When my daughter graduated from high school five years ago, the headmaster gifted each graduating senior a book with a personal message inside. Her class received Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. The following year, my niece’s graduating class received Jessmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones. Both of these books have become treasured and meaningful gifts, and it was this trend that began my habit of gifting favorite books to new high school graduates.
This past weekend my daughter graduated from college (whoa) and we celebrated with her friends and their families — in person! Isn’t that deserving of an exclamation point? We were all vaxxed, outside and so, so happy to be together.
From You Will Leave a Trail of Stars by Lisa Congdon
For graduation gifts, I bought seven books that have resonated with me personally over the years, encouraging me to face challenges, to face fears, to find joy, to dream big and to live best I can with grace and kindness.
Each of these seven titles also makes a perfect high school graduate gift book, as they provide words of wisdom, anecdotes, encouragement, and reflection. AND, much-needed permission to be, do, speak up, and live fully with intention, love, kindness, and compassion.
– Guest contributor, Jeannine Harvey
7 high school or college graduate gift books
that I give to all the grads in my own life
All of these books are available from Amazon, or shop local and support your own favorite community bookstore. This post contains affiliate links, and purchases may generate a small commission to support our work at no additional cost to you.
Photo © Jeannine Harvey
1. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, by Toni Morrison
The Source of Self-Regard should be on every bookshelf, as it’s filled with Toni Morrison’s beautiful, powerful prose, essays, meditations, and speeches. It’s her commencement address to the Sarah Lawrence College Class of 1988 that particularly resonates with me; growing up I was often referred to as a dreamer with my head in the clouds, not always grounded in reality. I felt frustrated. A lot.
In her commencement address, Ms. Morrison talks about the preamble to problem-solving – Dreaming.
“I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of the wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision.”
Every word is precious, and validates the dreaming brain of any recent graduate. It’s so wonderful to be given permission to dream, envision, to imagine a world as it ought to be.
2. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown
Brené writes in Daring Greatly: “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Daring Greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where “never enough” dominates and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Putting ourselves out there is hard, uncomfortable, scary, and opens us up to criticism. When we step back and examine our lives, we will find that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as standing on the outside of our lives looking in and wondering what it would be like if we dared to step into the arena.
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”
3. You Will Leave a Trail of Stars: Words of Inspiration for Blazing Your Own Path, by Lisa Congdon
Illustrated in Lisa’s bold, confident, vibrant style that you may recognize, You Will Leave a Trail of Stars is “an accumulation of all of the best, most important things” she’s learned over the years. Quotes by Henry David Thoreau, Booker T. Washington, Elizabeth Gilbert and others, mingle with Lisa’s advice and illustrations on living life to one’s fullest.
The illustrations are gorgeous. The words, inspiring. Just remember:
Every Mistake is Progress.
And, Find What Feeds You.
4. The Boy, The Fox, The Mole, and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy
Charlie Mackesy’s best-seller is a loving, beautifully illustrated, thought-provoking reminder to look for the positive, and to reframe nagging thoughts or negative feelings. Isn’t that a perfect theme for a high school or college graduate gift book?
Every page carries little lessons and messages of love, hope, friendship, kindness, and caring for others.
“One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.”
“When the big things feel out of control
focus on what you love right under your nose”
5. All Along You Were Blooming, by Morgan Harper Nichols
I’ve been a long-time admirer of poet, author, artist, Morgan Harper Nichols and an avid follower of her Instagram account, so I was especially happy when All Along You Were Blooming, was published in January of 2020. This is a beautiful little book filled with powerful, big messages. It’s described as “the ultimate love letter to your mind, heart, soul, and body,” and I must agree.
In this beautifully illustrated book of prose, Morgan invites you to “stumble into the sunlight” and delight in the wild and boundless grace you’ve been given.
I want my daughter — and the other grads I know and adore — to see that every experience is a source for growth, every mistake is progress, every love is meaningful. Every step of the way, we are growing and blooming.
6. Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, by Luvvie Ajayi Jones
Our favorite self-proclaimed professional troublemaker (and author, activist, humorist) Luvvie Ajayi Jones released Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, in early March and it’s quickly become a favorite gift for, well, just about anyone. But it’s a particularly apt gift book for recent graduates.
Luvvie describes a professional troublemaker as someone who is “committed to speaking the truth, showing up always as themselves and is almost unable to bow in the face of a world that demands it.” This is the book for our empathetic children (and adults) who want to change the world, and those who need the reminder that speaking up, questioning norms, asking difficult questions, is a good thing.
Instead of letting fear keep us from doing, we must use fear as our fuel. We should never shy from our authentic selves. As Luvvie writes:
“We’re all afraid. We’re afraid of asking for what we want because we’re afraid of hearing ‘no.’ We’re afraid of being different, of being too much or not enough. We’re afraid of leaving behind the known for the unknown. But in order to do the things that will truly, meaningfully change our lives, we have to become professional troublemakers: people are committed to not letting fear talk them out of the things they need to do or say to live free.”
7. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV, with Douglas Abrams
I can’t think of a thinking, open-minded high school or college graduate who would not appreciate a gift of The Book of Joy. It is simply the most gorgeous, joyful, powerful, loving conversation between two dear friends and great spiritual leaders.
In 2015, Archbishop Tutu traveled to Dharamsala, India to celebrate His Holiness’s eightieth birthday. Author Douglas Abrams was there to capture their intimate stories and listen in, as they explored the Nature of True Joy. The two “traded intimate stories, teased each other continually and shared their spiritual practices. By the end of a week filled with laughter and punctuated with tears, these two global heroes had stared into the abyss and despair of our times and revealed how to live a life brimming with joy.”
“Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardships and heartbreaks. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”
~ Dalai Lama XIV
Happy Graduation to your graduates. The future does indeed look bright.
Guest contributor Jeannine Harvey is an award-winning content producer, marketer, and partnership developer driving social change She previously worked as the Director, PBS Kids Marketing and Communications and a Senior Manager at the ONE Campaign. She’s currently the Co-Founder and Chief Partnerships Officer of Feed Our Democracy — and one of our all-time favorite cool moms.