It can be easy to for me to forget that teens are some of the most dexterous readers out there. They can jump from reading adult novels one day, back to a young adult novel the next, and then have no qualms about picking up a book that we consider middle grade after that. I often feel that I need to be pushing older teens to move onward from young adult titles to adult titles, assuming that is what they are “growing into,” but will be surprised when one says how they have just read Sara Pennypacker’s Pax and loved it. Some teens stay loyal to the authors that meant so much to them in the grade school years, authors like Christopher Paul Curtis and Kate DiCamillo, and others will continue to read anything by Rick Riordan, no matter how old they get. Teens can still have an interest in titles that we assume they would feel are “babyish,” but for them can be a break from angst or romance, and to them are just a great story.
We have some great resources when we are looking for adult books for teen appeal. We have YALSA’s Alex Award and their annual vetted list of books and School Library Journal’s column Adult Books for Teens, but we rarely see resources out there for younger books that might have a place in a teen’s reading pile. Here is a list of recent titles, titles that can be both successful with both a 5th-grader and an 11-grader.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
This story starts and ends with a gunshot. Ever since the night his father shot a gun at him and his mother, Castle Cranshaw left running and hasn’t stopped since. Now in seventh-grade, he’s nicknamed himself Ghost after coming upon a track tryout, and without officially entering, taking on one of the most elite runners and winning. Now he is being courted by the coach to join the track team, and learns that you don’t always have to run away from things, but can run towards things too. Track is one of those sports that many kids and teens participate in, but it is rarely the subject of novels. Fans of Friday Night Lights with love this coach in this as much as they do Coach Taylor. This is a character-driven and plot-driven novel with many appeals, but teens that especially love a Gatsby-esque novel laden with imagery and themes will find so much to pore over in this short, but rich, novel.
The Best Man by Richard Peck
This story starts and ends with a wedding. One that is a complete train-wreck, and one that couldn’t be more perfect. This coming-of-age novel is full of snarky humor and hilarious episodes that allow you to see the world of adults through a younger generation’s eyes. Unlike Tom Sawyer and Holden Caulfield, Archer Magill is clueless to the world around him, and his best friend Lynette is always having to explain life’s nuances. Teen’s who have appreciated David Sedaris’ childhood memoir essays will feel at home in how family can be hilarious and still be the best parts of our world.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
Soccer is the backdrop to this coming-of-age novel. Nick Hall, whose father makes him study the dictionary and turn in homework to him, would love to escape the world of words and books. Nick thinks he has the world all-figured out. He lives for soccer, and both he and his best-friend are getting to play in the Dallas Dr. Pepper Open, but on different teams. Just as things seem to be going his way, especially with his crush paying a little of attention to him, bombs start to drop–his mother announces she is leaving to follow her dream of training race horses, but in a different state, and he get appendicitis right before the big tournament. Teens will appreciate how messy life can be, and appreciate those little moments when you realize that you’ve gotten it all wrong.
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
At the start of their eighth grade year both Lily and Dunkin are trying to establish new identities for themselves. Everyone sees Lily as Timothy, but she is ready for the real her to be known, only her father isn’t ready for the the transition. Dunkin, has just moved to Lily’s Florida town to live with his Grandmother, and would love to leave his old name “Norbert”and some painful secrets in the past. This middle grade novel has strong characterization of two young teens navigating their identities. Older teens will identify with the work it takes to let others see the real you, and the hope they will accept you for who you truly are.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker
When Peter’s father is heading off to war, he is forced to abandon his pet fox in the woods. Unable to handle the separation, Peter runs away to find his beloved pet, Pax. Told through alternating perspective between Peter and Pax, this book is a sensitive look at grief, man’s relationship with animals, and the marks of war.
When the Sea Turned Silver by Grace Lin
The magic of story will transport readers into a new time and place filled with adventure. Pinmei has to find the Luminous Stone to rescue her grandmother who has been kidnapped by the emperor. Teens that love books of fairytales retold, with love that feeling as Lin weaves new stories that have that classic feeling.
Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
Young Alice lives in a world that values both magic and color, and she unfortunately seems to be lacking both. She hasn’t seem to exhibit any magical powers similar to those in her community, and she was born with no color in her skin or hair. After her father has been missing for several years, she hears that he might be in the mythical, dangerous land of Furthermore, and she sets out to find him. Teens will be drawn to this Whimsical, gothic fairy tale with a narrator voice similar to Series of Unfortunate Events.
