16 Books for Teens About the Ongoing Fight for Equality
by Laura Lambert
Equality. It can feel like a promised land well out of reach. But, looking back at history, it’s also incredible to see how far we’ve come.
In the following 16 books for teens, authors tackle some of the most pressing social issues of our day, rooted in inequality — the long, storied fights for civil rights and gender equality, as well as LGBTQIA+ rights, disability rights, and rights for immigrants and indigenous people. Through the powerful storytelling within these novels and memoirs, readers can begin to imagine how we might arrive at a more equal, more just future.
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come
In this, the final novel in a series that spans 40 years and includes the Newbery Award-winning favorite, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the beloved Logan family finds itself in the midst of the Civil Rights Era. All the Days Past, All the Days to Come begins in 1944 and concludes just before the historic 1963 March on Washington. Cassie Logan, now a lawyer, witnesses firsthand how the Great Migration and the ensuing fight for civil rights transform the very fabric of American life, before returning to Mississippi to participate in voter registration. “Surely the crown jewel of the Logan family saga,” says Kirkus Reviews.
Yes She Can
While we’ve yet to see a woman in America’s highest office, Yes She Can proves that women are making political waves in many, many other ways. This collection of 10 inspiring stories of 20-something women in the Obama Administration shows that politics (and policy) are no longer just a boys’ club.
Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and the Black American Dream
Blair Imani’s illustrated book, Making Our Way Home, is another take on the Great Migration, with a graphic novel-like feel. Rooted not in a fictional family but in the stories of figures such as James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, as well as Imani’s own family, this book is rich with history. “I am the granddaughter of people who survived Jim Crow racism and moved from Arkansas and Louisiana to California during The Great Migration,” Imani writes. “Researching and writing this book has helped me understand myself, my own family, and Black American identity, and I hope it does the same for you.”
The Handmaid's Tale
Atwood's dystopian story explores a future in which a Second American Civil War has resulted in enforced social roles and the enslavement of the remaining fertile women. These women, known as Handmaids, are forced to produce children for high-ranking government officials. The story is a chilling reflection on gender norms, as well as a tale of feminism and hope. Recently, it's been made even more popular by the Elizabeth Moss-starring Hulu series.
The Far Away Brothers (Adapted for Young Adults)
This powerful nonfiction book has been adapted for young readers. The Far Away Brothers tells the true story of identical twin brothers — Ernesto and Raúl Flores — who, as teens, fled the violence of El Salvador’s deadly gangs for a better life in the United States. This compelling account of the immigrant struggle — unsafe in their home country, but often unwelcome in the U.S. — helps young people understand how immigration policy affects real lives.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, there are roughly 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States — and millions more around the world. But the trans community often struggles to be seen.
YouTube personality Jazz Jennings’ memoir helps teens understand the nuances of the struggle, firsthand, through her remarkable life story. At age three, she saw a doctor who helped explain to Jazz and her family exactly what was going on. “That was the first day I ever heard the word 'transgender.' I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of relief that there was finally a word that described me — a girl who had accidentally been born into a boy’s body.”
Despite the fact the Justyce McAllister is a model teen — an honor student and caring friend — he still finds himself in handcuffs. Though he's at a prominent prep school in Atlanta, and aiming to attend an Ivy League college, he can't seem to escape people's judgements. Looking for answers, he starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In it, he examines his feelings about the social injustices he faces every day — wondering if they're even worth fighting against. A raw and at times heartbreaking reflection on race relations in America, this is a must-read for teens.
The award-winning March trilogy is the personal story of Georgia Congressman John Lewis — including the history of the civil rights movement and his role in it — all presented in graphic novel form. The format is no mistake. Lewis and fellow civil rights activists of his time were inspired by the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. As Lewis told The Washington Post, there is a through-line from King’s comic book to his own graphic novels. “I felt a kinship with [King], like we were following his lead once more,” Lewis said, “trying to keep the struggle moving forward and doing our part to continue building the beloved community.”
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People
“History is written by the victors,” the saying goes. But that’s changing, thanks in part to efforts like the ReVisioning American History for Young People series, which seeks to reframe American history from a more nuanced and complicated “bottom-up” point of view. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, the perspective of indigenous people takes center stage, from the arrival of the first Europeans well into the 21st century. Kirkus Reviews calls this adaptation for young readers, “an important corrective to conventional narratives of our nation’s history.”
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom
Lynda Blackmon Lowery was the youngest person to take part in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March in the name of voting rights. Her first-person account is a testament to the power of nonviolent protest in the push for civil rights. As Lowery told NPR, "I would like for young people to know that each day of your life is a journey into history… You have the ability to change something each day of your life. Believe it or not, people, it can't happen without you."
A Queer History of the United States for Young People
Adapted for young readers from Michael Bronski’s award-winning 2011 book, here is another title in the ReVisioning American History for Young People series. A Queer History of the United States for Young People confirms how LGBTQIA+ people have always been part of our nation’s history, and that gay history in the U.S. began long before the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Owning It: Stories About Teens with Disabilities
In this collection of 10 fictional short stories, readers get a nuanced look at life with a disability – both visible and invisible. In an interview, Gallo said that while he wants the audience to enjoy the stories themselves, first and foremost the collection is about awareness and empathy – the cornerstones of any fight for equality. “I really want these stories to give recognition and hope to disabled teens who can’t possibly see themselves in novels and stories about their non-disabled peers…” Gallo said, and that, in learning more about various disabilities, readers “will become more sensitive to the problems of others.”
Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights
Award-winning author Ann Bausum is also the voice behind Stonewall, which details the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that gave birth to the gay rights movement. For young people who’ve witnessed the legalization of same-sex marriage, Stonewall is a stark reminder of how recently such equality was out of reach.
This award-winning book uses real-life stories to highlight the rich and varied life experiences of trans teens. And as an example of how far this particular struggle for equality still has to go, Beyond Magenta was among the top 10 most challenged books the year it was released.
As Kuklin told CBS at the time, “I think what we're learning is the country is more frightened than we thought it was. We're afraid of going forward. Life is changing, science is making changes, politics are changing — everything's changing. And we can either choose to grow as human beings or stay the same." It’s a statement that could just as easily apply to many of our other current struggles to ensure that we have a more equal world.
We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults
Kuklin is also the author behind We Are Here to Stay, which features nine first-person accounts of undocumented teens in the U.S. Against the backdrop of the heated immigration debate, Kuklin strives to show that undocumented youth are not headlines, but real people.
Fly Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front
Fly Like a Girl is the amazing true story of Major Mary Jennings Hegar, who took on both the Taliban and the Pentagon. In 2009, when Hegar was a helicopter pilot in the Air National Guard deployed in Afghanistan, she was shot down by the Taliban and wounded. Her bravery that day — she helped save fellow soldiers as well as the wounded patients she was transporting — earned her a Purple Heart as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor. But her days of fighting did not end there. Together with the ACLU, Hegar took on the U.S. Department of Defense in 2012 to end the military’s official ban on women in combat. (Spoiler alert: They won.)