Did you know that more than 30,000 books for young adults are published annually? I sure didn’t, and I write for this age group! There are so many good novels out there in every possible genre and combination of genres: contemporary realistic, fantasy and adventure, historical fiction, science fiction, sports novels, mystery and suspense, romance, and graphic novels.
An exciting trend has been the growth in numbers of books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds and sexual identities. While we still need many more diverse books, the days when every character was white, middle class, and heterosexual—and the most serious problem was a date for the prom—are thankfully gone.
So, in choosing books for the teens on your holiday list, you’ll have no dearth of choices. Where to begin? I’d recommend starting with your teens’ interests and passions and reading tastes. We’ve all had the experience of being gifted with a book that’s so far from what we enjoy reading that we know we’re probably never going to read it and will probably donate it to the next library sale.
Moreover, as numerous literacy experts have advised, what our young people are reading isn’t as important as that they are reading. When my older son was growing up, he was a baseball fanatic, and we must have read every book in the library with a baseball setting. My younger son was addicted to the Goosebumps Series. I don’t think the baseball novels my older son devoured or the Goosebumps series my younger son was addicted to qualify as great literature, but they definitely turned both of my children into voracious readers.
So, I think it’s inadvisable to censure our teens’ choices, even if graphic novels or popular series don’t float our adult reading boats.
In finding books, an obvious resource is the listings of Award winners and best sellers- What are the best books for Young Adults chosen by the Young Adult Library Services Association (ALSA)? Or the Michael Printz award winners? Or the National Book Award finalists? What books are on the New York Times’ best seller lists? But I wouldn’t stop there. An awful lot of good books don’t make it on to those lists. I also recommend checking out Amazon where you can search for particular subjects or genres of books. Sites such as TeenReads.com can also be very useful. My personal favorite, however, is actually my public library’s online catalogue. The full display for each book not only includes a description, but reviews and suggestions for titles of comparable books.
Below are examples of YA books you can choose from. It’s far from comprehensive. It doesn’t even include the work of some of my all-time favorite YA writers such as Laurie Halse Anderson, Chris Crutcher, and John Green. But I think it does give you an idea of the range of works out there:
Books which may appeal to male teenage readers:
Ready Player One (Crown, 2011) by Ernest Cline, is a science fiction/fantasy novel set in 2044. Released as an adult novel, it has been hugely popular with teen science fiction buffs and gamer fans. In this gripping tale, Planet Earth is in terrible shape due to catastrophic climate change. The protagonist Wade Watt spends his days escaping into the OASIS, a multiplayer online game and virtual reality. In a fierce competition for a lottery ticket, he ends up putting his own life at risk.
Best-selling author Rick Riordan has created several fantasy book series (Disney-Hyperion): Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the Kane Chronicles, and the Heroes of Olympus. His characters encounter gods, goddesses, and mythological creatures in exciting adventure stories where the stakes are always high.
For sports’ lovers, I recommend the books by John Feinstein. The setting is sports, but he addresses a lot of pressures on competitive athletes and even some social justice issues. For example, in his book, Backfield Boys (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017), he addresses racial bias and the costs to young athletes for speaking up. The book centers on two talented young football players, who earn full-ride scholarships to an elite sports-focused boarding school. When Tom, a black kid, is immediately made a receiver and Jason, a white kid, is made the quarterback, and they notice other evidence of racial bias, they speak out and risk their scholarships and chances to play. Then local reporters launch an investigation, tensions ratchet up, and the boys have to decide how much they are willing to lose in a conflict that has nothing—and everything—to do with the game they love.
Books for Reluctant Readers:
Hatchet (Aladdin) by Gary Paulsen is an older book originally published in 1987, but it remains popular as a classic survival story in which the young teen Brian is on his way to visit his father when his plane crashes and he ends up alone in the Canadian wilderness trying to survive.
Novels in verse also appeal to reluctant readers, and Kwame Alexander is an award-winning author of several best-selling novels in verse. Swing (Blink, 2018) is a good example. It features African-American teens Noah and Walt and their athletic and romantic struggles against a background of growing racial tensions in their community.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) by John Boyne tells the story of the friendship between Bruno, the son of a Nazi officer at Auschwitz, and the boy in the striped pajamas who lives behind the wired fence.
