2022 Gift Guide: YA Books for Ages 12+
December 1, 2022 § Leave a comment
We’ve come to the end of this year’s Gift Guide, which means today is all about the teens! Now, before we begin, I must remind you that, if you have a young teen, you’ll also find some great recs in my Middle-Grade Round Up from last month. And if you have a teen of any age, be sure to check out Coven and Victory. Stand!, which I covered in the Graphic Novels Round Up.
There are some fantastic books here, and I hope I’ve found something for every teen on your list, even and especially the finicky ones who think they no longer love reading. There’s no better time to re-engage teens with reading for pleasure than a holiday break, especially if we park our own phones and model the fun ourselves. So, start a fire, make some hot chocolate, and invite your teen to curl up alongside you with their own book, plucked from this list.
The books below are roughly presented from younger to older, but I’ve also grouped them according to genre, like romance, thriller, and historical fiction. And I end with two picks that hold as much appeal for adults as for older teens (seriously, do not miss them!). Because I know it matters to some, I’ve included mentions of mature content, including where any of the romance moves beyond kissing.
As always, links support my work at Old Town Books, and I really, really appreciate you using them (if you’re local, remember you can always select “pick up at store” at check out!). MANY THANKS and happy reading!
For the Heartstopper Fan(atic)
The Heartstopper Yearbook
by Alice Oseman
If your teen hasn’t discovered the wildly popular Heartstopper graphic novels, which have gone on to inspire the wildly popular Netflix show, then we need to stage an intervention. I’m not even kidding! These are some of the most heartwarming characters ever to grace the page/screen, not to mention a softer, more nuanced portrayal of masculinity rarely seen in pop culture. But if your teens are already all in on the books, then I present the book at the very top of my son’s Christmas list: The Heartstopper Yearbook, a full-color companion book, packed with exclusive content from the Heartstopper universe.
Celebrating creator Alice Oseman’s journey from her first Heartstopper sketches in 2013 to the Netflix show in 2022, the keepsake book gives insight into her creative process, alongside never-before-seen illustrations, mini-comics, character profiles, trivia, personality quizzes (“Are you more Nick…or more Charlie?”)—all narrated by a cartoon version of Alice herself. As in the graphic novels, Nick and Charlie sit at the center, but the duo’s eclectic circle of friends, including Tao, Elle, and Darcy, are also given due time to shine.
I always sneak a wrapped book onto each of my kids’ beds for them to find on Christmas morning, in order to buy myself a few extra minutes of sleep. Can you guess what my son’s getting this year?
For the Activist
Better Than We Found It: Conversations to Help Save the World
by Frederick Joseph & Porsche Joseph
My teen is a news junkie, and while his thirst for knowledge is commendable, it also creates a kind of hyper-vigilance that feeds his underlying anxiety. And he’s not alone: many of us go after media hoping to find answers and end up feeling helpless. Targeted towards teens who want to be both informed and empowered, Better Than We Found: Conversations to Help Save the World is a guide to social and political progressivism. My son has already enjoyed several of the essays.
Written by bestselling author, Frederick Joseph, and seasoned activist, Porsche Joseph, the book features more than two dozen interviews with prominent activists, authors, actors, and politicians on sixteen of the biggest issues of our day. Hot-button topics like climate change, gun violence, and the dangers of disinformation are covered, along with the importance of addressing indigenous land theft and what it means to consistently practice anti-racism work. Elizabeth Warren talks about the need for educational reform, Julián Castro discusses the housing crisis, Robert Reich gets into the damage caused by the wealth gap, and Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Mehcad Brooks discuss glass ceilings. Many of these conversations are deeply personal, which makes reading them feel less like school and more like real life.
But while it may be true, as the book proclaims, that no other generation will inherit as many crises as our own teens will, each of these essays are delivered in the spirit of optimism—specifically, with an eye towards action and opportunity. Teens are given a seat at the table, with the tools to save us all.
