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YA Fiction about Overcoming Adversity

Teenagers choose what to read for a variety of reasons – topic, what their friends read, favorite author, or page number.  Often I am asked to recommend  books for a similar type of story, theme, or genre.  This is a collection of YA fiction that deals with overcoming adversity encompassing any trait, illness, disease, or life event.  In other words –  books portray life.  It’s a fitting topic for preteens and teenagers as they are not only facing obstacles in their own lives, but also developing their own thoughts and opinions as young adults.  overcoming-adversity-in-ya-fiction-2

Every book where there is a new challenge, readers not only gain experience, but also courage to battle their own challenges and empathy towards others facing their own challenges.  The Wall Street Journal recently published an article showing how reading different types of fiction affects the reader’s behavior and ability to emphasize.  Here are some struggles in fiction, and here are some characters who are brave, vulnerable, strong, and overcome hardships.  In other words, characters who portray a diverse group of people.

Faceless by Alyssa B. Sheinmel (2015)

facelessMaisie suffered from an electrical fire and has not only 3rd degree burns along her left side, but more significant damage to her face, which is missing her nose, chin, and left check. After waking from a coma, undergoing a facial transplant, she must heal physically, but also must process the mental and emotional aftermath of living her life with a new face. Maisie struggles with a new identity and if her family and friends view her as a stranger or if the “old Maisie” is still there at all.

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And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard (2014)

Set in 1995, this Prinz Award Nominee (2015) deals with the aftermath of a suicide by gunshot done at the high school. Emily transfers to a boarding school and tries to processes her ex-boyfriend’s death, she delves into their relationship and her own guilt. An added bonus to Hubbard’s writing is the comparison and insight to Emily Dickinson’s life and poems – Dickinson is the namesake of Emily’s new school. The interest in poetry as a form of expression assists our Emily as she processes Paul’s death. We (the reader) are gifted with poems from both Emily Dickinson and Emily Beam – classics and originals. It also covers the difficult process people go through in dealing with tragedy to heal and also develop deeper understanding to their own self-identity and how identities change and grow.

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Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (2015)

Jessamy, a strong willed daughter who seeks adventure and freedom, and her sisters are constantly insulted and considered commoner’s in their family’s new elevated status. They are not the same as highborn, yet they are not commoners. If this wasn’t challenging enough, Jessamy is a free spirit who wants to compete in the games of the Court of Fives.  The Fives is part gladiator games and part Ninja Warrior with alternating challenges of strength and flexibility.  Jessamy finds a way to enter, but she knows she must lose for winning would bring shame to her father and family. She eventually must choose between her dream and her personal freedom or her devotion to her family.
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Ask the Passengers by A.S. King (2012)

There are sort of three stories in one with this novel. First, is the narration of Astrid Jones’ 17 year old life. Her family moved to a small town from New York. The mom is a piece of work – judgmental and favors Astrid’s younger sister. Astrid is also secretly trying to figure out if she’s gay and afraid to let anyone know. The second aspect of this story is when Astrid lays on her picnic table in the backyard and imagines the lives of passengers as planes fly above her. We are given little mini-stories of passengers as Astrid imagines who is in the planes. But in a touching way for a girl who receives no real love at home, she passes love to these strangers thousands of feet above her whose lives she imagines. Back to reality, Astrid and her friends are outed (a raid on the gay bar in the city) and prejudice becomes more apparent in their high school. Astrid not only struggles with the small minded hatred, she has to decide whether to tell her parents the truth.  It’s a plot based on the labels of society and self-identification.

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Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff and Laura Deluca (2012)

Poni is a child and this struggle of living in Sudan beings with her friend becoming a child-bride and then worsens as war invades her life. Life is challenging for women in her village, but the biggest challenge is once she and thousands of people begin their walk to flee the bombs. Finally, they reach the next village and the United Nations workers, but life doesn’t get any easier. This is a realistic view of the struggles of refugees and especially of the children impacted by war.

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Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015)

Ally is dyslexic, but tries to hide it. She hides her reading difficulty within her behavior and subsequently feels like an outcast. When a new teacher takes time to get to know Ally, she suddenly feels less alone. It is a touching story of finding your way when someone offers a little help and sees past the defensiveness and into the person’s true self. There are struggles, but it’s the touching ‘everyone is special’ message that readers will find between the student-teacher interaction.

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All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (2013)

Judith is silent and is viewed more as a nuisance than as a family member. Her role in the tiny community is isolated and she is a presence only, not a friend or participant after a 2 year absence. You see, a fellow farmer and community deacon took two girls. After drinking his way into madness, setting his home on fire, one girl washed up the river dead, the other returned to her family missing not only two years of her life, but also half of her tongue.
We start with a one-sided love story between neighbors who live in cabins and live the simple life. With families that came together on a boat, they have been intertwined for years in Roswell Station.  As Judith returns home, she not only faces the questions and judgments from her community, but she struggles to go to school and learn to speak again. She is struggling to learn how to speak again, both in using her voice and in telling her story of the last two years.

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Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon (2015)

You can tell it will probably be a fatal romance, but it didn’t keep me from rooting for those early bunt cake jokes between Madeline and Olly: two oddballs, but for different reasons who find a connection. Maddy is a deep character for many reasons – fatal illness, highly witty and intelligent, biracial, forgiving, and funny. As she realizes living her life to the fullest, even if it’s a short one, is worth it.  Madeline and Olly are awkward. Madeline questions her outfit to meet him, even though she only owns white shirts and jeans, and Olly, with his parkour, uses the control over his body when he can’t control his home life or Madeline’s illness. As Maddy loses her once held beliefs of other people and must adapt to new truths, she does a perfect amount of teen questioning. There are a couple of serious downers to this book, but some are realistic enough that it makes for a great story that one’s reality may not always be how it’s perceived

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We Were Liars by e. lockhart (2014)

The story begins with a quick recap of various summers from Cadence’s younger days, but in “Summer of 15” an accident occurred, one that left Cadence with memory loss, migraines, and a loss of self. In the “Summer of 17” she is reunited with her ‘liars’ after missing the previous summer due to her parents belief she needed to heal. Cady, Mirren, Johnny, and Gat settle easily back into their roles of summer teenagers with no responsibilities; however, Cady is determined to use her 4 week stay to get the liars to tell her the truth of her injuries. As the plot gets deeper into Cady’s lost memories, the pace picks up and that idle summer for rich kids quickly disappears to mystery, heartache, and family drama.  In the end, Cady must overcome her own guilt and learn to move on.

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Untwine by Edwidge Danticat (2015)

Haitian parents announce their divorce to their teenage daughters and a car crash all within the first chapter.  While Giselle is in the hospital unconscious, she hears her visitors and tries to will her body to wake up. Finally she does wake to the realization that her twin sister is dead. The rest of the story is showing the family trying to cope and move on. When the police come to question the family stating the accident is under investigation because they do not think the driver who ran into the family’s car was an accident.  Once she is released from the hospital, Giselle must begin living her life minus her other half. This is a lovely story of friendship, love, and having to start over. There’s a little mystery thrown in, but the real beauty of this novel is the way in which love and heartache are portrayed.

What stories of overcoming adversity have resonated with you or teens you know? 

– Sarah Carnahan, currently reading Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Sarah Carnahan

Middle School and Upper School Librarian at Pulaski Academy
Member of YALSA (2010-present) and various committees (2015-present), Contributor for The Hub (2014-present), Arkansas Teen Book Award (2008-present), and an ALA juror for the MAE Award (2015). Middle School and Upper School Librarian for an independent, private school. Mom of a preschooler and a toddler, who don't read YA, but hear it in the car.