Disclosure: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. This helps keep this website running.
If you want to read an unforgettable book with a strong impact and plenty to keep you going, try any of these disturbing YA books. These books are almost impossible to put down! Most of these are best for older teens and up - I have read these as a grown adult and even then the content was very disturbing. None of these books are horror or supernatural stories, yet they turned out to be far more unsettling nonetheless.
For those considering reading these books, I'd like to warn that the content is definitely geared toward the emotionally mature reader as opposed to reading ahead of grade level. For example, a 19 year old reluctant reader may do better with these books than a 15 year old advanced reader, because so much of the content is violent or contains material more suitable for adults even though it is technically YA fiction. Some younger teens may be able to handle some of these books, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but be aware that these books are disturbing to adults too.
So if you're ready to read a high-impact page-turner that will leave you thinking and pondering a long time afterward, read on! Here I talk about each book I recommend for you and why I picked this disquieting book. Rest assured there are no spoilers so you can read my commentary safely without spoiling the plot.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Hands-down the most disturbing YA book (in fact the most disturbing book I have ever read even including books for adults) is Unwind by Neal Shusterman. In this dystopian novel for teens, a parent is not allowed to have an abortion but may instead "unwind" their child aged anywhere from 13 - 18 by donating all of their organs to living recipients. That's right, children are killed if the parent wishes. Curtis realizes his parents have decided to unwind him because they don't like his behavior. What should he do? Where should he go?
This is a book that will leave you thinking long after the story is over. There is a ton of action, and Curtis is a believable character. This book was so horrifying to me that I cannot bring myself to read it again, even though it is an absolute page-turner. If you can only choose one book from this page, pick this one!
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
This is a book that I just couldn't shake. Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner explores an alt-reality in the year 1956 in a secretive post-war Germany. Germany wants to achieve dominance in the space race. A teenage boy, initially patriotic, starts questioning what is going on in his country - at huge cost. This book covers not only difficult decisions and the price of telling the truth, but also things like at what point is it good to support our country and when should telling the truth be more important?
Although not implied in the summary I've given here, there are some scenes of graphic violence that may be distressing to younger readers. This is an extremely unnerving book which questions important concepts with the use of an alternate history.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is set in Afghanistan at a time of turbulence. This book is about the friendship between two boys: one is the son of a wealthy man, the other is the son of the wealthy man's servant. This book will stay in your memory long after you've finished reading it.
It has some very adult themes and harrowing experiences so it's best for older readers. Although the main characters are young and YA readers will relate to them, this is not technically teen fiction but rather adult fiction which will appeal to young adults.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The classic young adult novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding remains popular for a reason: the plot is timeless and the book covers some very disturbing themes. In this book, a plane carrying a group of schoolboys crashes on a deserted island. At first it's a big adventure. But once they realize they are dependent on one another for their survival, it's not just their good side that comes out but also their bad. This book is very unsettling and will leave you thinking long afterwards.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
It's best to read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne knowing as little as possible beforehand. The story is told from the point of view of a young boy, and it unfolds from there. You won't be able to put down this disturbing book! Part of the strong impact of this book is the gradual realization by the reader of what's going on.
Nothing by Janne Teller
Originally written in Danish and translated into English by Martin Aitken, Nothing by Janne Teller has a highly original plot. In this book, middle schooler Pierre decides there is no meaning to life and climbs a tree, refusing to come down. His friends and classmates are concerned and try to get him to come down. When this does not work, they decide to prove that there is meaning to life by making increasingly meaningful sacrifices. But bit by bit, the sacrifices become more and more extreme, and the story takes a darker turn. Will Pierre ever come down and if so, at what cost? This disconcerting book takes a look at the horrifying things that can happen when things gradually escalate.
These young adult books are extremely disturbing, suitable for anyone who wants a gripping plot. These books do not rely on the supernatural or unnamed forces to achieve the sense of horror or dread, but rather on the gradual darkening of plots involving everyday people in unusual situations. The above books are all very well written and offer plenty to think about. These disquieting reads will stay with you a long after finishing them.