Many adults forget teens are experiencing a lot for the first time—friendships, love, heartbreak, and peer pressure. Sometimes these experiences lead to poor decisions, addiction, changes in behavior, or legal issues. In high school, every grade counts toward their future aspirations. That’s a lot of pressure. 


Because of this pressure, many students experience a rollercoaster of emotions. Their curiosity about other people’s lives is high. Stories related to difficult experiences allow students to feel less isolated and develop empathy if these are situations they have not yet encountered. 


It’s tough to read about addiction, unhealthy relationships, and unsafe homes. But discomfort is where learning begins. Below is a list of authors who are especially talented at writing about the tough stuff.


Kathleen Glasgow

Topics: Addiction, Self-Harm, Mental Illness

Recommendations: You’d Be Home NowGirl in PiecesHow to Make Friends with the Dark

Glasgow has a talent for immersing the reader. I always finish one of her books with a new perspective on what students or others are going through. I’ve never finished one of her books without saying, “Ugh, that was so good!”


Jason Reynolds

Topics: Gun Violence, Racism, Police Brutality

Recommendations: All American Boys, Long Way Down, Look Both Ways

This author sometimes teams up with other incredible authors to write important perspectives, like in All American Boys with Brendan Kiely. In this case, one from the Black perspective and the other from the white perspective on the topic of police brutality. Even when Reynolds is writing solo, his stories resonate with my students of color and help my white students understand a new perspective. Plus, Reynolds is an advocate for equity and change.


Elizabeth Acevedo

Topics: Unsupportive Parents, Identity, Writing as a Form of Therapy 

Recommendations: The Poet X, With the Fire on High, Clap When You Land

I see Elizabeth Acevedo's books in my students’ hands all the time. She writes poetry and is a National Poetry Slam Competition winner—she knows what she’s doing. Writing to express oneself is explored frequently in her novels, as well as celebrating the Latinx experience.


Angie Thomas

Topics: Police Brutality, Racism, Gang Violence, Trauma

Recommendations: The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, Concrete Rose

I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me they hate reading and then read Thomas’s books cover to cover and come back for more. It’s relative, it’s personal, and it’s important to students to hear a story that matters to them. They’re all a bit connected in nature—the same school, neighborhood, and community in each book. Main characters in some show up as minor characters in others. She has built a true community in literature. 


Nina LaCour

Topics: LGBTQ+ Experiences, Trauma and Survival, Chosen Family, Loneliness

Recommendations: We are Okay, Everything Leads to You, Watch Over Me, You Know Me Well

LaCour is a lyricist with novels. Her words are threaded seamlessly. She’s not always at the front of a reader’s brain, but her novels touch on subjects that matter. She’s also teamed up with other authors before such as David Levithan, who in his own respect can also write the heck out of tough topics. She’s just a good choice. 


Rachael Lippincott

Topics: Terminal Illness, LGBTQ+, Identity, Loss

Recommendations: Five Feet Apart, All This Time, The Lucky List, She Gets the Girl 

All of Rachael Lippincott's novels either are or are going to be adapted for the silver screen—and rightly so. The impact these titles have on readers is palpable through the tears shed as pages are turned. 


Jennifer Niven

Topics: Grief, Body Image, Acceptance, Suicide

Recommendations: All the Bright Places, Holding Up the Universe, Breathless

If I see Jennifer Niven's name on a book, I buy it. No synopsis needed. She writes about things many won’t talk about out loud and allows readers to grieve and grow along with the characters. The friendships created between unlikely characters are one of her strong suits and provide hope for students who feel they don't fit in. 


Ellen Hopkins

Topics: Dug Addiction, Self-Harm, Mental Illness, Abusive Relationships, Suicide

Recommendations: Crank, Glass, Burned, Impulse, Fallout, Tricks, Smoke, Tilt, Traffick, Rumble

It’s poetry, all of it. Hopkins has pure talent and I’m in awe of how she immerses readers in a 600-page novel written strictly in verse. She writes vivid descriptions and hours of emotional prose. One important warning: they’re intense and some teens may need supervision while reading.