Need to find a book for a tween, a teen, or just a younger kid who is reading well beyond their years? We’ve got you covered with 12 of the best books to gift tween and teen readers this holiday season. This is The Mary Sue, though, and like previous holiday book lists, our picks are targeted towards young versions of ourselves—expect lots of sci-fi, fantasy, and feminist values. The list starts with books great for ages 11-12 and those starting puberty, aka “You’re becoming an adult now, and things are weird but normal but different.” However, a majority of the books are for kids 13 and up and then, in the end, for 15 and up. As such, the titles shift into issues important to teenagers at this age, like finding out who you are, expanding your worldview beyond our invisible borders, and standing up for yourself and others.
Because we include YA books in every edition of The Mary Sue Book Club, most of the books on this list are geared towards those exiting elementary school and entering YA literature. Just in the last few weeks, fellow TMS writer Rachel Ulatowski created a list of her favorite YA novels of 2022. Per usual, because the list was more recent, none of those titles will be included. However, that list is an amazing resource. (Personally, I admire Traci Chee and Elizabeth Acevedo, but I’ve also heard great things about Ruta Sepetys.)
This book first caught my attention earlier this year, back when it was nominated for an Ignyte Award (that it later won). With a recently passed grandparent, a deputy harassing the family, and this being her first year at a newly integrated school, Jezebel Turner and her twin brother have a lot going on. However, as they turn 11, their uncle informs them that it’s time to train in centuries-old root magic. While the novel is intended for those late into elementary school, lots of middle school kids will love it, too! Royce’s novel acts as a warm introduction to the Gullah culture, and while the story is set in 1963 and is full of magic, the kids deal with many changes in their lives that mirror the present.
When those in Giada’s family turn 13, they have to decide if they’re going to fully commit to the family tradition of becoming a healer. With an affinity for helping vulnerable animals—including those forbidden, aka magical—Giada is torn on what to do. Things become complicated when witches kidnap Giada’s brother, Rocco, and she’s thrust into a world of underground magic. How to Heal a Gryphon is perfect for those soon to enter sixth or seventh grade. A magical introduction to longer chapter books, the story touches on self-esteem and family and is perfect for those into the series below Rick Riordan Presents.
The Witch Owl Parliament by David Bowles, Raúl the Third, Stacey Robinson, & Damian Duffy
No offense to David Pilkey and the various titles at Marvel and DC, but there’s a whole world of middle-grade graphic novels out there that will make kids comic readers for life. One such novel is Clockwork Curanderathe Frankenstein-spired trilogy set in colonial Mexico, where Enrique is mourning the loss of his sister, Christina, and finds a way to bring her back to life.
The town is not a fan of this not-fully human version of Christina, but she vows to protect the people. When the siblings and a new friend (I don’t want to give everything away) uncover a plot by the Witch Owl Parliament to get rid of the Indigenous people and refugees in the land, they must work together to keep their freedoms and save their neighbors. This middle-grade graphic novel is enjoyable on its own but is also perfect for kids interested in more Mesoamerican stories after watching Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The alternative history adventure story features people of the Nahuatl (Aztec), Coahuiltecan, Comecrudo, and Karankawa nations.
Moving into the junior high and middle school section of the list, I have to mention Azar on Fire. One part of middle school and high school that makes this time especially difficult is finding your voice and building confidence. 14-year-old Azar knows what she wants (which is to win Battle of the Bands) and has the drumming and lyrical skills to prove it. The only issue is that it literally pains her to speak about a disease she was born with. This leads many to believe that Azar has nothing to say and dismiss her. After finding out that a lacrosse hottie has the voice of an angel, Azar hatches a plan to convince him that her words (and sticks) and his voice would make great music.
Compared to something between Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games, The Sunbearer Trials is perfect for someone who is comfortable in middle-grade fantasy but willing to venture into YA. Every 10 years, Sol (the sun) chooses 10 champions to compete for the chance to carry the light, but everyone who fails will be sacrificed for energy. Normally, only Gold semidiós (demigods) are chosen for the trials, but for the first time in a century, Sol chooses two Jade semidiós. This includes Teo, the 17-year-old trans son of a bird goddess, and Zio, the 13-year-old child of a god of bad luck.
From the writer of Cemetery Boys and Lost in the Never Woodsthis is a fast-paced action adventure story inspired by Mexican history that keeps readers on the edge of their seats waiting for book two (it’s a duology) to be released.
