Thursday, July 30, 2020

Discussion: Best Crime Novels For Young Adults

A few weeks ago, I made a list of the best crime fiction for adults. I guess my twisted brain had so much fun reminiscing about fictional arson and murder that I decided to make a second list. This one focuses on books for teens, tweens, and young adults. Bring on crime novels, part 2!

I love reading about crime. Characters with loose morals are fascinating, and criminals add tons of tension to a narrative. Will they get caught? Will they commit another crime? Are they even guilty of the crime everyone thinks they committed? I want to know!

Even though I enjoy crime fiction, I’m super picky about it. I feel ambivalent about modern thrillers. I hate most detective stories. I’d rather eat disgusting kale than read a traditional courtroom drama. I like a very specific type of crime fiction. I’d call it “literary crime.” It has to be atmospheric with complicated characters and a surprising plot. A well-developed setting doesn’t hurt either.

Here are 15 young adult fiction books that fit my definition of a compelling novel about crime.

*This post contains affiliate links. I earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

🧨  Best Crime Novels For Young Adults  💣

1. The Sacred Lies Of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust.

And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too.

Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it's clear that Minnow knows something—but she's not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.

Why I love it: Well, cults, obviously. They’re fascinating. I’ve read tons of books about cults, and this is one of the better ones. The plot is wild without being stuffed full of over-the-top Hollywood nonsense. I’d call it realistically creepy. It’s also funnier than you’d expect. While in juvenile detention, Minnow makes some friends with huge personalities. After you read Minnow Bly, pick up the author’s other book. The Arsonist is a funny novel about crime too.

2. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

When sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds, his community is thrown into an uproar. Tariq was black. The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white.

In the aftermath of Tariq's death, everyone has something to say, but no two accounts of the events line up. Day by day, new twists further obscure the truth.

Tariq's friends, family, and community struggle to make sense of the tragedy, and to cope with the hole left behind when a life is cut short. In their own words, they grapple for a way to say with certainty: This is how it went down.

Why I love it: Controversial opinion: This book is superior to The Hate U Give in every way. The writing is stronger, the characters are more complex, the plot is less predictable and faster paced. Why are we not talking about How It Went Down? This is a brilliant book about perspective. A crime is witnessed by a crowd of people, but no one can agree on what actually happened. The reader’s ideas about the crime keep shifting as more characters add their testimony. It has a “ripped from the headlines” plot, but the author doesn’t oversimplify anything. It’s messy, and beautiful, and thought provoking.

3. Project X by Jim Shepard

In the wilderness of junior high, Edwin Hanratty is at the bottom of the food chain. His teachers find him a nuisance. His fellow students consider him prey. And although his parents are not oblivious to his troubles, they can't quite bring themselves to fathom the ruthless forces that demoralize him daily.

Sharing in these schoolyard indignities is his only friend, Flake. Branded together as misfits, their fury simmers quietly in the hallways, classrooms, and at home, until an unthinkable idea offers them a spectacular and terrifying release.

Why I love it: It is a tiny, scary novel about kids planning a school shooting. This book is like watching a train wreck. You know it won’t have a happy ending, but you can’t stop reading because you need to know what happens next. I appreciate that it isn’t a mental health fairytale. The main characters are depressed. People try to help them, but it doesn’t completely work. Sometimes you can’t save a person from themselves.

4. The Wicker King by K. Ancrum

When August learns that his best friend, Jack, shows signs of degenerative hallucinatory disorder, he is determined to help Jack cope. Jack’s vivid and long-term visions take the form of an elaborate fantasy world layered over our own—a world ruled by the Wicker King. As Jack leads them on a quest to fulfill a dark prophecy in this alternate world, even August begins to question what is real or not.

August and Jack struggle to keep afloat as they teeter between fantasy and their own emotions. In the end, each must choose his own truth.

Why I love it: It’s so bizarre! It’s about two teenage boys who have an intense, abusive friendship. One of the boys develops a disease that causes him to hallucinate, and the other boy treats the hallucinations like they’re real-life events, which gets them into serious legal trouble. It’s a mixed-media book. There are photos, drawings, music playlists, and different colored pages. I loved the reading experience. Everything about this novel is excellently weird.

5. Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie hasn't had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she's been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie's entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister's killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie's story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie's journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it's too late.

Why I love it: I highly recommend the audiobook, especially if you’re a fan of podcasts. The audiobook is narrated like a true crime podcast! It’s one of the best audiobooks I’ve come across. I love the structure of this novel because it’s not your typical crime story. It takes the focus off the murderer and puts it on the victims. This is Sadie and Mattie’s story. Mattie’s killer barely makes an appearance on the page. It has all the drama of a crime thriller, but it skips the gory details and keeps the readers’ attention on the victims. That’s refreshing.

6. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey toward self-discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

Why I love it: It’s such a compelling mystery! There are so many possibilities of who the skeleton on Rowan’s property could be. I kept reading all night because I was hoping that the skeleton wasn’t one of my favorite characters. I couldn’t sleep until I knew if they were all safe. I recommend this book to anyone who loves twisted mystery plots or historical fiction.

7. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

According to Ponyboy, there are two kinds of people in the world: greasers and socs. A soc (short for "social") has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. Ponyboy is a greaser, and he's always been proud of it, even willing to rumble against a gang of socs for the sake of his fellow greasers—until one terrible night when his friend Johnny kills a soc. The murder gets under Ponyboy's skin, causing his bifurcated world to crumble and teaching him that pain feels the same whether a soc or a greaser.

Why I love it: Of course I need to put some classics on my list! This is one of the books that made me fall in love with reading. I read it for the first time when I was thirteen, and it instantly earned a place on my all-time-favorite books list. The characters are loveable and relatable. Even though the book was written in the 1960s, the themes—friendship, loyalty, inequality, judging others by their appearance—are still relevant. Our similarities run deeper than our differences.

8. Alabama Moon by Watt Key

For as long as ten-year-old Moon can remember, he has lived out in the forest in a shelter with his father. They keep to themselves, their only contact with other human beings an occasional trip to the nearest general store. When Moon's father dies, Moon follows his father's last instructions: to travel to Alaska to find others like themselves. But Moon is soon caught and entangled in a world he doesn't know or understand, apparent property of the government he has been avoiding all his life. As the spirited and resourceful Moon encounters constables, jails, institutions, lawyers, true friends, and true enemies, he adapts his wilderness survival skills and learns to survive in the outside world, and even, perhaps, make his home there.

Why I love it: First, it made me laugh. The main character, Moon, thinks he can solve all of life’s problems by punching annoying people. I believe Twitter would call that #Mood. If you love books like Hatchet, you’ll enjoy Alabama Moon. It’s a fast, easy read with tons of action. Moon is on the run from the local constable and also on a quest to discover why his father abandoned society to raise his family in the wilderness. Moon is resourceful and naïve. His story is sad, but it will also make you smile.

9. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds And Brendan Kiely

A lady tripping over Rashad at the store, making him drop a bag of chips, was what started it all. Because it didn’t matter what Rashad said next—that it was an accident, that he wasn’t stealing—the cop just kept pounding him. Over and over, pummeling him into the pavement. So then Rashad, an ROTC kid with mad art skills, was absent again . . . and again . . . stuck in a hospital room. Why? Because it looked like he was stealing. And he was a black kid in baggy clothes. So he must have been stealing.

And that’s how it started.

And that’s what Quinn, a white kid, saw. He saw his best friend’s older brother beating the daylights out of a classmate. At first Quinn doesn’t tell a soul . . . He’s not even sure he understands it. And does it matter? The whole thing was caught on camera, anyway. But when the school—and nation—start to divide on what happend, blame spreads like wildfire fed by ugly words like “racism” and “police brutality.” Quinn realizes he’s got to understand it, because, bystander or not, he’s a part of history. He just has to figure out what side of history that will be.

