Great learning gifts for your high schooler

8 smart, sassy, and sophisticated gifts for every teen on your list.

By GreatSchools Staff

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant; read by Sarah Coomes, Nico Ever-Swindell, Shannon McManus, Arthur Morey, Julie Whelan

Ages: 14+

Librarian Wendy Woodfill recommended this short fiction anthology of YA’s hottest sub-genre — steampunk, which blends elements of sci-fi, fantasy, history, adventure, and even romance into speculative fiction that thrills. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories features 14 stories by well-known authors including Cassandra Clare and Cory Doctorow. "There’s a lifetime of creativity, mystery, and ingenious adventure packed into this book," Woodfill says. "And because it's a collection of short pieces, it’s a great choice for kids who don’t have long attention spans."

Bottom line: Inventive and fantastical stories that appeal equally to easily distracted and adventure-seeking boys and girls.

The Future of Us

By Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

Ages: 12 and up

Here's a book for the Facebook generation, set in 1996 when Mark Zuckerberg was just a brainy tween. High school classmates Emma and Josh were best friends until an awkward romantic moment introduced a new tension between them, changing everything. Then Josh receives a free CD-ROM in the mail and shares it with Emma, thereby automatically logging both onto each other's Facebook page. The catch is that  Facebook hasn’t been invented yet. Their respective pages reflect their lives 15 years in the future. The chapters alternate between Emma's and Josh's perspectives, as both grapple with the discovery that choices they make in the present can have far-reaching consequences for the future.

Bottom line: The Future of Us is an insightful glimpse at the present for teens of all ages — just be prepared to explain what life was like before the Internet and Ipod.

Beauty Queens

Written and read by Libba Bray

Ages: 14 and up

What happens when an airplane crashes on a desert island, leaving a bunch of beauty queens stranded? Pretty hilarious stuff, actually. Libba Bray is beloved for her previous YA novels, and with Beauty Queens, she pushes the envelope even further with a slapstick, satirical take on beauty pageants and other hot-button issues faced by teen girls. "This is a real tour-de-force," says Jamie Watson, collection development coordinator for the Baltimore County Public Library. "I love that it’s not a preachy, message-driven book (although there are some good messages) — and did I mention it's hilarious? The author clearly relishes reading her own material."

Bottom line: Comic relief helps teen girls let off some steam at a time when the pressure to conform is powerful.


Ages: 12 and up

A combination of a word search and puzzle game, Pathwords gets increasingly challenging as you move along. The goal? To fit the colored pieces over the words in each puzzle so that all of the letters are covered. Sound easy? Not so fast — sometimes the words are backwards, which can be tricky: "equip" didn't look like a word when spelled "piuqe." This is a single-player game and it can be quite addictive. Of course kids who want to play together can swap games or help each other out with each puzzle. There are a total of 40 games, from beginner to expert.

Bottom line: An addictive word game that also requires visual spatial skills.


Apple iPhone 4s

Ages: Middle school and up

Your child got the grades, is star of the swim team, lights up your life, and goes to bed at a reasonable hour, too. He wants an iPhone — and while the 5 may be a bit out of your price range for a child's gift, the next best thing is the still wonderful and now cheaper Apple iPhone 4S. It has every possible smartphone bell and whistle any teen could dream of, including an 8-megapixel camera that takes amazing photos. It's build with a slew of education-minded features and a wealth of school-focused apps can help him learn math, geography, science, and languages. And it has Siri, the in-phone guru, who answers questions and can cater to all your teen's whims (like calling your teen by his chosen, if ridiculous, nickname). He'll also have all his favorite music right there in his pocket. If you're ready to indulge your teen, the iPhone 4s is the ticket.

Bottom line: Now cheaper, this all-in-one, state-of-the-art phone is sure to make a kid (of any age) happy; and, given its learning-friendly features, it's bound to please most parents as well.


Ages: 8 and up

A modern and much more raucous version of Charades, Scattergories is a party crowd pleaser. The object of the game is to come up with words that begin with a certain letter, based on categories that include everything from sports to food. Originally sold as a party game, Scattergories quickly became popular with teachers because it inspires creativity and teaches kids to think on their feet.

Bottom line: Perfect party game that builds vocabulary, promotes information recall, inspires creative "out-of-the-box" thinking, and hones descriptive communication skills.

Dairy Queen

By Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Dairy Queen, The Off Season, Front and Center

This series is perfect for hardworking, athletic girls who love their families, their sports, and their lives — even when they don't all come wrapped in a pretty package.

The books follow the high school passions and perils of D.J., a teen who has all the drama of a 90210 socialite — just swap out star-spotting in glitzy LA for football games and farm life in rural Wisconsin. You see, Darlene Joyce "D.J." has been picking up the slack around her family's dairy farm ever since her dad got hurt and her football-star brothers left to play college ball, which includes a daily five a.m. wake-up call to milk their 32 cows. A little on the husky side, D.J. is also a major football fan. When she decides to become a player, there's drama, dissent, and a little dalliance with the rival team's quarterback.

Chess, Checkers, and Chinese Checkers

Ages: 6 and up

These old favorites are a great way to while away the hours on a rainy afternoon. Kids love chess (and checkers, its simpler cousin) because they offer the competitive challenge of trying to outwit an opponent one on one. (Chinese checkers is a good alternative when you have more than two people eager to play.) Of course, there’s a serious side to these games, too: they require deep concentration and strategic thinking, providing one of the best brain workouts around. Today many states, including New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Massachusetts, have introduced checkers and chess into the school curriculum.

Bottom line: Players pick up problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking, and strategic planning skills while they hop, skip, and checkmate their way across the board.