As kids, it’s fun to discover new stories filled with adventure where fairytale wonder abounds. But as the transition into young adulthood finally comes, so must the literature people get exposed to evolve as well. That isn’t to say that wondrous tales of adventure can’t contain essential life lessons. However, it’s crucial that teens expand their literary repertoire beyond Harry Potter and Twilight.
These books aren’t meant to be seen as a list of the best books of all time, nor even a list of the best books for teens. Mainly because they span many different genres and tastes, and personal preference is a very subjective thing. Instead, this list represents books with powerful messages and daring questions that are meant to broaden a teen’s understanding of the world and bolster their critical thinking skills. Of course, these books are incredibly entertaining too!
1. Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
This is the first novel in the Queen of the Tearling series by Johansen. It follows the tribulations of a young princess who has to take over her deceased mother’s throne in a country that is swallowed up by desperation and poverty.
On top of that, she has to face the wrath of a powerful sorcerer queen from a rival empire who is intent on dethroning her as well as the church which aims to wrest control for themselves. All of this while wrestling with self-image problems and major imposter syndrome.
This is a story of overcoming that little naysaying voice in the back of one’s head and doing the right thing despite overwhelming obstacles.
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2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is the first of seven autobiographies written by American Nobel laureate author and poet Maya Angelou. It follows her life as a young girl and teen as she traveled between the houses of her parents and grandmother. Amidst the tragedy and the backdrop of the Jim Crow era, Maya and her brother manage to thrive despite everything. Hers is a story of spiritual strength, unbreakable bonds, and hope.
3. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, a 12-year-old Mexican American girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. The House on Mango Street is told in a series of vignettes that are sometimes funny and thrilling and, at other times, achingly heartbreaking. Cisneros manages to create prose that presents compelling snapshots into a girl’s life on the precipice of womanhood in a poor Hispanic community.
The story touches on themes such as personal identity, race, sexuality, and class differences. It manages to put the reader into the heart of a life they may have never lived, but one that will stick with them forever.
4. The Night Train At Deoli Station And Other Stories By Ruskin Bond
Set in the valleys of Garhwal, India, where Bond grew up, this book contains several short stories that portray the people who live there. From young people in search of love to petty town officials. It paints a charming and sometimes satirical picture of small-town life, but darker sentiments are interwoven into the tale.
Bond’s stories touch on how the beautiful rolling hills and the gentle people who live in them are being eroded by technology and modern life’s worries. Every story is a compassionate look into concepts like love, loss, and struggle.
5. Essentialism by Greg McKeown
As teens, many people start to come to grips with an increased workload, increased pressure to do more, and more responsibility. It can become an overwhelming cycle of “being busy” while achieving little. McKeown addresses this phenomenon by introducing the concept of how to achieve more by doing less.
Essentialism challenges traditional assumptions of “doing and being it all” and replaces them with stronger discipline and productivity principles. It teaches how to regain control of one’s choices in the pursuit of bigger goals and achievements.
6. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson by Louise Rennison
This hilarious tale of a girl growing up in the modern-day UK is reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s Diaries but for a younger generation. Through the lens of Georgia Nicolson’s sometimes absurd life, author Louise Rennison artfully captures the soaring joys and aching lows of being a teenager. Even though it’s often equal parts silly and crude, Rennison manages to pull off a heartwarming and uplifting tale that many young people will relate to.
7. Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig by Russell Potter
Babe’s life goal might have been to be a sheepherder, but Toby has much bigger aspirations. This novel is based on an actual novelty act that toured the UK in the 18th-century. It follows the main protagonist, Toby, through having his bacon saved by his friend Sam from being sold to the butcher to becoming a renowned figure.
Potter does a fantastic job of portraying Toby as a porcine narrator who has to go through the trials of proving himself and navigating a complicated human world. One where people would as quickly help him as they would be cruel towards him. But this smart, lovable pig prevails through feats of intelligence and goes on to study at the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh where he manages to impress even the likes of Samuel Johnson and William Blake.
The world is filled with thousands of important literary works, and these suggestions form but only a drop in the bucket. However, they offer a good place to start for any young person looking to expand their worldview and understand some of the cardinal concepts of life. More than that, these books provide a window into some of the realities that build character and deeper compassion.