Thoughtful Books To Gift High School Graduates

I graduated high school over a decade ago, and though I’ve purged my bookshelves several times since then, I’ve never given up the book my mom gifted me for graduation — The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch — with a very dear inscription. (Parents, take note! Inscriptions are key!)

Now, I have 12 years before I must choose the book that I’ll bestow on my oldest niece when she graduates, which means 12 years to decide the type of graduation gift-giver I am. Will I go the sentimental route? The concerned about her nutrition/finances/study habits route? Will I just want to pump her up before she heads off to change the world, like the incredibly gifted and kindhearted young woman she’s already poised to be? (I’m not crying; you’re crying!)

Most likely, I’ll give her a stack of books that check off all of the above. If you’re still deciding what type of graduation gift-giver you are, we’ve rounded up some possibilities, paired with their ideal matches. Good luck, and congrats to your graduate!


yes no If you’re worried they’ll get too many copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!: 9780812996272 Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders

For a poignant graduation speech they can return to again and again, gift them the inimitable George Saunders’s commencement address, originally delivered at Syracuse University in 2013. The speech went on to achieve internet virality, thanks to its simple and heartfelt message to live a kinder life. The New York Times calls the volume “as slender as a psalm, and as heavy.”

yes no If you’re excited for the lifelong friendships they’ll make in college: 9780593315200 Stay True by Hua Hsu

This Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling memoir captures a young man’s experiences with an unlikely friend during college. Even though Hua and Ken have nothing in common on the surface, the two boys develop a deep connection that leaves a lasting impression. This heartfelt exploration of friendship, culture, grief, and art is a must-read.

yes no If you want them to fully embrace their awesome self — flaws and all: 9781401974343 Becoming Flawsome by Kristina Mand-Lakhiani

This inspirational self-help book from the co-founder of the global educational company Mindvalley encourages readers to embrace their imperfections. In it, the author discusses how perfectionism and self-doubt can hold you back, how to let go of unrealistic ideals, and accept your authentic self.

yes no If you want to inspire them to make their mark on the world: 9780593465271 The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem that she read at the presidential inauguration struck a chord with millions of people, and I think it could also have been read as a graduation commencement address. Her message is an excellent reminder to all people that words have meaning, and that we should continue to strive for unity, heal divides, be authentic to ourselves, and show kindness to all.

yes no If you’re learning to let go, but can’t resist imparting some last-minute advice: 9781607748526 College Rules!, 4th Edition by Sherrie Nist-Olejnik and Jodi Patrick Holschuh

Now in its fourth edition, College Rules! is the go-to for incoming college students — preparing them for the huge transition ahead and offering tips to dodge rookie mistakes. From topics like time management, alleviating stress, the anatomy of a syllabus, and how to interact with professors, this is the kind of guide they might hide from their new roommate, but will be oh-so-grateful to have as a resource when it starts to feel like everyone’s speaking another language.

yes no When you want to offer a fresh (and quirky) new perspective on life’s many ups and downs: 9781683693840 When in Doubt, Play Dead by Ally Burguieres

Inject a little humor into your graduate’s life with this book of advice from an opossum. If you’ve ever met an opossum in the wild, you know that these little critters are quiet, quirky, and utterly fearless. Author Ally Burguieres shares the odd and playful wisdom she has gleaned from opossums and shares it alongside playful photos of the creatures.

yes no If you have a nagging feeling they’ll live on ramen for the next four years: 9781611806106 Prep by Katie Sullivan Morford

New high school grads already have a lot on their plate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn how to cook up a few simple, delicious meals. With Prep, chef Katie Sullivan Morford offers 10 basic lessons for beginners, including notes on essential kitchen tools, how to hold a knife, and what pantry staples to keep on hand. Recipes range from the healthy (actually tasty vegetables!) to the craving-inspired (loaded nachos), so you can rest easy knowing they’re getting at least a little variety in their diet.

yes no If you want to send them off with their head held high: 9781524763138 Becoming by Michelle Obama

Forget the cliché dorm room posters. The best decorations for any room, at college or otherwise, are books from history’s greatest figures — among them, former First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama. In her memoir, she writes of growing up on the South Side of Chicago, being faced with Affirmative Action questions while studying at Princeton, why she chose to support her husband’s presidential campaign despite her feelings about politics, and how she created a role for herself as First Lady. It’s a tough choice between the hardcover — a beautiful object on its own — and the audiobook, read by Mrs. Obama herself.

