Much like sitting at the grown-ups’ table or shopping in the men’s and women’s departments, reading “real,” “adult” literature holds a certain thrill, particularly for those outgrowing their childhood favorites. But avoiding the Young Adult distinction and still finding books that resonate with teens, and sustain their interest, can be tough.
Fortunately, a number of best-selling recent releases fit the bill, featuring young narrators taking on big subjects. Given their popularity, these books should be easy to purchase at your local bookstore; just don’t expect to find them in the kids’ section!
- How to Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer. This short story collection features a series of young female narrators, struggling earnestly with everything from sixth grade popularity contests (“Note to Sixth-Grade Self”) to parental depression and unrequited adolescent crushes (“How to Breathe Underwater”). While some of the latter might sound trite and unsophisticated, Orringer’s skillful treatment of the emotional consequences involved in each experience contains one brilliant psychological truth after another.
- Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. A modern prep-school novel in the vein of A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, and The World According to Garp, Prep details the experience of its young female narrator, a scholarship student from Indiana at an East Coast boarding school. Socially awkward and uncomfortable from the outset, Lee Fiora believably grows into an older, wiser version of her younger self, with a series of accurate observations and emotional developments along the way.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon. Beneath the beautifully simple, straightforward language of The Curious Incident’s Asperger’s-afflicted young narrator lies a complex web of external realities and internal experiences. As Christopher John Francis Boone earnestly filters the world around him in an attempt to “solve” the book’s literal mystery, the reader gets the unique opportunity to locate the missing emotional pieces – the mysteries Christopher cannot process and Haddon ably explores.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Classified by some as a Young Adult novel, Alexie's latest work of fiction is as poignant and humorous as his previous publications, and by no means juvenile in its scope or execution. With occasionally brutal, often hilarious honesty, Junior, the book's first-person narrator and cartoonist, tells the story of his experience as the only Indian (apart from the mascot) at an all-white school. Combined with numerous well-drawn graphics, Alexie's narrative features plenty of action and hard-nosed yet sensitive anger to draw in even the most video-game-focused teenager.
- Best American Non-Required Reading Series. Selected by high school students overseen by Dave Eggers and a celebrity guest editor, the short stories, poetry, graphic art, and other material contained in these anthologies are both contemporary (like its Best American parents, the series is an annual publication) and cutting edge (many of the authors are en route to literary fame, if not recent arrivals). The wide array of genres, styles, and themes practically guarantees that any teen will find at least a few favorites.
Parents, keep in mind that all of these selections contain some number of “mature” themes. Depending on your comfort level, pre-reading (or at least scanning) is highly recommended. Not only does this allow you to screen for “adult” content, it also gives you the opportunity to discuss the story with your teen, facilitating “grown-up” conversations about the issues that matter.