Junior high is no joke, but high school’s an entirely different animal. For teens getting ready for what might be their first taste of lockers, late bells, and most of all a dizzying array of choices—of classes, of friends, of personas—here are 16 books exploring the obstacles you might face, debunking the myths you might get tripped up by, and serving as a primer for that giant, sometimes terrifying petri dish that is high school. (And don’t miss our list of 15 YA books every teen should read before college.)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
One of the best coming of age stories of all time, Perks is a paean to the heady pleasures of discovering books that totally get you, music that blows your mind, and the friends who become your tribe. It’s also the story of a boy coming to terms with buried trauma, and learning to survive in a world he sometimes feels unequipped to handle. It’s about holding out for friends who see your worth and help you to see it, too, a perfect message for anyone about to jump into the wild waters of high school.
The List, by Siobhan Vivian
Siobhan’s book, about an anonymously written and distributed list that names the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade at an Every High School, is an intelligent, respectful exploration of the inner lives of girls, and the terrifying ways their peers’ words and actions can define or derail their sense of self. Vivian captures social interactions and complicated relationships with such fineness, depicting how even the “pretty” girls feel stunted and stuck by the List’s double-edged approval, targeted by classmates’ expectations and the need to maintain their status.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
Alexander’s book in verse is a sizzling, soulful page-turner, about the months when everything changes for school basketball star Josh: his twin brother gets a girlfriend, his retired ball player dad won’t get his high blood pressure checked out, and a wrong move on the court gets him suspended from the team. Not all change is bad, but most change is hard, and this soaring heartbreaker captures the way stress and sadness can make you a stranger to yourself in transitional times.
Sloppy Firsts, by Megan McCafferty
Jessica Darling is funny, angry, and alone, stuck with friends she can’t stand and parents she can barely talk to after her best friend, Hope, moves out of town unexpectedly before their junior year of high school. Jessica embarks on the new school year feeling totally lost, a familiar feeling to anyone making the jump to high school without their nearest and dearest. Sleepless nights, the long shadow of a family tragedy, and her confusing crush on sexy burnout Marcus Flutie (aka, everybody’s book boyfriend) complicate Jessica’s life, told through angsty, hilarious diary entries.
Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block
High school is a time when you get to build your own environment in a way you just don’t in junior high. Most teens get more freedom, high schools tend to have different and often bigger populations, and for many of us, our friends are suddenly at the center of our existence. Weetzie is a girl with a home life that’s lacking, who builds her own magical world with the friends she’s crazy about. She dresses exactly how she wants to (white-dyed hair, pajamas), does whatever she wants (Jayne Mansfield impressions, drives under palm trees), and makes lots of mistakes she never regrets, because mistakes are part of living. She’s a reminder of the big-sky world that’s out there beyond halls and grades and cliques.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, by Meg Medina
This book’s perfect title is also its perfect first line, kicking off an exploration of the destabilizing power of random hatred; racial, social, and class divides; and the erasing effects of a bully’s campaign of terror. Medina pulls no punches and offers no easy escape for Piddy, a new girl who’s targeted after her figure draws the attention of the wrong girl’s boyfriend. Piddy tries to ignore her tormentor, tries to defuse the situation, tries to get tough enough to protect herself, but learns that Yaqui’s hate exists outside of anything she can do or say. This might be a scary book for someone about to face the halls of high school, but it’s also a crucial one.
Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King
Because nobody around her seems to see who she is—or seems capable of accepting her secret relationship with the girl she’s falling for—Astrid saves up her love to send to the people in the planes winging over her backyard. Feeling paralyzed by life in her small town, by her family’s expectations, and by other people’s assumptions, Astrid turns to strangers she’ll never meet to feel free. She’s searching and smart, deeply attuned to others while struggling to define and express her own identity. This is a lovely coming of age for teens struggling with the push-pull of outer and inner forces.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
If you’ve spent much time on the B&N Teen Blog, you’ve probably met Simon. Albertalli’s debut is the joyful, squee-inducing story of a small-town boy falling in love with a male classmate via anonymous emails, though he isn’t yet out to his family and friends. It’s about first love and coming out and coming of age, and the awkwardness of determining who you are while other people are watching. Albertalli nails the feeling of trying to change under the eyes of your parents, and the sense that becoming yourself requires one exhausting public declaration after another. Simon gets it, and teens starting high school need him.
Goodbye, Stranger, by Rebecca Stead
Stead writes some of the warmest, realest middle grade out there—perfectly observed, never condescending stories about real kids dealing with real (and occasionally magical) issues. For friends Bridge, Emily, and Tab, everything changes in seventh grade. Suddenly a cute boy is paying attention to Emily, and making demands she might not be ready for. Tab is a budding feminist overwhelmed by her need to change the world. And Bridge, whose life is shadowed by the childhood accident that almost killed her, is trying to figure out what it means to be friends—or more than friends—with a boy named Sherm. Dealing with issues including slut shaming, friend breakups, and first love, Goodbye, Stranger fords the rocky waters of junior high, a turbulent precursor to the high-stakes adventures of high school.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
If there were one lesson I wish could be engrained into every teen’s (every human’s) DNA, it would be this: don’t define your self worth by other people’s approval. Frankie’s heroic story begins where so many stories end: she’s newly “hot,” having developed over the summer, and has sudden social status as the girlfriend of her boarding school’s golden boy. So once you’ve got all the things you’re supposed to want, what do you do next? In Frankie’s case, you infiltrate the secretive boys’ club on campus, beat every member at their own pranking game, and find that sometimes you have to be your best fan—because sometimes you’re going to be your only fan.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Every teen needs to read this book, about a girl’s self-silencing following her rape at a party. When she claims the only power she can—her refusal to speak—Melinda allows lies about her to harden into beliefs: that she’s a narc. That she’s a weirdo. That she’s undeserving of friendship. But the truly amazing thing about Anderson’s debut is the way Melinda’s identity keeps shining through the wreckage left by the attack. She can’t help but be interested in botany and art, and the political statements of a brainy classmate. This is a heartbreaking work that reminds us we can’t always believe what we hear, and that the human spirit can be unimaginably resilient.
What We Saw, by Aaron Hartzler
Pair this one with Speak: it’s the story of a sexual assault told from the perspective of a girl who left the party before the crime occurred. The resulting scandal and media circus turn the school into a battlefield and the town into a national cautionary tale. Instead of toeing the party line, by either demonizing the victim or refusing to acknowledge her at all, Kate chases down the real story. She wrestles with the nature of truth and complicity, and has her eyes opened to the banality of evil. A great reminder that thinking for yourself is always preferable to joining the hivemind, and a primer on the sometimes painful but always necessary act of asserting yourself as an individual.
This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki
Outgrowing your friends, seeing your friends outgrow you, watching the infinitely complicated lives of older teens unfolding close up—kinda like high school, this is what This One Summer is about. It’s a delicately told, emotionally brilliant graphic novel about two friends reuniting in a summer vacation town, and finding their slight age difference suddenly matters—Rose is fascinated by the drama surrounding the life of an older convenience store cashier, while Windy still wants to enjoy the childish fun of previous seasons. The book’s gentle arc provides a blueprint for anyone feeling the tug of growing older.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
If you’ve been living in a non-wifi-enabled cave, you may not have heard you and everyone you know needs to read this book. Junior is an awkward, dorky, blisteringly bright teen who dares to leave the Spokane Indian reservation in pursuit of a better education, leaving behind everything familiar and ensuring he won’t fit in anywhere—in neither the world of the res he goes home to each night, nor the mostly white school where he has to start at square zero. This is an astonishing, hilarious, and humane coming of age that’s a must-read for anyone who has ever felt like a misfit.
Noggin, by John Corey Whaley
In this extraordinary near future tale, 16-year-old Travis is woken from a very long sleep after his cryogenically frozen head, separated five years earlier from his terminally ill body, is transplanted onto a donor body. He wakes up feeling as if no time has passed, but the world—including his parents, best friend, and girlfriend—couldn’t help but move on without him. He’s left navigating a strange new planet where nobody, not even those who love him best, can truly understand what he’s going through or what he needs. You don’t have to lose your head to understand how that feels.
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
From the minute awkward new girl Eleanor steps onto the school bus, she does everything wrong: she looks wrong, dresses too loud, doesn’t understand the arcane rules of who’s allowed to sit where. Grudgingly, Park risks social blowback by letting her sit next to him. Then, over the course of months spent sitting together (furtively sharing comic books, slowly beginning to talk, holding hands in the most epic hand-holding scene ever), they fall in love, and neither can believe how removed their first impressions are from the reality of each other. The book is about more than that—Eleanor’s need to escape her horrendous home life, Park’s troubled relationship with his dad—but this message is at its core: you can’t know someone’s troubles just by looking at them, and you should always take care to be kind.