Books for hard-to-shop-for tweens and teens, from Star Wars and Harley Quinn to gothic horror

Got a sullen teen, kid or other reader on your holiday list? Let them get lost in these gripping tales

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published December 10, 2022 12:59PM (EST)

Young teenage girl reading by the window (Getty Images/praetorianphoto)
Young teenage girl reading by the window (Getty Images/praetorianphoto)

My child has reached the age where relatives are starting to worry: What in the world can they give him for gifts? 

Adolescence is not known for being the most forthcoming of times. It's not like some older kids even talk to adults sometimes, let alone tell you what they want for Christmas. Teens and the often-forgotten, perplexing tweens are likely too old for toys. You may not be sure what style or size they wear — and even if you choose the correct size for clothes, they may have outgrown them by the time they open a gift box. Cash is of course always appreciated by teens and tweens, but if you're looking for something more personal (and parentally approved) go books. 

I was always the kid holed up in the corner at family reunions, reading. And I remember boxed sets of Laura Ingalls Wilder books my aunt mailed to me one Christmas when I had the chicken pox, an antique set of "Bobbsey Twins" mysteries our neighbors gave to me when they moved. Books are a personal gift, but they can also open a window into a world of other gifts: introducing kids to an author or genre they enjoy. That kind of love can last for life. 

Here are some 2022 books for the teen, tween — or anyone who loves reading — on your list this holiday season.

A rule of parenting: if you make too much of a big deal about something, it often won't go over well. And so, sometimes I simply leave books for my son in his room and say nothing about them. That's what I did with "Bunnicula," the beloved book from the late '70s now in graphic novel form for the first time. When I asked, faux-innocently, if my son had started the book, he said, "I finished it." Success! Leave it in the room (or under the tree). Don't oversell it. This book about a vampire bunny who drains vegetables, told from the POV of the family dog, pretty much sells itself.

Anthologies can be a good choice for gift-giving, especially for teens and kids, because it allows the reader to sample a wide variety of stories and voices. It's like the advent calendar of books. If a teen gets bored with a story, they can move on. If they love it, they've got a new writer to follow. In 2023, there's an anthology of stories inspired by Marie Curie that I've got my sights on, and this year I fell in love with "The Gathering Dark: An Anthology of Folk Horror." Teens will feel incredibly cool reading this book with its gorgeously unnerving cover, and with stories by Erica WatersHannah WhittenOlivia Chadha and more, they're sure to find something to delight and surprise them. This is prime reading under the covers with a flashlight material.

I picked up this YA novel, just intending to take a short break, and couldn't put it down. Fresh, fast-paced and relevant, "Harley Quinn: Reckoning" is the first in a planned trilogy starring Harley Quinn (the next book in the series arrives in April 2023). In this completely original origin story, Harley is a lab intern dealing with harassment and worse as a young woman in STEM, treatment that will propel her into a girl gang called the Reckoning. The writing is sharp and the story urgent. It's also a beautiful object with a colorful illustrated cover by Jen Bartel. Any teen or Harley-loving adult in your life would be thrilled to get this book. 

You probably know of the beloved Netflix series "Heartstopper," which, true to its title grabs our hearts and never lets go. If you're lucky, you've seen the delightfully loving (and totally tween-appropriate) show about young kids finding love and catching feelings for the first time. The series was based on an ongoing web comic and graphic novel queer YA series, written and illustrated by Alice Oseman. Any of Oseman's books would make a wonderful gift for teenagers, but if the reader on your list has everything in the "Heartstopper" series, they may be more interested in the latest, the newly released "The Heartstopper Yearbook." A full-color, illustrated companion book, it includes an exclusive comic, new illustrations, character profiles and trivia. And if an aspiring artist is on your list, the book also features wisdom about Oseman's creative process.

Fortunately, my oldest nephew does not read my articles because he's getting this book for Christmas, along with a boxed set of "Goosebumps" books; he already devoured "Stinetinglers," published earlier this year. You just can't go wrong with R.L. Stine. This book, like his many others, has chills. It has thrills. But most importantly of all, it has heart, and a writer who truly loves and cares for children. An exploration of one of Stine's most memorable characters, the villainous ventriloquist's dummy known as Slappy, this fast-paced book will compel kids to keep turning pages without terrifying them. The reward is, essential to Stine: a happy, satisfying ending.

"It's canon," your child will say in the hushed tone of a small expert who knows exactly the name and pronunciation of every minor character in the "Star Wars" universe. This New York Times bestselling YA novel takes place after the events of "Episode II: Attack of the Clones." Anakin Skywalker is newly promoted, and he and Obi-Wan Kenobi are tasked with dealing with the aftermath of a brutal attack on Cato Neimoidia, home of the Trade Federation. Like all of Chen's books, including the time travel novel "Here and Now and Then," the writing is swiftly moving, heartfelt and funny. Perfect for the "Star Wars" devotee.

Sometimes the key to inspiring a teen — or anyone — to read is excitement. Christopher Pike's novels were a key part of my adolescence, mostly because I couldn't put the gripping tales of teen betrayal and murder down, consuming them like candy. But you can have a good story without easy sordidness. Diana Urban is that rare writer whose voice is thrilling, twisty and emotionally real. In her propulsive latest, Crystal gets a message on a mysterious app that her young sister has been kidnapped. It's all a game to the criminal, demanding increasingly bizarre tasks Crystal is forced to complete, but to Crystal, it's her sister's life at stake — and, as it turns out, the lives of her friends. 

Newman's book "How to Be a Person" was a huge hit at my house, and I was waiting for this new one for a long time. Her follow-up, "What Can I Say?: A Kid's Guide to Super-Useful Social Skills to Help You Get Along and Express Yourself; Speak Up, Speak Out, Talk about Hard Things, and Be a Good Friend" should be a required primer for middle school. Bold, cheerful and lovingly rendered illustrations help tweens puzzle out essential social skills, including ways to be a friend and ally to others. This is funny, friendly and supportive advice on everything from how to deal with offensive comments to greeting a group Zoom call to saying no to a date. It's the book you needed as kid but didn't have. 

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As any kid or student will tell you, sometimes you really need to disappear into a book on school vacation. "The Whispering Dark" is that book, a dark academia that transports the reader to fictional Godbole University where Delaney Meyers-Petrov is new, recently accepted into a program that trains students to move between parallel worlds. Delaney, who is Deaf, as is her author, Kelly Andrew, has always had an uneasy relationship with the darkness — and with Colton Price, a boy from her past who just so happens to be on her campus. Lush, gothic and with gorgeously lyric writing, this novel is for anyone who wants to while away the winter afternoons, curled up inside a haunting story.

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Books Christmas Gifts Graphic Novels Harley Quinn Kids List Parenting Rl Stine Star Wars Teens Tweens