Why I love it: Another book about police brutality that’s better than The Hate U Give. (I swear I like The Hate U Give. I just don’t understand why it gets more hype than other books about similar subjects.) Anyway, All American Boys is full of surprising plot twists and characters who make giant mistakes. It’s more nuanced than other novels I’ve read about police brutality. One of the main characters is friends with the cop and the victim and has complicated feelings about the situation. The authors don’t shy away from discussing issues that lack clear solutions. Their characters are forced to confront everything, including their own flaws.

10. Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

It's 1910. In a cabin north of the Arctic Circle, in a place murderously cold and desolate, Sig Andersson is alone. Except for the corpse of his father, frozen to death that morning when he fell through the ice on the lake.

The cabin is silent, so silent, and then there's a knock at the door. It's a stranger, and as his extraordinary story of gold dust and gold lust unwinds, Sig's thoughts turn more and more to his father's prized possession, a Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom.

A revolver just waiting to be used . . . but should Sig use it, or not?

Why I love it: It’s a short, quick, edgy read. This is one of those books that almost crackle with tension. You don’t know who to trust, but you know that the story is going to end badly for someone. The plot is deceptively simple. On the surface, it’s about a standoff between a fourteen-year-old boy and a cunning old man. Underneath, it’s about gun violence. It’s easy to pull the trigger of a gun, but could you live with the consequences?

11. Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

My life is like one of those "good news-bad news" jokes. Like, "I've got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?"
I could go on about my good news for hours, but you probably want to hear the punch line, my bad news, right? Well, there isn't that much, really, but what's here is pretty wild. First off, my parents got divorced ten years ago because of me. My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn't divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul. He divorced me. He couldn't handle my condition, so he had to leave. My condition? Well, that brings us to the guts of my bad news.

Why I love it: A short book that can be finished in an afternoon. It’s about a teen boy with cerebral palsy who thinks his father is planning to murder him. That plot sounds intense—and it is—but it’s balanced out with a lot of humor. The main character’s positive attitude (and his hilarious bluntness) makes this novel fun to read.

12. No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

Salma Bakkioui has always loved living in her suburban cul-de-sac, with her best friend Mariam next door, and her boyfriend Amir nearby. Then things start to change. Friends start to distance themselves. Mariam's family moves when her father's patients no longer want a Muslim chiropractor. Even trusted teachers look the other way when hostile students threaten Salma at school.

After a terrorist bombing nearby, Islamaphobia tightens its grip around Salma and her family. Shockingly, she and Amir find themselves with few allies as they come under suspicion for the bombing. As Salma starts to investigate who is framing them, she uncovers a deadly secret conspiracy with suspicious ties to her new neighbors—but no one believes her. Salma must use her coding talent, wits, and faith to expose the truth and protect the only home she's ever known—before it's too late.

Why I love it: I inhaled this book. It’s a “one more chapter” novel. I told myself I’d read one more chapter before bed, and then it was suddenly midnight, and I had no intention of putting the book down. Once the plot gets moving, it really takes off. You’re in for a wild ride. Salma is an easy character to love because she’s self-aware. She knows her strengths and weaknesses. It’s refreshing to see a teenage character who pauses to think things through before acting. Salma would be an excellent role model for real teenagers.

13. Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Mary B. Addison killed a baby.

Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a churchgoing black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.

Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.

There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?

Why I love it: That ending. OMG, people, this novel will keep you on your toes. You never know what the characters are going to do, or who’s telling the truth. Every character is a terrible person, but the author is talented enough to make the reader care about them anyway. This is a hard novel to talk about because the plot is so twisted and freaky. I don’t want to spoil it. Just trust me. Your mind will be blown.

14. Holes by Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys' detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the warden makes the boys "build character" by spending all day, every day, digging holes: five feet wide and five feet deep. It doesn't take long for Stanley to realize there's more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something.

Why I love it: Another childhood favorite! As a young teenager, I adored the mystery, the humor, the vivid desert landscape, and the poisonous yellow-spotted lizards. I was worried for Stanley and Zero when they tried to run away from camp, and I was excited when the story came together at the end. As an adult, I can appreciate the tight, intricate plot. This novel is about compassion, building friendships, righting wrongs, and persevering when life gets hard. Those are important lessons for children (and adults) to learn.

15. Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for murder. A Harlem drugstore owner was shot and killed in his store, and the word is that Steve served as the lookout.

Guilty or innocent, Steve becomes a pawn in the hands of "the system," cluttered with cynical authority figures and unscrupulous inmates, who will turn in anyone to shorten their own sentences. For the first time, Steve is forced to think about who he is as he faces prison, where he may spend all the tomorrows of his life.

As a way of coping with the horrific events that entangle him, Steve, an amateur filmmaker, decides to transcribe his trial into a script, just like in the movies. He writes it all down, scene by scene, the story of how his whole life was turned around in an instant. But despite his efforts, reality is blurred and his vision obscured until he can no longer tell who he is or what is the truth.

Why I love it: To cope with the stress of a murder trial, Steve starts thinking of his life as a movie. I usually find courtroom dramas tedious, but the format of Monster cuts out the boring parts. The story is told through a mixture of movie scripts, diary entries, and illustrations. The best part of this book is its ambiguity. Since most of the story is a screenplay, the reader becomes a jury member who is watching Steve’s trial. The reader is forced to make judgments about the characters based on less-than-trustworthy testimony. None of the characters are reliable. They all have reasons to lie. It really does feel like you’re sitting on a jury. This is a unique novel for sure.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Do you have any books about crime to add to my list?

Are you in the mood for more crime? Check out my list of crime fiction for adults.


  1. I remember reading The Outsiders in the 80's (pre-movie) and being so captivated by it. I read others by Hinton but they didn't have the same impact as that one.

  2. I have heard amazing things about American Boys and How it Went Down. Loved The Outsiders (Classic!), Holes (the way the characters' lives were woven together was amazing), Allegedly (this was a mind trip), Sadie (loved the format so much).

  3. After reading over your list I now have to go out and get a copy of The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly and Revolver to read. And Alabama Moon sounds like fun, too. Thanks!

  4. Good list!! I enjoyed A Good Girl's Guide To Murder, you should check that one out!

  5. Okay, I love this list, and I love that you included so many of my favorites: The Outsiders, Holes, Monster, Stuck in Neutral, Dreamland Burning, Sadie, The Wicker King, and PROJECT X! I really don't think I've seen another blogger mention that one. I read it years ago but still think about it. Ah, so many great books here. I still need to read How It Went Down but I read the companion book Light it Up and really loved it. I haven't read The Hate U Give yet either, but I'm assuming it gets all the spotlight because of marketing and when it was released.


  6. Dreamland Burning was on my TBR for awhile, but I never got around to it!

  7. Great list this week! I loved The Outsiders and Holes. I've been meaning to read Sadie by Courtney Summers, and your write-up about it makes me want to read it sooner! My TTT.

  8. I haven’t read any of these, some of them sound fantastic. The Outsiders, I think I remember watching the film many years ago.

  9. Thanks for sharing the list! Sadie has been on my TBR for way too long, I definitely need to pick it up!

    Anika |

  10. I still think Holes is one of the best mystery stories I've ever read!

  11. Sadie is hands down one of the best things I have ever read/ listened to. That book broke me -- andI agree, the girls are complex, and there's such an atmosphere in this book, my heart was in my mouth with every page and wondering what was next. THe others on this list are new to me, so I am off to read more on them.

  12. Last year I read How It Went Down based on your recommendation and found it to be a brilliant read, so I'll definitely have to look in to a few of these other titles included in this list.

  13. I loved Sadie, Holes and the Outsider. Great list! Thanks for the recommendations.

  14. I haven't read any of these so this list will come in very handy the next time I'm in a big crime mood! Great post :D

  15. Oooh! Lots of great books on this list! You know I loved Dreamland Burning, since we did that one as a dual review. ANd I own Sadie, but I haven't read it yet. Definitely need to fix that.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction