The best novels that shed light on those baffling teenage years, whether you were a teen, are a teen or parent a teen

Who am I?

I learned to fear adolescence as a child, when my mother made predictions about how difficult I would be as a teen. Then, as a mother, I felt that old concern arise in me, that my warm, cuddly children would turn into feral teens bent on rejecting me. This was the point at which I became, as a psychologist, a student of adolescence. I write nonfiction books on adolescents, their parents and friends, their self-consciousness and self-doubt, as well as their resilience and intelligence. But creative fiction writing often leaps ahead of psychology, so I welcome the opportunity to offer my list of five wonderful novels about teens.  


I wrote...

The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents

By Terri Apter,

Book cover of The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents

What is my book about?

While they may not show it, teenagers rely on their parents’ curiosity, delight, and connection to guide them through this period of exuberant growth.

In The Teen Interpreter, psychologist Terri Apter looks into teens’ minds―minds that are experiencing powerful new emotions and awareness of the world around them―to show how parents can revitalize their relationship with their children. She illuminates the rapid neurological developments of a teen’s brain, along with their new, complex emotions, and offers strategies for disciplining unsafe actions constructively and empathetically. Apter includes up-to-the-moment case studies that shed light on the anxieties and vulnerabilities that today’s teens face, and she thoughtfully explores the positives and pitfalls of social media.

The books I picked & why

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The Member of the Wedding

By Carson McCullers,

Book cover of The Member of the Wedding

Why this book?

“Haven’t you grown!“ is often a grown-up’s exclamation of delight in a teen’s growth spurt, but rarely do we see this from the teen’s view. It can be scary as well as exciting seeing your body change so rapidly, and I love McCullers description of Frankie’s worry that she will continue to grow at the current pace; then she will be a “freak” – a word that is likely to resonate with all adolescents. Frankie's private, unspoken fears taken place in the midst of a quintessentially social celebration and remind us how often teens, even when surrounded by joy and support, struggle with self doubt as to who they are and how they look.


Middlesex

By Jeffrey Eugenides,

Book cover of Middlesex

Why this book?

There is something in the tone of this novel that I loved at the time I read it and which I appreciate even more now. This is a story about intersex “Cal” whose gender identity was chosen by their parents, hidden from them throughout childhood, then revealed in adolescence when they negotiate a strange gender landscape devoid of signposts. There is no outrage or placard-waving certainty in the novel, just gentle, sad confusions that resonate with far more common teen experiences of parental betrayal (“for their own good”) and sexual perplexities.  


The House on Mango Street

By Sandra Cisneros,

Book cover of The House on Mango Street

Why this book?

I grew up in the same city as the 13-year-old protagonist of this powerful novel, not far from where it is set, but one closed off to me. Though I read this novel long after my own teen years, it took me back to a younger self in which I grappled, inarticulately, with ethnic and class difference, both despising those who would exclude me and longing for inclusion in a shallow, idealized version of what others have. The novel is controversial, partly because it deals with abuse and coercion, but the narrator’s name Esperanza enforces the positive direction of this teen’s story.


Adventures of Tom Sawyer

By Mark Twain,

Book cover of Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Why this book?

When I read this book as a young teen I admired the freedom the young characters had to be absorbed in their own worlds, and, as a result, constantly getting into scrapes and suffered scolding. Much later I re-read this and was struck by the comic magic of Tom and his friends, assumed to have died, returning to witness their own funeral. Here the boys who were constantly found wanting are now being praised without reservation. This reveals the see-saw action of the adolescent self: one moment teens see themselves as wonderful, beloved, treasured, and at another cast down, and always they carry around an “imaginary self” where they cannot escape concern about how people see them. 


Call Me by Your Name

By André Aciman,

Book cover of Call Me by Your Name

Why this book?

I am convinced that most grown-ups forget and then minimize the intensity of teen heartbreak. It has a special impact on boy teens, and this cuts across the assumption that relationships matter more to girls than to boys. Call Me by Your Name depicts the suffering of a 17-year-old teen who experiences heartbreak in the context of pressing questions about his sexuality and identity. It is a wonderful story and also a case study in the special vulnerability of late male adolescence, where myths about manhood threaten emotional expression. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in girls, adolescence, and gay teenagers?

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Gay Teenagers Explore 25 books about gay teenagers

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