March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tough Stuff: Books to Get Kids Talking About Life Issues| Focus On

Get the latest SLJ reviews every month, subscribe today and save up to 35%.


Across the grades, the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts/Speaking and Listening call for students to “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners” and with grade-appropriate “topics, texts, and issues” that allow them to build on the ideas of others and to express their own viewpoints. Book clubs offer an ideal entry point for middle and high school students.

There’s nothing like a book on a tough topic to pull in reluctant students and get them talking about characters and their motivations, making connections to plot and setting, and crafting some sophisticated arguments and analysis. Successful work with literature on tough topics gives struggling students the confidence and tools to engage with challenging texts and provides practice for all students in meeting the standards. Having multiple copies of individual titles and a selection of books at a variety of reading levels available in the library can entice teachers to use them for book clubs. Better yet, volunteer to launch a book club by giving booktalks and helping students make their selections.

If a book club doesn’t fit into your program, you can still get students talking and thinking by making sure to have works on tough topics readily accessible. Promoting these titles is easy. Frequently update book displays on a particular issue or make bookmarks with lists of titles. While hard to keep current, bookmarks are worth the effort and students can pocket them surreptitiously. Create posters focused on a specific topic and add several book covers plus a QR code that leads to a website with more suggestions–cool and easy to update. Whether for individual readers or book clubs, these titles are sure to give students plenty to discuss and digest.

Body Image

ANDERSON , Laurie Halse. Wintergirls. Viking. 2009. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780 670011100; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978 0142415573; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 978 1101029190.

Gr 8 Up –Best friends Lia and Cassie bond over staying thin–anorexia and bulimia are the tools to keep weight off. When Cassie is found dead, Lia must come to grips with her complicity in Cassie’s death and how her own choices might be leading her in the same direction. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

COONER , Donna. Skinny. Scholastic/Point. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545427630; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780545427647.

Gr 7-10 –Fifteen-year-old Ever has a new stepmom, two thin and popular stepsisters, and grief over her mom’s death–overeating is her solace. Ever’s constant companion is Skinny, the critical and belittling voice in her head. Gastric bypass surgery makes a significant physical difference, but how can she dispel Skinny’s constant presence? Audio version available from Scholastic.

LANGE, Erin Jade. Butter. Bloomsbury. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781599907802; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781619631212.

Gr 7-10 –Butter, weighing in at over 400 pounds, knows his saxophone skills and sharp wit can’t compete with his obesity. When his online (and dishonest) flirtation with the unattainable Anna leads to the promise of a New Year’s Eve meet-up, Butter creates a website where he vows to eat himself to death while classmates watch via webcam.

SHAW, Liane. Second Story. 2009. pap. $11.95. ISBN 978 1897187623.

Gr 7-10 –At 17, Maddie finds encouragement to pursue thinness on anorexia-supporting “pro-ana” websites where those determined to achieve extreme weight loss find a worryingly supportive community. Hospitalized, Maddie struggles to accept a true understanding of what beauty and health really look like.

WISHINSKY, Frieda. Blob. (Orca Currents Series). Orca. 2010. RTE $16.95. ISBN 9781554691821; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781554691814.

Gr 6-10 –Starting high school after putting on weight over the summer makes Eve a target for bullies. An Internet diet looks promising, but failing to follow it leaves Eve increasingly discouraged. Sensible advice from grown-ups and a few understanding friends help her take control of her life. Realistic adult characters and a hopeful message.


Drug Use

ANONYMOUS. Lucy in the Sky. S & S/Pulse. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442451872; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781442451858; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781442451889.

Gr 8 Up –The 16-year-old unnamed journal writer has a supportive family but feels insecure around boys; she’s ripe for the attentions of her tutor, Nathan, and cute surfer boy, Ross. When drawn into their circle, alcohol and marijuana make her feel confident and attractive, and the narrator shrugs off the cost and consequences with devastating results.

KORMAN, Susan J. Bad Deal. (Surviving Southside Series). Lerner. 2011. lib. ed. $27.93. ISBN 9780761361527; pap. $7.95. ISBN 9780761361664.

Gr 6-8–Fish knows his ADHD medication helps him, but he hates the side effects. When he skips his meds and offers some tablets to a friend who wants to concentrate on his studies, word gets out. From a series modeled after “Bluford High,” which examines diverse teens tackling tough life issues.

NELSON, Blake. Recovery Road. Scholastic. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545107297.

Gr 8-10–Maddie’s addiction to alcohol has landed her in the dreary world of residential rehab where she meets Stuart, and they begin a brief, confused romance. Nothing is glamorized here, and the difficulty of figuring out how to live while sober truly challenges Maddie and has a tragic outcome for Stuart.

