Looking for a gift for a teenager? I’m so sorry. I am too. They’re hard to please, in my experience. And mine won’t be screaming with delight over the books wrapped under the tree. I’ve noticed, though, that they do tend to pick up a book during the holidays when things get slow. My dear friend Lyn Fairchild Hawks, an author and educator, is kind enough to share her suggestions with us today. She’s an avid Young Adult reader (and a YA author), and this is probably the best list ON THE ENTIRE INTERNET for YA picks! Please read to the end for an excellent new gift option from Parnassus geared towards teens as well.
Do you wish your teen would read a book every once in a while? Does the kid who once clutched the side of Dr. Seuss like a life raft now clutch her phone like it’s life support? Does he only read texts, Youtube comments, or the ESPN ticker? Or maybe you’re seeing the signs of burnout with reading, for your teen booked solid with a college-prep track and its canon. Maybe it’s time to put the Plato away and just read for pleasure?
I’ll share some of my favorite young adult books that might just get your teen off screen for an hour. As a former middle and high school English teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how they can nudge critical thinking, help concentration, and inspire empathy and healthy escape.
Except for the graphic novels, I’ve organized my list by dates of publication, so if needed, you can say, “This story happens pre-Snapchat,” if there’s a chance your hipster child will accuse you of believing the book is so very current. If the topic is spot on for your teen, you can introduce the book as a historical artifact for scrutiny. Inviting an adolescent to pick something apart is a wise move of reverse psychology; he or she might end up loving it.
While most of the following books contain varying degrees of adult language and mature situations, each story offers important perspective, hope, or redemption with complex characters who evolve. There are values of love, bravery, and loyalty. Reading a complete and coherent narrative, just like watching a film uninterrupted, is a great antidote for the nihilistic flippancy and cruelty of today’s Twitterverse and Youtube galaxy. Literature is a much more thoughtful way to encounter immorality and suffering than the fragmented, unexamined chunks of information served up by frenetic clicking. Our souls crave the action and consequence of story. Our minds need the focus and peace of one tale, carried through.
It’s not that screens are ultimate evil; I do love my Kindle Paperwhite. It’s a one-trick electronic pony that won’t let me surf except to buy or review on Goodreads. (Though my teen stepson has always been a fan of print books the same way he’s a fan of his CD collection; that retro feel is its own sell.) If your teen doesn’t already have a Kindle, it might be a great gift pre-loaded with a couple purchases. And then turn off the wifi for an hour and see what kind of reading and conversations happen.
Happy holidays! May your teen feel the spark and magic of story again while disappearing into a good book!
Graphic Novella Goodness
These are a few of my favorite graphic novellas. If your child likes comics or loves movies, or is severely screen addicted, graphic novellas are great “gateway reads” into text-only literature. I consider these must-reads with historical and/or social themes. Many schools now teach them. Your teen won’t feel the education coming on!
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006). Both modern and mythical, Jin’s story of being the only Chinese American in his school is compelling, irreverent, and ground breaking.
- Maus I (1991) and Maus II (1992) by Art Spiegelman. This is Spiegelman’s father’s Holocaust story told with animal characters. Riveting and heart rending.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi’s memoir of Iranian Islamic revolution through her precocious child’s eyes is both intense and mischievous at the same time. She’s a rebel with a cause in the face of gender oppression and war.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1997)
Does your teen question the status quo and prefer nonfiction? Then he might warm up to the elusive and counterculture Chris McCandless, whom journalist Jon Krakauer profiled to crack the case of his mysterious death in the Alaskan wilderness. This book inspired many classroom debates with my 10th graders – to be or not to be Chris. For all of us who pursued or will pursue a college track, it raises worthy questions.
Does your teen love old-school romantic comedies and will even watch You’ve Got Mail or Never Been Kissed with you? This story of Frannie who’s desperate to get near her crush, Jeffrey, and how she uses the IM world to get his attention, leads to wonderful high jinks when she begs her gay BFF Marcus to talk to Jeffrey online. So what happens when Marcus thinks Jeffrey is falling in love with him instead of Frannie?
Tyrell by Coe Booth (2006)
If your teen cares about homelessness, has a heart for stories of resilience, or is fascinated by stories of delinquency, this gritty tale of a young African-American teen surviving life in homeless shelter is the way to go. Tyrell’s life is fraught with moral dilemma, between a mother who doesn’t care and a father in jail, a little brother to care for, and two girls interested in him. How he handles the crazy pressures of his life is nothing short of impressive, while showing how limited choices can be and how Tyrell has both narrowed and expanded his options.
This is a great dude book, chronicling the trials of an underachieving, unremarkable young man who finds life is forcing him into the foreground. After getting caught tagging his school, Tyler has to spend his summer doing community service in the hot sun. The physical labor pays off in an unplanned way, such that the most popular girl in school suddenly notices him. He has no idea what to do with the attention and what he stands for. The book’s theme of how we define manhood, for good or ill, offers a moral dilemma that will resonate.
