2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

November 25, 2020 Comments Off on 2020 Gift Guide: Books for Teens (Ages 13-18)

Today marks the end of this year’s Gift Guide, with a slew of fantastic, thought-provoking reads for teens. I’ve taken particular care while indicating age ranges for each book, mindful that some of these contain subject matter appropriate for older teens. (If you missed the previous weeks, there are some great younger teen choices here and here as well. You can also find last year’s list for teens here.)

I would also like to welcome my hubby to these pages for the first time! He wrote the review for True and False, a book I purchased for my son after he asked me, “How can our family be sure the news we’re reading isn’t fake?” but which my husband snagged for himself before it was halfway out of the bag.

You’ll hear a bit more from me before 2020 quits us (or we quit it), because in the seven weeks since I began this Gift Guide, I have stumbled upon books I wish had included. Suffice it to say that my Instagram feed won’t be slowing down anytime soon, either. But I do hope this year’s Gift Guide has proven a worthwhile endeavor for you and your loved ones. Books really do make the best gifts (especially if you support your neighborhood bookstore in the process).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Super Fake Love Song
by David Yoon
Ages 14-18

Super Fake Love Song is my feel-good pick of the year. Think School of Rock meets teen rom com meets whip smart, irreverent, hilarious writing. (I equally adored David Yoon’s 2019 novel, Frankly in Love; see my Instagram review here.)  

What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done for love? Sunny Dae, who by his own admission makes up “33.33 percent of the nerd caste at Ruby High,” has always been in awe of his popular older brother, who left their quiet California suburb for the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles’ music scene. By contrast, Sunny spends his days dodging the school bully and filming LARP videos (that’s Live Action Role Playing to you) with his two best friends. But when newcomer Cirrus, daughter of his parents’ business associate and fellow Korean-American, shows up at his house all “kaleidoscopic cosmopolitan cool,” she catches him sporting one of his brother’s old rock t-shirts and asks if he’s in a band. Yes, he quickly replies, setting into motion a domino effect of lies that might land him the girl but will cost him a lot more.

That we’re only too happy to come along for the ride—as Sunny signs up for his high school talent show and recruits his besties for a crash course in rock ‘n roll—is as much a credit to Sunny’s witty, self-deprecating narration, as it is to our empathy for the genuine, age-old adolescent challenge to be liked for who you are.

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News
by Cindy J. Otis
Ages 13-113

(Guest review by Melissa’s husband, Ryan LaSalle.) When this non-fiction book arrived, I knew I needed to swipe it before it was lost to the depths of my son’s room. As a cybersecurity professional, I get fired up about “fake news” and the way it has hacked into the minds and collective psyche of society, threatening the freedoms and respect for each other that we need to thrive as a community. I’m always looking for ways to initiate this conversation with my kids.

Cindy Otis comes by her specialty through years of training and tradecraft, finding her way through propaganda and bias to help set policy and decisions for national security during her time at the CIA. While she weaves in some of these experiences, her book takes the reader on a very approachable journey through the history of fake news, from ancient Egypt to the last several years, leaving us with a handful of simple actions we can take to become better information consumers and digital citizens. There are some great nuggets, like “don’t trust your gut,” since your gut has been trained by your biases to see things through a particular lens. Otis uses real tweets, news stories, political tales from around the world, and actual consequences to help build healthy skepticism and a more questioning reader. She challenges us to take accountability for what we consume and what we post.  In understanding how to recognize fake news, confidence and conclusion does not have the same value as research and fact. 

True or False will make your teen a more resilient and responsible member of their communities. They might even start challenging your own choices of news input and social media.  Also, maybe leave a copy lying around for the grandparents.

by Jordan Ifueko
Ages 13-16

2020 saw the mourning of Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther star, but it also welcomed literary talent Jordan Ifueko, who has woven an epic fantasy—the first in a duology—about family, loyalty, power, and revenge, inspired by Nigerian folklore and starring a brown-skinned protagonist at once beautiful, wise, vulnerable, and deadly. This is a lushly imagined world of glowing tattoos, demon spirits, and mind speak, where an empire teeters on the subjugation of others and the very person sworn to protect it is also cursed to destroy it.

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of family—she was raised in isolation at the order of a mysterious, emotionally-distanced mother known only as The Lady—so she leaps at the chance to move to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar and compete against other children for the honor of becoming one of the Crown Prince’s Council of Eleven, a bond deeper than blood. She possesses an immunity to fire and the rare magic of “seeing” the memories of others, but she has only begun to realize these gifts belie the demon blood that runs through her veins, the result of an alliance between The Lady and an enslaved spirit, bent on ensuring the murder of the future emperor. Can Tarisai overcome the destiny her mother laid out for her and write her own story?

