Our school years aren’t easy at the best of times, but especially not if you’re a bit of an outsider (although personally we think different is cool!). The Perks of Being a Wallflower is told through letters written by 15-year-old Charlie – a shy and likeable introvert – as he journeys through the trials and tribulations of teen life while facing his own anxieties and demons. This coming-of-age narrative offers a glimpse of High School drama from an emotional and deep-thinking narrator, covering a range of difficult issues along the way, from teen pregnancy to sexual abuse.
Themes: Mental health
Derrick’s sister suffers from depression and it is tearing his whole family apart; but when a panther is reported to be roaming wild around London, Derrick sees a ray of hope – if he can capture the panther then surely everything else will get resolved, too? Mental health is a difficult subject to discuss, but we think David Owen handles it brilliantly in Panther. While there are a few YA books that discuss the topic of depression, this stands out as one of the best, partly because it offers two different perspectives of the condition: from the person suffering with it, and the people around them who are also affected.
Cancer is of course another emotionally-charged issue, but unfortunately it’s one that more and more young people are having to face in some way. If John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (another good read) is a love story foremost involving characters who are dealing with cancer, then Zac and Mia is a story about cancer where the characters happen to fall in love. Seventeen-year-old Zac Meier is undergoing lengthy leukaemia treatment in hospital; he soon meets fellow patient Mia, who is angry about her own condition, and the two form a tense yet unbreakable bond. This touching book explores the developing relationship between these two teens as they cope with their treatment in very different ways.
Themes: Divorce/Step families
What happens when two very different children are forced to get along when their parents move in together? Stewart is a socially awkward whizzkid whose mother recently passed away, while Ashley is a popular ‘It’ girl who isn’t doing very well at school and is struggling with her father recently coming out as gay. Can they learn to accept their differences and realise their similarities? As well as dealing with family breakdowns and step families, this book also confronts issues such as bullying, grief and uncertainty around sexual orientation, but manages to be a surprisingly uplifting read.
Themes: Peer pressure
Can you become popular just by deciding to make yourself interesting and setting your sights on making friends with the popular kids in school? That’s what teenager and wannabe author Bree wants to discover through her online blog, after having her second novel rejected by yet another publisher. Of course, becoming popular involves making some pretty hard (and mean) decisions and Bree risks losing her only genuine friend on her way to the top; so will she think that it’s all worth it? Holly Bourne offers a touching and realistic insight into British school life and the pressures that teenagers feel under to fit in and be liked, no matter what cost.
A relative newcomer to the literary scene, Dawn O’Porter’s debut novel Paper Aeroplanes has received widespread praise. It tells of two fifteen-year-old school friends, Renee and Flo, who couldn’t be more different yet are bonded through their mutual loneliness and troubles at home. This gritty and at times hilarious novel asks whether true friendship can withstand the challenges of youth and betrayal, so it’s perfect for readers who may be facing their own difficulties with friends. A word of warning: it does contain some graphic content.
Themes: Substance abuse
Although a lot of parents may not want to admit it, all teenagers will at some point come across substances such as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. YA fiction can be a good channel for learning about the dangers of substance abuse and how these risks can appear in the most everyday circumstances. Go Ask Alice is a tragic and cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction, and is generally perceived as one of the foremost books on the subject. Based on a true story, it follows Alice – a teenage girl like any other – who goes to party where the drinks are spiked with LSD, and enters a downward spiral into addiction. A difficult but important read.
Another difficult subject, but one that is handled sensitively and with compassion by newcomer Jennifer Niven in this New York Times bestseller. Withdrawn and fascinated by death, Theodore Finch repeatedly attempts to kill himself; but when he meets Violet Markey, a girl who is living for the future, he finds that he can be himself and isn’t such a ‘weirdo’ after all. But can Violet protect him from harming himself, or will his world continue to shrink even further?
Themes: Eating disorders
Unfortunately, a lot of young people – both girls and boys – can feel pressured into looking a certain way and are particularly susceptible to self-esteem issues, body dysmorphia and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Proclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson tackles this sensitively in this gripping read about two friends – Cassie and Lia – who both have an overwhelming desire to be thin. But when things go too far for Cassie, can Lia get back on the right path or will her condition overwhelm her?
Love isn’t always chocolates and roses, and as many young adults know, we often fall for the people who aren’t necessarily right for us. That’s pretty much what happens to Miles Halter, a teen whose life up until now has been rather uneventful; but when he meets the gorgeous but totally reckless Alaska Young, his life is turned upside down forever. This is a book about figuring out what love means and to what lengths we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for it. Contains some graphic content.
Themes: Sexual identity
Many books that deal with gender or sexual identity focus on an individual’s struggle in a society that doesn’t tolerate the LGBT community. But what makes Boy Meets Boy such a unique read is its setting in a small town that is decidedly pro-gay, with a teenage protagonist (Paul) whose homosexuality is not only accepted at his High School, but embraced. Paul is happy and loved by his family, and is learning the same lessons about love that all teenagers experience – the fact that he is gay is not shocking or scandalous. In fact, some critics have even described the book as a “gay utopia” – so while it might not be entirely true to real life, it makes a refreshing change from some of the more sombre books about LGBT.
Have you ever thought about what compels bullies to bully? Eve Ainsworth’s book explores this by representing the perspective of Kez – a troubled girl who, on the outside, seems to have it all – as well as Jess, the girl that she bullies each day at school. Told from both points of view, this moving and powerful book reminds us that there are two sides to every story, and not everything is always as it seems. We think every young person, teacher and parent will enjoy this read – especially its shocking final conclusion.
Sherman Alexie’s first foray into YA fiction confronts the issue of race from what might be a new perspective for UK readers: that of the Native American community. Based on the author’s own experiences, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells of Junior, a skinny 14-year-old boy who has spent most of his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. When Junior decides to re-write his future and leave his troubled school for one in a nearby town mostly populated by white people, he is exposed to the tenuous relationship between White and Native Americans. A hilarious, heart-wrenching read that stays with you long after you put it down.
This book made it to the New York Times number one bestseller spot for a reason – it’s harrowing, heartbreaking and difficult to read, but important nonetheless. Thirteen Reasons Why looks at what happens after a teen takes their life. Clay Jensen comes home one day to find numerous cassette tapes from his classmate and first love, Hannah Baker, who recently committed suicide; now he must listen to the tapes to discover why Hannah killed herself and what role he had to play in her emotional state. Clay stays up all night listening to the tapes, and you’re likely to want to stay up all night finishing this gripping and life-affirming story.
Themes: Social media
Set in small-town Ireland, Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It follows 18-year-old Emma O’Donovan who wakes up from a party one morning with little memory of what happened the night before. Before she knows it, photographs appear online of her involved with the town’s heroes; and of course, nobody wants to believe her side of the story. In the age of social media and smartphones, it’s frightening how quickly gossip and rumours can spread – that’s why we think this is such a relevant and important book for today’s teens and young adults. Recommended for older teens as it contains some graphic content.
While these books stood out to us as being particularly poignant, there are a vast number of books out there that may provide comfort, support and advice when it comes to real life issues. Keep reading to discover more powerful voices, perspectives and characters.
Let us know which book you would recommend to help someone through a real life issue using the hashtag #WHSYALifeIssues.