At 13 years old, young teenagers rarely want their parents to pick out their books for them. That’s okay, but it you find your child is reading less I suggest leaving a few of these tempting books for 13 year olds around the house in conspicuous places. But beware! Don’t say a word about the books lest your young ones think their parents are pressuring them to read! But what books should you look for on your secret mission? As I said in my 8th grade reading list, it’s an extremely tricky age! 13 year olds aren’t keen on books about 11 year olds, but they may not be ready to read the more serious and mature titles on the YA shelves.
This book list for 13 year olds includes a variety of genres: fantasy, realism, historical fiction and more. I’ve also made an attempt to include titles with a diversity of characters (I’m working on a nonfiction list for teens — stay tuned!) If your teen loves to get recommendations from you, by all means, hand this list to them and send them off to the library. If more subtle suggestions are required, work your magic by leaving these diverse books scattered around as I suggested above! (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. I could not put this book down! Nisha and her twin brother are half-Muslim, half-Hindu siblings living with their father in India just before the time of Partition. When the word comes that their town is to become part of the new Pakistan state, Nisha, her brother, her Hindu father and grandmother must make the harrowing and dangerous journey to the Indian border. Each chapter is an entry in Nisha’s diary as she leaves her comfortable life behind and struggles with her own questions of identity. Highly recommended!
Slider by Pete Hautman. When David accidentally charges $2000 to his mom’s credit card, he concocts a plan to get the money by winning a pizza eating contest. In between prepping his stomach for the contest and taking care of his neuro-atypical brother, Mal, David must also figure out where he stands when his two best friends find themselves in a relationship. This book has lots of laughs but is also a meaningful read and many 13 year olds will understand David’s struggle with friends and family.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I actually haven’t read this classic since I was a teen, but my son brought it home as an assignment for school and read it about 10 or 12 times! A friend of mine said her 13 year old called it his favorite book! Ponyboy lives with and relies on his two brothers, Sodapop and Darry in a world divided by social class. The brothers are pitted against the “Socs”, the upper-class kids and after Ponyboy is beat up, the tensions escalate ending in tragedy.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. I loved this delightfully weird novel which is told in both textual chapters and illustrated chapters. Spurge is an elf historian who is sent on secret spy mission to the land of the goblins where he stays with the scholar, Werfel, who is determined to show him great hospitality. What Brangwain Spurge does not know is that he is being used by the Elfland spymaster who intends to assassinate the goblin leader. The spymaster’s plans are revealed in letters to the king, interspersed among the chapters. As events unfold, Spurge and Werfel must collaborate to ensure their own survival and readers must contemplate the themes of political ideology, misunderstanding, government propaganda and blind allegiance. But not to worry, slapstick comedy and quirky humor are also high on the agenda.
The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim. This is an example of a book which has recommended reading age that is too low for the subject matter. I listened to the audiobook and fell in love with the main character. Te publisher recommends it for ages 8 and up, but after listening to it, I suggest ages 10 and up and it is perfect for ages 12-14, even though the protagonist is twelve. In medieval China, Li Jing has a hard life. Her poor family sells her off to a family who intends to marry her to their toddler-son and she goes off to live with her new in-laws who turn out to be cruel and treat her as a slave. When she refuses to submit to them, they sell her off to a house for courtesans but she escapes and goes on a journey to find refuge. Li Jing is a fiercely strong girl character who increasingly gains confidence in herself and takes control of her own destiny.
Refugee by Alan Gratz. This moving book tells three stories. Josef is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany; Isabel and her family are attempting to escape Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and in 2015 Mahmoud’s family runs from war-torn Syria. The alternating narration draws parallels between all three journeys with an ending that brings the three stories together. I found this book to be gripping and it is a timely book to give your 13 year old to read.
