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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

In our ever-changing and ever-more-diverse world, it’s crucial to develop tolerance, good mental health, and empathy. Accepting those different from us, helping those in need, understanding different perspectives, and maintaining strong mental health are all important aspects of growing up whole. What better way to start introducing these concepts and fostering these abilities for the young adult readers in your life than through some great books? After all, reading stories has been shown to support the development of emotional intelligence.

The following list of uplifting and diverse young adult books is a good starting point for these readers to explore more about tolerance, diversity, empathy, and mental health. Keep in mind that some of the topics found within may be difficult to read about and comprehend, but each book does a great job of exploring challenging topics while instilling hope at the same time. 

Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer book cover

Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer

This YA novel is set in the 1970s, when 13-year-old Roberta challenges her Catholic school teacher about Thomas Jefferson’s slave ownership. Her teacher—who is also a nun—responds with a racist insult, leading Roberta to question her entire identity as a young, black, Catholic girl. Roberta enters an essay contest with the idea that winning will solve her problems and give her clarity, but she experiences several setbacks. Ultimately, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X helps her cope with her anguish. Malcolm and Me is a gritty and graceful coming-of-age tale about truth, race, family, and faith.

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley book cover

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Solomon has agoraphobia, an extreme fear of open or crowded spaces, leaving home, or being in any place where it may be tough to escape. Lisa, his classmate, aims to cure him, as a way to enhance her application for a college psychology program. This story is a funny and heartwarming take on exploring mental health and friendship. YA readers will also witness how understanding and empathy can forge and strengthen connections between us. 

New Kid by Jerry Craft book cover

New Kid by Jerry Craft 

Have you ever felt like you’re torn between at least two different worlds? Or that no matter where you went, you didn’t quite fit in? Such is the case for seventh grader Jordan Banks, whose parents send him to a private school with little diversity—Jordan is one of only a handful of kids of color in his grade. Follow along as Jordan attempts to figure out how he fits into the school’s world and stay true to his home life in this graphic novel that’s won the Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award, and Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature.

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi book cover

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi

Leah Henderson and 16 other talented black authors, including New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds and Newbery Honor-winner Renee Watson, came together to make this anthology of numerous short stories addressing the question of “what is ‘black enough?’” This collection, edited by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi, highlights the diversity of the African American population and drives home a message about the importance of being proud of who we are, while accepting others as well. 

Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express by Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, and RJ Peete book cover

Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express by Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, and RJ Peete 

What happens when you have feelings that people don’t seem to “get”? What if you have a developmental difference that they don’t understand either? In this narrative story based on their own lives and written with their mother, two teen siblings, one of whom lives with autism, explore these questions. We follow both siblings as they struggle to deal with a world that doesn’t quite seem to understand either of them. This story sheds insight and uses some humor to convey a feeling of hope that others can learn to understand the mental health challenges of others. It instills the idea that everyone has unique characteristics to celebrate and appreciate. 

Bruised by Sarah Skilton book cover

Bruised by Sarah Skilton

Author Sarah Skilton presents us with a harsh truth: Sometimes, a single event can completely destroy your sense of self. In this story, a 16-year-old with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do freezes up during a traumatic event, leading her to lose all of her self-confidence. She must now work to rebuild her life, which includes looking at her relationships, her martial arts training, and herself. This work models valuable skills for adolescence and for life, such as making positive shifts in behaviors, restructuring and strengthening mental health, and overcoming self-blame for things beyond our control.

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen book cover

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen

This book is a collection of essays, illustrations, and other creative short works in which 33 athletes, actors, artists, and others offer their take on what mental health and illness are all about. Compiled by Kelly Jensen, this anthology explores how mental health affects all of us every day. Young adult readers will learn a lot through reading it and start to understand how their brains are wired, paving the way to help them work to maintain strong mental health themselves. 

Far From The Tree: Young Adult Edition by Andrew Solomon, adapted by Laurie Calkhoven book cover

Far From The Tree: Young Adult Edition by Andrew Solomon, adapted by Laurie Calkhoven

Diversity unites us all. With those words, Andrew Solomon presents a nonfiction account of numerous families handling a multitude of differences, including autism, transgender children, prodigies, and more. Focusing on acceptance, Solomon showcases familial love overcoming dramatic and often demanding challenges. Solomon poses the question of to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. It’s a question that readers will ponder too as they read this book.

Jackpot by Nic Stone book cover

Jackpot by Nic Stone

“This is a book for a high schooler who is living this existence—who needs hope in whatever shape it comes in.” The words of New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone illuminate the impact behind this epic romance. Follow the two heroes on a quest to find the owner of a winning lottery ticket that has not been claimed. One a rich boy, the other a poor girl, they join forces to find the ticket owner in hopes of being rewarded with a share of the prize. The story shifts into perspectives readers might not expect at first, delivering a strong message about unlikely partners coming together and putting aside their differences to meet a common goal.

The Prom: A Novel by Saundra Mitchell, Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar book cover

The Prom: A Novel by Saundra Mitchell, Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar

It can be tough to stand up for what you believe in, be it justice, yourself, or even love. That’s the idea behind The Prom: A Novel, based on a musical show that also inspired a Netflix movie. When two girls who’ve been secretly dating want to go to prom together, it causes an uproar in their small town. Two Broadway stars arrive to “help” with the situation, but will they just make it worse or will the quartet come together to save the day and teach the community about inclusion, tolerance, and diversity? Snippets of hope throughout the book point to a conclusion about optimism, staying true to your beliefs, and knowing the best way to help.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green book cover

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Aza is trying to do her best as a student, daughter, friend, and detective in this novel by bestselling The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, but ever-growing negative thoughts threaten to undo everything. A touching story about living with anxiety, readers might see themselves in Aza as they follow her adventures of discovery and learning to cope with debilitating thoughts. And just maybe, we’ll learn that sometimes it’s ok to not be ok.

A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell book cover

A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell 

A Phoenix First Must Burn features 16 fictional tales of black heroine magic that thrust the reader into stories of strong women of color and those who don’t conform to typical gender roles. Taking place over numerous settings, this collection of fantasy, science fiction, and magic by acclaimed authors will keep young adult readers entertained, connected, and also thoughtful about those who don’t quite fit into the roles they’re expected to fill.

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson book cover

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson 

Young adult romance lovers will enjoy this one. Jeremiah feels good within his own neighborhood, but not so much when he has to go to a prep school where black teen boys don’t fit in. However, soon he meets a Jewish girl and they are smitten, not caring that the rest of the world doesn’t approve of their relationship. Jacqueline Woodson delivers a moving and gorgeous story that tugs at the heart and mind and encourages readers to look beyond society’s “rules” concerning relationships.

Which young adult books pique your interest? Got other favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Karen Williams is a writer, content marketing strategist, and mom to Ava from Cleveland, OH.