One of the best things about bookworms (and we are pretty awesome in a lot of ways) is our willingness to look at the world through differing points of view. A reader lives a thousand lives, according to George R.R. Martin, and in the process, we disappear into thousands of different minds.
Some of the books on this list have been actively challenged or banned. Some of them deal with events that are physically hard to read about. All of them contain stories from a place that might be very different than your own, important stories which should be told. Warning: They could spark a debate, cause a discussion, or make you aware of something you weren’t before. And, bonus, Banned Books Week is coming up in September, so you can get a head start on your outlawed reading.
Get ready to be challenged, to be uncomfortable, to think, to disagree, to walk a few hard miles in some other shoes. Get ready to read.
1. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
“Justyce McAllister is a good kid, an honor student, and always there to help a friend—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out. Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.”
Through the lens of fiction, Justyce allows us to witness and try to understand truths we might flinch from in reality.
2. Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys
“Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions . . . It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.”
Although the novel is historical fiction it is based on very real events and it packs a giant emotional punch. Be prepared with plenty of tissues as you read.
3. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
“True enemies. False hope. Sephy is part of the ruling class. Callum is considered a second-class citizen. They have been friends all their lives, since before there were barriers and boundaries. Now, things are different — they have to meet in secret, as hate and violence seethe dangerously close to the surface of their society’s fragile order. Once, Sephy and Callum thought they had to proect their love; now, they must defend their very lives….”
The author flips history on its head and dives deep into issues of racism and privilege in what is now a four book series. Also published as Black & White in the US.
4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
“The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history, The Kite Runner transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction. A powerful story of friendship, it is also about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.”
Betrayal, redemption and tragedy intertwine in the story of a young boy that is both political and deeply personal. It was also made into a movie in 2007.
5. PUSH by Sapphire
“Relentless, remorseless, and inspirational, this “horrific, hope-filled story” (Newsday) is certain to haunt a generation of readers. Precious Jones, 16 years old and pregnant by her father with her second child, meets a determined and highly radical teacher who takes her on a journey of transformation and redemption.”
Multiple trigger warnings with this book, it doesn’t shy away from clearly depicting violent, harrowing situations. You might know it better by the name “Precious”, since that was the title of the award-winning movie this book became.
6. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
“Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone. But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.
Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?”
Both gentle and honest, a beautiful story with a hopeful message, it will take you through the journey of being transgendered from a teenage perspective.
7. Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
“In 2014, award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about her frustration with the way that discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it. She posted a piece on her blog, entitled: ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. Her words hit a nerve. The post went viral and comments flooded in from others desperate to speak up about their own experiences. Galvanised by this clear hunger for open discussion, she decided to dig into the source of these feelings. Exploring issues from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, whitewashed feminism to the inextricable link between class and race, Reni Eddo-Lodge offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge and counter racism. It is a searing, illuminating, absolutely necessary exploration of what it is to be a person of colour in Britain today.”
Reviewers called it “searing” “political” “accessible” “provocative” and “uncompromising”, which, really, pretty much describes the years 2016 and 2017.
8. This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel
“This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them. This is how a family lives happily ever after…until happily ever after becomes complicated. This is how children change…and then change the world. This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess. When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl . . . Laurie Frankel’s This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.”
If you’re looking for an introduction to what it’s like to be transgender or raise a transgender child, this is the book.
9. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.”
Since this has been turned into a movie, coming out in October 2018, why not get ahead of the crowd and read the book?
10. Gather the Daughters by Jeannie Melamed
“Years ago, just before the country was incinerated to wasteland, ten men and their families colonized an island off the coast. They built a radical society of ancestor worship, controlled breeding, and the strict rationing of knowledge and history. Only the Wanderers–chosen male descendants of the original ten–are allowed to cross to the wastelands, where they scavenge for detritus among the still-smoldering fires. The daughters of these men are wives-in-training. At the first sign of puberty, they face their Summer of Fruition, a ritualistic season that drags them from adolescence to matrimony . . . GATHER THE DAUGHTERS is a smoldering debut; dark and energetic, compulsively readable, Melamed’s novel announces her as an unforgettable new voice in fiction.”
Thankfully a work of fiction, the novel depicts a horrifying brand of cultism. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a cautionary vision that comes from the twisted roots of real-life situations.