yes no If you’re the sneaky sentimental type who loves a good pep talk: 9780593084199 The Algebra of Happiness by Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business, but he’s most recognized for his “no BS” insights that rack up millions of views on YouTube. His anecdote-fueled wisdom is collected in The Algebra of Happiness, where he tackles the “equations” for a life well lived, what career success looks like (and how to get there), the importance of making room for relationships in a capitalist world, and remembering to care for yourself as a human. It’s a refreshing counterbalance for ambitious, results-oriented grads.

yes no When you want them to have the skills to survive literally anything: 9781683693550 The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Apocalypse by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht

Graduating high school can feel like a worst-case survival scenario for many people. In which case, this hilarious book will come in handy. From making your bunker feel like home to fighting off robots, this humorous book of end-of-world advice is just the sort of gift a recent high school grad will appreciate.

yes no If you still have a collection of their childhood artwork and want to encourage more: 9781594634727 Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Part how-to for living creatively, part examination of great artists’ practices (including her own), Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic encourages readers to embrace curiosity, let go of perfectionism, and pursue their vision of a fulfilling life. Her advice is suited to writers and artists, but also to anyone looking to sustain their passion over the long haul. Simultaneously sincere and irreverent, pragmatic and inspiring, Gilbert serves as an excellent creativity coach, even for readers unfamiliar with her previous work.

yes no If you love to ask the age-old hypothetical, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?”: 9780143128854 Originals by Adam Grant

With Originals, psychologist and author Adam Grant approaches the monumental task of changing the world, arguing that the best way to do so is by valuing new ideas and resisting conformity. Grant tells stories of non-conformists who work in the worlds of business, sports, politics, and entertainment, and he offers readers tangible advice for becoming an original in their own lives: how to be heard, find their allies, avoid groupthink, manage self-doubt, and more.

yes no If you just remembered how you handled money at their age: 9780143130529 The Index Card by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack

There are countless personal finance books you could gift your graduate (and speaking as someone who graduated during the Great Recession, it’s a worthwhile gift!). That said, I’d heartily recommend The Index Card, which boils down everything you need to know about personal finance into 10 simple rules that fit on a — you guessed it — 4” by 6” index card. Co-written by University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack and financial journalist Helaine Olen, this little book packs big lessons.

yes no If you can’t stop bragging about how brilliant they are: 9781524744212 The Genius of Women by Janice Kaplan

Janice Kaplan, author of The Gratitude Diaries, was stunned to read a recent poll in which 90% of Americans said that geniuses tended to be men. Her ensuing investigation is a mix of historical anecdotes, personal narrative, and interviews with dozens of women geniuses working today: mathematicians and musicians, physicists and philosophers, artists and writers. Kaplan celebrates their barrier-breaking work and persistence; together, their stories chart a path forward.

yes no If you’re tempted to send them a steady stream of motivational memes: 9781984854278 Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda, illustrated by Jonny Sun

Another delightful book gift along the lines of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Congratulations, by the way, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight! gathers the Hamilton creator’s most memorable Twitter affirmations, paired with illustrations from acclaimed artist Jonny Sun, for the ultimate nightstand accessory. One of my favorites: “Good night now, and rest. / Today was a test. / You passed it, you’re past it. / Now breathe till unstressed.”

yes no If you want to inspire a future Girlboss with stories of accomplished women in history: 9780593316146 Original Sisters by Anita Kunz, foreword by Roxanne Gay

This visually stunning and thought-provoking book celebrates the bonds of sisterhood, diversity, and the strength of women. Its breathtaking illustrations and empowering stories history-making women like Joan of Arc, Josephine Baker, Greta Thunberg, and Misty Copeland serve as an exceptional graduation gift, inspiring graduates to embrace their individuality, support one another, and strive for a more inclusive world.

yes no When you want them to see the beauty and hope in life’s transitions: 9780593139035 The Moth Presents: A Point of Beauty edited by The Moth

The Moth is a nonprofit organization that focuses on live storytelling. Every so often, they collect some of the most thought-provoking stories into a book. This edition is about finding beauty, strength, and joy in life’s transitions. Inside, readers will find real-life stories that touch hearts, inspire, and uplift. You can’t go wrong with gifting this book to a new graduate.

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