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Top 10 Young Adult Books for Third Culture Kids

Jessi Vance's books (Image courtesy Jessi Vance)
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As a U.S. kid growing up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I had never heard the term “Third Culture Kid” but somehow I still found books that told me the stories of other children like me.

From “Ballet Shoes” to “The Island of The Blue Dolphins,” I learned about my own identity, cultural adaptability and good (or not so good) goodbyes through books like those.

As an adult who has built a career around TCK advocacy, I still find time to read as many books with cross-cultural characters as I can get my hands on. I deeply believe that stories and analogies are the best tool for teaching young people about themselves (and Brene Brown agreed with me in a recent podcast so there must be some supporting research somewhere out there).

Jessi Vance's books (Image courtesy Jessi Vance)
Jessi Vance’s books (Image courtesy Jessi Vance)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the works of fiction featuring TCKs, but a selection of recent books that made my TCK self nod emphatically, laugh out loud, cry in public — and more often, all of the above. Whether you’re a mom looking for homeschool inspiration or a TCK getting ready for an extra-long flight, I hope these easy reads keep you captivated and strike up a few good discussions too. That’s what the best kind of books do, if you ask me. 

1. ‘Anna And The French Kiss’ by Stephanie Perkins 

(Also: “Isla and the Happily Ever After”)

Anna is shipped off to Paris for her senior year. Most people would think this is a dream but she’s just homesick for her best friend until she meets a ragtag group of TCKs. It doesn’t hurt that one of them has rockstar hair and a British accent.

Main Characters: cross-cultural, expat

Main Themes: moving and adapting

Trigger Warning: none

2. ‘The Field Guide To The North American Teenager’ by Ben Phillipe

Think “Mean Girls” meets “10 Things I Hate About You.” Norris is a French-Canadian who moves to the very foreign Austin, Texas. His “field notes” explore habits and culture of the typical U.S. teenager with biting sarcasm and heartbreaking introspection. It hurts so good. Hatian-Canadian TCK author. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, BIPOC, LGBTQ+

Main Themes: culture shock, identity

Trigger Warning: bullying, racism, attempted suicide 

3. ‘The Means That Make Us Strangers’ by Christine Kindberg

Set in historical South Carolina during the civil rights movement. Adelaide just moved from her home in Ethiopia where her parents worked as doctors. She doesn’t understand why her aunt forbids her to be friends with the five Black students at her high school. When she risks the friendship anyways, she experiences secondhand the violence of racism, prejudice and her friends’ fight for justice.

Main Characters: cross-cultural, TCK

Main Themes: culture shock

Trigger Warning: racism, racial slurs and violence 

4. ‘Fire Keeper’s Daughter’ by Angeline Boulley

This exceptional book is written by a member of the Ojibwe tribe and tells the story of Daunis, who attends public school, plays hockey and desperately wants to be welcomed as a full member of her tribe. Her “between-ness” and belonging to multiple cultures shines through as she teams up with an undercover agent to solve a local mystery. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, biracial

Main Themes: belonging

Trigger Warning: drug use, sexual assault

5. ‘Out Of The Blue’ by Jason June

Crush feels like a fish out of water — literally! Born in the ocean, they are sent to spend a few months on land like all Merpeople do before becoming an Elder. It smells bad, humans are mean and Crush is really, really homesick … until they meet a human boy who needs their help. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, LGBTQ+

Main Themes: culture shock and adaptability 

Trigger Warning: sex (consensual) 

6. ‘Weird Culture Kids’ by Ngọc (Bi) Nguyễn 

I had to let one non-fiction sneak through. While more of a memoir, Nguyễn’s story and observations about feeling “weird” is a fast-paced, witty read with plot twists that sound made up! From X to X, this one will leave you feeling proud to be a weird culture kid. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, TCK

Main Themes: identity

Trigger Warning: none 

7. The ‘Harry Potter’ Series by J.K. Rowling

Everyone knows the premise — Harry is a young wizard who gets in trouble, goes on grand adventures and ultimately destroys the evil Voldemort *eek spoiler alert!* But did you know Harry grew up in the “muggle” or non-magic Britain? Did you know he spends each of the seven books learning more about the wizarding culture and navigating his belonging between these drastically different worlds? These are a must-read for any TCK. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, wizard

Main Themes: identity, belonging, cultural adaptability

Trigger Warning: bullying, violence (also written by an author who in the years following publication of the series has espoused controversial views on transgender individuals)

8. ‘Eleanor And Park’ by Rainbow Rowell

We all know what it’s like to be the new kid. Eleanor navigates some of the moments we have nightmares about while remaining true to herself. Park has never felt like he belongs but making friends with Eleanor challenges him to use his unique differences to fight for what’s right. Dabbles with bi-racial families and relationships too.

Main Characters: biracial

Main Themes: identity, belonging

Trigger Warning: bullying, racial slurs, physical and sexual abuse

9. The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

Historical fiction, a girl who just wants to be a doctor, pirates and exploration! Felicity Montague finds some unlikely friends in her travels and quest to study medicine (even as a “proper” woman). She has to confront her own identity, as well as what she thinks of her friends, through this fast-paced adventure. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, LGBTQ+

Main Themes: identity

Trigger Warning: alcoholism, violence

10. ‘Tokyo Ever After’ by Emiko Jean

It’s like “The Princess Diaries” but set in Japan. Izzy is the only Asian kid in her mostly white school in California. She’s never felt like she fits in and then she finds out her dad is real-life Japanese royalty! On a whirlwind trip to Japan, she takes a crash course in cultures, customs and how to avoid the paparazzi but somehow still doesn’t feel like she fits in. 

Main Characters: cross-cultural, BIPOC

Main Themes: culture shock, identity

Trigger Warning: racism 

Jessi Vance is the founder and CEO of Kaleidoscope, an online community for kids who live between cultures. She currently lives in Massachusetts with her partner, a dog and two guinea pigs. You can usually find her leading virtual TCK Clubs online or reading a book on the porch (her favorites involve travel or fairies.) Find out more about Kaleidoscope and how to join or lead your own TCK Club at kldscp.org or on Instagram @kldscp.

Jessi Vance's books (Image courtesy Jessi Vance)
Jessi Vance’s books for TCKs (Image courtesy Jessi Vance)
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