Books About Illness for Tweens and Teen Readers | Read Woke

In these novels, characters find connection and joy amid life-altering health issues.

My students loved The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the beautiful story of two young souls who fall in love while grappling with terminal illness. Similarly popular was Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, about a girl confined to her home due to severe allergies. These books were always in high demand at the library. Then a fellow librarian introduced me to the term “Sick Lit,” and I learned that stories about chronic pain and illness had their own category.
Why are young readers drawn to narratives centered on illness and suffering? The characters yearn for connection, like any kids. Readers who share these conditions will feel seen, while others will relate to the universal experience of struggling and seeking connection. Finding joy amid adversity is another connection point. These stories ignite conversations, encourage seeking help, and foster knowledge and empathy.
Will on the Inside by Andrew Eliopulos. Quill Tree/­HarperCollins. 2023.
Gr 4-7–Will’s heart lies in soccer, but a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease forces him to the sidelines. He strikes up a friendship with Griffin, a fellow student who attracted gossip by asking Will’s friend Henry to the spring dance. Fearing the judgment of his teammates and church community, Will hides his newfound connection with ­Griffin. This queer middle grade novel blends the ­challenges of chronic illness with evolving friendships.
Aniana del Mar Jumps In by Jasminne Mendez. Dial. 2023.
Gr 5-9–Aniana loves swimming, but she must keep her swim practices secret; her mother carries the weight of her brother’s drowning years ago. Aniana’s life changes when she’s diagnosed with juvenile arthritis. Her mother still forbids her to enter water, but doctors support swimming. Will Aniana find her way back? Narrated in verse.
Letters from Bed World by Mel Mallory. West 44. 2023.
Gr 7 Up–Val has Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Because of her condition, she rarely leaves her bed. Along with her older sister, Lia, they have fun in “bed world.” But when Lia dies, Val must find a way to deal with her grief. She discovers ­support in an online group and, through a series of ­letters, tries to move forward and cope with her illness.
Notes from a Sickbed by Tessa Brunton. Graphic Universe/Lerner. 2022.
Gr 8 Up–Working in graphic novel format, Brunton portrays living with ME/CFS. Her world shrinks as her symptoms restrict her to a life of isolation and limited activity. Brunton brings readers into her life with detailed drawings of her own situation and imagined worlds, along with humor. Brunton focuses mostly on the psychological impact of the illness in this inspiring memoir.
Ariel Crashes a Train by Olivia A. Cole. Labyrinth Road/PRH. Mar 2024.
Gr 9 Up–Ariel, a teenager living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, navigates the pressure to meet her parents’ high expectations in this emotionally charged verse novel. Ariel grapples with intrusive thoughts, wondering if people would run away if they knew what she was thinking. Readers join Ariel on a journey to discover that she’s not alone and to seek the support she needs. This story emphasizes the importance of finding love and assistance, even when family support is lacking.
Swimming in the Sea of Stars by Julie Wright. Shadow Mountain. 2023.
Gr 9 Up–Unfolding in a single day, this poignant tale shows how connections are a form of healing. Addison returns to school weeks after a suicide attempt and encounters fellow students battling their own demons. Though their struggles differ widely, classmates Booker, Celia, Damion, and Avery forge profound connections with Addison and one another and find resilience.
Cicely Lewis (X: @cicelythegreat) welcomes suggestions.

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