The best novels about teen homelessness and poverty

Who am I?

Teaching middle school made me painfully aware of the disparity in our students’ lives. Some kids have every advantage, while others struggle to survive without enough food, clean water, or a safe, dry place to sleep for the night. All these kids, with their diverse backgrounds, sit side-by-side in class and are expected to perform at the same academic and social levels. In my novels, I feature ordinary teens that are strong, smart, and resilient, like so many of the students who taught me as much as I taught them.


I wrote...

Sleeping in My Jeans

By Connie King Leonard,

Book cover of Sleeping in My Jeans

What is my book about?

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Rollins has it all figured out. She’ll ace her advanced high school courses, earn a college scholarship, and create a new life for herself and her family. There’s no time for distractions—no friends, no fun, and especially no boys.

But Mattie’s brilliant plan for a better life begins to crumble after becoming homeless, forcing her, her mom, and her six-year-old sister, Meg to live in the confines of their beat-up station wagon, Ruby. With new problems hitting her at every turn and fewer options every day, Mattie must learn to live–not just survive–in their circumstances. When her mother mysteriously disappears, Mattie races to find her before she slips away forever, along with Mattie’s hopes and dreams of a stable future.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Find Layla

Connie King Leonard Why did I love this book?

I loved Find Layla and not just because there are a lot of similarities to my own book. Like Mattie, my main character, Layla is the daughter of a single mother and lives a day-to-day existence doing all she can to care for her younger sibling. She is strong, smart, and determined to rise out of poverty even in the face of impossible odds. Elison doesn’t waste words, setting out the reality of Layla’s life in vivid detail and a straightforward style.

By Meg Elison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Find Layla as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A neglected girl's chaotic coming-of-age becomes a trending new hashtag in a novel about growing up and getting away by an award-winning author.

Underprivileged and keenly self-aware, SoCal fourteen-year-old Layla Bailey isn't used to being noticed. Except by mean girls who tweet about her ragged appearance. All she wants to do is indulge in her love of science, protect her vulnerable younger brother, and steer clear of her unstable mother.

Then a school competition calls for a biome. Layla chooses her own home, a hostile ecosystem of indoor fungi and secret shame. With a borrowed video camera, she captures it…


Book cover of In the Wild Light

Connie King Leonard Why did I love this book?

Zentner hooked me on the first page with his poetic writing style and mastery of words. Not only is In the Wild Light a beauty to read, but it is a lovely story of friends helping each other survive family obligations and severe poverty. Cash and his friend, Delaney live in a small Appalachian town in Tennessee where their school and community offer limited opportunities. When both are awarded scholarships to a prestigious high school, Cash must decide between leaving his aging grandparents or helping Delaney climb out of poverty. I loved how Zentner emphasized Cash and Delaney’s compassion and avoided typical teen stereotypes. 

By Jeff Zentner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked In the Wild Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal

I've always loved when the light finds the broken spots in the world and makes them beautiful . . .

Cash's life in his small Tennessee town is hard. He lost his mom to an opioid addiction and his grandfather's illness is getting worse. His smart but troubled best friend, Delaney, is his only salvation. But Delaney is meant for greater things, and she finds a way for Cash to leave with her. Will abandoning his old life be the thing that finally breaks Cash, or will it be the making of him?

From the…


Book cover of Becoming Chloe

Connie King Leonard Why did I love this book?

Catherine Ryan Hyde does a masterful job of showing us the stark reality of teen homelessness through the eyes of Jordy and Chloe. The content of the first few chapters was hard for me to read because of what young people must do to survive on the street and what traumas lead them there in the first place. As the story unfolded, though, Hyde took me on a warm and loving journey as Jordy set out to show Chloe that there truly is a lot of beauty in the world. 

By Catherine Ryan Hyde,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Chloe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

Meet Jordy. He’s on his own in New York City. Nobody to depend on; nobody depending on him. And it’s been working fine.
Until this girl comes along. She’s 18 and blond and pretty–her world should be perfect. But she’s seen things no one should ever see in their whole life–the kind of things that break a person. She doesn’t seem broken, though. She seems . . . innocent. Like she doesn’t know a whole lot. Only sometimes she does.
The one thing she knows for sure is that the world is an ugly place. Now her life may depend…


Book cover of Can't Get There from Here

Connie King Leonard Why did I love this book?

Can’t Get There from Here is another stark look at the realities of kids living on the street. Strasser quickly drew me into the life of Maybe and her tribe of friends Maggot, 2Moro, Rainbow, and Tears. Their day-to-day existence is one of scrounging for food, looking for a safe place to sleep for the night, and avoiding those who would harm them. Adults have hurt these kids so many times and in so many ways that their reluctance to trust the police for help is totally understandable.

By Todd Strasser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Can't Get There from Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Her street name is Maybe

She lives with a tribe of homeless teens -- runaways and throwaways, kids who have no place to go other than the cold city streets, and no family except for one another. Abused, abandoned, and forgotten, they struggle against the cold, hunger, and constant danger.

With the frigid winds of January comes a new girl: Tears, a twelve-year-old whose mother doesn't believe her stepfather abuses her. As the other kids start to disappear -- victims of violence, addiction, and exposure -- Maybe tries to help Tears get off the streets...if it's not already too late.…


Book cover of Homecoming

Connie King Leonard Why did I love this book?

Homecoming has been around for a long time, but it is a story I’ve never forgotten. Voigt opens her novel with Dicey Tillerman, thirteen, and her three younger siblings abandoned by their mother in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The only way Dicey can keep the family together is to get them to a great-aunt’s home, but that means a long journey with little money. This is a tale of fiction, yet it exemplifies the courage and strength that so many kids muster in the face of impossible odds. I’ve always felt that too many people underestimate the resilience of our youth.

By Cynthia Voigt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Homecoming as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

The iconic start to the timeless, Newbery-winning series from Cynthia Voigt.

“It’s still true.” That’s the first thing James Tillerman says to his older sister, Dicey, every morning. It’s still true that their mother has abandoned the four Tillermans in a mall parking lot somewhere in the middle of Connecticut. It’s still true that they have to find their own way to Great-aunt Cilla’s house in Bridgeport. It’s still true that they need to spend as little as possible on food and seek shelter anywhere that is out of view of the authorities. It’s still true that the only way…


You might also like...

Book cover of The Saucer-Heads

George Bixley

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Hired to track down Finley, the missing boyfriend of tech worker Truax, investigator Slater Ibáñez soon discovers that the job isn’t really what he was asked to do.

The search for Finley leads him to an arcane book and the flying-saucer subculture, where a deep dive takes Slater out into the Mojave Desert, leaving him unsure of the precise boundaries of reality itself. With input from Doris and his operatives, and begrudging help from his romantic partner, Pike, to weasel him out of a jam, Slater cuts a dogged path to sort out what Truax really wants, and what Finley is really up to, all the while juggling high explosives, navigating his deepening narrative complex with Pike, and never failing to throw that punch.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in homelessness, best friends, and New York State?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about homelessness, best friends, and New York State.

Homelessness Explore 29 books about homelessness
Best Friends Explore 83 books about best friends
New York State Explore 693 books about New York State