We often turn to books as forms of expression that help to give us the words to voice our own experiences and emotions. This list outlines 10 books that showcase individuality and personal development while navigating relationships, change and conflict. Not only is it crucial to find personal representation in media and books, but to explore and understand the identity, culture and experiences of others as well. Our identity is uniquely shaped by our past, environment and relationships. Finding a story that is able to articulate and fictionalize our own thoughts, fears and hopes can be inspiring and empowering as we all navigate our own journeys.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This story follows two twins throughout the course of their lives, touching upon topics of family, community and racial identity. These identical twins, Stella and Desiree, grow up in Mallard, a town populated by light-skinned Black people. When the sisters run away to New Orleans, they see their escape as a time to reinvent themselves. Desiree dreams of new opportunities, but after decades finds herself back in Mallard with her Black daughter. Stella chooses to pass as white, a choice which allows her to live a life filled with opportunity and privilege; however, she is without her sister and burying her true self. Throughout 40 years, we witness the twins’ lives and see how their daughters’ paths cross. While racial identity is the core of the story there are so many other layers, including spousal abuse and sexual identity. The story is told from multiple points of view: the sisters, Desiree and Stella, and their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. They are all searching for identity and the book navigates various familial relationships, overall teaching the reader about the lasting influence of the past upon our decisions, expectations and desires, as well as the impact of our ancestral homes.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
This novel provides a thoughtful and eye-opening story about raising a transgender child. The book is split into four parts that explore various parts of growth and acceptance. The first part begins following Penn and Rosie, who fall in love and raise a family together. By the time their youngest, Claude, turned five, what he wanted more than anything was to “grow up and become a little girl.” This story follows Penn and Rosie, how as Claude grows and becomes Poppy, they encourage her to be true to her feelings and who she is. When they move across the country, Poppy is introduced as female. However, Penn and Rosie wonder if the idea to keep her gender assigned at birth a secret was the good thing to do for Poppy. This story follows Poppy’s journey of identity. The book was authored by Frankel, who herself raised a transgender child, and is written with honest emotions and questions. Overall, it shows a parent’s love for their child as well as a positive representation of the transgender community.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This book was such a good read with an intense look at privilege, race and family dynamics. We are introduced to the Richardson family, living in Shaker Heights, a carefully planned neighborhood outside of Cleveland that thrives off its orderly status quo. When Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into town, their lives become interwoven with the Richardsons, shaking up the dynamic of their seemingly perfect life. Another layer is added to the book as the town becomes divided over a custody battle between a wealthy family that adopted a Chinese-American baby and the child’s birth mother, who has been looking for her baby for the past year. This book is written beautifully, exploring identity and diving deep into the thoughts, feelings and secrets that weigh on each character. Overall, Celeste Ng is able to write a story about systemic privilege and how we are shaped and impacted by our friendships, relationships and family.
Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson
Through dark humor and ridiculous scenarios, this novel is able to navigate the impact of our familial relationships. The book follows the main character, Lillian, and how a complicated childhood friendship with rich and charming Madison leads her years later to an interesting summer job taking care of Madison’s new step kids. However, these children have an odd medical condition … whenever they get upset they erupt into fire. Using magical realism, this book explores the emotional scars left by our past and by parental figures. As Lillian is able to find her inner strength while connecting to these children, it provides sentimental reassurance that no matter how much we feel like a “screw-up” we all have something unique to offer.
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe
This book follows the coming-of-age story from the narrative of Michael as he explores his sexuality and his friendship with his next-door neighbor. In Bunny, he finds his best friend, an extremely tall girl, struggling with body image, with an alcoholic father. They both feel like outsiders in their privileged town but find companionship in each other. The book follows the complex love we have for our friends and how far we go to protect one another. As Michael receives backlash for his first relationship with a man, an intense act of violence happens that changes the course of both of their lives. This book explores how our identity and personal growth is shaped by our parents’ conditional love, the world that we grow up in and the people that try to take advantage of us, but also, the connection and impact of friendship.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Set in Ireland, Normal People follows the complex friendship and relationship of Connell and Marianne, whose interactions and lives are disclosed as they navigate the early travails of young adult relationships and the complexity of their feelings for one another. We explore their anxieties, their home lives and their uncertainty for the future. In beautiful prose, the novel captures what it means to be a young adult with the electricity of first love while handling the subtlety of class and the complex entanglements of family and friendship. The relationship between our two main characters can also teach you a little bit about yourself and the relationships you have with people. (As an added bonus, it was just turned into a show on Hulu, that you can binge right now. I’ve just finished watching this and can say it was beautifully made and very accurate to the book, literally almost word-for-word. Overall, I highly recommend it.)
