Great books help develop strong readers. And strong readers are capable of learning just about anything.
One of the joys and challenges of my job as a literature teacher is to continuously find exciting, engaging stories that will resonate with teen readers. To that end I read A LOT and am always on the look out for recommendations (if you have any, please jump to the comments and share!)
In 2022, I read more than 120 books. These 10 stood out as great novels for teenagers.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Somehow, I missed this classic coming of age story when I was a kid. Shame. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a startling, unsentimental portrait of growing up poor in Brooklyn in the first years of the 20th century (the book ends with rumors of war). It doesn’t gloss the ugliness of abject poverty, alcoholism, sexual violence and ethnic conflicts yet it neither preachy nor maudlin. The characters are given the dignity of being complex, alive and changeable. Unmissable.
Cool for the Summer
by Dahlia Adler
This contemporary novel about a teenager girl exploring her sexuality is the best of a whole bunch I read on said theme. Middle schoolers desperately need affirmative, healthy messages about sex and sexual identity. The protagonist of Cool for the Summer is awkward, confused, obnoxious and authentic. She drinks, she swears, she screws up. She starts to figure out how to figure it out. When she finally kisses her new girlfriend at the end, there is a satisfying sense of hard-won self-awareness and acceptance.
The Astonishing Color of After
by Emily X.R. Pan
Apparently, this novel about a girl coping with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide is ‘magical realism’, a genre I would cross the road in front of a speeding semitruck to avoid, in most instances. In this instance, the fantastic and surreal are an effective (perhaps essential) means for communicating the displacement of grief. The protagonist’s gradual immersion in her mother’s language (Mandarin) and birthplace (Taiwan) offers hope and challenge, and, for the reader, insight into the complexities of biracial identity.
Long Way Down
by Jason Reynolds
This novel-in-verse won all the awards, and rightly so. It follows the 15-year-old protagonist as he takes a long, slow elevator ride towards destiny. Will he use the gun tucked in the back of his trousers to avenge his brother’s violent death? Or will he break The Rules? The pacing is taut, the use of language superb, and the voices unforgettable.
A Single Shard
by Linda Sue Park
This was officially my first foray into historical fiction about 12th century Korea. Let it be yours. The amount of research packed into every page makes me quiver with admiration for its author. Middle school kids probably won’t notice or care about all the work behind the scenes, though, they’ll be too busy chewing through the crisp, lovely prose about a young orphan’s apprenticeship to a master potter and the tough choices he has to make.
by Mieko Kawakami
I’m not sure if this is properly an adult novel with YA characters, or a YA novel. In any case, it’s fantastic for 8th graders, as it is a tough, unsparing exploration of issues that many kids face: bullying, divorce, parental absence, social awkwardness, sexual frustration and suicidal ideation. Don’t be misled though; it is anything but grim. There is life, and hope, which feels all the more authentic for being complicated.
All the Broken Pieces
by Ann E. Burg
Another novel-in-verse, told in the first person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted by a couple in the United States after the war. The struggles with traumatic memories, guilt, racism and alienation are predictable. What is not is the heart-rending yet uplifting way he learns to cope, with a little help from his parents, a disabled baseball coach and a room full of veterans.
Frankly in Love
by David Yoon
This is just your typical hyper-ambitious YA novel that deals with racism, immigration, generational conflict, sex, friendship, LGBTQ+ identity and academic pressures. Just kidding. There is nothing typical about this fast, funny but also totally serious novel about a boy leading a double life: calculus-conquering son of Korean immigrants by day and kinda clueless, hopped-on-hormones American teenager who just wants to have fun.
by Libba Bray
To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, when the going gets weird, the weird go bovine. I stumbled across this while looking for postmodernist teen fiction and boy, is it that. A fast-and-loose riff on Don Quixote, it is packed with drugs, sex, bad decisions, talking garden gnomes, fatal neurological conditions, magical jazz artists and… really, just read it. Preferably in one sitting. It’s louche, loud and OTT: perfect for older teens.
The Story that Cannot be Told
by J. Kasper Kramer
Inspired by Romanian history and folklore, this ode to the power of words follows a girl growing up in the insane reality of the late days of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Peril is always close to hand, often due to her innocent mistakes, but stories have a way of helping make sense of things. And of changing the endings of real-life situations. This is a perfect book for kids who like historical fiction, folktales and fantasy.
Recommend a great book for middle schoolers in the comments, or Tweet @CilaWarncke