What are the best books about identity for teenagers?

During the our Guardian Teen Takeover Week authors Alan Gibbons, Sita Brahmachari, Deborah Ellis and Bali Rai recommended some of their favourite books for young adults to us. All these books deal with issues of identity from gender and sexuality, to race, religion and social background…

Alan Gibbons

Children’s book author, winner of the Blue Peter Book Award 2000 in the category of ‘the book I couldn’t put down’ for ‘Shadow of the Minotaur’ and author of ‘Hate’.

The Crew by Bali Rai

‘Few people write better about identity than Bali Rai. The Crew assembles a group of kids in what the media calls a 'tough' neighbourhood, but the novel is about love and friendship. The cast reflects modern Britain and is made up of people – not stereotypes.’

Malorie Blackman Noughts & CrossesNoughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

‘Malorie Blackman's classic Noughts and Crosses approaches identity in a different way, by imagining a society where black people constitute the ruling class and white people are the oppressed. It is an intelligent, challenging and provocative read.’

Sita Brahmachari

Author of books for young adults, winner of the 2011 Waterstone's Children's Book Award for her book ‘Artichoke Hearts’ and former Amnesty Youth Awards judge.

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

‘This book is something rare, beautiful and true that speaks straight to the heart of some of the most raw emotions that come with leaving your home and creating a new identity in a strange land.

I was transported by Kasienka's experience. From her arrival into Britain with nothing but a suitcase and a laundry bag, through her struggles to her eventual forging of friendship. She speaks direct to the reader about what it's like to have to reinvent yourself in a new language, culture, home and school. How do you hold onto who you are? What's at the root of your identity when your whole world floats?

I love that it's in the borderless element of water where Kasienka finds that she can most be herself. This is such a profound, poetic and accessible book written with a lightness of touch and great humanity. Some books you just wish you had written yourself – for me, this is one of them!’

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

‘Every author strives to paint a picture through their words, but in this book about the experience of migration, the masterpiece of storytelling is all in the images. It's a magical sepia world that Tan creates with his potent graphic storytelling ranging from disturbing visions of people fleeing holocaust and genocide to warm family scenes of how a person can feel a sense of hope and belonging by being invited to a table to share food and music.

The images in Tan's book have to be seen to be believed - a timeless epic tale in pictures for humans of any age. I have read The Arrival at least a thousand times but every time I turn its pages, just as I have right now, I make a new discovery... This book holds a mirror up to identity itself and in beautifully crafted image after image, manages to reflect its ever shifting.’

Deborah Ellis

Multi award-winning Canadian author, feminist and peace activist Deborah Ellis is best known for ‘The Breadwinner Trilogy’ and in 2006 was named to the Order of Ontario.

The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine

‘Natalie loves her new friendship with the more charming and daring Tulip. But as time goes on and Tulip's actions take on a sinister tone, Natalie has to decide who she is and how she can be her own person.’

Kate by Jean Little

'Middle-schooler Kate's parents own a small-town book store. They all love to talk about books, but talking about religion is a different matter. One parent is Christian. The other is Jewish. When Kate wants to know who she is and where she fits into the scheme of things, she has to find out for herself.'

Bali Rai

Leicester born author of young adult and children’s books including ‘The Crew’, Bali Rai is a winner of the Angus Book Award and former Amnesty Youth Awards judge.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

'THE book of my teenage years that felt raw and real and un-sanitised. Even though it was about US teens in the late 1960s, I felt more of a connection with them than any of the teen protagonists in the contemporary British books during the 1980s. I was so desperate for novels that reflected just a fraction of my own inner-city reality, but there were none. Then I picked this up and, despite the cultural differences between my experience and blue-collar US lives, I loved it! I think it should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to write about teens.'

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

'Sue was my role model and my writing hero. She lived in my city and wrote about people who might actually live next door. Once I read this, I truly believed that I could become just like her and get published.

Sue was real and touchable in a way that Dahl and CS Lewis never were. Every line, every character, everything in the books: all is touched with warmth, affection, humour and a proper understanding of the real lives of ordinary folk living in a city that isn't London. Adrian Mole is one of the best ever British literary creations. Another must-read, for everyone!'

Books are a great way to start conversations. So for the second year we teamed up with the Guardian for ‘Amnesty Teen Takeover Week’ to explore what our right to an identity means and how crucial identity is to teen or young adult fiction.

This blog was first published August 2014 on the Guardian children’s books section.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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