For the Musician
Azar on Fire
by Olivia Abtahi
Starring a teen who must, quite literally, find her voice, Azar on Fire is one of the most feel-good stories of the year, while also sporting some of the funniest first-person narration. I have a soft spot for self-deprecating, occasionally snarky, commentary, and Azar (it’s Persian, pronounced AW-zár) won me over right out of the gate with her moxie. We don’t see many YA stories that focus on the first year of high school, so this is a perfect choice for upper middle schoolers and young teens alike.
Owing to a severe bout of colic in infancy, fourteen-year-old Azar Rossi suffers from severely damaged vocal chords, making her the “envy of a chain-smoking bullfrog.” Consequently, not only is she mostly silent at school, but few people could possibly imagine that, in the privacy of her bedroom, she’s a brilliant singer-songwriter. But when an impromptu solo drum session in a supply closet at lunchtime leads to property damage, the principal makes Azar a deal: either pay for the damage, which both of them know her single mother can’t afford, or drum up some good PR for the school by cobbling together a band for a local Battle of the Bands contest.
Suddenly, Azar must put herself out there, including convincing Ebenezer Lloyd Hollins the Fifth, star lacrosse player and the hottest guy in school, to sing lead vocals, after overhearing him singing in the locker room when he thought he was alone. As kids from all walks of life come together in the spirit of jamming, our skeptical protagonist finds the found family she wasn’t looking for—and a touch of romance, too—alongside the confidence to claim her own time in the spotlight.
For the Holiday Romantic
Eight Nights of Flirting
by Hannah Reynolds
A swoony romance with big-family vibes and oodles of holiday coziness? As a teen, I would have been all over this story of a girl determined to have her first real relationship, even if it means over-thinking every part of it. (I mean, I’m sure I don’t relate…)
When sixteen-year-old Shira Barbanel steps off the plane into a Nantucket blizzard, giddy at the prospect of a week with cousins at her grandparents’ house, two things immediately go wrong. First off, she learns that the rest of her family is delayed and won’t make it until the next day. Secondly, she runs into Tyler Nelson, her former crush-turned-nemesis, who needs a place to stay for the night while the power and heat are out at his house.
Before she dwells for too long on the mortification of her past with Tyler, she reminds herself that his rebukes are in the past. This Hanukkah, Shira is going to focus all her energy on wooing her great-uncle’s assistant, Isaac, a serious, ambitious college kid who will be staying with her family for the holiday. Only when it comes to flirting, Shira has always felt woefully incompetent. And then it hits her: who better to give her lessons in landing a boy than Tyler, the biggest flirt she knows? Tyler has already professed to not being interested in her, and she is definitely no longer interested in his pretty boy antics, so this has to be a fail-proof plan. Right?
It’s a familiar trope, but Eight Nights of Flirting serves it up with authentic, richly developed characters, both Hanukkah and Christmas traditions, the warmth of big family gatherings, and a touch of nautical mystery born from an old box that Shira and Tyler discover hidden in the attic.
(Content note: recreational drinking)
For the Snowed In
Whiteout: A Novel
by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, & Nicola Yoon
Speaking of young love fueled by a blizzard, Whiteout is the latest collaboration by the team of Black authors who delivered last year’s hugely popular Gift Guide pick, Blackout. Whereas Blackout was set in New York City, Whiteout is set in Atlanta, showcasing diverse perspectives within a group of Black teens, including some who identify as queer and others still working that out, who band together to help their friend pull off the Apology to Beat All Apologies. As we’d expect from the likes of Angie Thomas and Nic Stone, the writing is fast-paced, funny, and dialogue-heavy, and the story sparkles with new love, second chances, and courageous confessions.
No one is prepared for the snowpocalypse that seizes Atlanta mere days before Christmas. It’s especially ill-timed for Stevie, who has just made the most epic mistake of their love life and has until midnight to stage an epic confession. As the city grinds to a halt, Stevie calls on their friends for help, which they’re happy to provide, even as they’re stranded in malls and on highways, hoping (and worrying) that the snow might ignite some relationship drama of their own.
Combining a myriad of romantic permutations—exes who resurface at inopportune times, longtime friendships evolving into something more, committed couples who mis-step—makes for a novel that’s as encompassing as the snow that blankets the city.
(Content note: some bad language)
For the Rom-Com Fan (With an Edge)
I Kissed Shara Wheeler
by Casey McQuiston
(Signed copies here!) I beg of you: look past this cover! I Kissed Shara Wheeler is much more than a pink-enveloped romance. What this cover belies is one of the smartest, most subversive, most satisfying coming-of-age stories of the year. It may open with a shocking kiss on the cusp of a high school graduation, but where it follows is nuanced and complex, an exploration of what happens when we’re forced to take stock of who we are, of what really matters, and of the ways our own biases may have prevented us from seeing what was there all along. I laughed, I cried, I cheered; this book is fan-freaking-tastic.
Chloe Green has sat in not-so-silent judgment of False Beach, Alabama, ever since her moms moved her there from Southern California at the start of high school. From her same-sex parents to her “dark academia” vibe to the fact that she’s the only openly queer kid in school, she considers herself a stark contrast to her football-obsessed, Jesus-touting classmates. That includes Shara Wheeler, the blondest, most popular “goody-goody” in the entire school, and Chloe’s only competition for valedictorian.
Then, on the night of senior prom, Shara Wheeler unexpectedly kisses Chloe before disappearing, leaving a scavenger hunt of clues for Chloe, Shara’s boyfriend, and another boy to follow in the days to come. Resentful at being dragged into Shara’s drama, but determined to find her—if only so she can see the look on Shara’s face when Chloe is crowned valedictorian—Chloe quickly becomes consumed by the chase. What she doesn’t realize is how much she’ll learn about herself and her small town from the unexpected alliances that surface. And that includes her arch-rival, who might be the biggest—and best—surprise of them all.
(Content note: recreational drinking, a bit of bad language)
For the Camp Counselor
by Jessica Goodman
YA thrillers are having a heyday, thanks to the likes of writers like Karen N. McManus and Holly Black, and it’s hardly surprising, given that these fast-paced plots offer plenty of light escapism. Personally, they’re not really my thing, but I did lose a night of sleep reading Jessica Goodman’s The Counselors, so that should tell you how much I enjoyed it. Come for the murder mystery, stay for the summer camp setting and a rich, authentic exploration of female friendship.
From camper to counselor, Goldie Easton has always relished her summers at Camp Alpine Lake, the happiest and safest place in the world to her. That said, she has always been acutely aware that she’s not like the other kids, including her two besties, who hail from some of the wealthiest, most elite East Coast families. Goldie is a “townie,” afforded the privilege of attending the camp because her parents work there. But Ava and Imogen have always treated Goldie like one of them; and this summer, following their senior years in high school, Goldie is counting on that. Anything to avoid thinking about her last few months—and the terrible secret that has nearly cost her everything.
As it turns out, Goldie isn’t the only one at camp keeping dark secrets, because when a teen’s body shows up dead in the lake two days before the campers are due to arrive, Goldie knows enough about the deceased—a fellow townie—to know it couldn’t be the accident everyone’s saying it is. She also knows that Ava was down at the lake when it happened. And that’s just the beginning.
(Content note: recreational drinking, sex)
For the Horror Fan
The Weight of Blood
by Tiffany D. Jackson
If you like your thrillers with a side of racial justice and a touch of the paranormal, then I have a book for you! No stranger to my Gift Guides—Grown was a 2020 pick—Tiffany D. Jackson is known for pushing the envelope to challenge teens to think critically about their world, all the time serving up plot twist after plot twist. Here, in a nod to Stephen King’s Carrie, she explores themes of anti-Blackness, both outside and inside the Black community, in a gripping story about a prom-turned-massacre.
The Weight of Blood is set in the contemporary, fictionalized Georgian town of Springville, a place steeped in a racist history that persists. The public high school may be racially integrated during the school day, but traditions like prom have always been held outside of school, so the white teens can attend at the country club, with the “Black Prom” down the street. When the story opens, Springville has just held its first integrated prom—a decision undertaken after a bullying video goes viral and the town fears bad publicity—and the result is a blood bath. The few survivors all say the same thing: Maddy Washington did it. Though how a quiet girl slaughtered masses without ever raising her hand is, admittedly, peculiar.
