Reading can help students process and understand difficult topics like racism, injustice, poverty, and discrimination. These 30 books for young adults address these and other social justice themes, through emotional, compelling narratives. The protagonists they feature are relatable and inspiring young people working to overcome adversity, uplift their communities, and create a better society.
1. Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
A story about a 16-year old Black boy who is wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he did not commit and must fight for justice and survival. Co-author Zoboi is an award-winning writer and Salaam is a survivor of wrongful incarceration, and a prison reform advocate.
2. Internment by Samira Ahmed
A story that tackles the issues of Islamophobia in which a 17-year-old girl and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.
3. Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan
When two friends start a Women's Rights Club, exploring activism and posting their thoughts and art on racism and feminism, they go viral. But when trolls target them and their school principal shuts the club down, they have to fight to keep their voices heard.
4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Something is deeply troubling Melinda. As she struggles with her mental health, she realizes she will have to speak up about what happened to her, the thing that nobody knows. A powerful story that deals with sexual assault, healing from trauma, and speaking up.
5. Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee
A story that explores the subject of the #MeToo movement. A seventh-grade girl dealing with unwanted attention and touching from male classmates learns about her boundaries and rights.
6. When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
A graphic novel about a boy and his brother growing up in Dadaab, a Kenyan refugee camp. When Omar, the eldest brother, gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a better life, he must decide if is worth leaving his little brother behind.
7. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
In this vivid, emotional book of poems, the author shares her experiences growing up in the American South in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the legacy and effects of racism.
8. Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
In this coming-of-age and travel narrative, an 11-year-old boy goes on a road trip with his grandma through the American South and learns more about the history and legacy of racism in America.
9. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
A comic book/graphic novel featuring Chinese-American characters that explores the themes of racism, stereotypes, and identity.
10. Dear Justyce by Nic Stone
A powerful story that deals with the theme of racial justice and sheds light on the flaws in the American juvenile justice system. The author tells the story of two childhood friends whose lives have taken them down drastically different paths, through letters, flashbacks, and vignettes.
11. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
When Starr, a young Black woman, witnesses her friend get shot and killed by a police officer, she is thrust into a news story that makes national headlines and draws thousands of protestors and activists into the streets. What Starr decides to say - or not say - could have devastating consequences for her family and community.
12. Black Birds In The Sky by Brandy Colbert
A nonfiction book about one of the most destructive acts of racial violence in American history, the Tulsa Race Massacre. On a June morning in 1921, an angry mob of white people attacked and destroyed a thriving neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma known as Black Wall Street.
13. Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
Set in 1989 in New York City, this story deals with the fraught history of LGBTQIA rights and the AIDS crisis. Three main characters struggle with self-acceptance, identity, and caring for their loved ones amidst homophobia and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.
14. They Had A Dream: The Struggles Of Four Of The Most Influential Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement by Jules Archer
A nonfiction book that tells the history of the Civil Rights movement and the stories of four of the most important Civil Rights activists in American History - Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
15. When They Call You A Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter And The Power To Change The World (Young Adult Edition) by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele.
Written by one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and with a foreword by prominent African-American activist and scholar, Angela Y. Davis, this personal narrative is an empowering account of strength and survival. Branded 'terrorists' by many, the authors explore the birth of a movement inspired by love.
16. It's Trevor Noah: Born A Crime, Stories From A South African Childhood (Young Adult Edition) by Trevor Noah
In this memoir, comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah shares stories of growing up biracial - the child of a Black woman and a white man - in South Africa, amidst apartheid and racial tensions.
17. An Indigenous Peoples' History Of The United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
A nonfiction book that upturns and goes beyond the narrative of North America as a continent 'discovered' by brave European explorers. It explores Native American history and the devastating consequences of settler colonialism on Indigenous societies.
18. Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
When Enchanted Jones is discovered by a famous R&B artist, her dream of being a singer seems within reach. But when the singer ends up dead and Enchanted becomes a suspect, her dreams are dashed. A compelling story that examines the themes of Black feminism, misogynoir, and the particular vulnerability of young black girls.
19. Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner
High-school student Brynn copes with her problems by writing to her idol - TV host Rachel Maddow. When her school government holds an election that is rigged to favor Honor students, Brynn's outrage motivates her to take action.
20. Audacity by Melanie Crowder
A novel inspired by the real-life story of Clara Lemlich, a young Russian woman who emigrates to the USA in the 1920s. Working in dangerous conditions in factories, she is inspired to organize other women factory workers to strike, unionize, and fight for better working conditions.
21. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
A riveting story told within the 60 seconds the narrator is deciding whether or not to kill his brother's murderer. Explores the issue of gun violence in America.
22. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A story about a young Afro-Latina woman finding her voice through slam poetry and navigating her family's religious beliefs and expectations of her.
23. Don't Ask Me Where I'm From by Jennifer De Leon
First-generation American Latinx Lillian lives in two different worlds - her diverse inner-city neighborhood and the wealthy, white suburb where she attends a prestigious high school. When racial tensions mount at her school, she must decide if she wants to back down or stand up.
24. We Were Here by Matt De La Pena
When Miguel is convicted of a crime in juvenile court, the judge sentences him to live in a group home for one year. When he decides to run away to Mexico for a fresh start, he realizes there are some things you can't outrun.
25. Tyrell by Coe Booth
15-year-old Tyrell is saddled with adult responsibilities. His father is in prison, and he lives in a homeless shelter with his mother and brother. Can he stay away from the lure of selling drugs in order to keep his family alive?
26. All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds
When a 16-year-old African-American boy is severely beaten by a police officer, the repercussions ripple through the boy's school, community, and the whole country.
27. The Awakening of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson.
A narrative account of Malcolm X's adolescent years in prison, written by his daughter. We see how Malcolm Little, through reading books, joining the debate team and the Nation of Islam, and educating himself on race, religion, and politics, become Malcolm X.
28. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker.
A graphic memoir of Takei's experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Examines the issues of sanctioned racism, American identity, and human rights abuses.
29. Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Louise, a 16-year-old Native American teenage girl, is thrust into the middle of a town scandal when the mostly white residents object to her school theatre's casting of their Wizard of Oz play. Louise covers the story for the school newspaper, but as hostilities and prejudices rise in the town, it soon becomes deeply personal.
30. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
A dystopian tale that tackles racism, Indigenous issues, and climate change. When the world has been nearly destroyed by global warming, Indigenous people are hunted for their valuable bone marrow. One young man may hold the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.