Before the advent of cell phones and iPads, books more regularly served as an escape from everyday life for generations of teens and tweens. Unfortunately, often nowadays our students are more likely to read a tweet, watch a TikTok video or scroll SnapChat then pick up a book.
But putting the right young adult book in the hands of a tween or teen at just the right time can be an antidote to much more than phone addiction – YA (as it is affectionately called) literature can help meet a social and emotional need, through characters and situations the reader can identify with.
From Harry Potter to Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield, there is no shortage of young adult characters who face unique challenges and endure conflicts of emotion and feelings. And these characters can creating a sense of comfort for young adults today, helping them to know they are not alone, in an ever changing pandemic world of insecurity, fears, and an unknown future.
Here are our pick of seven great young adult books that address important elements of social emotional learning with middle and high school age students.
7 Social Emotional Learning Books for Middle & High School
|Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost, is a runner figuratively speaking. He runs from his past, he runs from life, he runs towards trouble. Then he discovers that running, literally, is his thing after he beats the track team’s fastest runner in a race.
Ghost has dealt with major trauma in his young life and his nickname reflects what he has been through and how he deals.He doesn’t always make the right choices and he faces failure much like today’s youth.
This book explores how joining a team and having someone believe in you can change your world. Ghost must face his demons and stop running from his past to embrace the present, and his future. This book has it all, with messages of perseverance, hard work, diversity and friendship.
|Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Walk Two Moons is a story of grief, loss, fear, death, and life in general, shared through the lens of a young teenager, Salamanca. Sal and her grandparents are on a roadtrip to try and locate her missing mother. Along the way, Sal tells stories to pass the time. The stories are about her friend Phoebe whose mother also “disappeared,” these stories help Sal to piece together her past.
Sal has a hard exterior due to her experiences, and she is emotionally withdrawn which many teens and tweens can relate to. Through the journey, Sal is able to reflect on her own journey of growing up come to accept her own difficult past.
|The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960s. The conflict of the haves versus the have nots propels this story. Ponyboy Curtis is a member of the greasers who rule the poorer East Side of town, while the Socs have the money, the girls, and whatever they want on the wealthier West Side of town.
The book explores themes of right versus wrong, empathy, brotherly bonds and relationships and it was a staple in eighth grade classrooms for many years. While many would consider itold school, it still resonates today thanks to the typical adolescent experiences of author S.E. Hinton’s cast of characters. By deconstructing the different characters, students can reflect upon their own decisions and actions.
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|The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give needs to be in your virtual library or on your bookshelf and read multiple times. It painstakingly reveals the struggle of a young black teen in a world of racism, police brutality, gangs, and social injustice.
Starr Carter’s character is similar to Justyce from Dear Martin (see below) in that she lives in a poor neighborhood but attends a predominantly white school. Starr experiences tragedy when her best friend is shot and killed by a police officer and she is forced to deal with institutionalized racism and a broken criminal justice system.
Starr comes from a loving family, has white friends and a white boyfriend but she is not exempt from the wrath of what it is to be black in America. The reader runs the gamut of emotions as Starr struggles to fight for justice.
There is a reason this book is a #1 best seller on Amazon and a #1 New York Times Bestseller. There is explicit language and sexual situations, so preview before you share with your children or consider reading it together.
|Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Dear Martin might just be one of the most prevalent books for today’s society of social injustice.
In it we meet Justyce, who gives a voice to young black characters. We get to experience and gain incredible insight into the life of black teenage boys through the voice of Justyce.
The novel takes place in present day America where Justyce attends a predominantly white school. He journals his experiences by writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King. His letters provide an inside look into the pain and struggle that comes with being black in the United States today. Despite being a model citizen, Justyce faces prejudice as a result of the color of his skin.
The book also explores themes of systemic and systematic racism, police brutality, toxic masculinity, and privilege.
|Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
This creative non-fiction piece of literature doubles as a history lesson; one that you won’t learn in a social studies class.
Louis Zamperini is a troublemaker who finds sports to ground him. Zamperini dealt with poverty and prejudice growing up and found himself in trouble more often than not. Then he discovered running. Louis became a world-class athlete and an Olympian but then came World War II.
During the War Zamperini’s plane was shot down in the Pacific and he was taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp where he experienced incredible suffering and torture.
This is a story of survival, sheer determination, and perseverance. We also learn of Zamperini’s struggles after the war and his bouts of depression. Despite everything he went through, he persevered, never lost hope, and never gave up.
|On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Another YA piece of art from Angie Thomas that addresses social injustice and reveals the truth about how some black communities are struggling through life. Unlike the character of Starr from Thomas’s The Hate you Give, Bri Jackson is more complex, perhaps not as likable, with an angry soul. She struggles with relationships as well as with feeling the weight of her family’s struggles on her shoulders.
Bri has dealt with gang violence, racism, conformity, and death in her family and her story will resonate with all teens. It will help those from different cultures gain insight into her world and build a greater sense of empathy, respect, and understanding.
For more social emotional learning for tweens, be sure to check out our Printable Social Emotional Learning Journal
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