Grateful American Kids

Twenty Books Teens Should Read by High School Graduation

Compiled by Rachael Walker

Given how diverse and complex our global society is, the literature young people read before they leave high school and head out into the world should provide access to a wide range of experiences beyond the often-assigned titles in the Western canon. Let teens try on the world before they have to go out into it! In this list, you’ll find literary fiction that offers teen readers opportunities to expand their cultural knowledge, encounter differences and eye-opening ideas, and develop new understanding about what the world is and what it could be. Teens will find titles here that help them recognize that there is more than one way to look at the world and that they are not alone in it.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This graphic novel about the life of Jin Wang, a typical Chinese American teen boy who struggles to fit in at his mostly white junior high school, intersects with the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King and with the story of Jin’s white alter-ego Danny.


The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

This is the bold, emotional story of half Asian and half white Leigh Chen Sanders, who travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time, and find her mother, who Leigh believes turned into a bird after taking her own life.


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Pecola Breedlove, a young, abused African American girl who wants to disappear, believes her own blackness is ugly and prays for blue eyes, which she believes will make her beautiful—and loved.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

SOE agent Verity, captured by the Gestapo, tortured and held prisoner in the very Nazi headquarters in occupied France that she was sent to infiltrate and destroy, offers a written confession and her wartime secrets within the story of how she met Maddie, a transport pilot for the ATA, who has been forced into hiding with members of the French Resistance.


Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius’ life of dealing with depression and high school bullies takes an unexpected turn when he travels to Iran to meet his grandparents in person for the first time and also meets Sohrab, a neighbor who turns best friend, and helps him learn how to be himself.


Feed by M.T. Anderson

A clever, creepy satire featuring a futuristic consumer-based society where chips are implanted into people’s brains, providing instant access to every kind of information, yet all everyone uses it for is entertainment and shopping.


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer, and has to decide whether to speak out and fight for justice for Khalil and all other victims of police violence.


The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

This highly accessible coming of age story focuses on Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, who sketches out her impoverished life and the lives of the other residents of Mango Street.


 If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Jeremiah who is Black and Ellie who is white meet at private school, fall into tender, perfect love at age 15, and then are forced to deal with how society views their interracial relationship until prejudice and assumptions turn into a larger tragedy.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Sal, who has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and loving Mexican American family, is now questioning his own history as life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, family, loss, and grief.


Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

A nameless narrator who believes he is invisible to American society, shares his experiences of growing up and working to be a model black citizen from the underground hole he now lives in.


The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Though he’s become successful in America, Amir remains haunted by his betrayal of his childhood best friend Hassan, and returns to Kabul only to learn the Taliban have murdered Hassan, and that Hassan’s son, Sohrab, needs to be rescued.


The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

After the sudden death of her parents, Cam is in the care of her religious, conservative aunt Ruth, who upon discovering that her niece is a lesbian, sends her to God’s Promise, a camp that promises to “cure” young people of their homosexuality.


Monster by Walter Dean Myers

While in jail, Steve Harmon, a teenager from Harlem on trial as an accomplice to murder, tries to come to terms with the course his life has taken by recording his experiences–from prison and in the courtroom– in the form of a film script.



The Road by Cormac McCarthy

In this study of humanity, love sustains an unnamed father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as the father works to teach his son how to endure in this world and distinguish the good guys from the bad.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

After calling the police to an end-of-summer party, Melinda, now a friendless outcast, works on an art project that helps her to finally face what really happened that night: she was raped.


There There by Tommy Orange

This raw and reflective look at contemporary Native urban life and the many facets of being Native American is told through twelve characters who wrestle with their identities and whose lives converge at the Big Oakland Powwow.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This criticism of the European colonization of Africa centers on Okonkwo, a fearless Igbo warrior who fears becoming like his father which leads him to murder and exile; everything falls apart when white Christian missionaries start converting his clan and force the English system of government on his people.

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

A rich, short novel that follows the unnamed members of a Berkeley, California family through the different stages of their journey to imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp in the desert, and their return home after World War II to find their home vandalized and family broken.


You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

This saga covers three generations of women in the Das family as they struggle to find their places in the world and to accept one another, their life choices, and their Bengali heritage.


Rachael Walker has more than 30 years of experience developing partnerships and educational products with nonprofit organizations, corporations, and public agencies to benefit at-risk children and families. She launches national campaigns, coordinates special events, and develops original content for the National Education Association, Random House Children’s Books, PBS, and WETA’s Learning Media initiatives (Reading Rockets, Colorín Colorado, and

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