The best books where illness touches a young person's life

Marsha Hayles Author Of Breathing Room
By Marsha Hayles

Who am I?

I am an author fortunate to be alive because of emergency medical treatments I received as an infant, treatments not available to one of my older sisters who died as a result. That I grew up in Rochester Minnesota—home to the world-famous Mayo Clinic where my father worked as a pediatric endocrinologist—also may have increased my awareness of how illness and its medical treatments can affect a young person’s life. 


I wrote...

Breathing Room

By Marsha Hayles,

Book cover of Breathing Room

What is my book about?

In Breathing Room, twelve-year-old Evelyn Hoffmeister must leave her twin brother and parents to seek treatment for tuberculosis at a Minnesota sanatorium in 1940. Evelyn struggles to adapt to the sanatorium’s many rules— “Trying to stay alive at Loon Lake felt like it was killing me already”—but in time she forges new friendships as she faces life and death challenges.

When I wrote Breathing Room, the idea of people isolating themselves and wearing masks for fear of contracting a contagious disease seemed remote. And then Covid arrived. My readers can now understand firsthand many of the fears and frustrations of my characters. Kirkus Reviews called Breathing Room, “A quiet, sober story of a genuine heroine who survives a devastating disease with grace.”

The books I picked & why

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Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio

By Peg Kehret,

Book cover of Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio

Why this book?

Peg Kehret brings humor and a genuine can-do attitude to her memoir about being struck by polio when she was twelve years old, leaving her paralyzed in both her arms and legs. The story of her fight to recover and to walk again is enriched by her friendship with fellow patients, the generous love of her family, and the care of a determined nurse. Peg is neither saint nor grouch—just someone you like as much as you admire. This is a feel-good book about a feel-bad topic. 

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio

By Peg Kehret,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Peg Kehret was stricken with polio when she was twelve years old. At first paralyzed and terrified, she fought her way to recovery, aided by doctors and therapists, a loving family, supportive roommates fighting their own battles with the disease, and plenty of grit and luck. With the humor and suspense that are her trademarks, acclaimed author Peg Kehret vividly recreates the true story of her year of heartbreak and triumph.


Wink

By Rob Harrell,

Book cover of Wink

Why this book?

Wink is a novel loosely based on author/cartoonist Rob Harrell’s experience getting a rare eye cancer as a boy. His character Ross Malloy just wants to be a normal middle school kid but can’t because of a bald head and a squinty eye that requires endless goop and attracts all kinds of attention. In some ways, bearing the painful radiation treatments proves easier for Ross than dealing with a friend who no longer acts like one. The cartoon illustrations of Ross’s alter-ego—the brave BatPig—add to the story’s energy and buoyant, bright spirit. 

Wink

By Rob Harrell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Wink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ross Molloy just wants to be normal. He doesn't want to lose his hair, or wear a weird hat, or deal with the disappearing friends who don't know what to say to 'the cancer kid'. But with his recent diagnosis of a rare eye cancer, simply blending in is no longer an option. Ross - and his friends and his family - all need to work out how to deal with this devastating challenge that Life has thrown down. Maybe Batpig can come to the rescue?

Based on Rob Harrell's own real life experience of eye cancer, and including amazing…


Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

By Jim Murphy, Alison Blank,

Book cover of Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

Why this book?

This nonfiction book on tuberculosis, published the same year as my book, begins with the discovery of a skull marked by the scars of tuberculosis. Turns out it belonged to a young man who died over 500,000 years ago from the disease. The authors trace the devastating effects of tuberculosis to modern day when our drugs can no longer fully guarantee treatment. This book tells a fascinating, yet worrisome, story about a most dreaded disease.

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

By Jim Murphy, Alison Blank,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Who knew the biography of a germ could be so fascinating?”—Kirkus (starred review)

This is the story of a killer that has been striking people down for thousands of years: tuberculosis. After centuries of ineffective treatments, the microorganism that causes TB was identified and the cure was thought to be within reach—but drug-resistant varieties continue to plague and panic the human race.

The "biography" of this deadly germ and the social history of an illness that could strike anywhere are woven together in an engrossing, carefully researched narrative. Includes a bibliography, source notes, and index.

This medical detective story is…


A Monster Calls

By Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, Jim Kay (illustrator)

Book cover of A Monster Calls

Why this book?

This novel begins in a strange place. The original story was started by accomplished author Siobhan Dowd but, because of her untimely death, was finished by Patrick Ness. He does a masterful job. The boy in the story is healthy, but his mother is not. As Conor struggles to accept that his mother is dying of cancer, his worries seem to beckon a monster who challenges Conor and makes him unravel his worst nightmare. The story is powerful and wise and deals at a deep level with a survivor’s conflicting emotions. It is a worthy and memorable book. 

A Monster Calls

By Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, Jim Kay (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked A Monster Calls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling novel and major film about love, loss and hope from the twice Carnegie Medal-winning Patrick Ness.

Conor has the same dream every night, ever since his mother first fell ill, ever since she started the treatments that don't quite seem to be working. But tonight is different. Tonight, when he wakes, there's a visitor at his window. It's ancient, elemental, a force of nature. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth. Patrick Ness takes the final idea of the late, award-winning writer Siobhan Dowd and weaves an extraordinary and heartbreaking…


Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers

By Michelle Obama,

Book cover of Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers

Why this book?

I greatly admire Michelle Obama and thought I knew her story. I didn’t. In this version of her memoir Becoming, adapted for young readers and full of engaging photos, she shares how her father’s multiple sclerosis marked her life: she was a young child when he first needed a cane, a freshman in college when he needed two, and a young professional in love with a man named Barack Obama when her father died. Though he never wanted his multiple sclerosis to limit his children’s lives—and it didn’t—her father’s illness may also explain Michelle Obama’s remarkable strength in the face of adversity and her genuine compassion and concern for others. 

Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers

By Michelle Obama,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Becoming as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Michelle Obama’s worldwide bestselling memoir, Becoming, is now adapted for young readers.

Michelle Robinson was born on the South Side of Chicago. From her modest beginnings, she would become Michelle Obama, the inspiring and powerful First Lady of the United States, when her husband, Barack Obama, was elected the forty-fourth president. They would be the first Black First Family in the White House and serve the country for two terms.
 
Growing up, Michelle and her older brother, Craig, shared a bedroom in their family’s upstairs apartment in her great-aunt’s house. Her parents, Fraser and…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cancer, Polio, and Michelle Obama?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cancer, Polio, and Michelle Obama.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Before I Fall, Eleanor & Park, and Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults) if you like this list.