What You Can Learn (About Kids and Yourself) From Novels About Teenagers

Since I stopped teaching, I feel disconnected from popular culture, and from adolescents and their unique world, one that is somehow always changing (the fashions, the music, the slang, social media) and yet always the same.  There is so much about my adolescence in the 1980s and 1990s that will be similar to today’s and tomorrow’s teens:  the moodiness, the melancholy, the preoccupation with cliques and cool kids, and the exhilaration of feeling like anything — being invited to a fantastic party, having a soulful conversation with your favorite crush, finding even fame and fortune — could be right around the corner.

But as the years go by, you become less connected to those feelings.  You’re immersed in the nitty gritty world of parenthood and work and balancing all your responsibilities.  While it’s true in some ways that you never really leave high school — and the identity that you create, your insecurities, and the understandings about the world — it’s also true that today’s teenagers seem increasingly mysterious, confusing, and maybe even hostile.

Maybe that’s why I find myself increasingly drawn to novels with adolescent narrators.  I used to avoid books written about adolescence.  Now I find that they remind me of my own childhood while also making me aware of how today’s world of frantic media and economic security color teenagers’ worlds today.

Here are a few that I’m still thinking about and what I learned from them:

1.  What I learned about teenagers:  All-girls secret teenage clubs are still — and always will be — a bad idea.   Now I’m reading Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel by Kimberly McCreight.  For the past two nights I’ve stayed up past midnight reading this book, and I can’t stop thinking about it.  The novel alternates between the perspective of Amelia’s corporate lawyer mother and Amelia herself, a super smart, talented sophomore who has thrown herself off the roof of her elite Brooklyn prep school after being accused of cheating.  Or maybe she didn’t.   That’s what the school tells her mother, who soon gets an anonymous text that simply states that she did not jump.  Through Amelia’s journals, texts, and recollections about the secret world of the school through a secret student-authored, angry blog, we learn about this school’s and Amelia’s hidden life.  If you liked Gone Girl: A Novel, and its combination of crime and suspense with relationship drama, you’ll love this book.  It’s insanely good.  I don’t ever recommend books lightly, but this book will grab you and keep you reading for hours, and hours, and hours.  And you’ll never look at a seemingly untroubled teenager the same way again.

2.  What I learned about teenagers:  Teenagers often show their “real” selves to adults who listen to them.  Even though it’s set in the 1980s, Tell the Wolves I’m Home: A Novel by Carol Rifka Brunt is a universal story of adolescence, family, hope, and loss.  The narrator, June, is 14 and idolizes her uncle, who dies of AIDS during a time before the illness (or being gay) was spoken about by many family members and by society at large without fear or misunderstanding.  After her uncle’s death, June forms a close friendship with her uncle’s partner, despite her parents’ disapproval.  Her uncle is gone, but June learns that even those we love most can hide layers of themselves from us.  The novel is about the power of art to move and shape us.  Rifka’s heartbreaking narrator stayed with me for weeks after I finished this book last summer.


3.  What I learned about teenagers:  The troubles in their parents’ marriage can rock their inner worlds as much as human catastrophe.  Although it’s not technically narrated by a teenager, The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker has a main character who is wise far beyond her decade of life.  I am not normally a big science fiction fan, but this novel has something for readers of every genre. In this novel, the Earth’s rotation has slowed, the days lengthen, and what happens is the complete opposite of a Hollywood disaster movie:  the world as we know it is transformed in an achingly slow and painful deterioration.  And almost 12 year old Julia is just as wise and sensitive in her observations of her marriage’s troubled marriage as she is about the end of the world.  This is not a science fiction story that is based on the bells and whistles of future technology; it’s a story of ordinary realism and human relationships.  She creates a world that is at once familiar but also heartbreaking and frightening.  The novel reminds us that teenagers — even in the face of all sorts of disasters around them — must confront the same coming of age issues that we all do.

4. What I learned about teenagers:  Teenagers can be more authentically romantic than adults and don’t need beautiful sunsets.  This novel will break your heart, but not in a typical, disease-of-the-week way.  I’m sure a lot of you have read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  It’s about a 16 year old Hazel who has had supposedly terminal cancer dominate her young life.  Hazel goes to a cancer support group and meets Augustus, a fellow cancer survivor.  Their love story is so unexpected and so honest and painful that it forces you to rethink the term “teenage romance” as patronizing.  Even if you hate the idea of “sick lit,” this novel has many rewards.  It’s really about finding love and facing adolescence when death could be next door.  And these two teenagers are wickedly funny in ways that feels genuine but also wise.  It’s about living in the moment when you don’t know when the end will be near.

Even if you never read novels narrated by a teenager, I encourage you to check any of these out.  You may learn something — or be reminded of it — about adolescence.  And you may also learn something about yourself.

What books about adolescence do you love?  

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21 thoughts on “What You Can Learn (About Kids and Yourself) From Novels About Teenagers”

  1. The Fault in Our Stars was incredible! Thanks for the recommendation on Reconstructing Amelia- I am going to check it out!

  2. I still love The Catcher on the Rye and could re-read that over and over. When I first read it, I was in 9th grade, but even at almost 36 years old, I still love it. And you are so right that it does help keep me connected to the teen generation now that I too are no longer teaching and a stay-at-home mom.

    1. I haven’t read the Catcher in the Rye since high school, or maybe even junior high. It’s such an influential book!

  3. Sherman Alexie’s books are incredible! It gives you a lens into a Native American young adult’s life. His short stories was turned into the movie Smoke Signals.

  4. I have been meaning to read a book that is not only narrated by a teen, it was written by one. I hope that it will give me some perspective and connection with what I am going through. Odd eh…since I’m 32. But it has received rave reviews.

  5. Well, you know I think you have excellent taste in books! I will definitely be checking some of these out- especially the first one! I actually really like YA fiction- there are some excellent books out there! Thank you so much for helping to mix up my to-read list! I am reading Use Your Words by Kate Hopper right now, which obviously has nothing to do with teen novels, or parenting, but is a fantastic book for author moms. Have you read it?

  6. Thanks so much for the suggestions. I’m not sure I could bear to read the first one, but I will definitely try the rest!

  7. Great suggestions & boy, can I use this kind of insight now…my Ava will be 13 in a few days. I added this post to my fb page & will add these books to my summer reading list!

  8. Age of Miracles was amazing.
    Most recently I read “The Obvious Game,” a YA novel by Rita Arens…a book about a teenager whose mother has cancer…and she (the teenager) starts succumbing to an eating disorder. It was very real. I couldn’t put it down.

    Good points, too…about seeing into the eyes and lives of kids through books like these…

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Erin! I will order that one.

      Isn’t it amazing that each of these books is a “page turner”? I had never thought of YA books as so compelling that they might be impossible to put down, but there’s something about the immediacy and drama of the teenage world that creates such suspense and drives a compelling narrative.

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  10. Great recommendations, Jessica! My teens have read most of those books and I have loved reading my teen’s reflections of the books as they had to write papers on various issues that arise in the stories. I learned a lot about their opinions, how they think and how they see the world. Catcher in the Rye is still my all time favorite as well!

    Great post!!

  11. I read “young adult” all the time. Right now I am reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. I have not been able to put it down. I have never read any of the books you mentioned, but they will go on my list for sure! I think you are so right about learning from them. I also like that they are not cluttered with adult machinations. This is a great post.

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