Motivational, Timely Tales for Teens and Preteens in an Unjust World

By Lee Littlewood

February 23, 2018 5 min read

With school shootings, wars, a seeming proliferation of bullying and bad behavior in the news, kids need some concrete examples of other strong, kind young people enacting positive change in the world. These new books will help inspire and energize kids.

"American Heart" by Laura Moriarty; HarperTeen; 402 pages; $17.99.

New York Times best-selling author Laura Moriarty tackles a timely topic in her latest novel for teens. Her tale is written in a personable and entertaining fashion. Though its backdrop of an America that detains Muslim-Americans is scary, it's surprisingly possible in many people's minds.

In Hannibal, Missouri, 15-year-old Sarah-Mary Williams, outspoken and confident, isn't too worried about the camps and registries, because she doesn't know any Muslim-Americans. But then she meets a Muslim lady in hiding and feels compelled to help. The two hatch a plan — the woman pretends to be Italian, or Portuguese — and embark on a hitchhiking quest, first only to St. Louis and then across the country, discovering courage and kindness in the most surprising places.

While the topic may seem outrageous on the surface, Moriarty's writing is truly thought-provoking and reminds us of the goodness of most people. "American Heart" is truly heart-warming, entertaining and powerful, and should encourage teens to open their lives to those with different backgrounds, and those in need.

"Escape From Aleppo" by N.H. Senzai; Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster; 326 pages; $16.99.

Kids hear of Syria and Aleppo and the horrors that happen there, but they don't often understand the conflict. This middle-grade tale, aimed at readers ages 8 to 12 but perfect as well for 13- and 14-year-olds, is told in the perspective of a 12-year-old Syrian girl. Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home, Aleppo, but a bomb hits, and Nadia awakens injured and all alone. She embarks on a strenuous journey to find her family, leaves the only place she's ever known and has to fend for herself.

When Nadia meets a mysterious old man, his donkey and two orphaned boys, the group treks together through abandoned towns, bitter cold and clashing armies to make it to the Turkish border.

Alternating between flashbacks and the present, "Escape From Aleppo" uses young, resilient Nadia as a lens to gain understanding about the way the ongoing conflict in Syria affects everyone. What she and her new family have in spades is strength, humility and faith, which get them through. Heart-wrenching but hopeful, "Escape from Aleppo" introduces a world that can be unjust, hoping to motivate young people to be strong and make a difference.

"And She Was" by Jessica Verdi; Scholastic; 353 pages; $18.99.

There aren't a whole lot of books about transgender parents. Jessica Verdi's hopeful new tale stars a teen named Dara, who lives a quiet life playing tennis and hanging out with her best friend and her mom. But when she needs a passport to play in an international tennis tournament, she finds out, from her birth certificate, that two strangers are listed as her parents.

Dara is flabbergasted when she discovers her mother is transgender, and that her biological mother died. Confused, she escapes with friend Sam to find her relatives. That journey, plus emails from her mom, reveal an amazing, loving family, with a plantation, animal sanctuary and the tendency to help others in need. In turn, this mother-daughter relationship reveals itself to be incredibly special.

Incredibly timely, loving and intriguing, "And She Was" is a gem for teens.

"The Sky at Our Feet" by Nadia Hashimi; HarperCollins; 304 pages; $16.99.

Another timely novel aimed at younger, middle-grade readers, this one stars young Jason from Afghanistan, who lives with his mother until she's escorted out of her workplace by two officers. Jason then boards a train to find an aunt in New York City, but an accident puts him in a hospital, where he meets a girl who wants to help him find his relatives.

A daring hospital escape, an exciting journey through New York City and the realization they can't run forever makes "The Sky at Our Feet" a thrilling adventure that's also a timely fantasy not far from current reality. Happily, things work out OK, and Justin is reunited with his mom and aunt. Nadia Hashimi's exciting read will resonate with young readers of all nationalities.

To find out more about Lee Littlewood, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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