As a teen librarian, offering reading recommendations for high school students is the biggest – and best! – part of my job. With summer rapidly approaching and the pandemic giving a lot of people cabin fever, I figured I’d put together a book list of recommendations for high school freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. This particular post is for twelfth graders.
This list was created through an alchemy involving age of the protagonists, themes, genre, tone, complexity, reader skill/comfortability level, events a student would likely encounter in their studies that year, and books they were unlikely to read for school. I also tried to pick materials that published in the last decade, with preference going to #ownvoices and/or marginalized authors.
This list is also available on bookshop.org.
Barely Missing Everything by Matthew Mendez
“Juan has plans. He’s going to get out of El Paso, Texas, on a basketball scholarship and make something of himself–or at least find something better than his mom Fabi’s cruddy apartment, her string of loser boyfriends, and a dead dad. Basketball is going to be his ticket out, his ticket up. He just needs to make it happen. His best friend JD has plans, too. He’s going to be a filmmaker one day, like Quinten Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro (NOT Steven Spielberg). He’s got a camera and he’s got passion–what else could he need? Fabi doesn’t have a plan anymore. When you get pregnant at sixteen and have been stuck bartending to make ends meet for the past seventeen years, you realize plans don’t always pan out, and that there some things you just can’t plan for…”
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
“Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves. Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.” Read my full review.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
“Felix Love has never been in love–and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many–Black, queer, and transgender–to ever get his own happily-ever-after. When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages–after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned–Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi-love triangle…But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.”
Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett
“Simone Garcia-Hampton is starting over at a new school, and this time things will be different. She’s making real friends, making a name for herself as student director of Rent, and making a play for Miles, the guy who makes her melt every time he walks into a room. The last thing she wants is for word to get out that she’s HIV-positive, because last time…well, last time things got ugly. Keeping her viral load under control is easy, but keeping her diagnosis under wraps is not so simple. As Simone and Miles start going out for real–shy kisses escalating into much more–she feels an uneasiness that goes beyond butterflies. She knows she has to tell him that she’s positive, especially if sex is a possibility, but she’s terrified of how he’ll react! And then she finds an anonymous note in her locker: I know you have HIV. You have until Thanksgiving to stop hanging out with Miles. Or everyone else will know too. Simone’s first instinct is to protect her secret at all costs, but as she gains a deeper understanding of the prejudice and fear in her community, she begins to wonder if the only way to rise above is to face the haters head-on…”
The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
“It’s 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance. To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood. Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history–but only if they can stay alive.” Read my full review.
Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
“When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over email. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper. The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town. From the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students — especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man. As tensions mount at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey — but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?”
How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters
“Everyone on campus knows Remy Cameron. He’s the out-and-proud, super-likable guy who friends, faculty, and fellow students alike admire for his cheerful confidence. The only person who isn’t entirely sure about Remy Cameron is Remy himself. Under pressure to write an A+ essay defining who he is and who he wants to be, Remy embarks on an emotional journey toward reconciling the outward labels people attach to him with the real Remy Cameron within.” Read my full review.
Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali
“When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her. Then her path crosses with Adam’s. Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father. Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting. Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.”
Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins
“Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind: Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen; He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years; He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey; And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.
But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class. But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind–can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.” Read my full review.
Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno
“Georgina Fernweh waits impatiently for the tingle of magic in her fingers–magic that has touched every woman in her family. But with her eighteenth birthday looming at the end of this summer, Georgina fears her gift will never come.
Over the course of her last summer on the island–a summer of storms, falling in love, and the mystery behind one rare three-hundred-year-old bird–Georgina will learn the truth about magic, in all its many forms.” Read my full review.
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
“In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons can be whomever they choose. Tess is none of these things. Tess is…different. She speaks out of turn, has wild ideas, and can’t seem to keep out of trouble. Then Tess goes too far. What she’s done is so disgraceful, she can’t even allow herself to think of it. Unfortunately, the past cannot be ignored. So Tess’s family decide the only path for her is a nunnery.
But on the day she is to join the nuns, Tess chooses a different path for herself. She cuts her hair, pulls on her boots, and sets out on a journey. She’s not running away, she’s running towards something. What that something is, she doesn’t know. Tess just knows that the open road is a map to somewhere else–a life where she might belong.”
There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon
“Ashish Patel didn’t know love could be so…sucky. After being dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they could find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up. The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl–under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?
Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death. Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of. Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?”
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
“Everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun…
10:00 a.m.: The principal of Opportunity, Alabama’s high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.
10:02 a.m.: The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.
10:03: The auditorium doors won’t open.
10:05: Someone starts shooting.
In 54 minutes, four students must confront their greatest hopes, and darkest fears, as they come face-to-face with the boy with the gun.”
Want by Cindy Pon
“Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost. With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary. Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?”