PATTERSON, James & Hal Friedman. Med Head: My Knock-Down, Drag-Out, Drugged-Up Battle with My Brain. Little, Brown. 2010. lib. ed. $19.65. ISBN 9780606145381; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780316076173.

Gr 7 Up–A bright kid, Friedman’s son Cory was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at age five. Unable to manage Cory’s behavior, his desperate parents consulted a variety of professionals, but incorrect medication and dosage nearly destroyed Cory. Written as a first-person account from Cory’s point of view, the short chapters keep this intriguing and horrifying story moving briskly. Originally published in 2008 as Against Medical Advice.

REED, Amy. Clean. S & S/Pulse. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442413443; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781442413450; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781442413467.

Gr 8 Up–Five teens meet in rehab, and as they interact with one another and with their counselor, readers piece together the addictions and choices that have brought them together. Blunt language and sexual situations are appropriate for the topic and the voices of the characters.


Gangs and Street Life

BOOTH, Coe. Tyrell. Scholastic/Push. 2006. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780439838795; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780439838801.

Gr 8 Up –The adults in Tyrell’s life disappoint and fail him; now his family is struggling in a homeless shelter. Dad’s unavailable and Tyrell tries to soften the loss for his younger brother, Trey, while balancing the need for money, the lure of gang culture, and two interested girls. The teen’s story continues in Bronxwood (2011).

GRIFFIN, Claire J. Nowhere to Run. Namelos. 2013. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781608981441; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781608981458; ebk. $8.95. ISBN 9781608981465.

Gr 7-10–Project life in Washington, DC is tough, but with encouragement from his friend Deej, Calvin is in contention for the city sprinting title. When Deej’s gangster uncle demands protection money from Calvin’s mother’s salon, Deej saves Calvin from a beat down–but at an excruciating price–Calvin must agree to throw the sprint finals.

KOWALSKI, William. The Barrio Kings. (Rapid Reads Series). Orca. 2010. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781554692446.

Gr 7 Up–At 23, Rosario has an entry-level job and a commitment to his pregnant girlfriend to leave his pre-prison life behind. When gang friend Juan is released from prison and tries to pull Rosario back into the life, Rosario must find the strength to choose between competing loyalties.

NERI , G. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. illus. by Randy DuBurke. Lee & Low. 2010. pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781584302674.

Gr 6 Up–Yummy is only 11 years old when his desire to impress Chicago neighborhood gang members leads him to commit a murder. The subsequent police attention motivates the gang to brutally eliminate Yummy. A devastating, true story told in graphic novel format with compelling illustrations.

QUINTERO, Sofia. Efrain’s Secret. Knopf. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375847066; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780375947063; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780440240624; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 9780375895494.

Gr 7 Up –Efrain needs an SAT prep course to help him achieve his Harvard dream. There’s no money or family support to make it possible, so the teen decides to take the neighborhood option for making a quick buck and begins to work for the local drug dealer. Getting caught rips apart Efrain’s plans, leading to a different but positive future.

WOODSON, Jacqueline. Miracle’s Boys. Putnam. 2000. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399231131; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780142415535.

Gr 6-10–Oldest brother Ty’ree works to keep the family together after both his parents die, but he’s not getting much help from middle brother Charlie, fresh out of juvie and under the pull of his gang friends. Their story is narrated by Lafayette, the youngest, as he tries to make sense of his brothers’ choices and find his own way.

Race and Ethnicity

BALLIETT, Blue. Hold Fast. Scholastic. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545299886; ebk. $17.99. ISBN 9780545510196.

Gr 5-7–Early and her little brother enjoy an urban home life rich in dreams of a real house and higher education for Mom and Dad. When her father disappears without explanation, the family must move to a homeless shelter, but Early is determined to find him. An engaging mystery featuring strong writer’s craft and gritty reality. Audio version available from Scholastic.

BJORKMAN , Lauren. Miss Fortune Cookie. Holt. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978080 5089516; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780805 096361.

Gr 8 Up–High school senior Erin is culturally Chinese. She was born in China, lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, speaks Mandarin, and writes an advice blog as Miss Fortune Cookie. But even with dyed-black hair, there’s no hiding her Irish ancestry. Is she Chinese enough for best friends Linny and Mei?

CROWE , Chris. Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. Dial. 2003. RTE $18.99. ISBN 9780 803728042.

Gr 7-10–In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett leaves comparatively tolerant Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi, offends a white woman, and is brutally murdered. Found not guilty by an all-white jury, the killers later admitted their crime. Told with clear narrative and period photos, Trayvon Martin-era students won’t be able to put this nonfiction account down. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

HOUSE, Silas & Neela Vaswani. Same Sun Here. illus. by Hilary Schenker. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $15.99. ISBN 9780763656843; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780763664510; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780763657475.

