In November, I teach a teen writing class at my local library. The students range from grades seven to twelve and I am always awed by the range of projects they’re working on—from podcasts to comics to fantasy to contemporary literature. Their stories often share a common theme, however: their lead characters are reflections of themselves. There’s no mystery to this. All of my characters carry a kernel of Kelly Jensen. But these teens are taking it one step further—they’re writing the stories they want to read, with heroes as diverse as they are. And why not? We all want to see ourselves in a book, and for many of us, the search for a book that feels as though it was written for us, about us, seems fruitless. Given the number of books our kids apparently read for school—for their education and betterment, I think this is a shame.
I like to imagine that if our children were exposed to diverse heroes at a younger age—if they were reading books where the characters aren’t all straight and white, where the settings range from Asian folklore to modern Istanbul, where women get to captain the ship, or gender isn’t even a question—they might meet not only themselves, but friends they hadn’t considered before. Broader experiences might open minds and hearts and encourage this next generation to embrace the wonderful diversity of our world.
I’m not saying all the books currently on school reading lists should be tossed. Many of them are there for good reasons and have literary merit that would be difficult to equal. What I would like to see are some updates and additions. Books that not only address contemporary issues and situations that are relevant to our youth, but books featuring characters living and thriving beyond or despite their struggle for equality.
It is my hope that one day the struggle will be a history lesson, and that we’ll all get to be the champion of our own stories, regardless of who we are, where we come from, who we worship, and who we love.
In putting together this list, I reached out to fellow authors of all genders, races, and sexuality. I spoke to librarians, teachers, and students. I even polled a few people at random, usually asking a simple version of my question: If there was one book you wish you could have read in school, what would it be?
Here are their answers (ordered alphabetically). If you have a book to add, I’d love to hear from you!
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz
If you read one book on this list, make it this one; you’ll remember what falling in love for the first time was like. This is for kids who are questioning, or who already have the answers—not only just about their sexuality, but their identity and role as friends, being part of a family, and part of the human race.
Ayesha Dean The Istanbul Intrigue – Melati Lum
Positive Muslim representation and a strong, intelligent female lead. A modern update for fans of Nancy Drew.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain
I was simultaneously amused and horrified by this book and by the time I was done, I wanted to recommend it to everyone I knew. It’s a skewering look at the war on terror, right politics, and the American dream, from the point of view of a nineteen-year-old soldier who is old enough to fight and die, but not to buy himself a beer.
Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi
Fantasy outside the quasi-medieval setting!
Girls Made of Snow and Glass – Melissa Bashardoust
A feminist retelling of Snow White with special focus on the mother-daughter relationship and women saving themselves.
If I Was Your Girl – Meredith Russo
A coming of age novel that tackles issues at the same time as it delivers an inspiring story.
Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix – Julie C. Dao
Kickass heroine who breaks stereotypes in an East Asian reimagining of a fairy tale.
Looking for Group – Alexis Hall
A fabulous representation of young adult and new adult culture with regards to making room for diverse personalities and sexual fluidity.
Ms. Marvel (Vol. 1, No Normal) – G. Willow Wilson (Writer)
I’d love to see more comic books and graphic novels on reading lists. Not only because it’s a form of literature worthy of study for its own sake, but because comics by their very nature are experimental and often ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity. Ms. Marvel is on the list because she’s a wonderful and timely new superhero and I’m really hoping we get a TV series for her.
One of Us is Lying – Karen M. McManus
A diverse and twisted update on The Breakfast Club. I read this book cover to cover in about a day and a number of the people I reached out to included it on their list of recommendations.
Openly Straight – Bill Konigsberg
While everyone was talking about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (which I very much enjoyed), I was talking about Openly Straight. It’s a little more adult in its approach to romance than Simon, but what I love about this book is the discussion of labels. While finding our tribe can be both comforting and empowering, it can also be somewhat limiting, particularly when most of us are more than simply gay, straight, male, female, jock, geek, or even introverted and extroverted. Openly Straight challenges the idea of living within just one or just a few labels by giving us Rafe, who tries to adopt a different set.
Saints and Misfits – S.K. Ail
A multicultural novel about identity, family, faith, and strength.
The Broken Earth Trilogy – N.K. Jemisin
On the list for several reasons, including feminism and a superbly diverse cast. But if we’re going to include books where we study the concept of story and where students are encouraged to look at voice, and the art of writing and world building, this series is a great place to start.
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
Tackling race and privilege, The Hate U Give is an essential addition to any reading list! This is another title that was recommended by a number of people.
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
One of my favorite books, for the writing, the story telling, and representation of the immigrant experience. No matter where you’re from, if you’re new to America, you will identify with Gogol.
The Punisher – Gerry Conway (Writer)
They discuss some difficult and weighty issues in social studies and English classes, so why not include some more modern material? Themes of vigilantism and vengeance tied directly to issues of mental health (PTSD) would make for very direct and interesting discussion. Note: there are a number of comic books that might make a softer statement, but Punisher doesn’t hold back.
They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera
Where do I start? It’s never too late to take a chance or figure out who you are. Make the most of every moment. Live every day as if it’s your last. Another facet of this book that makes it a standout selection is the treatment of bisexuality.
Twisted – Laurie Halse Anderson
While not as obsessed with labeling as Openly Straight, and coming from a completely different direction, Twisted examines the evolution of the teenage body and mind. Remember when you and your body weren’t compatible? When your body grew up before you did, or the other way around? Add in the almost routine bullying to be found at any high school, extraordinary home stress, a first crush, and questions about who you are and what you intend to do with your life, and you have what sadly feels like a complete picture of what faces every high school student today. What sets this book apart is Tyler’s moment of crisis, and what he does next.