The best novels about teenage sentimentality

Why am I passionate about this?

I do not remember a time when I wasn’t captivated by stories about adolescence. This was the case when I myself was a teenager—when I sought in these overwrought sagas the sort of sentimental melodrama that eluded the banality of my own life—but curiously it’s no less true at thirty, for reasons that are fundamentally the same but somehow more urgent. Becoming an adult is an exercise in hardening; to grow up is to forget what it’s like to be beholden to one’s own autobiographical romance. The following titles offer a respite from the cynicism that is adulthood; as a writer and a human, I'm forever in their debt.


I wrote...

Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos

By Nash Jenkins,

Book cover of Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos

What is my book about?

They still talk about Foster Dade at Kennedy—after midnight, usually, when students quietly congregate in their dormmates’ rooms and litigate the sorts of mythologies that impart their two-hundred-year-old boarding school with an almost spiritual magic. More than a decade after he was expelled, Foster’s story remains one such legend: the story of a quiet boy from Baltimore who arrived suddenly on campus as a new sophomore in the fall of 2008 and disappeared just as suddenly eighteen months later, in the wake of a tragic scandal that brought the national media to the school’s gates. Years later, one Kennedy alumnus will set out on an epic yearslong investigation to discover the complete truth of these events, and of the young man at their center. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Nash Jenkins Why did I love this book?

As a debut novelist, I face this nagging sense of obligation to prove myself to the world as a Serious Writer And Thinker, and thus I was initially a bit sheepish about recommending a young adult title here.

It’s in the service of the very unabashed earnestness this list commemorates that I’m forcing myself to get over it and say the following: there are few elegies to the wistfulness of adolescence more poignant or haunting than The Perks of Being A Wallflower.

I read it for the first time as a seventh grader in 2006 and probably six more times in as many years thereafter, each time bewitched by its narrator (a sad, quiet ninth grader named Charlie), its conceit (a series of letters from Charlie to a nameless stranger), and of course its story.

Following Charlie through his first year of high school, we intimately witness the shattering of his innocence—the novel is unsparing in its depictions of sex, drug use, and many genres of violence—and see that there is beauty to be found in the mosaic made from its shards.

By Stephen Chbosky,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked The Perks of Being a Wallflower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

A modern cult classic, a major motion picture and a timeless bestseller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a deeply affecting coming-of-age story.

Charlie is not the biggest geek in high school, but he's by no means popular.

Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie is attempting to navigate through the uncharted territory of high school. The world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends. The world of sex, drugs, and music - when all one requires to feel infinite is that…


Book cover of Less Than Zero

Nash Jenkins Why did I love this book?

“Sentimental” is maybe the last word you’d use to describe Ellis’ fiction, but Less Than Zero is an elegant proof that form needn’t follow function.

For all the sparseness of its language and pitilessness of its characters, there is a profound empathy for its narrator Clay, a pensive college freshman who’s returned home to California for Christmas break. Clay expends no outward moral judgment on the depravity of those who populate his very Gothic Los Angeles, but we come to intuitively understand his reticence as less a disposition than a defense.

It is precisely in how he understates his pain that we feel just how total it is.

By Bret Easton Ellis,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Less Than Zero as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The timeless classic from the acclaimed author of American Psycho about the lost generation of 1980s Los Angeles who experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age. • The basis for the cult-classic film "Possesses an unnerving air of documentary reality." —The New York Times
They live in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money in a place devoid of feeling or hope. When Clay comes home for Christmas vacation from his Eastern college, he re-enters a landscape of limitless privilege and absolute moral entropy, where everyone drives Porsches,…


Book cover of It's Kind of a Funny Story

Nash Jenkins Why did I love this book?

This is another novel written expressly for teenagers, and all the better for it.

Inflected by the author’s own autobiographical experiences—like Craig, the novel’s narrator, Vizzini spent a week in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager—It’s Kind of a Funny Story was the first work of fiction I’d read that articulated the adolescent experience through the language of mental health. It was here that I learned “depression” isn’t an abstracted emotion but the very real neurochemical imbalance that impels Craig to call the suicide hotline after abandoning his SSRIs.

