The best thought-provoking YA books with unforgettable protagonists in urban settings

Who am I?

Born the same year as Winona Ryder, Tupac Shakur, and Elon Musk, I’m a Toronto-based writer of novels, short fiction, graphic stories, nonfiction, and scripts for film and television. My YA books include the graphic novella The Lion of Africa, the supernatural, climate change-fuelled Daughters of Light trilogy, and the hard-hitting Since You’ve Been Gone. My writing gives voice to strong, diverse protagonists in urban settings who are dealing with seemingly insurmountable challenges. I’ve been a special education teacher for more than 20 years and my characters are often inspired by the amazing young people I’ve worked with. The cities in my work are living, breathing entities that shape the plot and the protagonist’s character.


I wrote...

Enough

By Mary Jennifer Payne,

Book cover of Enough

What is my book about?

Life hasn't been easy for fifteen-year-old Lizzie Jackson since her father's sudden death four years ago. Shortly after he died, her mother, Lydia, began dating and drinking herself into oblivion, leaving Lizzie to parent her younger brother, Charlie. Things go from bad to worse when Lydia marries Dean. To protect Charlie from Dean's rage, Lizzie makes herself the target of his abuse. But when Dean sexually assaults Lizzie, things change forever. Can she continue to ensure her brother's safety after she flees their home? 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Ghost Boys

By Jewell Parker Rhodes,

Book cover of Ghost Boys

Why this book?

Recommended to me by a student in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Ghost Boys, is heartbreakingly narrated by 12-year-old Jerome as he observes his family’s grief after his death. This novel adeptly reveals the ways in which Jerome’s death is part of a pattern of historical and systemic violence against Black boys. Jerome’s own understanding of this is developed through the friendship he establishes with other ghost boys, including Emmet Till.

Jermaine’s descriptions of his Chicago neighbourhood are vivid. The poignant chapter, "Roam," where Jermaine discovers the dichotomy between his underserved neighbourhood and other parts of the city should remind us of the lasting impact on urban landscapes of decades of deliberate, racist policies, such as redlining. As Jermaine says, “Chicago is more beautiful than I ever thought.”

Ghost Boys

By Jewell Parker Rhodes,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ghost Boys as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A heartbreaking and powerful story about a black boy killed by a police officer, drawing connections through history, from award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Only the living can make the world better. Live and make it better.

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that's been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing.

Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett…

Looking for X

By Deborah Ellis,

Book cover of Looking for X

Why this book?

The majority of my teaching career was in Regent Park, so the setting of Looking for X is particularly meaningful. Eleven-year-old Khyber is smart, savvy, and mature beyond her years. Told from Khyber’s POV, the story centers around the friendship she develops with X, a woman living in the parkette across from Khyber’s apartment building. When Khyber witnesses X being attacked a group of skinheads, the dangers faced by Toronto’s homeless population, especially those living with mental illness, become glaringly clear. The next day, Khyber is wrongly accused of vandalizing her school. X is the only person who can provide an alibi for Khyber, but she is nowhere to be found. In an effort to locate her friend, Khyber embarks on a a journey navigating the urban landscape of Toronto. 

Looking for X

By Deborah Ellis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Looking for X as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award

In this urban adventure story, Khyber, a smart, bold, eleven-year-old girl from a poor neighborhood, sets out to find her friend X, a mysterious homeless woman who has gone missing.

The desperate search takes Khyber on a long, all-night odyssey that proves to be wilder than any adventure she has ever imagined.


Refugee Boy

By Benjamin Zephaniah,

Book cover of Refugee Boy

Why this book?

In a world where the number of forcibly displaced people is rising faster and to the highest levels ever, I believe this beautifully written story of fourteen-year-old Alem is incredibly important. Thinking he’s on a short holiday to the UK with his father, Alem, who is an aspiring architect, happily soaks in the sights and sounds, making apt comparisons between London and the urban landscapes and architecture of Ethiopia. However, Alem is about to have his world turned upside down. The next day, his father abandons him in the UK in a desperate attempt to keep him safe from the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This means Alem is forced to navigate the asylum process and get used to living in the UK while trying desperately to hang onto the hope that his parents are still alive and that they might one day be reunited as a family.

Refugee Boy

By Benjamin Zephaniah,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Playful, obstinate and courageously humorous ... hilarious and later heartbreaking' Guardian 'Sweet, funny, highly inventive' Yorkshire Post The personal, funny and poignant tale of a young refugee, from acclaimed storyteller Benjamin Zephaniah Acclaimed performance poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah's honest, wry and poignant story of a young refugee left in London is of even more power and pertinence today than when it was first published. Life is not safe for Alem. His father is Ethopian, his mother Eritrean. Their countries are at war, and Alem is welcome in neither place. So Alem is excited to spend a holiday in London…

Long Way Down

By Jason Reynolds,

Book cover of Long Way Down

Why this book?

The reason I’m recommending the graphic version of this story is that, as a teacher of students with dyslexia, I believe it is critical to validate storytelling in all its forms. Visual stories remove barriers and make reading more equitable.

Long Way Down opens with, Will, finding his brother, Shawn, shot dead. Shawn had ventured into a rival gang’s territory in order to buy his mother’s eczema cream. Will rushes home, grabs his brother’s gun, and heads to the elevator. Shawn is following the three rules of his hood: do not cry, do not snitch, take revenge when a loved one is killed. However, his elevator ride takes an unexpected turn when it stops on each floor to let in ghosts of people who died due to gun violence.

Long Way Down

By Jason Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Long Way Down as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“An intense snapshot of the chain reaction caused by pulling a trigger.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Astonishing.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A tour de force.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A Newbery Honor Book
A Coretta Scott King Honor Book
A Printz Honor Book
A Time Best YA Book of All Time (2021)
A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner for Young Adult Literature
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
Winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award
An Edgar Award Winner for Best Young Adult Fiction
Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner
An Entertainment Weekly Best YA Book of…

The Hate U Give

By Angie Thomas,

Book cover of The Hate U Give

Why this book?

When it comes to unforgettable protagonists fifteen-year-old Starr Carter definitely tops the list. Her father, Maverick, is also someone that I was left wanting to know more about and, luckily, Concrete Rose (Thomas’s follow-up to THUG), gives us the backstory to his life.

The Hate U Give details Starr’s journey as she struggles with deciding whether or not to testify in front of a grand jury after her best friend, Khalil, is killed by a police officer. The settings of the novel are critical to Starr’s inner conflict as she grapples with having to navigate between her home in Garden Heights, a tight-knit but underserved community where the lack of good schools and employment opportunities allows gangs and gun violence to flourish, and the wealthy neighbourhood where she attends private school.

The Hate U Give

By Angie Thomas,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Hate U Give as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a major motion picture, starring Amandla Stenberg

No. 1 New York Times bestseller

Winner of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize * Goodreads Choice Awards Best of the Best * National Book Award Longlist * British Book Awards Children's Book of the Year * Teen Vogue Best YA Book of the Year

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in brothers, Illinois, and Toronto?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about brothers, Illinois, and Toronto.

Brothers Explore 64 books about brothers
Illinois Explore 67 books about Illinois
Toronto Explore 37 books about Toronto

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Crossover, When You Reach Me, and Violets Are Blue if you like this list.