Our 2020 Christmas Gift Guide: The teen edition
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be compiling a host of gift guides to help you with your Christmas shopping.
If you’re buying for a teen that loves relatable realism, then we have some excellent choices this festive season.
Sydney author Rawah Arja’s debut The F Team is equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking. Tariq, a headstrong student at Punchbowl High, is forced by the new principal to participate in a rugby competition with boys from rival suburb Cronulla, leading to surprising consequences. If you’re searching for a funny and heartwarming pick that explores real-life issues with ease – family tensions, school pressures, crushes, Islamophobia, communication with friends, masculinity – then this is the book for you.
Overseas travel is off the cards at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t read and dream about the idea of a life-changing exchange year. Kate O'Donnell’s second novel, This One Is Ours, follows sixteen-year-old Sofie on exchange to Paris, where her mind is blown open by new ideas around art, beauty and activism. Give this to a teen that wants to read something uplifting and galvanising.
For a teen who yearns to be older and more sophisticated than their years, try The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff. A British family and their friends embark on their standard summer holiday on the coast, but this year they’re joined by the two American Godden brothers, the sons of a well-known actress. Kit Godden in particular causes hearts to race, but as the summer unfolds it becomes clear there’s some manipulative and toxic simmering under the surface.
Do you know a teen who’s really into music and pop culture? We have two charming Australian novels to scratch that itch. When It Drops by Alex Dyson is a hilarious and touching story about bedroom songwriter Caleb, whose life is up-ended when his little brother leaks a very personal song online. Stars Like Us by Frances Chapman is the story of Liliana, an Australian who is on exchange at music school in London when the unexpected success of her new band complicates her already-complicated love life further.
Finally, if your teen wants to get stuck into contemporary social issues, then, as always there have been many recent YA books that have done this through fiction. Punching the Air is a powerful verse novel about a sixteen-year-old boy who is wrongfully convicted and sent to prison. It’s written by award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam. Salaam is one of the Exonerated Five – the five teenagers wrongfully convicted in 1990 on charges of sexually assaulting a jogger in New York’s Central Park – and brings real-life experience to this novel. Or if feminism is upmost in your teen reader’s mind, then Tiffany D Jackson’s Grown is an unflinching look at an aspiring Black singer caught up in the abuses of power by a much older and more established musician.
SCI-FI & FANTASY
Avid fantasy readers will be ecstatic to receive Garth Nix’s latest page-turning novel. The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is set in a magical version of 1980s London, and follows teens Susan and Merlin as they try to find out what happened to their respective parents. Merlin is one of the youngest members of a secret society of magical booksellers who try to stop the mythical beasties of the Old World bursting forth into the New World and causing havoc. There’s secrets, chaos, action and intrigue – you really can’t go wrong with this choice.
For heart-pumping and mind-expanding sci-fi, we’re recommending The Other Side of the Sky by talented duo Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. This is a thrilling and imaginative story of star-crossed destiny in which the lives of Prince Alciel of the city in the sky and Nimh, the goddess of the surface below, become entwined in the midst of a crisis.
One of my stand-out books this year was Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea, a wildly romantic, high seas adventure in a non-Eurocentric colonised world. If the teen you’re shopping for likes witches, mermaids, queer romance, excellent world-building and small doses of bloodthirsty action, then this is an ideal choice for them.
Other notable fantasy books you might want to consider include the highly original Burn by acclaimed author Patrick Ness, which delves into an alternate 1950s universe where dragons roam the earth, and the second book in Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s much-loved, epic The Aurora Cycle space opera series: Aurora Burning.
If the teen you know is a really, really serious fantasy fan with some real reading chops, then you should consider A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. This is technically an adult fantasy novel but it’s set at a school of magic and trails El Higgins, a student who possesses intimidating dark powers.
For even more sci-fi and fantasy ideas, please take a look through our recommended YA sci-fi and fantasy collection.
MYSTERIES, THRILLERS, DYSTOPIA & HORROR
For a straight-up, heart-stopping crime read then None Shall Sleep by Ellie Marney will, as advertised, keep you up late at night. It’s the 1980s and two teens, Emma Lewis and Travis Bell, are recruited by the FBI to help track down a serial killer. Emma and Travis have past personal experiences of violent crimes, and have been enlisted to interview convicted teenage psychopath Simon Gutmunsson. Simon appears to be providing helpful information, but he is an expert manipulator and Emma and Travis find themselves in real danger. The very definition of a page-turner – teens who love plot twists and thinking about human psychology will gallop through this one.
Another recommended thriller is Lili Wilkinson’s highly original and very suspenseful, The Erasure Initiative. When Cecily wakes up on a self-driving bus she has no memory of how she got there or who she is, with only a nametag to rely on. The six other people on the bus are in the same predicament. They’re asked to vote on a series of tests based on the classic Trolley Problem. As the tests proceed, the pressure increases and stakes get higher. This is a fascinating book that combines action and thought-provocation, excavating morality, identity and selfhood.
For more suggestions like above, take a look at our list of recent YA thrillers guaranteed to ruin a good night’s sleep – including this year’s absolutely terrific Readings Young Adult Book Prize winner.
If the current real-life dystopia is just fuelling a desire for dystopic fiction, then The Loop by Ben Oliver (the first book in a new trilogy!) will land in appreciative hands. Luka Kane has been inside hi-tech prison the Loop for over two years, delaying his death sentence by agreeing to participate in dangerous science experiments. When rumours of a growing outside rebellion penetrate the prison walls, a breakdown in the government surveillance system, gives Luka and the other prisoners a chance to escape. But what’s outside is a society that’s descending into more chaos than ever. This thinking teen’s thriller takes place in a starkly divided society, where class warfare is the norm but human connection is something to still fight for. Timely, wouldn’t you say…?
Finally, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker by Lauren James is a twisty and unpredictable afterlife tale for those that like paranormal books with a light dusting of horror. When Harriet Stoker dies after falling off the balcony of an abandoned university building, she enters a complex ghost world. Fellow ghosts Felix, Kasper, Rima and Leah are welcoming, but Harriet turns out to have a dark and power-hungry side… With impeccable world-building and alternating perspectives, this novel is highly entertaining and just the right amount of creepy.
UNIQUE & UPLIFTING READS
Asphyxia’s amazing Future Girl is one of the most unusual and loveliest books we’ve seen all year. It’s a full-colour extravaganza of text, paint, collage and drawings, woven into a realistic near-future story that champions art, activism, connection and community. Piper’s food scientist mum wants her to pass as hearing and get a good job. But when Melbourne enters an environmental catastrophe, Piper has more important things to worry about. When she meets Marley, a CODA (child of Deaf adult), a door opens into a new world – where Deafness is something to celebrate rather than hide, and where you can grown your own food. We can’t think of a better book to inspire a teen right now to think about what they believe in, and express themselves.
Does your teen have a straight-out need to laugh and/or swoon? Then please give them You Were Made for Me, the second novel from Jenna Guillaume (whose first novel What I Like About Me was shortlisted for last years Readings Young Adult Book Prize). When Katie and Libby accidentally bring to life the perfect guy, their lives are thrown into turmoil. This charming, funny and authentic novel explores the risks of being in love with the idea of being in love, and about the importance of good friends, while touching on topics like grief, body image, and sexuality.
Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novels have been among the most popular YA series of recent years, for graphic novel fans and lovers of romance alike. The third volume continues the dramatic trajectory of Nick and Charlie’s relationship. This time – Nick, Charlie and the gang are in Paris, but things don’t run as smoothly as predicted in the City of Love…
Diary of a Young Naturalist won this year’s prestigious Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, and is a stellar choice for a young person interested in the conservation of nature. 15-year-old Irish teen conservationist Dara McAnulty has written a moving seasonal diary, recording his observations and appreciation of the nature around him, as well as the challenges he faced moving house and school.
For teenagers interested in the cosmos, there are two excellent choices available. The Secret Life of Stars by renowned Australian astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith (author of last year’s wonderful book for younger readers, Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime) is the entertaining and accessible stories of some of the Galaxy’s most remarkable stars, from pulsars, blue stragglers and white dwarfs to cannibal stars and explosive supernovae. Harvey-Smith’s passion is utterly infectious; even if you’ve never been interested in stars before, you will be after reading this. And Unlocking the Universe is a fantastic anthology of essays by the world’s leading scientists as selected by Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy. The essays cover a wide range of topics, from black holes to dark matter and popular conspiracy theories, and the collection also contains startling colour photographs.
Poetry has been undergoing a renaissance with teenagers in recent years, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Instapoets. From the reigning queen if Instapoets, The Rupi Kaur Boxed Set is a giftable slipcase containing Kaur’s two previous published blockbuster poetry collections: milk and honey and the sun and her flowers. Another lovely poetic keepsake is She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women – a powerful collection of 150 poems written by classic, much loved poets, through to bold modern voices. Or if you’d love to encourage your young person to try their own hand at writing or performing, Miles Merrill and Narcisa Nozica’s Slam Your Poetry: Write a Revolution is a must-have guide, masterclass and manifesto.