George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy (IDW, 2019), recounts the author’s haunting childhood in American concentration camps as one of 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II.
Ruta Septetys has written several award winning historical novels. Salt to the Sea (Puffin, 2017), for example, tells the story of young refugees trying to escape World War II’s final dangers who find themselves aboard a ship with a target on its hull.
Additional Books that Feature Diverse Protagonists:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little Brown, 2007), by Sherman Alexie, is a National Book Award winner. The novel has been popular with reluctant readers and tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. He leaves the reservation to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Native American is the school mascot. Told in Junior’s often humorous and incisive voice, it offers an insider’s view of what it’s like to grow up as a poor Native American trying to negotiate the white world he’s thrust into.
The Hate U Give (HarperCollins, 2017), Angie Thomas’s debut YA novel which has now appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than two years, also presents a character moving between two worlds. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives in a poor black neighborhood and attends a suburban prep school. When she directly witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed childhood best friend by a police officer, she gets thrust into a huge controversy, and her neighborhood becomes a war zone. Telling what she knows could destroy her community and possibly put her own life in danger.
Joining her on the best-seller’s list is Elizabeth Acevedo. The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is about a young girl growing up in Harlem who pours her frustrations and emotions into poetry and dares to join her school’s slam poetry club, despite her mother’s strong disapproval.
Another book that’s garnered lots of deserved attention is the recently released Slay (Simon Pulse, 2019), a Junior Literary Guild selection, by Brittney Morris. Seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student and one of the only black kids at her private high school. At school, she never feels she can fully be just herself, so she secretly creates a multiplayer online role-playing card game called Slay. When a teen in Kansas City is murdered in a dispute over the game, the game attracts mainstream media attention. Suddenly, Kiera’s creation is called racist, and she has to take on an anonymous troll who infiltrates the game and threatens to take it over.
A very different book featuring a Hispanic heroine is Erika L. Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017). It’s a romance that also speaks to the grief and pain of losing a sibling. In the wake of grieving over her sister’s accidental death, the heroine, Julia, is determined to be a writer and not follow her parents’ expectations for what good Mexican daughters are supposed to be like. Along the way to trying to forge her own identity, she falls for Connor, a white boy who finds her family very puzzling, but tries hard to fit in.
A beautiful book that speaks to the Korean-American immigrant experience is an na’s A Step from Heaven (Atheneum, 2016), a National Book Award Finalist. The work tells the story of Young Ju Park who must not only deal with the strangeness of being an immigrant in the United States but growing tensions in her own family which culminate in the shattering event of her father’s assault on her mother.
Another terrific book about the Korean-American experience, currently near the top of the New York Times’ Best Sellers Young Adult list, is Frankly in Love (Thorndike Press, 2019) by David Yoon. Frank’s immigrant parents have already disowned his older sister for marrying a black man instead of a nice Korean boy. But when Frank has a chance to date the girls of his dreams, Brit, who is smart and nerdy just like him, he and his friend Joy concoct a scheme to pretend to be dating while actually seeing their respective romantic interests.
Books Which Address Issues of Sexual Identity and Orientation:
In Ramona Blue (HarperCollins, 2017) by Julie Murphy, Ramona, the parentified teen in her family filled with flaky adults, has always been the responsible one. And she’s always known she likes girls. But then her growing attraction to her childhood friend Freddie confuses her. Is this a fluke or does she like both girls and guys?
Recognition of being gay is the subject of Colleen Venable’s graphic novel, Kiss Number 8 (Roaring Book Press, 2019). Now that she’s in high school, Mads is starting to figure out that the reason she’s avoiding kissing her next door neighbor Adam is that the person the really wants to kiss is her best friend, Cat. Suddenly, the life of this church-going teen has been upended and gotten very messy.
