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The Human Experience: 8 Books to Inspire Young Adults, Part I

Racial discrimination. Police brutality. Religious intolerance. Sexual repression. Bigotry. Today’s problems touch each of us in myriad ways. These eight books examine injustice in the world today and challenge social norms—not by preaching, but by personalizing. They grab you with a human story, and don’t let go until you have felt both the pain and the hope.

Some young adults will find their own reality reflected in one or more of these books. Others may have only read this kind of story before in the newspaper. Each of these books offer the reader a chance to walk that proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes.

“By sharing stories about people whose religion, culture, race, or ethnicity are unlike our own, we have the opportunity to recognize our shared universal human experiences,” wrote Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi for The Establishment. Pick one of the stories below, and strap on your seatbelt for a powerful ride through human experience.

The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr is getting a ride home from her childhood friend Khalil, when he is shot by a policeman. The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer threatens to tear Starr’s community apart (but barely makes a ripple in the nearby posh and predominantly white suburb where she goes to high school). Thomas deftly and sensitively addresses issues of racial tension, police violence, white privilege and economic injustice. Impossible to put down, this brilliantly written book is taking 2017 by storm. 

Girl in Translation

Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to New York, where they live in a condemned apartment and work in a Chinatown sweatshop to make ends meet. While Kimberly struggles with English, her exceptional math skills land her a place at a prestigious private school, where she hides her double-life from even the closest of friends. It’s no “American dream,” but a nightmare of poverty and never-ending work. Kwok herself is an immigrant from Hong Kong, and she skillfully conveys the harsh reality that immigrants must often navigate.

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Cameron can’t ignore the relief she feels when her parents are suddenly killed in a car accident—relief that her parents will never have to find out that she is gay. But not long after she is sent to live with relatives in Montana, her Aunt Ruth, she stumbles into a new romance that leads to a stint at a Christian “pray-the-gay-away” camp. Another book that makes the heart hurt with injustice.

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Guantanamo Boy

Fifteen-year-old Khalid is a typical British teen. Loves computer games, dreams of being a professional footballer (that’s soccer, for you American readers). While Khalid’s parents are from Pakistan, Khalid was born in England, only speaks English, rarely goes to the mosque, and never reads the Quran. When his parents decide to take the family on a trip to visit Pakistan, Khalid finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, a mistake that eventually means his arrest, deportation to Afghanistan, and detainment in Guantanamo Bay. Khalid meets with horrors, cruelties and civil rights violations that many Americans may find hard to imagine, yet were documented in America’s notorious prison.

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In 1973, army chief Augusto Pinochet took control of Chile in a violent coup d’état. Years of brutal repression followed, and Miller-Lachmann’s story takes place during those years, when Daniel’s father Marcelo is arrested and the rest of the family flees to the United States. Five years later, Daniel has adjusted to life in the U.S. when his father, after six years of torture, is released from prison and able to join the family in the U.S. Gringolandia explores questions of what it means to be a political refugee and what it means to be family, and may raise the question for some readers of whether torture is ever okay. Miller-Lachmann sheds light on some hard truths about international politics using a deeply personalized lens.

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We Come Apart

The book, told in a series of free verse poems, traces the blossoming relationship between Jess, a troubled British girl, and Nicu, a Romanian immigrant in England. Set against the backdrop of Brexit, We Come Apart explores themes of prejudice, social alienation and domestic violence, but also offers up blossoming romance and hope. 

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

This book came out the same year as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and they share certain similarities: an angst-ridden young male protagonist, biting humor, and humorous drawings interspersed throughout the narrative. But while Wimpy Kid is a favorite with tweens, Alexie’s novel is aimed at an older audience, who will follow Junior from his home on an Indian reservation in Washington State to attend the all-white high school in a nearby farming town, where the only other Indian on campus is the school mascot. Any teen can relate to the struggle to find one’s place in the world, and Alexie also offers a glimpse into a world that for most readers will be unfamiliar, that of life on the “rez”.

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Does My Head Look Big in This?

Author Abdel-Fattah takes a humorous approach to questions of religious identity and tolerance. When sixteen-year-old Amal decides to wear a hijab (headscarf) as an expression of her Muslim faith, everyone from her parents and friends to strangers on the street has an opinion. Amal lives in Australia and Amal’s circle of friends include other Muslims who choose to wear the hijab as well as ones who don’t, portraying the reality of diversity within the Muslim community. All teens will relate to the challenge in figuring out and asserting identity.  

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For more books suggestions check out Part II of these reading lists, Rebels with a Cause, 8 Books to Inspire Young Adults


Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.


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