9 Great Young Adult Novels For Politically Engaged Readers

Social justice meets storytelling in these new books.

Yesterday, the American Library Association released its annual overview of commonly banned and challenged books. The top five titles on the list ― including This One Summer, a graphic novel about identity and young love, and I Am Jazz, a children’s book with a transgender protagonist ― were all centered on LGBTQ stories.

It’s not new for these stories to be among the most-censored. From 2006 to 2010, and again in 2012 and 2014, And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two male penguins raising a young penguin together neared the top of the list.

These stories are important precisely because they’re challenged; the more unheard perspectives are released by publishers, shared by gatekeepers and connected with readers, the less they’ll seem like dangerous anomalies to the people doing the challenging.

And, there’s a long way to go before equal representation among published authors and characters in published books becomes a reality.

Though census data shows that people of color comprise 37 percent of the U.S. population, just 10 percent of children’s books in the past 22 years featured multicultural content ― that is, characters of color, or authors of color. These stories often rank among ALA’s most challenged, including Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

If the tides are turning, it’s happening slowly, yet encouragingly. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a novel about police brutality against an innocent black teen, topped The New York Times’ bestseller list for YA Hardcovers, demonstrating an appetite for socially progressive stories.

The book isn’t the only one of its kind. YA books are traditionally centered on stories with a moral or progressive center, at least more so than their literary fiction counterparts. But those moral stories often take the form of dystopian sci-fi or realistic romances, rather than overtly political messages. That seems to be shifting, however, as Thomas and others comment on Black Livers Matter, on LGBTQ rights, and on Muslim-American identity, all topics discussed in the last presidential debate.

Below are nine books that tackle relevant political issues, such as police brutality, gun violence and queer love.

Balzer Bray/Harperteen

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

When teenager Starr watches her unarmed childhood friend get shot by a cop, she struggles to defend him amid growing prejudice.


You in Five Acts by Una Lamarche

A cast of five team dancers ― including Joy, a black ballerina struggling against the stereotype that her passion is reserved for white girls ― relate their stories of love and ambition.

Crown Books for Young Readers

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

After he’s arrested for reasons he can’t understand, perfect student Justyce starts keeping a journal addressed to Martin Luther King Jr., questioning whether his values still hold up.

Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

The story of the 1921 Tulsa race riot is told from the perspective of those involved at the time, and those who are touched by the aftermath today.

Buy it on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore.

St Martins Griffin

You Know Me Well: A Novel by David Levithan and Nina LaCour

Two teens who sit near each other in class realize they have more in common than they previously thought, when their separate quests for love cross, and an understanding of the other’s struggles leads to a quick connection.

Dial Books

The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne

When Daisy’s best friend Hannah comes out to her before their junior year, Hannah is quick to position herself as a queer ally. But her progressive efforts are not only the result of cis-privilege; they also douse Hannah with unwanted attention.

Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Bang by Barry Lyga

Sebastian struggles to recover from an accident he had as a toddler ― wielding a gun, he killed his infant sister. The guilt from the event hovers everything else in his life, but a new friend may be the one to save him.

Dutton Books for Young Readers

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

College student Marin can’t bear the thought of returning to sunny California, a place that she thinks will do nothing but remind her of the girl she loved there.

Salaam Reads

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

Janna Yusef feels torn between the expectations of the Muslim community her family belongs to, and her own nascent interests in photography, in Southern Gothic literature and, recently, in a crush named Jeremy.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the character of Starr Carter (from The Hate U Give) as a preteen, when she is, in fact, 16 in the book.

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