21 Must-Read Books for 12th Graders by Authors of Color

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Katisha Smith

Staff Writer

Katisha is a former military brat who studied engineering because she couldn’t hack it as a writer. You can find her on the internets talking books, movies, pop culture, beauty or whatever is floating her boat at the moment.

Welcome to senior year of high school, where you’re less than a year away from forging your own path in life. Until then, you have to keep going to class because that diploma is not going to earn itself. One class you have to pass in order to receive said diploma is English Literature, which means reading plenty of old books classics. Although they may be deemed great books for 12th graders to read, are they really the best books for 12th graders when most are written from the white cis male perspective?

Since Book Riot is all about reading harder, we think no student should leave high school without reading a few books written by people of color. Therefore, we bring forth this list of books for 12th graders from authors of color, because no excuse shall prosper against diversifying your reading lists.

Contemporary Fiction for 12th Graders

The following are books for 12 graders of the here and now, with several books about the experience of being 17. 

Clap When You Land Book Cover

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

From National Book Award–winning and New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth Acevedo comes a novel-in-verse about love, loss, forgiveness, and the bonds that shape our lives. 

Camino Rios loves summer because it means her father is coming to visit from the Dominican Republic. On the day he is supposed to arrive, Camino is instead met at the airport by a crowd of crying people. At school, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting with terrible news: Yahaira’s papi has died in a plane crash. 

Separated by distance and secrets, two girls are forced into a new reality that will forever change their lives, but when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert

Since she was 7, Yvonne has never been without her trusted violin. With high school graduation around the corner, Yvonne must face the hard truth that even with years of dedication, she might not be good enough for the prestige conservatory she’s dreamed of attending. Full of doubt about her future and frustrated with her strained relationship with her father, Yvonne finds comfort in a street musician and fellow violinist named Omar. He’s mysterious, charming, and the opposite of familiar and reliable Warren, the boy who has her heart. When Yvonne becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she must make the most difficult decision of her life.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She quickly befriends her charismatic Serbian classmate Svetlana and begins an email correspondence with Ivan, an older Hungarian mathematics student. At the end of the year, Ivan heads to Budapest, and Selin plans to spend the summer teaching English in the Hungarian countryside. On the way, she spends two weeks in Paris with Svetlana. However, Selin’s European summer is nothing like the typical American college student experience she expected.

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The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

Seventeen-year-old Rukhsana Ali tries to live up to the expectations of her conservative Muslim parents, but she is finding that harder to do. Luckily, she only has a few more months until she can trade her carefully monitored life in Seattle for freedom at Caltech, where she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. When Rukhsana’s parents catch her kissing girlfriend Ariana, all of her plans fall apart because being gay may as well be a death sentence in the Bengali community. Soon, Rukhsana is sent to Bangladesh and thrown into a world of tradition and arranged marriages.

Love, Hate, & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the world full of expectation to be the proper Indian daughter, which means attending a college in Chicago close to her parents and being paired with a “suitable” Muslim boy. In the other world, Maya is living in New York City, going to film school, and maybe pursuing a boy of her own choosing.

There is also the real world, beyond Maya’s control, where her life has been turned upside down in the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away. Now, her community has become unrecognizable as neighbors and classmates become consumed with bigotry, hatred, and fear. Despite it all, Maya must channel her inner strength and determine where she truly belongs.

Historical Fiction for 12th Graders

For the 12th grade history buffs, there is plenty of YA historical fiction about young women of color. 

Dread Nation Book Cover

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

If you are in search of YA historical fiction with a side of zombies, then look no further than Dread Nation.

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields, derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, the Native and Negro Reeducation Act requires that certain children attend combat school to learn how to put down the dead. For Jane, not even being the daughter of a wealthy White Southerner could save her from society’s expectations. Training to become an Attendant, one trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the wealthy, is not the life Jane wants. 

Upon completing Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set to return to her Kentucky home. When families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in a conspiracy that finds her in a desperate fight for her life where the restless dead are the least of her problems.

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

Ida Mae Jones dreams of being a pilot just like her daddy, but being a woman and being Black are two strikes against her. When America enters into war against Germany and Japan, the Army creates the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and Ida sees a way to fly and help her brother stationed in the Pacific. However, the WASPs won’t accept her as a Black woman, so Ida Mae is forced to make the difficult choice of pretending to be white. Finally, Ida Mae is able to pursue her dream, but hiding one’s heritage is a heavy burden.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

By day, 17-year-old Jo Kuan is a lady’s maid for the daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest men. By night, she is the author behind “Dear Miss Sweetie,” a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady. As the column gains popularity, Jo uses the power of her pen to challenge society’s ideas on race and gender, but she is not prepared for the backlash. While opponents seek to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. When she crosses paths with Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide if the girl who lives in the shadows is ready to step into the light.

Must-Read Nonfiction Books for 12th Graders

Although not specifically YA nonfiction, these are must-read nonfiction books for 12th graders preparing for life in “The Real World.”

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One Person, No Vote: How All Voters Are Not Treated Equally by Carol Anderson

In her New York Times bestseller White Rage, Anderson chronicled the many policies from the end of slavery until today that have systematically impeded progress for Black Americans. In One Person, No Vote, she describes a related history, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This 2013 decision essentially allowed districts with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination to change voting requirement without getting approval from the Department of Justice. In response, many states quickly and enthusiastically adopted voter suppression laws and tactics, including gerrymandering, closing polling places, and photo ID requirements.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

In December 2000, the Baltimore Sun ran a piece about local student Wes Moore who had just received a Rhodes Scholarship. Within the same paper was an article about the hunt for two brothers, one named Wes Moore, suspected of killing a police officer in an armed robbery.

Wes couldn’t shake the unsettling coincidence. After following the story from the manhunt to the trial, he wrote a letter to the other Wes, now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. That letter led to the two men corresponding over dozens of letters and prison visits. Wes discovered his life was not unlike that of the other Wes. Both grew up in similar neighborhoods and experienced difficult childhoods, but circumstances would lead them to different destinies.

This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell (Author) and Aurelia Durand (Illustrator)

From anti-bias antiracist (ABAR) educator Tiffany Jewell comes this #1 New York Times bestseller for young people (and everyone else) who are ready to wake up, take action, and work to become antiracist. Readers will learn about privilege, inclusion, and conscious/unconscious bias with straightforward information and historical facts. Then they will put what they learned to work with action items and prompts for reflection.

Youre So Money Book Cover

You’re So Money: Live Rich, Even When You’re Not by Farnoosh Torabi

Journalist and personal finance expert Farnoosh Torabi brings finance advice for those who want to enjoy their daily Starbucks and buy the latest Apple device without feeling guilty or being buried in debt. According to Torabi, the key is to prioritize your spending from what you need or want the most now to what can wait until later without sacrificing your financial security. 

The references may seem dated since You’re So Money was published over a decade ago, but the principles still apply. Also, there’s plenty of current money advice on Torabi’s award-winning podcast, So Money.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for 12th Graders

All the 12th graders will be yelling SFF, Yeah! with these sci-fi and fantasy books for teen readers.

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Xifeng is 18 years old and beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness as Empress of Feng Lu, if she embraces the darkness within her. Xifeng longs to fulfill that destiny foreseen by the witch Guma, but is the price of the throne worth the cost? In order to achieve her promised greatness, Xifeng must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the dark magic within her.

Girl Gone Viral by Arvin Ahmadi

For 17-year-old Opal Hopper, coding allows her to build entire worlds from scratch, but she can’t code her father back to life. Since he disappeared after her 10th birthday leaving only a cryptic note, Opal has been desperately trying to find him. Unable to succeed, she enrolls in a boarding school for technical prodigies in an effort to forget. Then WAVE, the world’s biggest virtual reality platform announces a contest where the winner gets to meet its billionaire founder, the person who worked closely with Opal’s dad. What begins as a small hack to win the contest quickly spirals out of control as Opal digs deeper into a web of lies, hacks, and manipulation. How far will Opal go in search of the answers she’s wanted for years?