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (2008)
A historical murder mystery set in the 1940s, this story will intrigue your child with a taste for film noir, starting with the sultry cover. Or it will just confirm for your teen that all parents are frauds. This page-turner filled with details of teen life during these times offers twist after twist. Evie comes of age trying to know who her parents really are while she falls hard for a handsome yet dangerous 20-something.
Orchards by Holly Thompson (2011)
If your child loves poetry or desires to travel, this novel in free verse is not only lush language but also a powerful journey of self-examination. Kana is half-Japanese and half Jewish American, sent to Japan for the summer after a classmate commits suicide. How much are she and her cliquey friends responsible? She faces this question while surviving the relentless supervision of her very traditional grandmother, tending the orange groves, and learning the refined rituals of village culture.
If your child loves the beach, and if she’s stressing out over college, this book is the perfect fit. It’s the summer where Emmaline has some big decisions to make about where to go to school, whom to date, and whether to reach out to her estranged father. It’s a romance story complicated with family dilemmas that keeps asking what’s the right thing to do in a summer-breeze, no-judgment kind of way.
Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (2013)
Rafe’s struggle – why do I have to be openly gay? – unfolds honestly and with wonderful surprises. It’s the opposite of a coming-out tale that’s intellectual, hilarious, and compassionate. Rafe’s need to walk away from his liberal Boulder life, where he’s got almost-celebrity status, drives him to a more conservative East Coast prep school environment where he can put his sexuality on the shelf, if not the closet, just so he can be “one of the guys.” It’s full of dude jokes, boy culture, and the challenges of being a young man. Whether your teen is gay or straight, or sympathetic or unsympathetic to the challenges for LGBTIQ youth, this story is compelling.
If your teen actually asks you about what high school was like for you, and you’re a Gen Xer who came of age in the 1980s, this sweet and sincere multicultural romance might be of interest. Rowell captures first love perfectly, like that joy in learning every little piece of trivia about the other person. And the ‘80s – a time when the right song could be played over and over on your Walkman, when turning 16 meant you started driving across state lines that very day, and when your world was confined to your school, your bus, and the neighborhood you grew up in…yep, you’ll get nostalgic! Eleanor and Park don’t have it easy, but they have something precious in their star-crossed love you will root for.
The Mirror and the Mage by D.W. Frauenfelder (2014)
Does your child take Latin or love ancient history? Fourteen-year old Lucius Junius Brutus yearns to be a warrior, but his father has other plans: to make Lucius a priest and guardian of the dusty scrolls of Rome’s legendary lawgiver. When Lucius arrives at the shrine, he finds a place of magic empowered by Numa’s grammarly scrolls. If Lucius can master the scrolls’ potential, he will not only defeat the human and ghostly forces that terrify and threaten Rome, he will become the master of the city and even more. This book also teaches a bit about Latin grammar, which can only do a body good.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (2015)
Does your teen like open endings, suspense, ghost stories, and asking what really happened? This one has bloody ballerinas and lock up. It’s Orange is the New Black meets Black Swan, only without the graphic sex and violence. It will get your child wondering. With enough thinking, she will be able to figure it out.
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You can find Lyn on Goodreads. Please share your favorite YA with her there.
Lyn Fairchild Hawks writes YA contemporary fiction. She is the author of the novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, author of the graphic novella Minerda in collaboration with illustrator Robin Follet. Her current work in progress is the sequel to Minerda, How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight. A lifelong secondary educator, Lyn also designs English curriculum and distance learning programs for gifted youth. You can learn more at lynhawks.com. (You can also find her prior post at Bacon here.)
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Another wonderful graphic novella to consider for your teen is Lyn’s own Minerda, just published! Minerva is a middle schooler who doesn’t quite fit in: too skinny, too bookish, not quite the right people skills yet. The popular posse makes her life hell. One day a new girl shows up at school, Diana Lucy Woods, and DLW and Minerva hit it off right away. All it takes is one good friend to change a life. There’s not a word of Scripture in this graphic novella, but at the end I was reminded so strongly that God works in mysterious ways and visits grace upon us when we least expect it. This would be a strong choice for a girl at any point in the social spectrum – or any boys who don’t get what’s going on with the girls in school around them.
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I’d also love to mention an exceptional teen gift idea from Parnassus, which has launched a monthly book delivery geared to teens called “ParnassusNext.” For $6 a month plus the cost of the book, ParnassusNext delivers a brand new top quality YA book – first edition, hardback, signed – straight to the teen in your house. Parnassus is not going to steer you wrong on these books. They’re going to find the freshest picks out there – the ones with both substance and curbside appeal to the teen set. You can choose a 3-month, 6-month, or 12-month option. Please read more about this excellent option here. I’m thinking this has aunt or grandparent gift written all over it.