Already out in terms of her sexual identity is genderqueer witch, fourteen-year-old Z Chilworth, in Hal Schrieve’s urban fantasy, Out of Salem (Seven Stories Press, 2019). Chilworth has plenty of other problems, having woken up as a zombie following a car crash. Suddenly, her magical powers are in decay and her new best friend, Aysel, is an unregistered werewolf suspected of murdering a local psychiatrist. Both teens find their lives on the line in what has been described as a teen zombie witchy werewolf faerie fantasy murder mystery.
Other books which deal with teen problems:
Hey, Kiddo (Scholastic, 2018) by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, is a moving graphic memoir in which the author/illustrator shares his story of growing up with loving grandparents, a missing father, and a mother addicted to heroin who repeatedly appears and disappears from his life.
Sarah Dessen, the long popular YA writer who combines romance with realistic teen problems, has most recently written a novel, The Rest of the Story (HarperCollins, 2019), that centers around family secrets and an examination of class differences. The protagonist, Emma Saylor, gets sent to visit her mother’s family whom she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl. Whereas her dad came from a wealthy family, her mom grew up in a working class lakeside resort community. Emma starts trying to sort out her own identity with the help of Ron, the boy who was her best friend when she was very little.
Currently on the New York Times’ Best Seller’s list is Five Feet Apart (Simon & Schuster, 2018), a romance written by Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. This novel takes forbidden love to a whole new level. Seventeen-year-olds Stella and Will both suffer from cystic fibrosis and realize the only way to stay alive is to stay apart. But their love for one another is slowly pushing the boundaries of their physical and emotional safety.
On the lighter side are books by one of my favorite YA writers, Julie Murphy. In Dumplin’ (HarperCollins, 2015) and her followup novel, Puddin’ (Blackstone, 2018), she writes with humor and compassion about plus-sized heroines growing up in our thin-obsessed society. Of course, they do find romance and positive self-esteem. In Puddin’, the heroine Millie, who has gone to fat camp ever since she was a little girl, not only gets the guy, but also strikes up an unexpected friendship with Callie Reyes, the very thin pretty girl on the dance team.
Additional Fantasy Books:
A hugely popular fantasy series is Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (Quirk Books) by Ransom Riggs. Jacob Portman time travels to bygone centuries, tames invisible monsters, and even falls in love with his grandfather’s time-arrested ex-girlfriend.
Currently on the New York Times’ best sellers list is the much darker Children of Blood and Bone (Henry Holt, 2018) by the Nigerian-American writer, Tomi Adeyemi. The heroine Zelie who lives in the kingdom of Orisha, has ended up alone after a ruthless king targeted and killed the maji, including her mother. The king has outlawed magic, but Zelie is determined to bring it back and overthrow the monarchy.
On a much lighter side is Rainbow Rowell’s fantasy, Carry On (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015). The author of the beloved romance, Eleanor and Park, Rowell introduces Simon Snow, a student at the Watford School of Magicks who has all sorts of problems. He can barely make his wand work, he keeps accidentally setting things on fire, his girlfriend has broken up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face.
Mystery and Suspense:
Karen M. McManus’s One of Us Is Lying (Delacorte Press, 2017) spent more than a year on the New York Times’ best sellers’ list. In this novel, the creator of a high school gossip app is about to reveal damaging gossip about four high-profile students. But when they all end up in detention together, the gossip app creator mysteriously dies, and all four become suspects in his murder. They set about trying to figure out who the killer is and clear their names. It’s a riveting, high-stakes story.
Of course, I can’t not mention my own coming of age romantic mystery, It Should Have Been You (Page Street, 2018). The protagonist, seventeen-year-old Clara, the ghost writer for her high school newspaper’s advice column, is still reeling from the unsolved murder of her piano prodigy twin when she starts receiving threatening emails in her staff inbox that say “It Should Have Been You.” Determined to find her sister’s killer and uncover the identity of her email stalker, she undertakes her own investigation and ends up putting her own life in grave danger. Along the way, she falls hard for a new boy in school who turns out to have secrets of his own. She also tries to help a reader involved in an abusive dating relationship which further embroils her in a dangerous situation.
So, there you have it—the longest blog I’ve ever written! I hope it sparked some ideas for your holiday shopping. I’d love to hear from you about your recommended books.