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hailsham is a pleasant English boarding school where students are trained in art and literature, but are taught nothing about the world outside of Hailsham. Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman within the grounds of Hailsham. It is only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safety of the school that they realize the truth of what Hailsham really is.

YA Mysteries for 12th Graders

Looking for contemporary books for 12th graders with chills and thrills written by people of color? Look no further than these YA mysteries!

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Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson (September 15, Katherine Tegen Books)

When Enchanted Jones wakes up, Korey Fields is dead. Her hands are covered with Korey’s blood, and Enchanted has no memory of the previous night. She does know this isn’t how things were supposed to go, because Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom. 

Before this, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her family’s recent move to the suburbs where she is now the only Black girl in her new high school. Then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition, and Enchanted’s dream of becoming a professional singer feels possible. Initially, Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious lifestyle, but behind Korey’s charm lies a dark side. Now Korey’s dead, the police are asking questions, and all signs point to Enchanted.

Grown hits shelves on September 15, 2020. While waiting for this highly-anticipated mystery, check out Jackson’s previous critically-acclaimed YA mystery Monday’s Not Coming about Claudia’s search to find her missing friend Monday.

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Jay Reguero plans to spend the time he has left before heading to the University of Michigan playing video games. Then he learns his cousin Jun has been murdered. No one in the family wants to talk about what happened, so Jay travels to the Philippines hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death.

Shadow Girl by Liana Liu

When Mei arrives at the house on Arrow Island, she can’t help but feel relieved about spending the summer away from her needy mother, delinquent brother, and their tiny apartment. Mei gets to live in a mansion, and Ella is a sweet, easy, well-behaved charge. Although Mei tries to focus on her duties, she becomes increasingly distracted by the unexplained noises she hears at night. Mei isn’t superstitious, but she can’t shake the fear of danger lurking in the shadows of this big, beautiful house that could destroy them all.

YA Romance Books for 12th Graders

Where are the high school seniors looking for love? We have the books that fit the bill with some must-read romcoms for 12th graders.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Book Cover

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki (Author) and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (Illustrator)

Looking for graphic novels for teens about love and ending toxic relationships? Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is the answer. 

Laura Dean is the most popular girl in high school and Frederica (Freddy) Riley’s dream girl. The problem is Laura Dean is not the best girlfriend. Reeling from the latest break up, Freddy’s best friend, Doodle, introduces Freddy to a mysterious medium who gives some simple advice: “Break up with her.” That’s easier said than done because Laura Dean keeps coming back, and Freddy can’t resist her charm. As their relationship continues to spiral, Freddy begins to wonder if it’s Laura Dean who is the problem, especially as Freddy starts losing friends like Doodle, who she needs now more than ever.

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

Sana Khan is the classic overachiever, determined to be the best on the field as a cheerleader and to stay at the top of the class as a straight-A student. Rachel Recht is the movie-obsessed aspiring director who is ready to make her own masterpiece. While casting her senior film project, Rachel has found the perfect lead in Sana. The only problem is Rachel hates Sana. 

Told in dual viewpoints, Tell Me How You Really Feel is an edgy YA novel inspired by classic romcoms about two strong-willed young women falling for one another despite their best efforts.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

It’s September 11, 2002, an extremely turbulent time, especially for Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl. Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be, but she’s tired of being stereotyped and dealing with rude stares, degrading comments, and even physical violence because of her religion. Shirin copes by drowning her frustrations in music and spending her afternoons break dancing with her brother. Then she meets Ocean James. He is the first person in a long time who wants to get to know Shirin, and that terrifies her. Shirin has spent so long refusing to let anyone get close that she’s not sure she’ll be able to let her guard down.

Need more must-read YA books for 12th graders? Listen to the Hey YA! Podcast and check out the Best YA Books of Summer 2020!