t change her clothes or remove her streaky makeup and all of the food is encased in jello. If that weren’t bad enough, Bea is being forced to help others resolve whatever is preventing them from moving on to the other side before she can leave herself. Worst of all? She’s assigned to help the boy who caused the accident that killed her.

Despite the inherent darkness of it all, following the characters of this novel as they come to terms with their regrets about life and hope for what comes next is an oddly comforting

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Another story with a dead protagonist, this highly imaginative and quirky tale tells the story of fifteen-year-old Liz, a newly deceased girl who must come to terms with her new “life” in Elsewhere, the place we all go after we die. You’ve probably never seen a depiction of the afterlife quite like this one. In Elsewhere, everyone ages backward from the moment of their death until they are babies again, at which point they are sent back to Earth to embark on a new life.

While this story’s idea of life after death might not exactly coincide with your personal beliefs, it’s still fun to explore such a hopeful yet pragmatic explanation for what might be possible.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Here is a novel perfect for fans of sci-fi and dystopian stories, the first in a series. Imagine a world where natural death has been eliminated. Yet, the population must be controlled, which is where scythes come in. These specially appointed members of society are trained to select and kill as many people as would have died in the before times (yes, there are quotas). When teens Citra and Rowan are selected as apprentices to a local scythe, they must question everything about who they are and what they’re capable of.

There are so many philosophical questions raised in this story. It’s definitely one you’ll be thinking about for a long time. But be warned, this is by far the most graphic book on this list, so if you’re sensitive to violence or depictions of
death, this book likely isn’t for you.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Would you want to know if you were going to die on a given day? That’s the question this powerful novel poses to its readers. In a version of the near future, a company called Death-Cast has figured out how to determine the day everyone will die before it happens. People can now expect to receive a call notifying them of their impending demise at midnight on the day of. This is the exact scenario that teens Mateo and Rufus find themselves in. Connecting via the Last Friend app, the two forge a friendship—and maybe something more—as they attempt to make
the most of their last day on earth.

In case the title didn’t clue you in, be warned, this one is a tearjerker. Yet it is also a decidedly life affirming tale. Fans of contemporary, sci-fi, and romance alike will be left speechless by this beautiful story.

We hope this list will help any interested reader find a book that matches their taste and comfort
level surrounding one of the scariest yet most important issues we as humans face.

Emily Pimental, PRR Writer