11 YA Books on Courage and Bravery

by Laura Lambert

Image credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Contributor

What does it mean to be brave? It can mean telling the truth about your own life. It can be standing up for what is right, despite what others might think. It can be facing real fear, real threats and dangers, and not backing down. eWhat these stories of bravery really do is inspire others to do the same. And that’s one reason why these 11 titles are so compelling.

  • Dear Martin

    by Nic Stone

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    In this powerful, timely debut novel, 17-year-old Justyce McAllister is one of the top-performing kids at his (mostly white) prep school, which is one reason he’s headed to Yale. But no amount of academic or social success saves him from the kind of racial profiling that lands him, unjustly, in handcuffs. Disillusioned by racism and police brutality, and looking for answers, Justyce begins to write letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., which are interspersed throughout the book.

    “The question of when and how to speak up for yourself or let things go recurs throughout Dear Martin,” Adrienne Green writes in The Atlantic. And, in the book, as in life, there are no easy answers.

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  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

    by Erika L. Sánchez

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    The title of this book says it all — 15-year-old Julia Reyes cannot abide by the cultural expectations of her first-generation, working class Mexican American family in Chicago, and especially not after the death of her older sister, Olga, the supposedly “perfect” Mexican daughter.

    I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is about having the guts to live your life on your own terms, and to speak in your own voice — whether people like it, or not. “I thought it was important to create a girl who was imperfect,” Sánchez told The Chicago Tribune. “A girl who was trying her best but failed all the time, a girl who had very strong convictions and didn’t shut up to make the world feel more comfortable.”

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  • Color Me In

    by Natasha Díaz

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    It takes time — and courage — to make the disparate strands of your own identity weave together into something authentic and whole. And that’s exactly what happens in the pages of Color Me In, in which Nevaeh comes to terms with being both Black and Jewish, having a Bat Mitzvah but also being the granddaughter of a Baptist preacher, living in one social class and going to school in another. “Color Me In is the book of my heart, but it is also a call to action,” Díaz told Underlined. “I hope Nevaeh’s journey inspires you to evaluate your privileges, whatever they may be, and activate them to uplift your various communities.”

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  • Turtles All the Way Down

    by John Green

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    Turtles All the Way Down is brave on a couple levels. In the novel, 16-year-old Aza Holmes must face down her crippling anxiety and OCD as she tries to solve the mystery of a fugitive billionaire. In real life, it’s Green’s first book to deal so intimately with his own mental health struggles. “It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life,” Green told Time. “But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it.”

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  • Patron Saints of Nothing

    by Randy Ribay

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    Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing is intricately linked with current events. There’s a war on drugs in the Philippines, and when 17-year-old Jay Reguero learns that his cousin has been killed in the midst of that war, he goes to the Philippines to find the truth. "Ultimately the thing that draws me to the topic is fear for the people that I love," Ribay, who was born in the Philippines and raised in the Midwest, told NPR. "I do have a lot of family still in the Philippines and so whenever I think about this it's like: Could this happen to them?"

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  • How to Make Friends with the Dark

    by Kathleen Glasgow

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    There’s a quiet bravery that accompanies the death of a parent — simply living through the grief takes courage. And for 16-year-old Tiger Tolliver, it’s no easy journey. Her mother’s death has left her a ward of the state, and she must learn to navigate this new world on her own. Kirkus says, it’s “a gritty, raw account of surviving tragedy one minute at a time.”

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  • Juliet Takes a Breath

    by Gabby Rivera

    It takes a lot of courage to live the life you’re supposed to live, and to be the person you’re supposed to be, even if that person is, as 19-year-old Juliet Milagro Palante of the Bronx describes herself, a “messy, emotional, book nerd weirdo, chubby brown human, a jumble of awkward bits and glory." In this novel, Juliet is taking that big next step in life — coming out as queer, and leaving her Puerto Rican family in the Bronx to intern for a famous queer writer in predominantly white Portland. Publishers Weekly says, “Juliet’s eye-opening summer of identity research reflects early adult life—intense experiences and relationships, and the work of finding oneself—in all its messy, confusing splendor.”

  • Sanctuary

    by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher

    Teen Vogue calls the world of Sanctuary “a dystopian future that doesn't feel so far away.” It’s 2032. There’s a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Under the threat of deportation, one family flees Vermont for California, and is separated along the way — leaving 16-year-old Vali to finish the journey with her younger brother on their own.

    Paola Mendoza, a founder of The Women’s March, told Teen Vogue how the novel came about. "I was inspired by the hundreds of thousands of people that took the streets to stop family separation. But I was also afraid of what could happen to undocumented immigrants if this administration was re-elected,” she explained. “I allowed myself to imagine the worst possible future for our country. I then asked myself how do we stop this from happening? My answer was clear: young people."

  • The Assignment

    by Liza Wiemer

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    What if a beloved teacher asked you to defend the Holocaust? This is no theoretical question — it happened at a high school in upstate New York in 2017. Back then, 17-year-olds Jordan April and Archer Schurtliff stood up for their convictions and challenged the teacher, the principal, and eventually the entire school district. Liza Wiemer’s novel is based on this real life event and asks, “Would YOU stand up for what is right?”

    “It’s my hope that if readers find themselves in a situation where they face any kind of injustice that they’ll find the courage to stand up, speak out,” Wiemer told Hypable.

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  • The Far Away Brothers

    by Lauren Markham

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    The Far Away Brothers is the true story of identical twin brothers Ernesto and Raúl Flores who, at age 17, flee gangs and death threats in El Salvador for a new life in the United States. It’s no easy journey, and their struggles do not end once the brothers reach the border. But their bravery and persistent hope, in the face of adversity after adversity, is what makes the story so inspiring.

    That said, this is no traditional novel about the American dream. “Some Americans make themselves,” Lily Meyer wrote for NPR. “The Flores brothers did, through danger and debt and depression. Markham captures their absolute bravery well, and she respects it absolutely. For that reason alone, you should read The Far Away Brothers. We all should.”

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  • Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists

    by Mikki Kendall, illustrated by A. D’Amico

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    The global fight for women’s rights is longer, more complex, and more storied than you might think. Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists traces that history from 4500 BCE through today, told via six young women who travel back in time to witness it, guided by a purple A.I. instructor (it’s a graphic novel, after all). At the end, the women lay down a challenge for readers, to have the courage to challenge the status quo: “You have to create the future that you want to see.”

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