There’s an uncanny familiarity to the circumstances of Craig’s breakdown—namely in how he struggles to remain above water at a famously rigorous college preparatory high school—and a fundamental earnestness to his story’s confessions that gilds even its grimmest moments with a fifteen-year-old's sense of impressionable wonder.

By Ned Vizzini,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked It's Kind of a Funny Story as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?


Like many ambitious New York City teenagers, Craig Gilner sees entry into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School as the ticket to his future. Determined to succeed at life—which means getting into the right high school to get into the right college to get the right job—Craig studies night and day to ace the entrance exam, and does.  That’s when things start to get crazy.

At his new school, Craig realizes that he isn't brilliant compared to the other kids; he’s just average, and maybe not even that. He soon sees his once-perfect future crumbling away. The stress becomes unbearable and…


Book cover of The Virgin Suicides

Nash Jenkins Why did I love this book?

I’d normally abstain from the pompous sin of quoting one’s own fiction, but I’m doing it here only to contextualize this recommendation.

“Adolescence is an exercise in coveting what exists just beyond our grasp,” my book’s narrator tells us in his preamble to his telling of Foster’s story. “It is this inaccessibility that sustains its magic.” To be fifteen is to be a voyeur looking wistfully in on the poignancy of others’ lives: this is the idea I tried to operationalize through the narrator’s project, with full knowledge that I’d never do it as lyrically as The Virgin Suicides. 

Nominally, the main characters of Eugenides’ debut are the five titular Lisbon sisters, who successively take their own lives, but we encounter them chiefly as figments of a collective imagination: in the captivated minds of a faceless group of teenage boys who witness the tragedies from afar.

As a sort of Greek chorus, these boys together reconstruct the Lisbons’ story, but it’s less the story of these girls’ deaths than of the boys’ own fascination, which refracts truth into mythology. 

By Jeffrey Eugenides,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Virgin Suicides as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introducing the Collins Modern Classics, a series featuring some of the most significant books of recent times, books that shed light on the human experience - classics which will endure for generations to come.

That girl didn't want to die. She just wanted out of that house. She wanted out of that decorating scheme.

The five Lisbon sisters - beautiful, eccentric and, now, gone - had always been a point of obsession for the entire neighbourhood.

Although the boys that once loved them from afar have grown up, they remain determined to understand a tragedy that has defied explanation. The…


Book cover of A Separate Peace

Nash Jenkins Why did I love this book?

I tried to avoid boarding school novels while writing my book, fearing the sort of subliminal influence that would subject my own book to accusations of being derivative, but about a month ago I returned to A Separate Peace for the first time since maybe ninth grade.

I was struck by a lot that I’d missed then—namely the undercurrent of bristling homoerotic tension between Gene and Finny—but more pointedly, I felt a new sense of solidarity with Gene, who narrates the events of one summer at boarding school from the comparatively distant vantage of early adulthood. I recall Gene the narrator seeming impossibly old when I read the book in high school, but at thirty I saw a colleague: not only in the facts of his present but in his relationship with the past.

Those of us who came of age in the enclosed ecosystems of boarding school all have stories like Gene’s about Finny: stories of peers who seemed somehow radiantly superhuman; of happenings and events that assumed the weight of tragedy in our minds. 

By John Knowles,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked A Separate Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

AS HEARD ON BBC RADIO 4 'A GOOD READ'

'A novel that made such a deep impression on me at sixteen that I can still conjure the atmosphere in my fifties: of yearning, infatuation mingled indistinguishably with envy, and remorse' Lionel Shriver

An American coming-of-age tale during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to the second world war.

Set at a boys' boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual.…


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By Leslie Tall Manning,

Book cover of Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

Leslie Tall Manning Author Of Maggie's Dream

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

Winner of the Literary Titan Book Award

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family’s happiness.

But Marilyn’s quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by…

Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

What is this book about?

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family's happiness.

But Marilyn's quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by the courts as the new guardian. Caleb…


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