Books are a way to transport ourselves out of the regular world. They let people slip into the skin of someone different, experience the world in a way they never have, and even to see themselves reflected in media. Reading is even more critical for teenagers since it can prepare them for college; however, finding books that appeal to teens wasn’t always so easy. Right now, there are hundreds of amazing titles that publishers are releasing. And one of the top choices is Angie Thomas’s Hate u Give. It follows 16-year-old Star as she watches her best friend’s death and amid a world of racism and police brutality finds a way to move forward.
Best Overall: Hate U Give
Angie Thomas’s debut novel talks about racism, police brutality, and how the two intersect with black communities is a book that should not be missed. It revolves around the story of Star, a sixteen-year-old girl torn between her upper-class high school, and the poor neighborhood that she lives in. When police kill her best friend Khalil, she is the only witness to the crime. What she says could tear her community apart, and Khalil’s death makes national news as conversations about police brutality bubble up.
The Hate U Give is a contemporary novel that will hit home for Americans of every class and race. It brings the struggle of the Black Lives Matter movement to a novel format. It’s a story that is chilling, but it’s also hugely influential in the cultural landscape that we find ourselves in today. It was even turned into a feature film which makes it even more poignant.
In many cases, novels are a way to escape the real world and the struggles that it entails. The Hate U Give isn’t one of those. Instead, it transports you into the mind of Star and the tightrope she is walking as she tries to figure out the right thing to do. This novel is essential in significant ways, and it’s even more important for teens who aren’t black to read. If you want to foster empathy, understand the current state of civil rights, or seeing the perspective of someone different than yourself, it doesn’t get much better than this. The Hate U Give is a modern classic, and it should be on the reading list of every teenager in America.
- Amazing story
- Addresses hate and police brutality
- Great character voice makes the story come to life
- Heavy subject matter
Hate U Give
Prejudice in today’s world
When police kill Star’s best friend, and she’s the only witness, what she says could destroy her community or get her killed.
Best Value: Dumplin
Representation in both books and movies is essential. Teenagers are supported when they see characters that look like them, whether that means their race, the way they identify or being fat in a world that often demonizes the word. Dumplin, written by Julie Murphy, is the story of Willowdean Dixon; a fat teenager who decides to enter the local beauty pageant after the death of her beloved aunt. This novel isn’t your usual fat girl story, though, and that’s a good thing.
WIllowdean isn’t looking to diet or slim down. Instead, she’s trying to find her place in the world. She decides to do it by entering the pageant that her mother runs to honor her deceased aunt. Along the way, she befriends drag queens, finds some peace about who she is, makes new friends, and even makes eyes at a cute boy. During all of it, she takes her cues from her role model, Dolly Parton. Dumplin is also now a Netflix film that’s worth checking out.
- Awesome fat representation
- Fun story
- Great characters
- Deals with death of a family member
- Some language may be triggering for teens recovering from eating disorders
Feel comfortable in your own skin
Follow Willowdean Dixon as she takes on the local beauty pageant and learns to love herself and her body in the process.
Best Fantasy: A Darker Shade of Magic
There used to be four Londons: Red, White, Gray, and Black. While nobody has traveled to Black London for a long time, the people who can move between the remaining cities are few and far between. Kell is an Antari, the rare magicians with the abilities to move between these parallel Londons. Officially he is an ambassador, born in red London but traveling between White London, and the dull magic-less Gray London.
Unofficially Kell smuggles people between the Londons so they can see the magic they’d never be able to experience for themselves. It was a dangerous hobby, but now it has wrought some severe consequences. When he runs into Delilah Bard, he isn’t expecting any of what happens. She robs him, then saves him, and then convinces him to move her to a parallel London. Except that now, every London is in jeopardy, and if they want to save them, they’ll need to work together and survive.
- Fun magical romp through alternate Londons
- Parallel Londons are great settings
- Fantastic plot and characters
- 400 pages is a bit long for some readers
Darker Shade of Magic
Explore the different Londons
Travel with Kell as he attempts to save all of the Londons, Red, White, and Grey against deadly enemies.