In Raybearer, complex world building and an array of fascinating characters combine in a breathless, complex story about finding family, claiming agency, and fighting for justice.

Punching the Air
by Ibi Zoboi & Yusaf Salaam
Ages 13-18

It has been called the book of the year—Jason Reynolds deemed it “a masterwork of humanity”—and it lives up. This novel in verse puts a pulse to the anti-racist texts we’ve been reading: it reverberates with what it means to grow up Black in this country. It is enraging, it is devastating, and it is extraordinary.

A collaboration between Ibi Zoboi and Yusuf Salaam, the latter of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air tells the story of Amal Shahid, a sixteen-year-old Black American teen imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. It tells the story of what it’s like to be on the receiving end—every single day—of a society that sees only “the monster it wants me to be.” It tells the story of a boy who, threatened with being stripped of his humanity, turns punches into paintbrushes and books into windows to seize hope with both hands and not let go.

Yusef Salaam knows firsthand the anguish, fury, and despair of unjust incarceration. Ibi Zoboi knows how to take all of that and make it explode off the page. The end result is essential reading for teens and adults: a powerful statement about the destructive biases inherent, not only in our criminal justice system, but across education, housing, art, and every other facet of American society.

by Kelly Yang
Ages 15-18

Kelly Yang’s young adult debut has all the qualities that make her middle-grade books so beloved, from likeable characters and rapid pacing to timely themes of social justice and advocacy. It’s also a personal one, inspired by her own experience with sexual assault as a teenager and a belief that if teens can understand rape culture, they can work to dismantle it.  

Parachutes is told through the alternating perspectives of two high school girls living under the same roof: Claire Wang, a “parachute” student sent to California for high school by her uber-wealthy parents in Shanghai; and Dani De La Cruz, Claire’s host sister and the daughter of an immigrant single mother looking to supplement the money she makes cleaning houses by renting out Dani’s bedroom. The two girls are hardly fast friends—Claire is mainly interested in partying with the other parachutes and Dani is hyper focused on debate team as her path to Yale—but their embroilment in two isolated “me too” narratives puts them on a collision course to a mutual appreciation for the dangers of power, prestige, and privilege.

Compulsively readable, Parachutes is as much a cautionary tale as it is a celebration of survivorship, where friendships heal and female alliances enable the translation of voice into armor.

(Potentially triggering content include rape, sexual harassment, and alcohol.)

Clap When You Land
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Ages 13-16

I lost my father at the same age that these two teenage protagonists are when they lose theirs, and ohhhhhh wow does Elizabeth Acevedo lay bare the grief experience. What a gift this book would have been to me. But Clap When You Land, written in verse, is about more than grief. It’s about the way a father’s long-kept secrets sought to keep two girls from one another…and how grief unexpectedly paved the way for them to connect.

Camino Rios and Yahaira Rios are half sisters by the same father, only they don’t know the other exists. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her Tia, where she loves open water swimming and looks forward to her father’s visits each summer. Her verse ebbs and flows with the lyricism of the island. Yahaira, on the other hand, whose couplets pulse with the energy of New York City, is a former chess champion and shares a fire escape with her girlfriend in Queens. She knows her father goes to the DR every summer, but she has never suspected he has a second life there.

When Papi dies en route to the Dominican Republic—Acevedo’s novel is inspired by the tragic crash of Flight AA587, just two months after September 11, 2001—both girls are bereft. But their longing is quickly complicated by betrayal, as details of Papi’s double life begin to surface. The sisters face a crossroads: continue to let the past define them or forge a collective future of their own.

The Light in Hidden Places
by Sharon Cameron
Ages 14-18

Based on the true World War Two story of Stefania Podgórska, a teenage Polish girl who hid thirteen Jews in her tiny attic (even while sharing a house with two Nazis!), The Light in Hidden Places underscores the excruciating, impossible choices faced by many during the Holocaust.

When Stefania, a spirited Catholic girl from a chicken farm, moves to the city and finds a job working at a Jewish family’s grocery store, she quickly warms her way into their hearts, including that of their son, whom she hopes to wed someday. When Germany invades Poland and the Jews are forced into the Ghetto where they face the threat of labor camps and extermination, Stefania makes a decision: she will aid her adopted family and their friends in any way she can.

Everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—goes wrong in this harrowing story, which might seem improbable if it wasn’t actually true! How does one person make enough money to feed fourteen others during wartime? How does she keep her composure every time the Gestapo show up at her door? What about when rats and fleas and typhoid strike? What about when she is subjected to an experimental medical procedure that lands her in bed, while those hidden in her attic threaten to starve? An inspiring story of an ordinary young woman called upon to demonstrate extraordinary strength and sacrifice.

This is My America
by Kim Johnson
Ages 13-16

A Texas town’s racist history is put on trial in activist Kim Johnson’s YA debut, an unflinching page turner starring Tracy Beaumont, a high school junior fighting to save her father, an innocent Black man on death row, while also secretly investigating a classmate’s murder, for which her Black brother is the leading suspect. If that plot alone doesn’t sell you, consider this: Tracy is all the things we hope for in our own teens: passionate, persistent, inquisitive, and a vocal advocate for justice.

Influenced by the social realities behind today’s Black Lives Matter movement and emboldened by the individuals and organizations fighting to expose racial bias in our criminal justice system, This is My America is a powerful call to action for today’s socially-minded teens. To sweeten the deal, Johnson even slips in some romance amidst the nail-biting suspense. Teens who have already devoured Angie Thomas and Nic Stone’s novels will find this newcomer equally gripping and disruptive.

We Are Not From Here
by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Ages 15-18

If you’re wondering why a teen would forsake loved ones, leave a beloved home, and risk death and imprisonment for the chance to cross the Mexican border and live in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, read this book. Gut wrenching but vital, We Are Not From Here teaches teens about the harrowing journeys undertaken by migrants fleeing a cycle of violence that threatens to own them.

Pulga and Chico are brothers, who witness a crime by a rising drug lord in their small Guatemala town and are blackmailed into joining the cartel. Pequeña is their friend, recently raped by the same drug lord who intends to take her as his wife. With nothing but the bags on their back, desperation coursing through their veins, and a belief that their dreams still matter, the three teens sneak out of their homes in the dead of night and brave the perilous train system through Mexico known to migrants as Le Bestia.

Gorgeous prose and beautifully wrought characters combine in a story rich in heartbreak, hope, and so much heart.

(Potentially triggering content: rape and graphic violence.)

by Tiffany D. Jackson
Ages 15-18

Not for the faint of heart, Grown is part murder mystery, part exposé on the vulnerability of Black girls, and 100% impossible to put down. The story begins with a girl coming to in a pool of blood not her own, before taking us back and forth in time to reveal the story of Enchanted Jones, an aspiring teen singer who is swept up by mega R&B star, Korey Fields, who has a history of luring minors into his life of wealth, ambition, and promiscuity.

As one of the only black girls in her high school, and increasingly tasked to look after her younger siblings, Enchanted longs to be seen—and not just for her talent. So, when she meets Korey Fields at an audition and he invites her to his next concert, she’s flattered into accepting. What begins as a seemingly innocent mentoring relationship quickly progresses into something terrifying, as she joins Korey’s tour and disappears into the abyss of hotels, parties, security, and lies.

What’s most compelling about Jackson’s writing is just how believable it is. Not only that such a smart, beautiful girl could fall victim to predatory behavior, but that her parents, trying to fight for her daughter, would be rendered helpless in the face of Korey’s empire of power and prestige.

(Potentially triggering content: sex, drugs, violence, abduction.)

Felix Ever After
by Kacen Callender
Ages 15-18

In her compelling “own voices” novel, Kacen Callender nails the teen voice—overtly shunning authority while secretly craving affirmation—at the same time that she sweeps us up in this Black trans queer teen’s vulnerable, layered journey of self-discovery.

Despite his name, Felix Love has never been in love, and he’s desperate to know what it’s like. But it’s hard to love someone when you’re still working on loving (and understanding) yourself. He knows it took him longer than many to recognize his gender identity—a rising senior in high school, he only recently transitioned—but even now he doesn’t always feel exactly like a boy. On top of these secret doubts, Felix is the victim of transphobic bullying, when a classmate from his summer art program decorates the school with childhood pictures of Felix pre-transition, including a reveal of his deadname. Felix’s single-minded determination to discover the bully’s identity begins to eclipse his friendships, his art, his college plans, and his already fragile relationship with his father. Even more dangerous, it distracts him from asking—and answering—difficult questions of himself.

Felix Ever After is a beautiful validation of the trans experience—an experience even more complicated by Felix’s race—but it’s also a refreshing reminder that we don’t often fit cleanly inside one box or another. It’s a mystery, a romance, a coming-of-age novel, and a riveting one at that, as much for those who might relate to Felix’s journey, as for those of us who want to know and love him.

(Potentially triggering content: sex, drugs, alcohol, and profanity.)

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