Representation matters: Nine diverse books for secondary school students

Representation matters: Nine diverse books for secondary school students

Reading is a fantastic habit to encourage in your teenage students. Not only does it bolster literacy, it also builds emotional resilience and helps with stress. So, once you’ve created a reading culture in your school, what kind of books should you point your students...


Reading is a fantastic habit to encourage in your teenage students. Not only does it bolster literacy, it also builds emotional resilience and helps with stress. So, once you’ve created a reading culture in your school, what kind of books should you point your students towards? Well, it’s a good idea to create a list of inclusive and diverse books for high school students to explore. Here’s why:

  • Representation: When young people read inclusive books with characters that reflect their identities and have similar experiences, it can help them to feel seen, validated and empowered.
  • Empathy: Reading is a powerful way of developing an understanding of the world beyond your own experience. Diverse literature for young adults can challenge stereotypes and harmful prejudices, and encourage your students to think critically. Reading can help students to develop a more inclusive perspective, and build empathy for characters and people who are from different backgrounds and cultures to their own.
  • Activism: Reading about social issues can help students to become emotionally invested in a cause, inspiring them to become advocates for social justice in their communities.

Overall, reading diverse books for young adults can help teenagers to develop a better understanding of themselves and others, and to become more informed and engaged citizens. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for inclusive books for high school students:

1. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Felix Love is a Black, queer teenager who is trying to find his place in the world. He’s a talented artist, but when an anonymous bully posts his deadname and pre-transition photos of him online, he begins to struggle in school. He comes up with a plan to find out who the anonymous bully is. Luckily, his friend Ezra is there to support him through his experience of transphobia – but when Ezra starts dating another student, their friendship becomes more complicated. With representation from characters across the LGBTQI+ spectrum, Felix Ever After is a powerful exploration of identity, love and self-discovery.

2. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Amanda has moved to a new town and enrolled at a new school. It’s a fresh start, after her gender reassignment surgery. She is determined to leave her past behind…but she soon realises that it’s not as simple as she’d hoped. She struggles to fit in and make friends, and she’s constantly afraid that her new classmates will find out that she’s transgender. But through her friendship with Grant, she discovers there’s more to life than fitting it. This novel looks at the challenges faced by the transgender community, and underlines the importance of being true to yourself.

3. I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver

When Ben comes out to their parents as non-binary, their parents kick them out. Luckily, Ben’s older sister says that Ben can come and live with her. Ben starts at a new school, where they meet Nathan. He’s funny and kind, and they quickly become good friends. But all the while Ben is learning to navigate their non-binary identity, and their feelings for Nathan. Are they more than just friends? This book is a heartfelt exploration of gender identity and the power of finding a supportive community.

4. Tyrell by Coe Booth

Tyrell is a smart, ambitious and talented Black teenager who lives in the Bronx. However, his father is in prison, and his family is struggling financially. Tyrell feels it’s up to him to help his family. When he loses his job, he feels he has no other options but to start dealing drugs to make some money. He quickly realises that he’s in over his head. This coming of age story tackles themes of poverty, racism and the consequences that our choices have.

5. The Girl I Am, Was, And Will Never Be by Shannon Gibney

This book isn’t a straightforward YA novel. Instead, it’s part-memoir, part-fiction, a complex twin narrative structure which explores the impact of trans-racial adoption on the author, and imagines the consequences of alternate choices. The text is broken up with family photographs, medical records, interviews, adoption documents and letters. It explores themes of identity, race and the experience of adoption.

6. Heroine by Mindy McGinnis

Mickey Catalan is a talented teenage athlete, but when she gets injured in a car crash, her performance as a star softball catcher is in jeopardy. Her doctor prescribes her painkillers to help her compete – but Mickey quickly becomes addicted to them. As her addiction spirals out of control, she loses everything that was once important to her. This novel shows the dangers of addiction, but it also portrays the power of resilience and hope in overcoming even the toughest circumstances.

7. These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

Hannah Walsh is a teenage witch who lives in Salem, Massachusetts. She only uses her powers for good – but when evidence of dark magic begins to appear in her community, Hannah teams up with her ex-girlfriend and fellow witch Veronica. As she gets involved in the investigation, Hannah meets non-witch Morgan, and discovers a secret society of witches who are using their powers for evil. With action, magic and romance, this book is a page turner!

8. The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

This historical novel is set in Atlanta, Georgia in the late 1800s, and follows the story of Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American woman who works as a laundress and struggles to navigate the challenges of being a mixed race woman in a society where racism and prejudice run rampant. What’s more, Jo has a secret – she’s an anonymous gossip columnist for a local newspaper. Then she discovers a shocking family secret, and a new owner takes over the newspaper, causing lots of turmoil. This book is a fascinating window into a little known period of American history.

9. The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

This novel follows a complicated romance between Lily, who has ADHD, and Abelard, who is autistic. After Abelard posts a quote online, their mutual passion for medieval literature draws them together. But it’s not easy navigating high school as a neurodivergent teen, and both Lily and Abelard have their own challenges to overcome. Their relationship is challenging and full of obstacles, but it’s also a testament to the power of connection and the courage it takes to be the best version of yourself.

Further reading

Learn more about how to talk to students about gender and pronouns, the Black Lives Matter movement and LBGTQI+ issues in your classroom, and the other issues raised by these books.

Subscribe to our blog

If you’d like to stay up to date with our articles in 2023, why not subscribe to our blog? You’ll get a fortnightly roundup of the articles you’ve missed straight to your inbox, plus links to free teaching resources.

In this article