Kids today do not have it easy. They’re coming of age during a tense political and social climate. Racism, climate change, school shootings, threats from global superpowers and neo-Nazism are just a few of the clouds hanging over their heads.
On top of all of that, they still have to go to school, deal with friends, social pressure, classwork and the dreaded required reading.
Thankfully, there are books just for young adults (better known as “YA books”) that speak to the truth of what it’s like to be a teenager in the world today. These stories (especially some of the most recently published) are diverse, honest, emotionally compelling and inspiring, and they’re helping teens face the challenges ahead of them while teaching us grown-ups how to understand the young people in our lives.
I wish I had these novels in my backpack when I was in high school, to give me the language and courage I needed to understand the world around me and express myself. But there’s no reason I can’t enjoy these stories as a grown-up. In fact, 55 percent of young adult books are consumed by people over the age of 18. And today, there are over 50 book festivals dedicated just to YA literature that cater to fans of all ages.
There’s a need for these types of stories to be told and heard. YA books have tugged at my heartstrings, made me laugh, made me cry and most importantly, helped me see the world through someone else’s eyes and see my own life more clearly. Below, I recommended some of my favorite recent YA reads that changed my life and that every kid and adult should read to learn something new about the people and experiences around us.
Book: Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
What it’s about: Monday Charles doesn’t show up to school for several days and only her best friend, Claudia, seems to notice or care. Claudia is left to face the harsh reality of life without her best friend and must solve the mystery of Monday’s disappearance on her own.
Why you should read it: This book is a tragic-yet-entertaining love letter to Washington, D.C. and to the thousands of Black and Brown girls who go missing without a trace or any concern from the public. It’s both heartbreaking and empowering.
Favorite quote: “In this life, you don’t always get what you want, but you must dance through it.”
Book: A Very Large Expanse Of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
What it’s about: Shirin is a 16-year-old Muslim girl who is tired of being stereotyped. Set in a small town high school one year after the events of Sept. 11, A Very Large Expanse Of Sea is an unexpected love story about a girl, a boy, basketball and a breakdance crew.
Why you should read it: Even though this book takes place nearly 20 years ago, the story of a Muslim girl trying to live her life despite antagonism from the world around her still rings true today. Shirin’s words and actions are an inspiration to anyone who feels the need to defend themselves against ignorance.
Favorite quote: “If a decision you’ve made has brought you closer to humanity, then you’ve done the right thing.”
Book: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
What it’s about: Aristotle is a lonely, angry boy with an older brother in prison. One summer day at the pool, he meets Dante and they bond over their names, their family relationships, their sexualities and their Mexican-American heritage.
Why you should read it: This is a unique coming-of-age story for anyone struggling with multiple aspects of their identity, be it race, family expectations or who they love.
Favorite quote: “I don’t always have to understand the people I love.”
Book: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
What it’s about: Lara Jean writes love letters to all of her crushes but she never sends them. Then one day, she finds all of her letters have been mailed out―including one she wrote to her sister’s boyfriend. Now she’ll have to deal with the consequences and learn to be true to her heart.
Why you should read it: In contrast to a lot of other books on this list, this is a very light-hearted, feel-good story that still packs a powerful lesson in its pages. Lara Jean learns to be brave and to be her hopelessly romantic self without shame. Also, it’s been adapted into an adorable Netflix movie with a talented and diverse cast.
Favorite quote: “I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want to be brave. I want life to start happening. I want to fall in love and I want a boy to fall in love with me back.”
Book: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
What it’s about: 16-year-old Starr Carter witnesses the fatal shooting of her best friend by a police officer. Now Starr must decide whether or not to speak out against the violence in her community and risk her relationships with her friends and her family.
Why you should read it: Beneath the overwhelming real-life headlines of police brutality, there are the family, friends and communities the victims leave behind. THUG tells the story of how one person’s death can touch everyone’s lives.
Favorite quote: “What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
Book: Dear Martin by Nic Stone
What it’s about: Justyce McAllister begins writing private letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to cope with the microaggressions he has to deal with as one of the only black students at his preparatory high school. When tragedy strikes, will the letters be enough to keep him from falling off the edge?
Why you should read it: Similarly to THUG, Dear Martin is a raw, sometimes harsh look into how police brutality, racism and microaggressions seep into the lives of everyday people and impacts their relationships with each other and within themselves.
Favorite quote: “If nothing in the world ever changes, what type of man are you gonna be?”
Book: Children Of Blood And Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
What it’s about: Magic used to run through the veins of the citizens in the fictional land of Orisha until the brutal monarchy destroyed the practice by killing the maji, like Zélie’s mother. Now, with the help of a rogue princess and her brother, Zélie has a chance to restore magic to her homeland. But a vengeful prince is on her tail.
Why you should read it: Inspired by West African folklore, Children Of Blood And Bone is a fast-paced story about magic, oppression, power and fighting back. Even though this is a fantasy, this book eloquently portrays some real world problems. The best part is this is the first book in a trilogy so there’s more magic to come!
Favorite quote: “They don’t hate you, my child. They hate what you were meant to become.”
Book: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
What it’s about: Aza is trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a billionaire and trying to keep her life together by being a good friend, daughter and student while struggling with a never-ending spiral of her own intrusive thoughts.
Why you should read it: As far as mental illness representation goes, this book gets it right. John Green’s writing style and his own experiences with OCD allow readers to feel immersed in the mind of someone struggling and hopefully, understood if they are struggling themselves.
Favorite quote: “Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.”
Book: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
What it’s about: This is the story of Jade, who wants to leave her poor neighborhood behind and travel on a school community service trip to Costa Rica. Instead, she finds herself forced to join a mentorship organization she doesn’t think she needs. However, it’s in that program where Jade learns to find her voice and help others see her for who she truly is.
Why you should read it: This book teaches readers to see the value in everyone’s story and never assumes you know a person just because of where they come from. The main character must push back against stereotypes placed on her, but she must also challenge the way she sees the people in her life and the way she values her own neighborhood.
Favorite quote: “You have to believe you are worthy of love. That you are worthy of your wildest dreams.”