Young people will be the ones to start the revolution, and it could all start with reading a few great social justice books for young adult and middle grade readers. These 20 books (half YA and half middle grade) are the perfect social justice reads because they pack strong messages and engaging stories/characters. Not so young anymore? That’s okay. Me neither. There are still plenty of books on this list you’ll probably enjoy reading as well.
Young Adult Social Justice Books
You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner
Julia attends Kingston School for the Deaf. But when she sees a slur about her best friend written on the wall, she covers it up with a graffiti mural and ultimately ends up getting expelled. Now Julia is stuck in a “mainstream” school in the suburbs, where she’s the only deaf student and feels like an outsider. She finds that her only means of expressing herself and asserting her voice is through her graffiti art.
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Tariq Johnson, a Black teen, dies from two gunshot wounds. The shooter is white. Tariq’s death sends his entire community into an uproar, and no one person has the same opinion or account of how the event went down. And each day, the stories get further and further away from the truth. Tariq’s friends, family, and community are trying to make sense of the tragedy and cope with the unspeakable loss. But can they every say with certainty how it went down?
Internment by Samira Ahmed
This book is set in the United States in the not-so-distant future. Muslim American citizens have been forced into internment camps. Layla Amin is in the camp with her parents, and her boyfriend is on the outside. Now Layla must join up with her new friends on the inside of the camp to start a revolution against the director of the internment camp. It’s the only way she’ll be able to fight her way to freedom. While this is a novel set in an imagined future, in many ways it reflects the realities of America today.
Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan
This is a book about two teen girls, Jasmine and Chelsea, who start an online Women’s Rights Club. There, they post all sorts of content—such as poems, essays, and videos—fighting against sexism and racism. But then they go viral, and suddenly Jasmine and Chelsea find themselves the targets of online trolls. When things get too intense, the principal at their high school forces the girls to shut the club down. The Women’s Rights Club is such an important outlet for these girls to speak their minds and have their voices heard, in spite of some of the negative commentary they received. What will they risk to keep their club up and running?
UnBroken: 13 Stories Starring disabled Teens Edited by Marieke Nijkamp
In this anthology, 13 authors who identify as disabled along a physical, mental, or neurodiverse axis give a voice to young teen characters who are also on a diverse spectrum of disability. Contributors include Kody Keplinger, Kristine Wyllys, Francisco X. Stork, William Alexander, Corinne Duyvis, Marieke Nijkamp, Dhonielle Clayton, Heidi Heilig, Katherine Locke, Karuna Riazi, Kayla Whaley, Keah Brown, and Fox Benwell.
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
McGinnis’s YA revenge thriller is a takedown of rape culture. Three years ago, Alex’s older sister Anna died, and her killer was allowed to walk free. In response, Alex took justice into her own hands. Now she’s unsure if she’ll be able to stop the revenge cycle. Can she be trusted around other people? Or when she’s faced with toxic masculinity, slut shaming, and rape culture, will she be forced to act out in violence once again?
Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Pen Oliveira doesn’t want to be a girly girl, and she doesn’t want to be a boy. But with the way she dresses and acts, everyone thinks she’s trying to act like a boy, and, what’s worse, that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. Pen’s gender representation is quickly becoming all about pleasing other people. Does she listen to her parents and dress more like a girl to “show respect”? Does she do what her best friend Colby wants, acting like a boy to get Colby in good with the other girls? Hidden somewhere within everyone else’s expectations for her, Pen will have to learn how to be herself.
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
I listed this one as my favorite book I’ve read so far this year over in our Riot Roundup. And if you read this one, I hope you’ll see why. Giles’s book is the perfect mix of exploring social issues and developing interesting characters and storylines to carry those social messages. Del has had a crush on Kiera Westing since they were in kindergarten together. Now that she’s finally single in their Junior year, Del would do anything to win her over. Which is how he finds himself inadvertently joining a Purity Pledge. This book takes on toxic masculinity, purity culture, slut shaming, and so much more.
We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
Sometimes the best social commentary comes from a great sci-fi novel. Teenager Henry Denton keeps being abducted by aliens. And now the aliens have given him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and if Henry wants to stop it, all he has to do is push a big red button. But with the power in Henry’s hands, he realizes he’s not so sure the world is worth saving. This book is examination of all the things that make the world a cruel place, and all the things that make it wonderful.
Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake
This novel tackles difficult questions surrounding consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault. Mara is extremely close with her twin brother Owen. So she is understandably shocked when her friend Hannah accuses Owen of rape. Now Mara feels torn between loyalty to her family and her own sense of right and wrong. Is it possible that her brother, whom she loves dearly, could have committed such a horrible crime? And what will that mean?
Middle Grade Social Justice Books
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes
This is a coming-of-age story of two brothers. Donte presents as Black, and his lighter-skinned brother Trey presents as white. Donte is one of the few black boys at their high school, and his classmates and teachers clearly wish that he was more like his brother Trey. Things only get worse for Donte when he’s arrested and suspended after an incident with a bully at school. How does Donte fight back? He decides to beat the school at their own game: by joining the fencing team.
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
Now that Amina has started middle school, everything feels different. Amina’s best friend Soojin is suddenly hanging out with the popular girls and considering making her name more “American.” To fit in, Amina starts to wonder if she should make herself seem more “American” too. But is hiding who she truly is the answer? These questions only become more complicated when Amina finds out her local mosque has been vandalized.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
This is the story of a young girl’s fight to regain control over her life after being forced into indentured servitude. Amal dreams of becoming a teacher one day. But after after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s landlord, she is forced to become the Khan family’s servant in order to pay off her family’s debt. Living under the Khan’s roof, Amal becomes more and more aware of just how corrupt the landlord’s dealings are. And if Amal is ever going to reach her dreams, she will have to be brave and speak out against the cruel status quo.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Twelve-year-old Iris is the only deaf person in her school, and people treat her like she’s not very smart. In fact, Iris is a tech genius. She feels like an outsider among her peers, but when she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris identifies with how he must feel. To reach out to the whale, Iris decides she will write him a song. But with Blue 55 three thousand miles away, how will she play her song for him?
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee
This is a #MeToo movement book exploring how harassment and unwanted attention from classmates affects middle grade students. Seventh grader Mila is uncomfortable when a boy gives her an unsolicited hug on a school bus. But according to her friend Zara, Mila is overreacting. After all, doesn’t she know what flirting looks like? Maybe he just likes her. But the unwanted attention makes Mila feel uncomfortable, and suddenly it seems to be everywhere. Her friends don’t seem to understand why the attention bothers her so much, so Mila must search for help in unexpected places.
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Eighth grade is hard enough without also dealing with being a girl who looks like a boy. At least that’s what Lily Jo McGrother, who was assigned male at birth, has experienced. Meanwhile, Dunkin Dorfman is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved away from the place that has been his home for the past 13 years. Then Lily Jo and Dunkin meet, and their lives are forever changed by their friendship. This dual narrative tackles a lot of difficult subjects, including gender identity, bipolar disorder, grief, and sexuality.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
In this autobiography told in verse, Jacqueline Woodson explores what it was like growing up as an African American in the 1960s and ’70s. Woodson’s poetry from the eyes of a younger version of herself examines the racism and civil rights issues of which she was becoming increasingly more aware as she grew older. On a more personal level, Woodson’s book is also a joyous celebration of finding one’s voice through writing and a love of stories.
The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
This novel is inspired by true events. Jaime lives in a small town in Guatemala where everyone knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a drug-trafficking gang. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel refuses to work for the Alphas, the gang kills him. Now with his cousin and best friend gone, Jaime worries that he could be next. There’s only one way out for Jaime. He must leave Guatemala with his cousin Ángela and journey to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This story gives a face to undocumented immigrants, the reasons they flee their homes, and the struggles they face to find a new life for themselves in a new country.
George by Alex Gino
George knows that when people look at her, they see a boy. She also knows, however, that she’s really a girl. So when her teacher announces that the class play this year will be Charlotte’s Web, George really, really wants to play Charlotte. It would be her opportunity to show the world who she really is on the inside. There’s only one problem: her teacher won’t even let her audition because she’s a boy. Thankfully, with the help of her best friend Kelly, George comes up with a plan that give her the opportunity to play Charlotte and show everyone her true self.
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
This book is a road-trip story through American race relations. Eleven-year-old William “Scoob” Lamar is in trouble, having recently been suspended from school, and he’s supposed to be grounded for his entire spring break. So of course when his G’Ma offers him an escape through a road trip through the American South, Scoob readily accepts. But what the young boy discovers on this road trip is that the world hasn’t always been a welcoming place for kids like him. And things are never exactly what they seem, including his own G’Ma.
Looking for more YA/MG social justice reads? Then you’ll probably like this list of books like Dear Martin, or this list of books like The Hate U Give. Read a good book, and then go out there and change the world.
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