Gr 5-7–Meena, a recent Indian immigrant to New York City, and River, who lives in a struggling coal mining community, are unlikely snail-mail pen pals. When a class project connects the preteens, they’re initially uncomfortable writing to someone of a different gender and culture, but they find common ground as they reveal the details of their lives. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

VOLPONI, Paul.  Black and White. (Speak Series). Viking. 2005. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780670060061; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780142406922.

Gr 7 Up–College scouts are looking at Marcus and Eddie, a multiracial team on and off the court. Money’s tight–the boys just need a little cash for senior year extras–but their plan to raise money via armed robbery goes terribly wrong. Marcus is identified but his white partner isn’t; what happens next is told through the teens’ riveting alternating voices.

Sexual and Gender Identity

MYRACLE , Lauren. Shine. Abrams/Amulet. 2011. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780810984172; pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781419701849; ebk. $16.95. ISBN 9781613121450.

Gr 8 Up –When Cat’s gay friend Patrick is the victim of what appears to be a hate crime, the 16-year-old is determined to find out what happened the night Patrick was attacked. Cat’s inquiries take her deep into the multiple layers that make up the culture of her rural North Carolina community, including poverty, bigotry, and meth. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

NEWMAN , Lesléa. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Candlewick. 2012. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780763658076.

Gr 7 Up–Newman was the keynote speaker at the University of Wyoming’s Gay Awareness Week five days after the hate-crime death of Matthew Shepard, a student at UW. She has created a heartbreaking set of poems written from multiple points of view about the notorious events leading to Shepard’s murder. Beautifully written, impossible to forget–and that’s the point. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

SÁENZ , Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. S & S. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978 1442408920; pap $9.99. ISBN 9781 442408937; ebk. $12.45. ISBN 9781 442408944.

Gr 8-10–Fifteen-year-old Aristotle’s working-class Mexican-American family, headed by silent, army vet Dad, is all about keeping secrets. When Ari meets Dante, the boys begin a life-changing friendship. Dante comes out to Ari, and Ari promises to remain his friend. In the process, Ari must examine his own sexuality. Memorably constructed characters drive the story. Audio version available from S & S Audio.

VOLPONI , Paul. Crossing Lines. Viking. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780670012145; ebk. $13.99. ISBN 9781101529041.

Gr 8-10–Playing out his gender identity questions in full view of his high school classmates, Alan wears makeup and feminine clothing. Jeannie and the Fashion Club are supportive, but Jeannie’s brother Adonis is repulsed and goes along with bullying served up by members of the football team. When the abuse escalates, will Adonis do the right thing?

WILKINSON , Lili.  Pink. HarperCollins/Harper Teen. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978 0061926532; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978006 1926549; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 978006 2069634.

Gr 8-10– Ava’s parents totally affirm her romantic relationship with classmate Chloe, but when Ava’s accepted into a different high school, she acts on her uncertainties, breaks up with Chloe, makes new friends, and seeks out a boyfriend. Lying about her past with Chloe leaves Ava with even more identity questions.



ASHER , Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. Penguin/Razorbill. 2007. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781595141712; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781595141880; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781101539927.

Gr 8 Up –Why did Clay’s crush, Hannah, kill herself? Clay receives a box of audio tapes and a letter asking that he listen to her reasons, and the teen wrestles with his response to Hannah’s claims about who is to blame. Multiple perspectives offer much to discuss concerning bullying, bystanders, and responsibility. Audio version available from Random House Audio.

HUBBARD , Jennifer R. Try Not to Breathe. Viking. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978 0670013906; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978 0142423875; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781 101566909.

Gr 8-10–Sixteen-year-old Ryan’s suicide attempt was interrupted by his parents, who sought psychiatric help for him right away. Back at school, Ryan’s classmates offer awkward reconnections. Nicki, however, isn’t afraid to talk about what happened. She wants Ryan to open up so that she can understand her dad’s suicide. Ryan’s first-person account offers immediacy and insight.

PETERS, Julie Ann. By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. Hyperion/Disney. 2010. RTE $16.99. ISBN 9781423116189; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9781423130215.

Gr 8-10–Daelyn has attempted suicide twice, but this time the bullied teen is sure she’ll succeed with the help of a website for “completers.” When Santana, whose cancer has just come out of remission, befriends Daelyn, she is knocked off course by the irony of their respective situations. The ambiguous ending offers an unblinking look at the consequences of bullying.

THOMPSON , Holly. Orchards. Random. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780385739771; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780385908061; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780385739788; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780375898341.

Gr 7-9–Eighth-grader Kana doesn’t feel personally responsible for her classmate’s suicide, but it’s clear that things she and her friends said contributed to the death. In Japan for the summer to help relatives in their orchards, Kana considers her complicity in the bullying that spurred such tragic consequences. A sensitive first-person reflection written in free verse.

VAUGHT , Susan. Trigger. Bloomsbury. 2006. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781582349206; pap. $8.95. ISBN 9781599902302; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9781599907925.

