Starting around 6th grade age, it becomes hard to find books for kids. It’s hard to strike the right balance between the rosy childhood world of imagination and the colder light of reality. As children grow up, they become more aware of themselves and the world around them, and books can help give insight to the many issues that arise at these ages: friendship, alienation, fitting in, being different, navigating difficult or awkward situations.
The teen years are hard because kids, just emerging from their self-centered cocoon of childhood, are in low supply of the understanding and compassion that people build with age. But as with anything we want to learn, one great book can give a huge leap forward. Books can let us know we’re not alone on our journey, and they can introduce us to worlds we didn’t know existed.
Tween books have come a long way since Judy Blume. Adolescence hasn’t changed (though biologically and culturally it does seem to begin earlier than before), but the world around our tweens/teens has. I don’t have any timeless classics to recommend in this genre, but these are some books that come highly recommended by my kids, who read literally everything.
MIDDLE SCHOOL | TWEEN
Out of My Mind by Sharon M Draper
Out of My Mind tells the story of Melody, a brilliant girl with severe cerebral palsy, who cannot speak or walk. On the surface, it’s a wonderfully written book that gives kids a sense for what it would be like to be seriously handicapped. But it’s also a story about being misunderstood and fighting to be understood – fundamentally relatable to all.
One for the Murphys by Linda Mullaly Hunt
In One for the Murphys, Carley leaves her unhappy home – with a neglectful mom and abusive stepdad – to become a foster child of the suspiciously happy and welcoming Murphy family. A heartfelt story about the defenses we build and learning to love and connect with people again.
Because of Mr Terupt by Rob Buyea
Mr Terupt has a challenging class of 5th graders, with difficult and varied personalities and backgrounds. Kids will relate to at least one of the seven students, all different archetypes, whose perspectives are told in different ways in the story. A book about compassion, friendship and how people are not that different under the surface.
The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick
The Mother-Daughter Book Club features four moms who start a book club with their 6th-grade daughters, who are classmates but not really friends. As they read their first book, Little Women, together, the girls reluctantly get to know each other, and their relationships develop from there. The book also explores the tensions between moms and daughters. My daughter loves each of the characters in this book so much she wishes they could be friends in real life. The full collection is seven books.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Esperanza, privileged girl growing up at her family’s prosperous ranch in Mexico, has her life upended by tragedy and flees with her mother to a farm labor camp in Depression-era California. A multiple-award-winning book about circumstance, character, resilience and love.
HIGH SCHOOL | TEENS
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
An engaging and entertaining read by a New York Times reporter, The Power of Habit looks at the psychology of habits – how we form them, how they unconsciously run our lives – and gives us tips on how to hack our way to a better form of autopilot. We did a family read of this one – me, my husband and two teens – and we still talk about it. A good book for new year’s resolution-makers.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A recent hit from 2017, The Hate U Give tells the story of 16-year-old Starr, who witnesses a terrible tragedy and is left to cope in the aftermath. The story involves racial themes of black and white, fairness and discrimination, perception and reality. Starr occupies two very different worlds: the neighborhood community she lives in and the sheltered bubble of the private school she attends. A well-told story about the complexities of life from the eyes of a teen.
Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Sophie Kinsella (of Shopaholic fame) tells the story of Audrey, 14-year-old girl with a anxiety disorder stemming from school bullying. My daughter loved this book for its realistic family dynamics – the mom, dad and brother all very relatable and humorous in their interactions. A warm and funny read.
I chuckle every time I give The Naked Roommate to a college-bound niece, nephew or friend. The title is funny, but the content is solid. Going to college is new and different territory, and it really does help to have a guide to prepare.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The most adult-themed of the teen books here, Looking for Alaska is a coming-of-age story about a boy starting boarding school. As with other John Green novels – notably The Fault in Our Stars – there’s profanity, underage substance usage, death. But Green is able to tap into the raw emotions of teen years and portray with compassion the the very real issues of fitting in and finding one’s community of misfits.
The Selection by Kiera Cass
In direct contrast to the current fairy-tale theme in fantasy children’s books, teen fantasy is all dystopia. The Selection (first in a 5-book series) is a favorite of my daughter and many of her friends. Kiera Cass tells the story of America, who is selected to compete with 35 candidates for a chance at marrying a prince and escaping the rigid class constraints of her world. One Amazon reviewer described The Selection as Hunger Games crossed with the Bachelor, which I think makes it lighter fare than some of the other dystopian options.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Mark Watney’s Mars expedition has gone gravely awry. The Martian tells the tale of where the funny, resourceful astronaut goes from there. Mark starts the book with profanity, but it’s hard to blame him, given the circumstances. A realistic, funny adventure with some actual science thrown in.
Author Andy Weir began the story as an installment series on his blog, which attracted a fan following (many of them NASA employees) that led to self-publishing followed by mainstream publishing and a major movie deal. Great inspiration for teens.
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcom Gladwell’s books, breezily written and full of entertaining stories, make good nonfiction reading for teens. Outliers: The Story of Success is about opportunity, timing and above all, practice. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about decision-making, good and flawed. The Tipping Point is about connections and trends. Unlike novels, these are books that can be read here and there during teens’ busy schedules – they don’t require commitment and are entertaining even in small bites.
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Hunger Games, published with a bang in 2010, spawned the dystopian genre of teen books. The apocalypse with a layer of reality TV. Fans of the movies may be inspired to read the trilogy.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Divergent is the first of another dystopian trilogy, this one based in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Like Hunger Games, the protagonist is female, but the adventure-packed book appeals as well to boys.