One of the reasons we love books is because they introduce us to worlds we may not be able to visit, or people we may not otherwise know. If empathy is the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, books help us accomplish this while also providing respite from our own lives, not to mention transporting us into stories that move, entertain, and challenge us. Within these 6 cross-cultural YA friendships, you’ll meet online gamers from different parts of the world, a homeschooled fundamentalist Christian girl, a migrant worker, a Romani fortune teller, and some besties who form a club in support of mixed-ethnicity students. Best of all, each book is a page-turner with characters who’ll stick with you for a long time.
In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
American teen Anda, a gamer girl, meets Raymond, a Chinese teen boy, while playing Coursegold Online. But where Anda uses Coursegold to escape real life and swap it for a virtual experience in which she’s an empowered warrior, Raymond is playing because it’s his job. He’s a “gold farmer” who collects coveted objects in the game and sells them to people who are willing to pay (i.e., cheat) to advance. Disturbed to learn about his long hours, lack of healthcare, and general exploitation, Anda encourages Raymond to rebel against his employers, and the consequences are dire.
Faking Faith, by Josie Bloss
After being humiliated by a cruel boy at school and ostracized by her former friends, nonreligious teenager Dylan Mahoney becomes intrigued by and immersed in the comparatively “simple” (in Dylan’s view) online lives of fundamentalist Christian homeschooled girls. To interact with Abigail Dean, her favorite blogger, Dylan creates a Christian persona and renames herself “Faith.” She even accepts an invitation to stay at Abigail’s family farm in southern Illinois. The third of 10 children, Abigail has been taught that her purpose is to become a submissive helpmeet to her future husband, but she secretly wonders what it would be like to help people outside the home. Despite their differences, Dylan and Abigail have much to learn from one another.
The Latte Rebellion, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
Asha Jamison, who is half Indian, a quarter Mexican, and a quarter Irish, and her best friend, Carey, who is half Chinese and half Caucasian, take a stand against racial slurs (of which they’ve been recipients) and advocate for people of mixed ethnicity by forming a club called the Latte Rebellion. The cause goes viral, and branches begin popping up at schools all over the country, but Asha’s and Carey’s friendship falters as the student body turns against them and the administration launches a disciplinary hearing. A terrific coming of age story that deserves a wide audience.
Under a Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee
Chinese American musician Samantha forms an unbreakable bond with Annamae, an escaped slave, in 1849, when they flee their violent pasts. The Oregon Trail is particularly unsafe for young women, so Sam and Annamae disguise themselves as boys. Although they discover unexpected allies in a group of cowboys, it’s the girls’ friendship that forms the heart of the story.
Return to Sender, by Julia Alvarez
Budding astrologer Tyler is haunted by his grandfather’s heart attack and his dad’s recent farm accident, and deeply worried about the future of the Vermont dairy farm he calls home. When his parents hire a family of migrant workers to help keep the place afloat, he befriends Maria “Mari” Dolores, who was brought from Mexico to the U.S. at age four. Though her two little sisters are American citizens, Mari lives on the fringes and must keep her illegal status a secret. She and Tyler share a love of nature and a determination to remain friends no matter what the other kids at school do or say to tear them apart.
Burning, by Elana K. Arnold
Athletic Ben, a recent high school grad who hails from a small, crumbling mining town in Nevada, is one of the few teens in his area planning to attend college. Torn between leaving home on a college scholarship and abandoning everyone he knows, he is further thrown into turmoil when he meets Lala, a Romani girl who works as a fortune teller at the annual Burning Man festival. Lala is devoted to her family and her culture, and has accepted the fact that her parents have arranged her upcoming marriage. When her life collides with Ben’s, however, she begins to wonder whether a different future is hers to claim.