The best YA books featuring teens who overcome seemingly impossible odds

Nicole McInnes Author Of 100 Days
By Nicole McInnes

Who am I?

As a former teen who faced my own slew of challenges, I became a YA author who writes about teen characters who do the same. It’s not easy being an adolescent these days: From the seeming hopelessness of some social, academic, and family situations to the lack of support many teens receive, things can seem pretty bleak at times. As the protagonists in books like the ones I’ve mentioned here show us, however, there are many good people out there who are willing to help if we’re willing to hang in there and keep pushing forward toward a better day and a better life.

I wrote...

100 Days

By Nicole McInnes,

Book cover of 100 Days

What is my book about?

Agnes doesn't know it, but she only has one hundred days left to live. When she was a baby, she was diagnosed with Progeria, a rare disease that causes her body to age at roughly ten times the normal rate. Agnes has already exceeded her life expectancy. Moira has been Agnes’s best friend and protector since they were in elementary school. Due to her disorder, Agnes is still physically small, but Moira is big. Too big for her own liking. Boone was friends with both girls in the past, but that was a long time ago—before he did the thing that turned Agnes and Moira against him.

An unexpected event brings Agnes and Moira back together with Boone, but when romantic feelings start to develop, the trio’s friendship is put to the test. 

The books I picked & why

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Salt to the Sea

By Ruta Sepetys,

Book cover of Salt to the Sea

Why this book?

Ruta Sepetys is arguably one of the great masters of historical young adult fiction. Salt to the Sea is an exceptional example of why this is the case. Sepetys expertly balances the stories of multiple protagonists set against an actual (and little known) tragedy that occurred during WWII. I found myself rooting for these characters while simultaneously biting my nails and trying to catch my breath.

Story of a Girl

By Sara Zarr,

Book cover of Story of a Girl

Why this book?

Story of a Girl was one of the first books that inspired me to write my own YA novel. With Deanna, Zarr gives readers a protagonist they can both relate to and root for as she navigates what seems like a hopeless family situation while being socially scapegoated for a mistake she made when she was just thirteen. The strength it takes for her to overcome and the lessons she learns along the way are nothing short of inspirational.

Boy Toy

By Barry Lyga,

Book cover of Boy Toy

Why this book?

Boy Toy is a book that stands out for me because it tackles a rarely discussed subject in young adult literature—the sexual abuse of boys. In this case, the protagonist, Josh, was molested by a teacher when he was younger. Now that he is about to graduate from high school, the repercussions of that abuse, along with the everyday stress he deals with, is coming back to haunt him. Lyga handles this subject matter in an unflinching and realistic way, which can be uncomfortable at times. That said, Boy Toy is definitely a worthwhile, original read.

Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens

By Marieke Nijkamp,

Book cover of Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens

Why this book?

Unbroken is one of the books I regularly teach in my YA Literature class for the MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University. The anthology features stories about teen protagonists who are dealing with—but not defined by—their disabilities. I love the range of the stories in terms of POV, theme, style, and genre. I’ve found that there is something to relate to for every student who reads these stories—whether because of their personal experience with a particular challenge faced by a character or because of a similar challenge faced by a friend or family member.

In the After

By Demitria Lunetta,

Book cover of In the After

Why this book?

Demitria Lunetta is a wonder. Her debut novel, In the After, has been described as a postapocalyptic thriller, but it’s the inclusion of sci-fi and horror elements that really makes this book unputdownable. The novel’s teen protagonist, Amy, is a fierce, plucky, and formidable heroine who literally faces what looks like the end of the world before living to fight, be rescued, and fight some more for herself and the person she cares about most. It’s the perfect read for anyone who loves speculative fiction with grit and adrenaline thrown in.

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