Gr 8 Up–Seventeen-year-old Jersey is struggling with brain damage as the result of a gunshot wound to the head, though he can’t remember how or why he was injured. As Jersey pieces together what happened to him from the clues provided by his friends, he begins to understand the impact of his suicide attempt.

Teen Pregnancy

BECHARD, Margaret. Hanging On to Max. S & S/Pulse. 2003. ISBN 9780689862687.

Gr 8-10 –Seventeen-year-old Sam didn’t have much of a relationship with Brittany, and by the time she learns she’s pregnant, she wants nothing more from him but his signature on the adoption paperwork. Instead, Sam decides to raise Max himself with thought-provoking results. Sam’s voice is honest and poignant.

GRIMES, Nikki. A Girl Named Mister. Zondervan. 2010. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978 0310720782; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978 0310723134; ebk. $4.99. ISBN 9780 310399612.

Gr 8-10–In this free-verse narrative, 14-year-old Mary, nicknamed Mister, was brought up to attend church and do well in school. But Mister’s boyfriend’s attentions burn hot, and though they’re intimate only once, she becomes pregnant. Poems about the Virgin Mary reflect Mister’s situation and give her courage to absorb the shock of long-held family secrets.

KNOWLES, Jo. Jumping Off Swings. Candle­wick. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763639 495; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780763652968; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780763651725.

Gr 8 Up–Everyone at school knows that Ellie’s easy, and faithful friend Corinne tries to find other ways for Ellie to feel better about herself. The girls, and friends Caleb and Josh, who may be the father of Ellie’s baby, narrate their responses to her pregnancy. Living with Jackie Chan (2013) finds Josh a year later living with his uncle in a new town.

NOLAN , Han. Pregnant Pause. Houghton Harcourt. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780 152065706; pap $8.99. ISBN 978054 7854144; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 978 0547677477.

Gr 8 Up–Pregnant by her feckless boyfriend, Lam, the ever-rebellious and irreverent 16-year-old Elly insists on marrying him while her parents take off to work with AIDS orphans in Africa. Without options, the newlyweds begin their married life in separate cabins as counselors at Lam’s parents’ weight loss camp. Elly’s youthfully determined voice rings true.

RODRIGUEZ , Gaby with Jenna Glatzer. The Pregnancy Project. S & S. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442446229; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781442446236; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781442446243.

Gr 7 Up–Latina teen Gaby made national news in 2011 with her senior project, an investigation of the stereotypes revealed when she faked a pregnancy and documented the response of her teachers, family, and classmates in her rural community. Daughter of a teen mom but also a student with college aspirations, Gaby wanted to demonstrate that determination can trump circumstances.

Chris Gustafson is a teacher librarian at Whitman Middle School, Seattle School District, WA

Digital picks

For Students

National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA. New York, NY. (Accessed 12/18/13).

Gr 7 Up –A clearinghouse for information on all types of eating disorders, along with links for those who need help and support, this site provides free toolkits for parents, teachers, and coaches as well as short informational videos.

National Gang Center. Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Washington, DC. (Accessed 12/18/13).

Gr 7 Up –It’s always good to start with the basics, and the FAQ page of this site provides answers to questions from “What is a gang?” to “What can be done about youth gangs?” Includes an extensive bibliography.

NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (Accessed 12/18/13).

Gr 7 Up —This comprehensive resource for teens, teachers, and parents provides straightforward information about drugs, questions real teens ask about drugs and drug use, and the Sara Bellum Blog, written by “a team of NIDA scientists, science writers, educators, and teens” to update readers on current news and research.

Race–The Power of an Illusion. PBS. (Accessed 12/18/13).

Gr 6 Up —“The online companion to California Newsreel’s three-part documentary about race in society, science, & history,” this intriguing site challenges assumptions about race through interactive quizzes, time lines, and slide shows.

For Teachers

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry . AACAP. Washington, DC. (Accessed 12/18/13).

The Academy’s “Facts for Families” pages offer helpful, clear information on a range of tough topics, such as suicide, eating disorders, and bullying. Also available in Spanish.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Teen Pregnancy . CDC. Atlanta, GA. (Accessed 12/18/13).

Find statistics on teen pregnancy rates, information on prevention programs, and advice for parents and guardians. Don’t miss the “A Teen-Friendly Reproductive Health Visit” infographic (follow the link For Health Care Providers) and the Social Media Tools for heath communicators.

Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance . SPLC. Montgomery, AL. (Accessed 12/11/13).

Although their legal work is primarily focused on the southeastern United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center is nationally known for its Teaching Tolerance magazine, provided free to teachers. Additional no cost resources include lesson plans and film kits.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. More on Life Issues:
    Digital Picks for Students and Teachers”
    I do not agree. Read

    Sincerely, Wilhemina