Best Contemporary: American Born Chinese
Learning to reconcile different aspects of identity isn’t an easy task for many young people. This is especially true when you’re dealing with disparate things, like your cultural and racial identity. American Born Chinese tells three stories that are all connected. It brings to light the struggles of Jin Want as he tries to come to terms with being both Chinese and American.
Author Gene Yang intertwines the stories of three apparently unrelated characters: the Monkey King of legend, young Jin Wang (who moves only to find he is the only Chinese student at his new school), and Chin-Kee (a character made up of negative racial stereotypes). The three stories come together in this modern fable about race, identity, and self-acceptance. As a graphic novel, it’s also far more approachable for teens who usually aren’t big fans of reading.
- Great way to break down racial stereotypes
- Remarkable story of reconciling cultural identity
- Graphic novel makes this book approachable for teens who don’t usually enjoy reading
- Three stories may be hard to reconcile
American Born Chinese
Jin Want’s story
Follow the life of Jin Wang as he tries to reconcile his Chinese identity and American life.
Best High Fantasy: Children of Blood and Bone
For years when people thought of High Fantasy, they thought of white casts and Tolkien-esque stories. Tomi Adeyemi took that idea and spun it on its head delivering a beautiful, lush, Nigerian inspire fantasy. Children of Blood and Bone revitalized the fantasy genre. It features unapologetically black cast, a fantastic story, and a world that is lush and imaginative and heartbreaking.
The land of Orïsha used to hum with magic until the night it disappeared. Afterward, by order of a ruthless king, the Maji were killed to ensure it would never fully return to the land. They didn’t bet on young Zélie’s determination to restore magic to the land, no matter what kind of sacrifice it takes. She’ll need the help of a rogue princess to strike back against the monarchy, and outwit the crown prince who wants to eradicate magic once and for all. The only question is whether they can do it, and what happens if they do.
- Lush Nigerian fantasy
- Amazing story
- Fantastic 3-dimensional characters
- Heavy subject matter
- Book might be a bit long for some readers
Best High Fantasy
Children of Blood and Bone
Now we rise
Zélie remembers when the world hummed with magic. A dangerous quest awaits her, but she’ll go up against the world to bring it back.
Best Romance: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Not all romance novels are full of content that teens roll their eyes at. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han brings the genre to life with the mishaps of 16-year-old Lara Jean. For years Lara Jean has been writing love letters to her crushes and then hiding them in a hatbox under her bed so that they never see the light of day. That is until they are accidentally sent out, revealing her feelings to the boys she has feelings for.
This story is a light-hearted romance that is perfect for teens. It has a teen protagonist, hilarious antics on every page, and best of all, it doesn’t show off toxic models of relationships. Something that the genre has suffered from in the past. Teens can even check out the Netflix original movie once they’ve finished reading.
- Sweet story
- Funny characters
- Also has been made into a Netflix movie
- Almost 400 pages might be long for some readers
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Letters she never meant to send
When Lara Jean’s secret love letters are accidentally sent out, her life goes from controlled to chaos in a hilarious moment.
Finding great books that appeal to teens hasn’t always been an easy process. However, right now, there are more amazing books built for the Gen Z teen experience than ever before. They run the gamut from fantasy, to contemporary, romance and absolutely everything that falls in between. This means there is definitely a book out there for every teen, provided you can find it. The absolute best book for teens today is Hate u Give.
This contemporary novel follows the story of Star, a 16-year old who witnesses the police murdering her best friend. Star is the only witness, and as national attention is turned onto the death of Khalil what she says — or doesn’t — could tear her neighborhood apart. It’s a direct spotlight on racism, police brutality, and more that is an essential read for today’s youth.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Jen Karner is a self-professed book nerd who writes fiction and reviews novels in her spare time and solicited recommendations from other writers for this list. You can follow her on Twitter
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