The Top 10 Young Adult Novels About Addiction

By Eve Tushnet 11/17/15

The best addiction-related young adult and middle-grade fiction I could find.

The Top 10 Young Adult Novels About Addiction
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The YA addiction novel has become its own mini-industry. Which ones offer insight instead of hawking clichés? Below you'll find the best addiction-related YA and middle-grade fiction I could find.

10. Ann Shinoda, Learning Not to Drown. Luke is back from his most recent jail stint, and his sister Clare copes with their small town's judgments and her own increasing doubts about her brother's character. There are plenty of flaws in this book. Clare is very young for her age. Her brother literally yells, “You don't love me. That's why I'm this way.” But Shinoda depicts the stripping away of illusions: Clare gradually realizes that her parents have consistently chosen to protect their addicted child at the expense of his siblings, and the reader realizes that what she thinks of as her parents' “strictness” is actually ruthless control.

Clare watches a performance of Les Misérables and identifies her brother with Jean Valjean: “Compassion will cure him.” By the end, she's explicitly rejected this model. Compassion didn't work, so she cuts her losses.

9. Catherine Ryan Hyde, The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance. Cynnie is court-ordered into AA after a drunk-driving incident. Her mother is also an alcoholic. Some sharp descriptions of self-destructive drinking: “I wanted to see if there was a line, and what was on the other side.”

This is a didactically and often sentimentally pro-AA book, but it captures the weird severity the program can encourage: Sometimes Cynnie's sponsor offers her undeserved love and mercy, but often she demands that Cynnie earn love by proving that she's serious about working the program. The portrayal of amends is painful enough to ring true—Cynnie learns to keep her own side of the street clean even when it's unfair.

8. Sara Zarr, Once Was Lost. One of the few novels that explores faith in Jesus Christ, rather than a more abstract “Higher Power.” Samara is a pastor's daughter (and won't let you forget it—she reminds you of the travails of a pastor's kid on every other page) who is close to despair: Her mom is in rehab and her dad seems to put every family in town ahead of his own. Samara's family's faith is complex, not clichéd, but it has never been so deeply challenged before.

There are a lot of thoughtful grace notes here (especially the use of the Biblical figure of Lazarus) and although this can sometimes be an airless, humorless book, it ends on a note of hard-won hope.

7. Susan Patron, The Higher Power of Lucky. Middle-grade novel set in a tiny, very poor California town, narrated by a girl who learns life lessons by eavesdropping on all the local 12-step meetings. She tries to figure out what her own Higher Power might be; she wonders when she'll hit rock bottom. This novel lacks any skepticism toward by-the-Big-Book recovery, but that gives it an innocence, a sunny confidence that we can all learn from AA.

6. Tess Sharpe, Far From You. A noirish tale of a girl in recovery trying to solve her best friend's murder. Nobody will believe anything she says since she was found with drugs at the murder scene.

Sophie herself has completely internalized the narrative that all addicts lie. She accepts the “tough love” model. Sophie confronts a suspect at his 12-step meeting with, “[Y]ou're a tweeker. Lying is what you do.”

And yet that “tweeker” is telling the truth. And so was Sophie, when nobody believed her because of her addiction history. It turns out that when you define addicts as liars, you can do anything you want to us, since nobody will believe us.

As a novel, this will please people who wanted Veronica Mars to have more lesbianism. As a depiction of the way American recovery narratives can reject solidarity with fellow sufferers and turn even humility into a source of self-righteousness, it's painfully realistic. “Nobody will trust you ever again once they know” is a weird message to send in a book about the importance of honesty and openness.

5. S.E. Hinton, That Was Then, This Is Now. This book was already old-fashioned when I was in school, but Hinton is a strong enough writer that a lot of authentic emotion shines through the 1970s talk of hippies and greasers. Hinton's teenagers are bruised and loyal, struggling to sustain the bonds of brotherhood. The spare prose occasionally turns lyrical (“His strangely sinister innocence was gone, and in its place was a more sinister knowledge”) and getting drunk is treated unsentimentally. I appreciated that calling the cops was treated as an impulsive action with terrible, long-regretted consequences—just like the teens' violence and drinking. The treatment of LSD is so one-note that it came across as moralizing even to a sympathetic reader.

4. Alaya Dawn Johnson, Love Is the Drug. A day-after-tomorrow dystopian tale, narrated by a daughter of the black upper class. This is overwritten in the way a lot of YA is (“His eyes are an open wound that she gave him”), but there are lots of smart touches, like the doomsday go-go.

This book acknowledges that what we call “drugs” exist on a spectrum of chemical enhancements of human experience. Every chapter is named after a different chemical compound, from cocaine to oxytocin (the so-called “love hormone”). Still, there is an adolescent, convenient feel to the way some drugs are associated with good characters and some with bad: Good guys drop acid, bad guys snort coke.

Most addiction novels deal at some point with religion, or at least spirituality. Love Is the Drug replaces these sources of meaning with aesthetics and politics. Discerning the truth about “black sites” and the invasion of Iraq, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, replaces accepting a Higher Power or learning to pray. Readers will disagree on whether this replacement diminishes the novel or enhances it.

3. Joan Bauer, Best Foot Forward. A charming middle-grade tale of a girl in Al-Anon who exposes worker abuse and consumer fraud in a shoe company with the help of a delinquent teen. Balances the fact that you can't make people change with the equally true fact that some people will change if you give them a chance. Gently funny (one sleazy corporate exec is described as a “supreme shoe scorpion”), genuinely passionate about shoes, and full of winsome praise for depictions of humility, adaptability, and hard work.

2. Ann Redisch Stampler, Where It Began. Gabby wakes up in the hospital after a disfiguring, drunken car crash. Girls rarely get to play the attractively self-loathing and self-destructive antihero, and I adored Gabby with her dizzy boy-craziness and her thousand schemes to keep herself from getting better. She's constantly telling herself she's awesome, and the more she says it the less she believes it.

Gabby knows the script for “teenage alcoholic” and she tries to play the role she's been assigned. She's a twisty little character, and this is a smart, often funny portrayal of the way our clichéd images of alcoholism and recovery can obscure as much as they illuminate.

1. Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now. Narrated by a self-impressed cheeseball and a jackass who drinks “a little bit more than a little bit too much.” He's every girl's favorite ex-boyfriend. He takes those “are you an alcoholic?” online quizzes and argues with the results. He's generous and unreliable, a promiser. He drives drunk and falls off of things, and his charming patter covers an abyss of despair.

This book highlights the ecstatic joy of excessive drinking. Drinking opens our hero up to the beauty of the world around him and gives his girlfriend the self-confidence she lacked.

And Tharp correctly identifies the problem with alcoholic drinking: You miss out. You end up living less than the people around you. This book answers the question, “Why would you get sober if you don't care about or believe in the possibility of the future?” It's because you don't want to miss out on life now. Not to get too "After School Special" on you, but that seems like something a teenager might care about.

Eve Tushnet is the author of Amends, a novel set during the filming of a reality-TV show about alcohol rehab, and Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

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Eve Tushnet is the author of Amends, a novel set during the filming of a reality-TV show about alcohol rehab, and Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.