The best YA novels that place an American kid in another culture

Doug Wilhelm Author Of Street of Storytellers
By Doug Wilhelm

Who am I?

I spent much of my twenties traveling, teaching, and writing in Asia, and ever since I’ve passionately searched out good novels that transport me into another culture, often another time. On author visits to schools across the U.S., I’ve talked with hundreds of young readers who are curious about the world but are caught up in the right-now intensity of their own lives. In writing Street of Storytellers, I sought to connect with that intensity—and through that connection to bring readers into a vivid experience that opens a window onto the history, humanity, and shared struggles that are out there to discover in the world. 


I wrote...

Street of Storytellers

By Doug Wilhelm,

Book cover of Street of Storytellers

What is my book about?

American teenager Luke is angry that he’s had to travel over school vacation with his divorced dad, a professor of ancient history, to the turbulent, very old capital of Pakistan’s fabled North-West Frontier. During a single week in late 1984, at a pivotal time and place in history, Luke and three more young people—an Afghan refugee who becomes his friend, and a quarreling local brother and sister—get swept into forbidden romance and the dangerous rise of religious extremism.

Street of Storytellers won three national indie book awards and was named a 2021 Notable Social Studies Trade Book. Kirkus Reviews called it “an absorbing, rich historical tale... Luke is a believable character who makes mistakes but also redeems himself with courage and generosity.”

The books I picked & why

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Endangered

By Eliot Schrefer,

Book cover of Endangered

Why this book?

No realism is spared in this gripping story of an American girl at a bonobo sanctuary in the Congo that’s brutally overrun in a spasm of civil war. This is a powerful narrative, vividly written, with mind-opening honesty about what two species of primates (bonobo and human) are capable of in life-threatening situations.

Endangered

By Eliot Schrefer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From National Book Award Finalist Eliot Schrefer comes the compelling tale of a girl who must save a group of bonobos -- and herself -- from a violent coup.

Congo is a dangerous place, even for people who are trying to do good.When Sophie has to visit her mother at her sanctuary for bonobos, she's not thrilled to be there. Then Otto, an infant bonobo, comes into her life, and for the first time she feels responsible for another creature.But peace does not last long for Sophie and Otto. When an armed revolution breaks out in the country, the sanctuary…

Nowhere Boy

By Katherine Marsh,

Book cover of Nowhere Boy

Why this book?

This very involving story centers on two boys who find themselves in Brussels. Max’s American family is here for his dad’s posting with NATO; Ahmed, a young Syrian, is broke and alone after losing his family in the civil war. Getting to know Ahmed brings a sense of purpose to Max’s life—but one he has to hide from almost everyone. Nowhere Boy pulls us in as its characters struggle and everyone is swamped by the confusing tension that the flood of Muslim refugees has brought to Europe. There are no simple answers here, but one simple truth: The vast majority of refugees are just people and families, not furthering violence but seeking safety from it.

Nowhere Boy

By Katherine Marsh,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A resistance novel for our time." - The New York Times
"A hopeful story about recovery, empathy, and the bravery of young people." - Booklist
"This well-crafted and suspenseful novel touches on the topics of refugees and immigrant integration, terrorism, Islam, Islamophobia, and the Syrian war with sensitivity and grace." - Kirkus, Starred Review

Fourteen-year-old Ahmed is stuck in a city that wants nothing to do with him. Newly arrived in Brussels, Belgium, Ahmed fled a life of uncertainty and suffering in Aleppo, Syria, only to lose his father on the perilous journey to the shores of Europe. Now Ahmed’s…


Laugh with the Moon

By Shana Burg,

Book cover of Laugh with the Moon

Why this book?

Thirteen-year-old Clare is a doctor’s daughter whose mom died last year. She joins her dad for two months in a jungly rural district deep in Malawi, where he works for a medical charity and she attends a local school. Claire is deep in her grief—but in Mzanga Village Primary she makes deep connections, then has to confront heartbreak all over again. It’s funny and inspiring to witness the ways the village kids cope with privations and challenges far beyond any Clare has ever known. Burg’s characters rise easily from her pages to life; and her novel pries open our hearts, even just a little, right along with Clare’s.

Laugh with the Moon

By Shana Burg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Laugh with the Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Laugh with the Moon is on the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List.

  Thirteen-year-old Clare Silver is stuck. Stuck in denial about her mother’s recent death. Stuck in the African jungle for sixty-four days without phone reception. Stuck with her father, a doctor who seems able to heal everyone but Clare.
Clare feels like a fish out of water at Mzanga Full Primary School, where she must learn a new language. Soon, though, she becomes immersed in her new surroundings and impressed with her fellow students, who are crowded into a tiny space, working on the floor among roosters and centipedes.…


Darius the Great Is Not Okay

By Adib Khorram,

Book cover of Darius the Great Is Not Okay

Why this book?

Awkward, unconfident Darius travels with his Iranian mom and American dad to Yazd, his mother’s hometown, where his grandfather has a brain tumor. Darius struggles with depression, and in Yazd he discovers friendship, an ancestral culture with great food, and a sense of belonging and mattering. The author aims to share the experience of depression, stripping it of shaming and easy answers; he also makes a very different culture both distinctive and ordinary, with people who can be small-minded but are mostly kind and generous. Darius makes a friend who also struggles, and their opening to each other is not simple; but as he learns to embrace more of who he is, we come to understand that there’s a whole lot more he can be.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

By Adib Khorram,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Darius the Great Is Not Okay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He's a Fractional Persian - half, his mum's side - and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life. Darius has never really fit in at home, and he's sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn't exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they're spending their days together, playing soccer, eating…

Habibi

By Naomi Shihab Nye,

Book cover of Habibi

Why this book?

In this novel by a Palestinian-American poet, Liyana is an observant teenager whose family suddenly relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized, injustice-ridden Jerusalem. Habibi gives us Jerusalem and its surroundings from the Palestinian side, bringing to life the community and its traditions, frustrations, and shattering losses. Then the novel introduces a young Israeli to whom Liyana is strongly drawn—and things get complicated, as it seems they inevitably do in this place of complexities that are both age-old and ever-present. As Liyana and Omer grow close, the story opens into one that’s broader, deeper, and honestly challenging. The only real answer, Habibi seems to insist, is our own humanity.

Habibi

By Naomi Shihab Nye,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Fourteen-year-old Liyana Abboud would rather not have to change her life...especially now that she has been kissed, for the very first time and quite by surprise, by a boy named Jackson.

But when her parents announce that Liyana's family is moving from St. Louis, Missouri, to Jerusalem -- to the land where her father was born -- Liyana's whole world shifts.

What does Jerusalem hold for Liyana? A grandmother, a Sitti, she has never met, for one. A history much bigger than she is. Visits to the West Bank village where her aunts and uncles live. Mischief. Old stone streets…

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