Goblin’s Puzzle; Being the Adventures of A Boy With No Name and Two Girls Called Alice by Andrew S. Chilton
Teen fans of Douglas Adams or Monty Python will love the humorous writing and twists and turns in this adventure. This follows a slave boy with no name as he tries to rescue a princess and a peasant (both named Alice), and discover what his destiny is. He seeks the help of Mennofar, a tiny green goblin, even though he can’t be trusted as everyone knows goblins are sneaky.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gitwitz
Set in France in 1242, this Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales-like novel starts in an inn where several travelers are piecing together the story of three remarkable, even magical, children and their unusual dog for a man known as “The Inquisitor.” The children’s path has them traversing across the country fleeing persecution as they each come into their power. This medieval time is not often explored in kid and teen lit, but this year with this, and The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry, we have two new books both set in France. This is a more irreverent look at the Crusades and Inquisition, and teens will have a fun-filled ride as they explore a time in history, and look at philosophical questions of morality and who decides what is right and wrong.
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet S. Fox
Set in England during World War II, Kat and her brother and sister are evacuated from London to a boarding school housed in an old Scottish castle. Their host, Lady Eleanor, puts Kat on edge as do unusual mechanical sounds she hears at night, the hidden spy equipment she finds, and silent children she sees wandering the grounds. But when the other children staying at the castle begin to vanish, Kat knows something is really wrong. This steampunky horror will appeal to those teens that like a creepy and atmospheric edge to their mystery.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd
Also set WWII, young Emmaline is sent to the British countryside to stay at Briar Hill Hospital, a place for those suffering from tuberculosis. Emmaline starts to see winged horses in the hospital mirrors, and when she meets a fugitive white-winged horse in the hospital’s garden, she vows to protect the creature from a menacing black-feathered horse that is after it. Teens that like stories with an unreliable narrator will gravitate to this as it is also laden with metaphors for life and death, shows the horrors of war, and blurs the line between real and imaginary. This book leaves a lot of room for readers to debate the story’s meaning.
Snow White by Matt Phelan
Set in New York City during the Roaring Twenties and the start of the Great Depression, this graphic novel re-imagines the Snow White story with the wicked queen as a Follies star and “The Seven” as a group of young orphan boys trying to survive on the streets of New York. Teens, that often gravitate to fairytale retellings, will enjoy Phelan’s soft edges that bring the jazz era alive and let the occasional red bleed through.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
Set during the late 1970s California, Zomorod is starting at new school with a new name, Cindy. She chose it from the popular American television show, The Brady Bunch, and she knows that it is one that everyone can pronounce. Her family has relocated to California from Iran just as things between the U.S. and Iran start to escalate over politics and oil. Zomorod finds herself getting not only having to be a spokesperson for Iran, but also having to take the blame for things such as the Iran Hostage Crisis. Filled with both humor and historical details, teens will see a time not often shown in historical fiction, and will get a better understanding of those that often have to carry a burden of homeland countries’ actions that they have no control over.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Also set in the 1970s, Raymie knows everything depends on her. If she can win the Little Miss Central Tire Pageant she will get her picture in the paper and her father, who has just ran off with a dental hygienist, will see it and come home. Having to do good deeds and learn to twirl the baton as part of the pageant process, Raymie is thrown into some unlikely friendships with other pageant members. Teens will be swept up with DiCamillo’s use of language and her universal themes of loss, loneliness, and friendship in unlikely places.
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
Often compared as a new To Kill a Mockingbird with its themes of redemption and outsider characters, this book set in WWII in rural Pennsylvania follows 12-year-old Annabelle who is facing a malicious bully, and has to learn to navigate a grey world of right and wrong. Teens with appreciate its smart use of allegory, richly layered themes, and lyrical language as Annabelle tries to stand up for the town’s loner Toby, a shell-shocked WWI vet.
Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson
Broadway’s Hamilton fans wanting more from the Revolutionary era from new voices will appreciate Anderson’s third in the Seeds of America series. Culminating in the Battle of Yorktown, Isabel and Curzon, who are both seen as runaway slaves, make the journey from Charleston to New York as fugitives. Full of historical details and themes of human capacity to persevere, this explores the frustrating irony that during a war for freedom there should remain slavery.
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet
This book will delight E.B. White fans of all ages. Sweet’s scrapbook storytelling approach is inspiring and engaging as we see the life of the writer of beloved childhood classics such as Charlotte’s Web, The New Yorker, and many other works. White comes to life as an observant, brilliant wordsmith with an affinity for nature.
We Will Not be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman
In this compact, suspenseful narrative nonfiction, Freedman illuminates a small but powerful student movement that used a secretive leaflet campaign to oppose Hitler’s regime. Focusing on the teen players in this movement, he shows the power of action and conviction, even when it has deadly repercussions.
Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming
William Cody was one of the first international stars, and he did this by creating a persona, an image, and a brand. In today’s world where it is all about creating your own brand for yourself, this explores the time when William Cody was the first to take image to the next level by creating an international phenomena around his persona Buffalo Bill.
This Land Is Our Land: A History of American Immigration by Linda Barrett Osborne
This timely book about the history of immigration in the United States shows how immigration isn’t just an issue today, but has always been since we started the social experiment that is the United States.
–Danielle Jones, currently reading You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson