The best YA books on the autistic experience/outsider experiences

Who am I?

We all have important stories to tell. So my mission in life is to tell stories from many different perspectives. To date, I’ve written novels narrated by a 13th-century woman, a gruff North Idaho detective, a 14-year-old boy, a sorcerer, and even a tree! To write all my characters, I start with my own experiences of course –March Wong in The Eagle Tree draws on my own experiences growing up in China and from my experience working with neurodivergent children. But I don’t stay locked in my own perspective. Instead, I use my stories to continuously stretch our understanding of what it means to be human. 


I wrote...

The Eagle Tree

By Ned Hayes,

Book cover of The Eagle Tree

What is my book about?

The Eagle Tree became a national bestseller and was listed as one of the Top 5 Books on the Autistic experience.

Fourteen-year-old March Wong knows all about trees. In fact, March will do anything in his power to save a beloved tree, including enlisting unlikely support from relatives, classmates, and even his bitter neighbor. In taking a stand, March will come face-to-face with frightening possibilities: Even if he manages to save the Eagle Tree, is he risking himself and his mother to do it? Intertwining themes of humanity and ecology, The Eagle Tree eloquently explores what it means to be a part of a family, a society, and the natural world that surrounds and connects us.

The books I picked & why

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The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism

By Naoki Higashida, KA Yoshida (translator), David Mitchell (translator)

Book cover of The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism

Why this book?

The Reason I Jump is a fascinating look inside the mind of a neurodivergent young man who shares his hopes, his dreams, and his unique perspective on the culture we all live in. I learned so much about Naoki’s unique point of view and grew to have great empathy for his inability to easily communicate his needs to others. This is a fully embodied look at our world from someone who sees from a different point of view, a non-verbal Japanese young man who has lived a rich and full life but doesn’t see the world the same as neurotypical people. 

I love the way that Naoki’s full humanity comes through in this nonfiction book, ably translated and written down in English by the bestselling literary superstar David Mitchell. Read it, and you’ll love Naoki as well!


Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

By Jack Gantos,

Book cover of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Why this book?

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key recalls my days teaching at a “special school” for kids who had a variety of neurodivergent behaviors and ways of being in the world. Joey reminds me of several of my brilliant, exasperating, fantastically-minded, and extremely energetic students. Joey is full of heart and excitement – and he gets so excited that sometimes he makes terrible choices. The book is antic and intense – just like Joey – and I totally empathized with Joey’s choices (both good and bad). Highly recommended for anyone who loves kids, or was once a kid. And if you’ve forgotten how to be a kid, Joey will remind you!


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon,

Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Why this book?

Long before it was a Broadway production, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was a fantastic book by Mark Hadon. I loved reading this book because the story came at the neurotypical world from such a different angle, and reinterpreted various things that we do in our standard culture from a divergent point of view. I loved the fact that the narrator – Christopher Boone – was never labeled with a particular diagnosis by the author, and his perspective is fully his own, and he doesn’t have to change it or modify it to conform to any other person’s idea of the way he should be in the world.

I found a thoughtful approach to writing fully embodied characters in this book by Mark Hadon, but I thought that there needed to be a story that showed more empathy and more of a sense of connection between the neurodivergent narrator and the world around him – because the friends I know who are on the spectrum are often very connected to people, but don’t show it the same way as neurotypical people. So this book, in some regards, is part of what inspired me to write my bestselling novel


A 52-Hertz Whale

By Bill Sommer, Natalie Haney Tilghman,

Book cover of A 52-Hertz Whale

Why this book?

After I had published my book, I found out about this interesting book written by two people who had also gone through the same MFA program as me – the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Bill Sommer and Natalie Tilghman covered similar topics of young people coming of age by finding connection through nature. A 52-Hertz Whale has an intriguing structure as well – it’s told through a set of conversational emails. The main character is obsessed with whales and when a whale’s life goes awry, he feels unmoored and reaches out for connection to someone who helped him in middle school. Bill and Natalie have created a powerful story about grief and loss and growing up. A great read – I truly enjoyed it!


Marcelo in the Real World

By Francisco X. Stork,

Book cover of Marcelo in the Real World

Why this book?

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear. He’s neurodivergent. But in his life most people often don’t believe in his experience or value his perspective. When he joins “the real world” by working in a law office for a summer, he learns lessons very different from just office work. He is introduced to love and affection and jealousy and injustice and desire. Lots of things happen in this book – and I love the way that Marcelo’s voice is privileged here. His neurodivergence is a strength, rather than a weakness. I truly enjoyed this book.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in autism, humpback whales, and Japan?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about autism, humpback whales, and Japan.

Autism Explore 43 books about autism
Humpback Whales Explore 6 books about humpback whales
Japan Explore 299 books about Japan

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Fifty-Four Things Wrong with Gwendolyn Rogers, Rules, and We Walk: Life with Severe Autism if you like this list.