The most wildly different books about deeply flawed teenaged protagonists

The Books I Picked & Why

Carry On

By Rainbow Rowell

Book cover of Carry On

Why this book?

Did you ever read the Harry Potter series and think, “This is really good, but man, I wish Harry and his friends were a bunch of incompetent delinquents?” If so, Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow trilogy may be for you. From the very first chapter of this first book, Rowell establishes Simon’s strong voice and his history of misdeeds and failures, reminding us that contemporary books need to jump right in and get moving. It also proves that your protagonists don’t have to be traditional heroes—or even really know what they’re doing. Plus, the novel is named after a Kansas song that also happens to be the theme of the TV show Supernatural

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By Stephen King

Book cover of It

Why this book?

Not for the faint of heart, this book contains what is perhaps Stephen King’s most controversial scene, but if you can get past that section, you’ll find a decades-spanning story that explores the (literal) magic of childhood and how some of our best friends—and worst enemies—follow us into adulthood. All-too-human antagonists bully the Losers’ Club even as they investigate and battle a menace far beyond their understanding, a concept that echoes in my own series. In the adult sections of the book, we learn the cost of forgetting the past, even as we yearn for the vanished days of our youth. Plus, a killer clown!

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Harriet the Spy

By Louise Fitzhugh

Book cover of Harriet the Spy

Why this book?

I must have read this book twenty times when I was a kid. I can even remember using my school notebooks to scribble “spy notes” about my friends and teachers. Was I really that weird? Sure, but those activities were inspired by the (mis)adventures of Harriet M. Welsch, eleven-year-old agent of her own personal surveillance complex. In her own notebooks, Harriet records often-biting observations about everyone in her life, which is fine—until her notebook goes missing. With a surprisingly introspective protagonist who reaps the consequences of her own arrogance, this classic novel provides a compelling template for anyone writing about the ways that kids stumble while following their dreams. 

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The Round House

By Louise Erdrich

Book cover of The Round House

Why this book?

Winner of the National Book Award, this book is a searing indictment of how white America’s abuse of Indigenous People continues into the present day. When a white man attacks Geraldine Coutts on the reservation, the law can do nothing. The tribal police have no power over outsiders, and white law does not apply on the rez. Geraldine’s thirteen-year-old son, Joe, joins his friends to investigate the attack and seek justice. His ultimate decision feels both surprising and inevitable, as the best endings do. Erdrich is one of my favorite writers, and in this book, she is at the height of her powers, telling a story that delves into what happens when young boys have to grow up too fast. 

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The Outsiders

By S.E. Hinton

Book cover of The Outsiders

Why this book?

This book is older than I am, but it never gets old. Focusing on Ponyboy, a kid from the poor section of town, The Outsiders chronicles the conflicts between Ponyboy’s Greasers and the Socs, a gang of rich brats who love to make life even more miserable for the economically challenged. As a kid, I loved how Hinton used different sections of town, what sort of car you drove, how you dressed, and more to illustrate a basic schism in American society. As a writer, I still marvel at Hinton’s mastery of her sprawling cast. If your book has an ensemble cast, you could do much worse than to return to this classic of American young adult fiction.  

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