While I have mixed feelings about the industry as a whole, K-Pop is unavoidable and boasts a wide fan base that includes teenagers. This is where Stephan Lee’s K-Pop Confidential comes into play. A young Korean American teenager, Candace, is doing everything perfectly as far as family obligations and her grades go, but she has a secret: she wants to be a pop star. Seeing no path to pop stardom in America as an Asian American, she auditions for a K-Pop group and is granted the deal of a lifetime. The only problem is that the Korean label and her parents have a lot of rules, the number one being no dating. It seems simple enough until she ends up in a love triangle with other pop stars in training. Lee’s romance comedy touches on dating, self-confidence, and identity.
I absolutely love a good graphic memoir, and lots of solid ones came out this year (including Kindra Neely’s Numb to This, which I didn’t put on the list, but should be considered). While my faves are usually for teens aged 16 or 18 and up, there are lots of wonderful graphic memoirs for kids in late middle school and those about to enter high school. Maybe an Artist is one such book. This story of self-reflection comes from the first Black woman cartoonist for the The New Yorker, Liz Montague. In addition to telling the story of how she became an artist, Montague delves into growing up in a place where she was one of the few Black girls and using art to work through her severe dyslexia. This is the perfect book for those who are about to be asked, “So, what do you want to do in college?” and time is running out.
Because of all the praise around this 2021 novel, you would be hard-pressed to find a copy (even digital) that doesn’t have award stickers everywhere. Another banger from the Elatsoe writer who draws upon the tradition of Lipan Apache storytelling, A Snake Falls to Earth follows two young people, virtually from different planes of existence, who are driven together following a devastating event on Earth. Nina is a Texan living in the near future, and Oli is a snake person who lives in a world of monsters. This connection between them, however, causes disturbances with forces that would rather keep them apart.
This historical fiction novel is one of many in a series in which different authors retell or remix versions of popular stories. Instead of the 1200s to 1300s England, Travelers Along the Way backs up to the 1100s and lands smack dab in the middle of the Third Crusade in Jerusalem. While there’s one character from the original Robin Hood stories who make an informal appearance in a unique way, much of the story introduces new leads to root for. A group of poor misfits (almost all girls) teams up to steal from the rich and give back to their community. However, instead of just picking little fights, they also seek to overthrow Queen Isabella, whose insistence on taking over the Holy Lands will only lead to more war and death for the diverse people who live there.
This story is great for someone who is deeply interested in world history and/or the story of Robin Hoodbut also just as a standalone book (that’s technically part of a disconnected series) filled with sisterhood and adventure.
Speaking of retellings, we’ve mentioned the author of this next pick more than once for her fantastic retelling of Arthurian legends. However, this LAMBDA award-winning novel is light on fantasy and heavy on love and heartbreak (as the title suggests). The main character, Syd, works at a bakery and discovers they have the curse of making brownies that, once consumed, cause people to break up. Together with a friend, Syd is on a mission to stop the curse before love in the local queer community is lost to those who enjoy a delicious brownie.
Kosoko Jackson’s gay YA romance I’m So (Not) Over You has been the talk of the book community this year, but I wanted to suggest a different novel that he released this year. While still featuring queer representation, this dystopian novel follows an aspiring journalist named Jamal who’s covering a protest following another Black man’s murder by the state. In response to the protests, the city of Baltimore deploys a new system called the “Dom,” essentially creating a militarized lockdown that Jamal and others are now trapped within. In an effort to show the truth about the Dome, they find out how deep corruption goes and how racism is baked into old systems and new technology.
Where We Go From Here by Lucas Rocha, translated by Larissa Helena
I first heard about this book through Ashley from Bookish Realm, and she’s never let me down before. Where We Go From Here features three characters struggling with HIV and the stigma surrounding it. While one of them has it and another doesn’t, the third character is waiting to get his test results back. Between the internet and a growing multicultural Gen Z, children today—regardless of background—are exposed to more perspectives and cultural backgrounds than ever before. That’s why I made a point of including a piece of translated YA literature, even though adult-translated books are more often pushed by booksellers. Originally published in Portuguese by the Brazilian author Lucas Rocha, this novel explores topics of love, self-confidence, and prejudice.
Something that helped narrow it down to JUST 12 novels was not including books that have already been prominently featured on the site in the recent year. Although some of the best middle-grade and YA novels of the year are on this list, here are some other lists with great titles for kids aged 12 and up.
Also, check out our list of the best 2022 books for those under 10, and be on the lookout for other upcoming gift guides on The Mary Sue!
(featured image: various publishers; collage by The Mary Sue)
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