When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey
“Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable–even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.
That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn’t change on prom night.
When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails–and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story.”
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
“Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs. Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach. If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.” Read my full review.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
“Ella has a Thing. She sees a classmate grow up to become a caring nurse. A neighbor’s son murdered in a drive-by shooting. Things that haven’t happened yet. Kev, born while Los Angeles burned around them, wants to protect his sister from a power that could destroy her. But when Kev is incarcerated, Ella must decide what it means to watch her brother suffer while holding the ability to wreck cities in her hands. Rooted in the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is as much an intimate family story as a global dystopian narrative. It burns fearlessly toward revolution and has quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience. Ella and Kev are both shockingly human and immeasurably powerful. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by racism. Their futures might alter the world.” Read my full review.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar
“In the ashes of a dying world, Red finds a letter marked “Burn before reading. Signed, Blue.” So begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents in a war that stretches through the vast reaches of time and space. Red belongs to the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia. Blue belongs to Garden, a single vast consciousness embedded in all organic matter. Their pasts are bloody and their futures mutually exclusive. They have nothing in common–save that they’re the best, and they’re alone. Now what began as a battlefield boast grows into a dangerous game, one both Red and Blue are determined to win. Because winning’s what you do in war. Isn’t it?” Read my full review.
Short Story Collections
All Out: The No Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Through The Ages edited by Saundra Miller
“Take a journey through time and genres to discover stories where queer teens live, love and shape the world around them. Seventeen young adult authors across the queer spectrum have come together to create a collection of beautifully written diverse historical fiction for teens. From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth-century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.
Featuring original stories from: Malinda Lo, Mackenzi Lee, Robin Talley, Kody Keplinger, Elliot Wake, Anna-Marie McLemore, Shaun David Hutchinson, Dahlia Adler, Tess Sharpe, Kate Scelsa, Natalie C. Parker, Sara Farizan, Nilah Magruder, Tessa Gratton, Tehlor Kay Mejia, Alex Sanchez, and Scott Tracey.”
Fresh Ink: An Anthology edited by Lamar Giles
“Careful–you are holding fresh ink. And not hot-off-the-press, still-drying-in-your-hands ink. Instead, you are holding twelve stories with endings that are still being written–whose next chapters are up to you. Because these stories are meant to be read. And shared. Thirteen of the most accomplished YA authors deliver a label-defying anthology that includes ten short stories, a graphic novel, and a one-act play from Walter Dean Myers never before in-print. This collection addresses topics like gentrification, acceptance, untimely death, coming out, and poverty and ranges in genre from contemporary realistic fiction to adventure and romance. It will inspire you to break conventions, bend the rules, and color outside the lines. All you need is fresh ink.
Authors include: Schuyler Bailar, Melissa de la Cruz, Sara Farizan, Sharon G. Flake, Eric Gansworth, Malindo Lo, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel José Older, Thien Pham, Jason Reynolds, Aminah Mae Safi, Gene Luen Yang, Nicola Yoon.”
Comics and Graphic Novels
Check Please! vol. 1: “#Hockey” by Ngozi Ukazu
“Eric Bittle may be a former junior figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and very talented amateur pâtissier, but being a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team is a whole new challenge. It is nothing like co-ed club hockey back in Georgia! First of all? There’s checking (anything that hinders the player with possession of the puck, ranging from a stick check all the way to a physical sweep). And then, there is Jack–his very attractive but moody captain.
A collection of the first half, freshmen and sophomore year, of the megapopular webcomic series of the same name, Check, Please!: #Hockey is the first book of a hilarious and stirring two-volume coming-of-age story about hockey, bros, and trying to find yourself during the best four years of your life.”
Paper Girls vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matthew Wilson, Jared K. Fletcher
“From Brian K. Vaughan, #1 New York Times bestselling writer of Saga and The Private Eye, and Cliff Chiang, legendary artist of Wonder Woman, comes the first volume of an all-new ongoing adventure.
In the early hours after Halloween of 1988, four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls uncover the most important story of all time. Suburban drama and otherworldly mysteries collide in this smash-hit series about nostalgia, first jobs, and the last days of childhood. Collects PAPER GIRLS #1-5.” Read my full review.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks
“Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1. But this Halloween is different–Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.
Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan What if–instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut–they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years…What if their last shift was an adventure?”
Y: The Last Man vol. 1: “Unmanned” by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, José Marzán, Pamela Rambo, Clem Robins
“This is the saga of Yorick Brown—the only human survivor of a planet-wide plague that instantly kills every mammal possessing a Y chromosome. Accompanied by a mysterious government agent, a brilliant young geneticist and his pet monkey, Amper sand, Yorick travels the world in search of his lost love and the answer to why he’s the last man on earth.
Collects Y THE LAST MAN #1-10.”