Mayday by Karen Harrington is a great book for 13 year olds. Coming home from his uncle’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Wayne and his single mother are in a terrible plane crash. Both survive, but Wayne sustains an injury that leaves him unable to speak for several months. During that time his former drill-sergeant grandfather moves into with them. Suddenly Wayne’s world is turned upside down. His girlfriend only stays with him out of pity, his grandfather is ill but won’t talk about it, and he is searching in vain for the American flag from his uncle’s coffin that was lost during the crash. But Wayne meets a new friend who helps him through it all and he comes to understand his own rather sorry excuse for a father a bit better.
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson. Six diverse kids are put together in a room at school as a place where they can talk about the issues they are facing in their lives. Their burdens are as diverse as their backgrounds; incarceration, racial profiling, possible deportation are just a few of the subject the middle schoolers need and want to talk about with each other. Woodson’s prose is gorgeous, almost poetic and the reader will come to care for all of the teens as they tell their stories.
Train I Ride by Paul Mosier. This is not a long book, but it addresses a hard subject for kids to talk about. 13 year old Rydr is on a train from California to Chicago. She is being sent to live with an elderly uncle she has never met because her grandmother has recently passed away. Several years earlier, Rydr lost her mother to drug addiction. On the train, Rydr is being supervised by Dorothy, an Amtrak escort. Rydr’s assertiveness helps her make several important and life-saving friendships on the train ride. Although the subject of the book is tough, it is still a positive story and a great book to put in the hands of your teenager who may not want a hefty tome to read.
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh is another book I couldn’t put down. 13 year old Max is an American boy whose family has come to live for a year in Brussels. Max is resentful that he has to repeat a grade and go to a French-speaking school. Ahmed, a 14 year old Syrian refugee is separated from his father on the water crossing to Greece. He is able to make his way to Belgium and hides out in Max’s basement. When Max discovers him, the two become friends and hatch a plan to help Ahmed get out into the world again. A timely, sensitive book about friendship, family and taking charge of one’s life.
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen. Felix Knutsson lives in Canada with his single mother, but when his grandmother dies and Felix’s mother can’t keep things together they start living out of their van. Felix, who is bi-racial, has a knack for facts and makes it on to a popular quiz show. In the end, Felix and his mother find the help they need from friends and a refugee couple who understand their plight. Despite the themes of poverty, mental illness and parental inadequacy, Felix’s narration is actually quite funny and this was an enjoyable book to read.
Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. If your 13 year old enjoys historical fiction, give them any book by Margi Preus! In this tale, based on the real life experiences of a Norwegian teen, 14 year old Espen becomes a valuable member of the Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation. Over the course of a few years he must navigate the day to day life of a teen in Norway with the stress of figuring out who to trust, as well as the stirrings of first love. Very suspenseful!
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman. This is the prequel to Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (The Golden Compass, etc.), but even if your child hasn’t read that book, this one will stand on its own. Malcolm Polstead lives in Oxford and is suspicious of the new order around him. When the baby Lyra (the heroine of The Golden Compass) comes to live in the neighborhood priory, Malcom’s adventures really take off. This book is just as good as the original trilogy!
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya. 13 year old Arturo works part-time in his family’s Cuban restaurant. But then a sketchy land developer, Pipo, wants to buy the lot next door and convince the city to let him develop a huge project with no room for the restaurant. Arturo, with the help of his friend Carmen work to undermine Pipo’s plot. I loved the way Arturo finds inspiration to fight the good fight from the poetry of Cuban poet José Martí, as well as old letters written by his grandfather. Any teenager will laugh out loud at Arturo’s antics.
The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson. Marinka is coming up on her 13th birthday and although she know she is destined to become the next Yaga, she is resentful and wants the freedom to chose her own destiny. She doesn’t like the solitary, nomad life she lives with her grandmother, helping to usher the dead through The Gate into the afterlife. When she wanders too far away from her house one day she learns a life-changing secret about her existence but when her grandmother travels through The Gate to help a soul and doesn’t return, Marinka must figure out how to both control and fill her own destiny. I adored this inventive new and uplifting interpretation of the Slavic Baba Yaga folktale in which breaks the mold of Yaga as villain.
More book lists for 13 year olds: