The best books with realistic teen characters

The Books I Picked & Why


By Jessica Warman

Book cover of Between

Why this book?

Jessica Warman’s Between is a marvelous study in flawed characters, who, by their very nature, are at times unlikeable. Ironically, I love unlikeable characters—because they’re written realistically and with plenty of potential for growth. Because I prefer to write characters with realistic attributes, and those in my own book are no exception, I love reading their points of view. Additionally, it’s always interesting when these characters are dropped into situations requiring suspension of disbelief, and it’s even better when protagonists lead a cast of such characters. Between checks all of these boxes. It’s delicious!

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Exit Here.

By Jason Myers

Book cover of Exit Here.

Why this book?

Exit Here. was one of the first exhibits of teen literature I studied on my journey to publishing. Jason Myers portrays college-age Travis with the weight of traumatic experiences and the loft of the future spinning in his head. Readers are brought immediately into Travis’ headspace, wherein they feel all the trauma, excitement, and uncertainty Travis experiences. Because I wrote my Edgar finalist book from the male point of view, I reread Myers shortly before drafting. It’s a great example of human fallibility.

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The Carnival at Bray

By Jessie Ann Foley

Book cover of The Carnival at Bray

Why this book?

Foley depicts a struggle of finding oneself and learning where one belongs, and holding onto the everchanging definition especially when the geography surrounding us suddenly changes. Maggie and her family migrate from Chicago to Ireland, leaving behind her favorite uncle, and musical influence, the wayward Kevin. Add to this the backdrop of the anticipation of attending a Nirvana concert and you have all the fixings for a well-rounded tale of love, loss, and living. Having had the pleasure of meeting Foley a time or two, I can attest that her sense of setting is as apparent in her identity as an Irish Chicago resident as ever, and this comes through in her characters, who illustrate the same.

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Calling My Name

By Liara Tamani

Book cover of Calling My Name

Why this book?

What can I say about Liara Tamani’s beautiful tale of coming of age? The novel carries Taja from middle school through high school, the span of time in which Taja learns her place in her family and the world around her. One of the things I love about this gem is the method in which the story unfolds—in short chapters, reminiscent of the ever-changing whims of the teenage mind. As such, Taja feels as real and breathing as any living soul. Perhaps even more pertinent is the setting of Houston, Texas. While some novels set in fictitious towns do their diligence in supporting realistic characters, Tamani’s decision to drop Taja into Houston only adds to the realism.

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Ordinary People

By Judith Guest

Book cover of Ordinary People

Why this book?

This classic novel is set in the north shore suburbs of Chicago, where I live. It’s the story of a family on the cusp of deterioration after the devastation of loss. Conrad Jarrett breathes on the pages of this book, struggling with who he was before tragedy, who he is becoming in the aftermath, and the reconciliation of both definitions of self. Furthermore, Guest (who studied psychology in college) depicts Conrad as a son, brother, student, athlete, and friend, proving each of us has unlimited facets, which is the basis of the realistic character.

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