Timely Youth Books That Make an Impact

HarperCollins Children’s Books

Grieving for her mother and an outcast at school, 13-year-old Mei finds solace in cooking and playing video games. When her friend’s grandmother falls ill, Mei asks her father, a doctor, for help and discovers that the hospital is overcrowded. As the virus spreads, Mei finds herself alone in a locked town trying to find a way to help.

Weaving in the tastes and sounds of the historic city, Wuhan’s distinctive comfort food comes to life as the reader follows 13-year-old Mei, who through her love of cooking is making a difference in her community.

My 9 year old daughter was to do a school presentation on youth making an impact. To be honest, the subject terrified her. “How can young people have an impact on anything? We are only children! And I understand that. I’m sure I felt the same when I was that age. It’s so frustrating as a kid to watch adults make all the decisions and not feel like you have a say in anything. Of course, sometimes that’s a good thing: no, kids should NOT eat chocolate with every meal every day. But there are many other occasions where I, the adult, am totally ashamed of how absolutely awful adults can be about things that directly affect future generations. It’s hard enough to help a 9-year-old with a school presentation when you wallow in pessimism with him.

But I was wrong. We were both wrong. There are a lot of wonderful and incredible young people making an impact. Some of them are making international headlines, like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. Some of them are making an impact in their home towns and villages, like William Kamkwamba. More often than not, young people who make a difference do so at home and at school: helping the family, sharing food and recipes with neighbours, inspiring through school presentations. Young people can do all of this and more. They just need a reminder that there is is something they can do. that they box to have an impact.

For inspiration, share these books with the young people around you. (Yes, you can read them too – in fact, we encourage it!)

Real stories of young people making an impact

Malala's magic pencil cover

Malala’s magic pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

Malala’s story of strength and determination has become world famous, sparking a collection of books by her and other writers. Malala’s magic pencil is her first picture book sharing her childhood dream of a magic pencil that could make life better for everyone. Malala’s dream is beautifully depicted with Kerascoët’s brilliant watercolors. It’s a simply lovely book, especially for artistically sensitive souls who often feel vulnerable in the world.

the cover of Greta Thunberg (Little People, Big Dreams)

Greta Thunberg (Little People, Big Dreams) by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Anke Weckmann

The Little People, Big Dreams series has quickly become a favorite series in our family. Greta Thunberg was the first book in our collection, many of which are re-read weekly. My 9 year old daughter especially likes this one because she “loves how it shows that Greta is an ordinary kid making an impact. It’s more real like I could do it too. It’s simple , it’s succinct, and it never treats young readers like they’re too young to understand. If you want a book that connects with young people making an impact, here’s how you do it.

book cover of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

William grew up with his family on a farm in Wimbe, Malawi. In 2001, a severe famine hit Malawi and William’s family was unable to afford William’s tuition fees to attend secondary school. Even without a school, William was still determined to learn. Here is her story about community libraries, learning new ideas, bringing electricity to her community and helping it grow again. William’s story was made into a film in 2019 directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and based on this book. But we all know the book is better.

Cover of a children's book on leadership

A children’s book about leadership by Orion John

Here is an example of how true leadership knows no age limit. Orion Jean is a 10-year-old boy from Texas, and Time magazineof the Year 2021. Orion is the founder of Race to Kindness, a series of events aimed at promoting kindness to others. One of her greatest strengths is her ability to explain the importance of kindness as a simple, succinct truth. It comes out so clearly in this book, with youthful inspiration and advice to encourage others. It’s definitely one to inspire more young people to take action.

the cover of the Young Innovator's Guide to STEM

A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM: 5 Problem-Solving Steps for Students, Educators, and Parents by Gitanjali Rao

There is a lot of pressure on young people to get involved in STEM, but few of them understand how, as young people, they can have an impact. Even some of our oldest adults struggle to keep up with the latest developments, and the last thing we want to do is hinder the innovation of future generations. Gitanjali speaks directly to the support provided by his parents to fuel his innovation. It’s the kind of book we can read together and find new ways to help all ages navigate their way into the future.

the cover of Imaginary Borders (Pocket Change Collective)

Imaginary borders (Collectif Pocket Change) by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky

The Pocket Change Collective is a new series of short story-sized essays from impactful young people. The topics are timely and the messages are clear, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how much I love the covers! This was the first to catch my eye, with a moving personal essay by Xiuhtezcatl highlighting how he uses his art and activism together. It strives to show that climate change is a human problem that cannot be ignored and does not stop at the border. All books are designed to fit in your pocket and be read anywhere. There are currently 10 books in the collection from a wide range of creators, including Gaby Melian, Hannah Testa and Alok Vaid-Menon.

Fictional stories to show how to tell the difference

the cover of Crocodile Rescue!

Crocodile Rescue! (Savage Survival #1) by Melissa Cristina Márquez, illustrated by Devin Elle Kurtz

You may know Melissa from National Geographic Shark Week specials. She is much more than a shark specialist; Melissa is a source of motivation for all young biologists, especially within the Latin community. The first book in the Wild Survival series features Adriana, a 12-year-old teenager who travels the world with her brother Feye and their parents. The family also creates the nature show Wild survival!, featuring animal rescues and conservation. It is a highly entertaining fictional story filled with scientific information about plants and animal species native to Cuba. It’s easy to get carried away by Melissa’s enthusiasm that shines in the story.

the cover of Woke: A Young Poet's Call to Justice

Woke: A Young Poet’s Call for Justice by Mahogany L. Browne with Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, foreword by Jason Reynolds

Poetry really jumped to the fore when young poet laureate Amanda Gorman made an impact with her work “The Hill We Climb” during the inauguration of US President Joe Biden. It showed young people everywhere that they too could have an impact with their words, with their passion. With poetry. Wake up is a beautiful collection of poetry and illustrations to inspire young people to create their own impact. Addressing a range of contemporary topics, the poetry is sure to inspire children and adults alike. Above all, it gives ideas to young people without telling them how to do it.

Cover of Dear Justicece

Dear Justice by Nic Stone

Dear Justice takes place in the same world as Stone’s previous work, Dear Martin. However, I wouldn’t consider this a sequel. Justyce, who appears in both books, is a secondary character; the main character of this book is Quan, an incarcerated teenager who writes letters to his friend. This book delivers a strong message about privilege and systemic racism. Quan is arrested and charged with shooting and killing a policeman. While awaiting trial, Quan reflects on his story and not just the decisions he made, but How? ‘Or’ What he made those decisions. This is the story of a child who was never told the options available or even how to ask if there are options. It really touched my teenage sons to understand their own special place in the world. It shows how hugely impactful even secondary characters can be. If you like this book, check out the books within books with our Dear Justice reading list here.

Cover of Cling

Hang on by Sophia N. Lee, illustrated by Isabel Roxas

If you liked Pixar coconut, this book will hit you in the feelings. The star of the show is Lola, always singing and filling her house with music. It’s all she ever wanted and all she loves to share with her granddaughter. Over the years, Lola begins to lose the music. As she slips into silence, it is her granddaughter who is there to hold Lola and piece her life together with song. Singing and music have a dramatic link to our memories, helping in the management of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This book is a beautiful tribute to the special bond between children and old people, showing the special gift of young people making an impact, even if it’s for a special person in your life.

Don’t worry: young people want to to make the difference. They don’t always know exactly how to do it. Books are a reassuring way to give them ideas and allow them to find their own way. If you’re looking for more books to share with them, here are 25 of the best social justice comics for every reader.

Angela C. Hale