With all the recent discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird, I was inspired to re-read the #2 Most Classic Novel for Teenagers (#1 is The Catcher in the Rye, of course). And, well, it’s great. But also, it’s not exactly the most relevant thing for teenagers in 2016 — at least not relevant enough that it should be the pinnacle of their reading list, promised to change their minds about everything. As Jenny Slate might say in my favorite Jenny Slate performance of all time: “Everybody can do everything now! I can’t relate to that goddamn story! Just read a frickin’ Dilbert and go to sleep.” Well, let’s not go crazy, because there are tons of great books that are utterly relevant to modern teenagers — or at least should be. From old books to brand-new ones, from YA to poetry, from sci-fi to nonfiction, here are 50 books every modern teenager (and many modern adults) should read.
I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai
You already know all about Malala, right? Pakistani activist, youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Prize, got shot in the face by the Taliban for saying that women should be educated. Her memoir, written when she was just 16, should be read by everybody, but especially by teenagers who think they might want to save the world one day.
We the Animals, Justin Torres
I love this gorgeous little book. Not only is it gloriously written, but it’s a perfect coming-of-age narrative that follows one boy as he separates from his brothers and his father and realizes his own sexuality and selfhood.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
It’s true: some of the essays in this classic collection will be a little out of date for the modern teenager, who might not have much connection to the cultural moments and places she undresses so elegantly. But essays like “On Keeping a Notebook” and “On Self-Respect”? Those never go out of style.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
This book, about two girls who become pariahs after a nasty bout of poisoning, is perfect for any and all weird outsiders, which all teenagers essentially consider themselves to be. Also, the voice is really to die for, no matter who you are.
We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Obviously. This is one of the best dissections of modern feminism and the way the lack of equality hurts both girls and boys across the world. But honestly, what I love so much about this talk/essay/book is how joyful it ultimately is, how full of hope for our world. (Also not to be missed by teenagers or other human people: all of Adichie’s fantastic novels)
Black Hole, Charles Burns
Black Hole is almost as good as a sex-ed class. In the sense that any teenager, after reading this dark graphic novel about a group of young people ravaged by an STD that gives them surreal deformities, will be keeping condoms by their bedside like a nightlight for pretty much the rest of time.
After Claude, Iris Owens
I think we should raise a new generation of readers to love the unlikeable character — or in this case, the unlikeable, semi-insane, completely self-destructive character. Harriet’s horrible personhood will usher teenagers into a world where everyone is allowed to be awful. Also, this book is hilarious. Teenagers should get to read more hilarious books.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
After all, if Donald Trump becomes president, a future in which all the rich people watch poor children fight as reality television might not be too far off.
Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, ed. Philip Pullman
Hey, some things never stop being relevant. And your teenage years are a good time to learn the grisly truths behind all those Disney movies — not least so you can go around scandalizing all your friends.
Transformations, Anne Sexton
After all, your teenage years are about nothing else. Plus, every teenager should at least be given the opportunity to become obsessed with Anne Sexton. It can be so fulfilling.
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
This book (and the series it kicks off) sort of straddles the line between YA and children’s lit — but honestly, that matters not at all. These books are luminous, and not only are they fantastic adventures (chosen one, magical implements, talking bears, witches), they ask enormous questions about soul, self, God and our place in the universe. So, yeah.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Still sobbing after all these years, with one of the best and most complicated teenage heroines of all time. PS: also required: Ariel. Yes, even for boys.
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes
One of the most important (and pleasurable) things to read about as a teenager is the complexity and specificity of friendship. You and your friends aren’t like anyone else? Great, you shouldn’t have to be. Enid and Rebecca are strange, interesting girls, not always feminine, and their friendship is a bittersweet lesson in how some things might go sometimes.
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
An exceptional dissection of racial conflict in America that pushes the borders of form. Essential reading for just about everyone trying to live in the world today.
Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block
A very important book for any girl who goes her own way and/or identifies strongly with Tavi Gevinson.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Being a teenager can be completely myopic, so the youth of America can’t really be introduced to too many outside voices and stories. This graphic memoir, about Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, is an excellent place to start.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Stories about love affairs like this one — older man, young girl — are so often written from the man’s perspective (or a third party’s). This slim masterpiece, which was first conceived of as a book of annotated photographs, is gorgeous and empowering for any young person sure that she should make her own decisions, come what may.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Not only a terrifyingly good story, but a terrifying vision of the future that I, for one, would really like our young people to work towards preventing. But first they need to glimpse through the curtain.
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Another great graphic memoir, this one by the Bechdel test’s namesake — so you know it’s going to be good. In Fun Home, Bechdel tells the story of coming to terms with her own sexuality, but also coming to terms with her father’s sexuality, all while working at the family funeral home. Dark, funny, and sure to (eventually) fill you with hope.
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Really anything by Octavia Butler, of course, but particularly this one, which centers on a teenager at the end of the world who feels the pain of others as if it were her own.
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters
Delicious historical fiction about a young woman at the back end of the 19th century who falls in love with a male impersonator performing on a local stage. A vibrant, passionate coming-of-age and coming-to-terms and self-discovery book.
Every Day, David Levithan
This strange and wonderful little book follows A, a, well, soul, I guess, who wakes up every day in a different 16-year-old body, in a different 16-year-old life. Which is fine (sort of) until A meets Rhiannon and falls in love with her. The book makes a statement — or maybe just asks a question, which is better — about love that transcends (or does not transcend) our bodies, genders, identities.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
This book will redefine your relationship with freakiness.
How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
Sometimes you just need someone to tell it to you straight. Or, well, pretty wonkily and with lots of curse words, but straight in every way that matters.
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell
Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical novel follows a year in the life of a 13-year-old boy with a stutter in a town in the English countryside. I shouldn’t have to explain that it is a rather pivotal year for him. This book continually draws comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye, except that this is a world that will be rather more familiar (and pleasurable) to young readers of today.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Some teenagers probably understand in an elemental way that race is a construct, like many of the social yokes we hang ourselves with, and some probably don’t. Either will benefit from this eloquent, personal examination of America’s relationship to race, formatted as a letter to Coates’ young son.
Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
Teenagers don’t need staid, Important stories. They need stories that are going to transport them, jump-start them, and make them love reading (despite all the screens that dominate their lives). Kelly Link’s stories, which are filled with myth and horror and magic and exceptional writing, are highly likely to do just that.
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
Kind of old fashioned, kind of simple. No gimmicks except the English castle it’s set in. A girl who wants to be a writer, telling a story about her family, about growing up. But all that, somehow, just makes this novel pretty refreshing in 2016. This could not be improved with vampires.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans
I could say that this is a short story collection largely about growing up, race, class, and gender — and it is. But that doesn’t really get at Evans’ heart-popping language, or the eloquence with which she describes the terrifying waters that her often-young, often-black, often-female characters must thrash around in. A must read.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
I have this problem where I put this book on every list I write (and thus really do not feel that I have to explain the plot to you). I put this book on every list I write because I read it when I was a teenager and it so totally blew my mind that I became someone who was obsessed with books and Latin and knitting little intense friendships. Which to my mind has served me pretty well. And so.
Step Aside, Pops, Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton is God. And also the comics/history equivalent to watching The Daily Show for the news. Which we all know the kids love to do.
Ooga-Booga, Frederick Seidel
Seidel isn’t for everybody, but he will teach teenagers one very important thing: poetry doesn’t have to be boring. Nor does it have to be pretty. It can, actually, be just as vulgar and weird as the inside of your head.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Once the Grimm tales are in the bag, it’s time to move on to some bloody, sexy upgrades and inside-outings, courtesy of the headmistress of fairy tales.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
A rollicking adventure that will keep anyone reading under the covers at night, sure. But also a keen look at technology and worship and why we care about the things we care about — which, depending on who you are, might keep you up at night too.
Project X, Jim Shepard
Unfortunately, this novel — about the unnameable rage that enfolds and devours two tortured (but essentially typical) teenage misfits until they plot to teach their school a violent lesson — only gets more and more relevant.
Among Others, Jo Walton
Any teenager who loves sci-fi will be tickled by Walton’s protagonist Mori, who spends half her time talking about books — and then she joins a book club. But the story is also excellent: fleeing her mother and the havoc she’s already wreaked on Mori’s life (including a major limp), the teenager runs to her estranged father, who takes her in but sends her to boarding school in magic-dry England. And oh, right, the magic. Lots of books have magic in them, but I’ve never encountered one that is so much about magic in all its forms, from the magic of favorite objects and the countryside to the magic of actual fairies.
Crush, Richard Siken
A useful outlet (or at least a mirror) for all that creeping, seething, savage teenage obsession.
If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo
There aren’t that many novels with trans teenagers as protagonists, but there should be, especially at this moment in our cultural history, where everything is coming into the light. This debut, written by a trans woman, might just open some minds. (Honestly, though, while teenagers in 2016 should definitely be reading this book, there are a lot of older people who might need to read it — and books like it — even more.)
Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi
Again: anything by Helen Oyeyemi. But this novel is still my favorite of her enormous oeuvre: a wild adaptation of the Bluebeard tale that interrogates partnership, love, and (most importantly) the muse. It is just wickedly fun.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness
Oh boy, do I love a meta narrative. This hilarious book pokes fun at our cultural landscape, inundated as it is with Chosen Ones and superheroes and Boys Who Lived, by dropping its Joe-Normal main character and his friends into a world where those super-teens actually exist, and seeing what happens. If you have a soft spot for Xander Harris, this book is for you.
A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
Teenagers love Sherlock Holmes, in all his many forms (he is the most represented fictional character in media, after all). His most recent form? The complex, cynical Charlotte Holmes, who stars in this dark, feminist YA caper. So, assuming you’ve read the Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes already, this should be next on your list.
The Round House, Louise Erdrich
This incredible novel by one of our most important contemporary writers tells the story of a 13-year-old boy’s coming of age after his mother is the victim of a horrifically violent crime whose perpetrator, because he was a white man on a reservation, cannot be prosecuted. Powerful, electric prose — her best novel yet.
Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle
This book is required reading for any teenager who has longed to build an entirely different world and escape into it — so, any teenager. Also: the Mountain Goats! That’s some cred right there.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Saenz
A gentle, lovely book about two 15-year-old boys struggling with everything that matters: their cultural identities, their families, their transition into manhood, and their growing love for one another. This one will linger.
Ohio Violence, Alison Stine
Searing, unforgettable poems about, yes, the violence of growing up as a girl in the American Midwest. For a small taste, read Stine’s poem “Gossip” here.
True Grit, Charles Portis
It can often be pretty useful, as a teenager, to read stories about teenagers being capable and cool and accomplishing extremely difficult tasks. So like, if Mattie Ross can brave the wilderness and hunt down her father’s killer at the tender age of 14, you can probably finish your math homework.
This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
While your childhood might not have been like Wolff’s (divorce, abuse, moving from state to state, bitter battles with a stepfather), you will recognize the pain and exhilaration of what it feels like to grow up, and what it feels like to cheat, steal, hide, and reinvent yourself.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
I love Jeanette Winterson, and would recommend any of her books to teenagers or adults without hesitation. This one tells the story of a young girl (named Jeanette) raised in an evangelical household, who realizes that she has a more-than-sisterly love for women. Plus, there’s her writing: wry and quirky and magical, even when the story is grimly realistic.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
First of all, your teenage years are the perfect time to explore some classic sci-fi. Second of all, this book is frankly delightful (no matter its author’s politics). Third of all (and perhaps most important), this book suggests that no matter how young you are, if you have the right ideas, you can change the entire world.
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
Things are constantly falling apart, no matter how old you are. But when you’re a teenager, the cracks in your world loom large, and the wisdom of Pema Chodron — who, while a Tibetan Buddhist nun, takes a very secular approach to her teachings — might help you plaster a few of them back up.
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