Read Harder: A Realistic YA Book Not Set in the U.S., UK, or Canada

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Tirzah Price

Senior Contributing Editor

Most of Tirzah Price's life decisions have been motivated by a desire to read as many books as humanly possible. Tirzah holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has worked as an independent bookseller and librarian. She’s also the author of the Jane Austen Murder Mysteries, published by HarperTeen, and Bibliologist at TBR: Tailored Book Recommendations. Follow her on Twitter @TirzahPrice.

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Young Adult books are pretty amazing and diverse, especially thanks to the hard work of so many amazing authors and advocates of color over the past seven years since We Need Diverse Books first launched. But if there’s one area of diversity we don’t talk about very much it’s this: YA books are very U.S.-centric. It makes sense when you think about the fact that the United States is arguably the biggest market for YA books, although there are vibrant YA communities all over the world, and Australia and the UK have strong YA publishing scenes.

With this Read Harder challenge, we really want readers to think about not only where their YA novel is set, but also the perspective it’s told from. Yes, technically you can pick up a YA novel about an American teen who spends most of the book abroad, but as much as possible I’ve focused on books that are also about teens who are from different parts of the world. And, we’ve stipulated that the book has to be realistic because while there are many great fantasy and speculative novels set around the world, the goal of this challenge is to read about a real place! Here we go!

Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez

Camila Hassan dreams of playing professional soccer—and one day attending a North American college on scholarship—but her parents have forbidden her from playing. What they don’t know is that Camila is already known as La Furia on the field, and she has real talent. When her team qualifies for an important tournament, Camila finds herself at a crossroads as she must decide if she’ll follow her dreams or honor her family’s wishes, even if they hold her back.

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

Set in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this novel follows Melati Ahmad, a 16-year-old girl who seems normal but is hiding a secret: She believes that she has a djinn trapped inside her that threatens the life of her mother unless she follows a strict and elaborate set of rules and rituals that involve counting and tapping. When a race riot breaks out in Kuala Lumpur, Melati is separated from her mother and must rely on the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent to make it through the city, find her mother, and find safety.

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius Kellner is an Iranian American teen who never feels like he’s enough. He’s bullied at home in the U.S., but he’s also never been to Iran, and he lives with depression—an experience that should bring him closer to his dad, who also takes medication for depression, but it doesn’t. Then his family gets word his grandfather is ill, and they take an impromptu trip to Iran where Darius is finally able to meet his mother’s extended family for the first time. He feels both at home and too American in Iran, and despairs at ever fitting in until he meets his grandparents’ neighbor, a boy named Sohrab. In Sohrab, Darius finds his first true friend, and is empowered to make his peace with his dad.

The Silence of Bones by June Her

Seol is an indentured servant living in 1800 Joseon (Korea). Her debt is to the police bureau in the capital city, where she is expected to assist the male investigators in all cases involving women, because according to law, men cannot touch women, even in death. Seol’s natural curiosity begins to get the better of her when a noblewoman is murdered, and she begins to notice inconsistencies within the case. As she begins looking into the mystery, Seol will find shocking connections between the murder and her own family history.

We Are Not From Here

We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Pulga, Pequeña, and Chico are three teens who live in a small town in Guatemala, but find their lives in grave danger after witnessing an act of violence. They run away in the night and head north to Mexico. From there, they hope to ride La Bestia, the legendary and highly dangerous train, all the way to refuge in the United States. But this journey is nearly as dangerous as the violence they’re running from, and they’ll need each other if they’re to survive the trip.

Girls on the Line by Jennie Liu

Set in China in 2009, this is the story of Luli, a 16-year-old girl who has just aged out of the orphanage she’s spent half her life in, and Yun, her friend who loves their newfound freedom. The girls get jobs at a factory, where they make their own money and can make their own choices, but also face new dangers. When Yun finds herself pregnant and suddenly out of job, her situation turns desperate. If Luli can’t help her find a way to safely terminate her pregnancy, Yun faces a hefty fine for have an unauthorized child…and then Yun disappears.

City of Thieves and Saints by Natalie. C. Anderson

Tina and her mother fled violence in the Congo and ended up in Sangui City, Kenya, where Tina’s mother found work as a maid in the home of a wealthy businessman…but when it is revealed that her employer built his fortune on lies and corruption, Tina’s mother is found dead in his study. Tina goes to ground, working for one of the street gangs to hone her skills of thievery and espionage, bent on revenge…and she gets her chance four years later, but it turns out that returning to the scene of her mother’s death is much for dangerous than she could have ever imagined.

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika and Maritza Moulite

Alaine Beauparlant’s parents are both from Haiti, although she has never visited, having grown up in the U.S. But when Alaine finds her life going sideways, her father sends her to Haiti to live with her aunt and intern at Tati Estelle’s company, which matches Haitian kids with a patron via a smart phone app. For Alaine, living in the country she’s grown up hearing so much about is transformative, especially when she begins to learn more about her family’s influence on Haiti, and the secrets her mother, father, and aunt have kept.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Sahar and Nasrin are more than just best friends—they’re in love with each other, something that’s considered a crime in their home country of Iran. When Nasrin becomes engaged to a man, Sahar is devastated until she realizes there might be a perfect solution: Homosexuality is a crime in Iran, but being transgender is not, and the state pays for gender confirmation surgery. If Sahar were to become a man, she and Nasrin could be together. But it is a tremendous decision, and Sahar must question if she is willing to go through with it for the sake of love, or if she must let Nasrin go.

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

Set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this novel begins with two deaths: teenagers Zarin and Porus are found dead in a car accident, and the religious police arrive on the scene and begin questioning what happened. In order to figure that out, Bhathena takes readers back in time to explore how Zarin, an orphan and perceived troublemaker, became entangled with Porus, and how their romance led to such a tragic end.

Want to explore more great YA books from around the world? We’ve got a guide to nearly 80 novels set in countries all over the globe!