10 Young Adult Books That Teach Teens About Difficult Issues

Young adult fiction allows teens to read about characters facing challenges that may resemble ones they're dealing with in their own lives.

For preteens and teens confronting the death of a loved one, a traumatic or violent encounter, the pressure to make a difficult choice, or an all-consuming question about their identity, books can be lighthouse in these troubling waters.

Beyond blockbusters like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Hunger Games” — both of which do an excellent job of getting readers to consider life's complications — there are fantastic reads that ask audiences to think about issues faced by teens and consider ways to cope with them. For those confronting these tough circumstances themselves, these books will surely provide solace in an upsetting or confusing time.

Here are some books your preteen or teen can use to understand or examine difficult moments she or a loved one has dealt with. As always, young adult novels may include sensitive subject material, like sexual assault, bullying, violence, abuse, and other challenging topics that could upset some readers. The books on this list may discuss such topics, and in some cases may build plots around them.

1. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

A finalist for the National Book Award in 2015, this novel couples grief with coming-of-age. When her neighbor Franny drowns, 12-year-old Suzy convinces herself that a jellyfish sting took her friend's life. This tale follows Suzy as she tries to work through the mystery of Franny's death and the reality of growing up.

2. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Winner of a long list of awards, “Thirteen Reasons” is a thriller revolving around Hannah Baker’s suicide. After her death, Clay, her neighbor, receives cassette tapes explaining the thirteen reasons that Hannah decided to take her life. In an attempt to come to terms with her suicide, Clay follows the clues she recorded to discover the truth behind her tragic life and death.

3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

When this book came out in 1999, my students could not stop talking about it. They had never read a story that dealt so frankly and honestly with sexual assault. Nominated for a National Book Award that year, this novel illustrates the silencing that sexual assault survivors often face. Readers learn of this trauma through Melinda, a high school student who struggles to heal after she’s raped by an upperclassman. When her attacker assaults another person, Melinda finds her voice and speaks her truth.

4. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

The refugee crisis needs to be examined by young readers, and this novel, written in free verse poems, can serve this crucial need. Though intended for an audience at the younger end of the young adult spectrum, Lai's text shows the struggles of a family in crisis as it moves from Vietnam to the United States. As members of the family create new lives for themselves, they are confronted with bullying and sadness. This novel earned a National Book Award for its grace in handling one of the world's most pressing challenges.

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Another National Book Award–winning novel, Alexie's tale finds it genesis in his own experiences of growing up on a reservation. Junior leaves the reservation for a school in a rich, white neighborhood where — to his great surprise — he makes friends despite being taunted by the majority of the students he encounters. A coming-of-age story that helps readers learn about the specific identity issues facing those in indigenous populations, Junior's story brings to light a conflict faced by millions in the United States and will resonate with readers working through their own questions of identity.

6. Looking for Alaska by John Green

Geared toward readers on the older end of the YA spectrum, this novel tells the story of Miles and the ways in which his life changes when he meets Alaska. As he finds himself learning about her friend group, he deals with issues of self-harm, sex, and drugs. Several reviewers remark on the book's classification as YA literature because of its frank depictions of sensitive topics. I would wager, however, that most teens have encountered many of the same situations as Miles confronts in the novel, and reading about his experience may help them make more sense of theirs.

7. Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers

On the cusp of his 13th birthday, Johnny finds himself fatherless and basically motherless. And questioning his gender. And confused about his sexuality. And using alcohol to cope. The novel shares the story of Johnny’s journey through these issues, creating a narrative focused on love, struggle, and perhaps even redemption.

8. London Reign by A. C. Britt

London, the novel’s courageous and charming protagonist, is going through a lot: she’s dealing with a big secret, an unwieldy love triangle, and an abusive, alcoholic father, all while she has to face the challenges of living in inner-city Boston and Detroit. Lacking a permanent home and family to call her own, London must come to terms with her racial, sexual, and gender identity on her own.

9. Forever ... by Judy Blume

With all of the great new titles in the market, I want to be sure this list honors a few classics. I still have my copy of “Forever,” tattered and yellowed from being passed around my entire sixth grade class. I imagine the education my class at Kratzer Elementary School got from Blume's novel still follows all 25 of us. Katherine and Michael's love story is still relevant to readers today, which is why the novel is still in print — 40 years after its original publication in 1975.

10. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (a.k.a. Beatrice Sparks)

Reluctant readers in my classrooms devoured this book. Written as a diary, this engaging novel tells the story of a young girl swallowed by drug culture. Readers looking for a fictional account of the terrors of drugs will be moved by the ultimate outcome of the protagonist.

Readers craving more great stories can check out the American Library Association's list of best books. NPR also offers a list of 100 Favorite YA Reads, many of which tangle with the issues mentioned above.

Hopefully, these books will help readers feel that they are not alone in whatever they or their friends are facing.

Looking for more enticing YA reads? Check out 7 Young Adult Books That Include Diverse Voices and 10 Young Adult Books That Defy Gender Stereotypes.