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
This book is a cute romantic comedy that takes place in a fictional reality, where the president is a woman with two Hispanic children who are as popular as celebrities. When Alex, the son of the president, has to stage a truce with Henry, the prince of England, what began as a rivalry soon forms a new secret love affair between the two sons of some of the most powerful people in the world. This story follows Alex’s new inner acceptance of his bisexuality while struggling to conform with the pressures from the public eye. The author stated that she wrote this in hopes of creating an alternate universe full of acceptance, a positive escape from the current political climate.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This book is a personal favorite of mine as it studies the deep and emotional lengths we go to protect the people we love. This fictional book follows the life of Evelyn Hugo, a former Hollywood film star during the Golden Age of cinema. This book shows a strong woman who fought her way out of an unhealthy home situation and rose through the ranks of Hollywood stardom. She looks back at her life, and the mistakes she made and offers wisdom through her choices. The main topic of the book follows her bisexuality and protecting the love of her life while conforming to the pressure of Hollywood’s hegemonic standards of life and beauty, pressuring her to hide her Cuban heritage. Overall, this was a really beautiful book following the highs and lows of Hugo’s life.
Modern Love: True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion by Daniel Jones
This book is a compilation of essays from the New York Times “Modern Love” column. These essays are submitted by people around America, as they tell their stories of love in all shapes and forms. Whether it is a story about friendship, heartbreak, raising a child, saying goodbye or meeting the love of your life, this book demonstrates the unique journeys we all take and the people that impact our lives. Our relationships are so crucial to our growth and teach us many important lessons, and hearing the various authors in this book share their stories provides emotional support in our own adventures.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Using multiple perspectives and points of view, this book follows the complicated and dynamic lives of some of Singapore’s wealthiest residents. Each character has such a distinct voice that is shown through facing relationship challenges, parental influence and exploring the lives of the gloriously and crazily rich. This book takes the reader into a completely new culture of the rich and of the importance of heritage. The book’s main plot follows rich kid Nicholas Young’s return to Singapore with his girlfriend, Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese professor. When Nick’s mother disapproves, it begins the fight of old money vs. new money, the tension between mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese and highlighting the universe of the wealthy. Overall, this was a fun read that challenges stereotypes and prejudices.
Read these, then read more
Books are a powerful tool in sharing stories of identity. Through opening a book we enter new perspectives and different cultures, and discover lessons in empathy and self-reflection. As humans, we are all naturally influenced by the world around us — through our past experiences, life values, environment and state of mind. When we open our minds and hearts to the thoughts and experiences of others, whether fictionalized or not, we are able to widen our personal reality beyond the perspective we have created. Through deep personal connections to the characters we read about, we often find that we can relate to their emotional journeys — we root for them, we cry for them and we look at our own problems through the lens of a novel, becoming our own third narrator. A book is able to become a reflecting pool of our own hopes, desires, fears and struggles — giving us the tools to think retrospectively and hopefully about our lives.
Twins broken by destiny, two teens falling hard in the ups and downs of a first love, the spectacular and dramatic life of the mega-rich in Asia, hiding your sexuality and true love from harmful eyes or navigating a world that was not built with you in mind. Many of these books reflect modern tales of striving against systemic issues of racism or classism, as well as the personal struggles that are created during childhood development and familial relationships. By diversifying our perspectives beyond what we already know and understand, we begin to learn more empathetically about the world around us. We also find that through the fictionalization of interesting scenarios, intense dramatization or subtle remarks we are able to find pockets of our identity represented, and in doing so are able to learn a little more deeply about ourselves.
As stated by Edmund Wilson, “No two persons ever read the same book.” And so, as a reader, we are given the gift of hearing stories beyond the perspective we live, traveling far and wide and in doing so are able to all take a piece of a book away with us … a change in perspective, a boost of hope or a thoughtful reflection of our past and future.
Header photo by Yusra Shah