Interspersed with investigative journalism reports, the novel “rewinds” to examine the events leading up to prom, diving inside the perspectives of several high schoolers, including Maddy, whom no one paid much attention to until a rainstorm reveals she has been passing for white, forced into silence by a white father who once slept with a Black nurse. Now the butt of her classmates’ jokes, Maddy begins to expose cracks in the lives around her, especially the popular white class president and her Black quarterback boyfriend—all while Maddy’s own rage threatens to spiral out of control.
(Content note: physical abuse, sex, gore, language)
For the Artist
A Scatter of Light
by Malinda Lo
(Signed copies here!) Despite it being billed as a stand-alone companion to Malinda Lo’s award-winning novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club—a 2021 Gift Guide pick—I actually think today’s teens will connect even more deeply with A Scatter of Light, set sixty years after the first novel, with a new cast of young characters coming of age in the Bay Area against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s early decisions legalizing gay marriage. Even before our teen protagonist begins to question her sexuality, her angst feels palpable and authentic.
When the novel opens, Aria Tang West is facing the backlash of a graduation party gone wrong, resulting in comprising photos of her on Tumblr (a cautionary tale!). Now, instead of the final hurrah she’d planned with her besties before starting MIT, Aria’s father delivers her to California, to spend the summer with her hippie artist grandmother, far away from more scandal (read: boys). Deep in the throes of mortification and resentment, Aria initially forgets how much she has always enjoyed the company of her grandmother in her tiny house outside San Francisco, not to mention memories of her late grandfather, who shared her passion for astronomy. As she begins a summer of renewal and self-discovery, her attention begins to dwell on her grandmother’s gardener, a young queer musician, who takes Aria under her wing and introduces her to the lesbian community. The only problem: Steph is already in a relationship.
Alongside Aria’s quest to figure out what kind of person she wants to be, the novel deftly explores themes of parental pressure, female friendship, artistic expression, economic disparity, sexuality, and the raw, euphoric, naivete of first love.
(Content note: sex)
For the History Buff
I Must Betray You
by Ruta Sepetys
I Must Betray You came out all the way back in January, but I’m still recommending it like crazy, because it has consistently beat out most of the year’s historical fiction. Ruta Sepetys is the master at shining light on less-known corners of history to inform, enrage, and inspire her teen audience. Influenced by her extensive pursuit of primary and secondary sources, I Must Betray You tells the fictional story of one Romanian boy in the weeks leading up to the 1989 student-led revolution that set into motion the country’s freedom from communist rule. It’s part mystery, part thriller, and—as we’ve come to expect from Sepetys—filled with complex, richly-spun characters.
Seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu dreams of being a writer, but it’s hard to imagine any dream coming true in a country where every governance is designed to promote isolation and fear. The tyrannical dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu functions by stripping food and electricity from its people, denying access to information, empowering invasive surveillance, and igniting near-constant suspicion among loved ones. On what begins as an ordinary day of high school, Cristian is summoned to the director’s office, where he is blackmailed by the secret police: he must become an informer—obtaining and delivering information about an American diplomat’s son, who has recently become friendly with Cristian—or risk watching his beloved grandfather die.
Lying to his family and friends, including the girl he has had a crush on since forever, feels almost unbearable, but Cristian holds out hope that he might be able to use his oppressive position to creatively undermine the authorities tasked with denying him and his countrymen their freedom. But will his incredibly dangerous plan work? How much of a difference can one teenager make? With time running out and a surprising twist around every page, will Cristian succeed before he does irreparable damage to himself and his relationships?
For the History Buff, Take Two
by Vesper Stamper
If your teen has already read I Must Betray You (above), they might move onto this brand-new historical fiction. A quieter, more nuanced story, Berliners is no less powerful in highlighting the risks that accompany pushing back against repressive governments, not to mention the draws and dangers of disinformation. Here, the setting is Berlin, in the weeks preceding and following construction of the Berlin Wall. Against a backdrop of German pastries, Bach, cigarette smoke, the Eichmann trial, and Stasi raids comes a story of a divided family, which mirrors the postwar partition of this city.
Rudi Möser-Fleischmann and his twin brother, Peter, may have vastly different personalities and interests, but they have always been, in their mothers’ words, “twins against the world.” And yet, Rudi, an amateur photographer who aspires to be the perfect card-carrying member of the FDJ, has always secretly begrudged his charismatic brother, who seems destined to shine in everything he does, despite never seeming to take his country’s ideals to heart. When their parents abruptly divorce, and the two brothers find themselves living on opposite sides of the newly constructed Berlin Wall, it pushes these tensions to the surface. On the East side, Peter begins performing anti-Socialist skits in an underground club, while on the West, Rudi rages against a shameful discovery about his father’s past as a Nazi. Before they know it, the two brothers’ paths are on a collision course.
Through Peter’s eyes, we see a government bent on silencing its people; through Rudi, we see how readily some buy into the rhetoric that this silence is not only necessary, but commendable. A thoughtful, chilling, and important story of a people reckoning with their country’s recent past, of a family trying to start anew, and of two brothers whose competing loyalties threaten to destroy them both.
(Content note: war violence, mental illness)
For the Future MD
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow
by Zoulfa Katouh
These final two books are as good as any literary fiction you’ll find on the adult shelves. War, romance, ghosts, and one of the fiercest, most fascinating teen protagonists of the year combine with breathless pacing in Zoulfa Katouh’s As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow, another that’s perfect for fans of Ruta Sepetys’ books.
Salama Kassab was a pharmaceutical student when the Revolution broke out in Syria, a position that hardly qualifies her for what she finds herself doing now: serving on the front lines of a hospital in Homs, dressing civilian wounds and even performing the occasional life-saving surgery. But her commitment to this work stands in the way of helping her very pregnant sister-in-law—her last remaining family member—flee the country, something she knows she must find the courage to do. Further complicating matters, her hospital work puts her on a collision course with the boy she was supposed to be matched with before the war, and the two forge a beautiful romance amidst bullets and bombs. Kenan is faced with a similar moral conundrum: how to protect his younger siblings and, now, his true love, while also standing by his beloved Syria.
As the story progresses and more layers are pulled back, Salama’s story becomes increasingly complex. Things aren’t always what they seem, and ghosts born from trauma can blind us to what’s right in front of our eyes. A heart-wrenching, evocatively penned novel about the impossible choices inherent in having to grow up too quickly—and the healing power of love to move us forward.
(Content note: violence, loss, PTSD)
For Absolutely Everyone
All My Rage
by Sabaa Tahir
(Signed copies here!) If you follow me on Instagram, you know I haven’t stopped talking about All My Rage since I read it over the summer. It’s hands down my best read of the year, and when Sabaa Tahir won the National Book Award last month, I screamed so loud my daughter came downstairs to check on me. Fair warning: it will gut you, enrage you, and break your heart wide open, before it offers enough hope to leave you forever altered but not entirely incapacitated. In other words, for those of us card carrying fans of Sad Books, it’s literary perfection. And did I mention the writing is GORGEOUS?
Salahudin and Noor have grown up together in the small desert town of Juniper, California, bonded through shared experiences with racism, Islamophobia, and poverty. But just as their beautiful friendship is beginning to transform into something deeper, old trauma, new tragedy, and dangerous secrets conspire to get in the way. As we delve into the inner lives of both characters through alternating first-person chapters, we are also treated to reflections by Sal’s mother, dreamer and storyteller, who arrived from Pakistan years earlier with her new husband and opened the Clouds’ Rest Motel—a business that’s now up to Sal to save.
Poking at nuanced questions about forgiveness, ambition, loyalty, and the assets and liabilities of rage, together these three narratives paint a devastating and telling portrait of the so-called American Dream.
(Content note: physical and sexual abuse—the latter is only alluded to, not described—death of a parent, alcohol addiction, and drug overdose.)
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