Usually, recommending the “10 best” or “greatest” of anything would be one person’s opinion. Like, mine. But, not this time.
I decided to “crowdsource” for the best ideas. Crowdsourcing? That’s just a fancy name for getting a lot of opinions. In this case, I looked at the following sources to find some of the best modern novels written for teenagers, 14 and up:
- Goodreads.com is a site with a huge following and they have lists and lists of best books for young adults, in many categories.
- Amazon.com is the biggest bookseller in the world and if you’re looking for ideas and reader reviews, there are tons of them in a dozen teen categories.
- National Public Radio did a neat series two years ago, asking listeners to vote, and came up with a list of the 100 best teen novels.
I did decide on two rules. One is that the books had to be featured on all three of these sources. And two, they couldn’t be books like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games – even though I’ve read and recommend them. Hey, I figured you already knew about those!
Plus, a confession: If I, my daughters, or my wife (a school librarian) have read and adored a book that gave it an edge.
And, fair warning – many of these books take on tough topics, so parents will want to do further research before feeling comfortable about what their own teen can or can’t handle.
So here goes:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
If this novel isn’t taught in your teen’s high school, it shouldn’t be missed. The intensity of devotion to this book is incredible, with many people reading it multiple times. Written in 1960 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, then made into a fine film, it’s the only book by Harper Lee – who is still with us at age 88. A timeless coming-of-age story and a courtroom drama, with memorable characters, its theme of civil rights is relevant today. As one reader says, “There is sadness and happiness, racism and equality, immaturity and maturity, injustice and redemption.”
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Another classic, often read in English classes, and unforgettable. The story of boys marooned on an island who create their own society is an exploration of power, good and evil, morality, love, and hate. Some call it an allegory about human nature. But it can simply be read as a ripping good story. Controversial since it came out in the 1950s, it is hard to put down. As one reader wrote, “One of the most haunting, powerful books I’ve ever read.”
3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
While I didn’t see the movie, I did read the book, and it’s clearly beloved by many. It’s a long and involving story set during World War II. The central character and “book thief” is a girl named Liesel who is adopted when her family is torn apart by the war. A unique aspect is that the novel is narrated by Death himself, who is a more complex character than you might expect.
It is a stirring story about survival, loyalty, the impact of war on young people, and the power of the printed word.
4. Looking for Alaska by John Green
The author made mega-famous by The Fault in Our Stars wrote several young adult novels before his big hit, and this one gets especially high ratings (although readers either love it or, in a few cases, hate it – not much in-between). It tells the story of Miles Halter who goes to a private boarding school in Alabama and falls in love with a charismatic but troubled girl named Alaska. One reader’s comment: “The characters are well drawn, witty, and full of individual quirks. This book also includes some fun pranks, some great humor, and some shocking turns of events.”
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
I’m so glad this book showed up on lists of favorites, as it’s one of mine as well. Told from the point of view of an autistic boy named Christopher who tries to solve the mystery of a dog’s death, it gives you deep insight into autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) in a way you’ll never forget. As one reader states, “I’ve always wanted to get inside the brain of such a person, and this was my chance.” By the way, it’s been adapted into a great play that I hope you get to see some time, but read the book first!
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Again, one of those much beloved books that also has its dissenters, maybe because it deals with a slew of difficult issues. The main character is 9th grader Charlie, an awkward, shy, yet highly intelligent boy, dealing with the pitfalls, pains, and occasional joys of growing up. As one young woman noted: “While Charlie isn’t exactly an excellent role model, he does show that being different is O.K., that friends come in all kinds of packages, and stay true to yourself. These things matter.”
7. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
If you love fantasy stories, this one is totally engrossing. (I’ve only read this, which is the first of a series called His Dark Materials, but my older daughter read and loved them all.) I can’t describe it any better than this reader: “Wildly imaginative and thrilling, this complex and beautiful story follows brave, fierce Lyra Belacqua in her quest to save her childhood friend. The book is filled with dazzling adventure and marvelous inventiveness.” There’s a movie version, too, which I didn’t think was nearly as good.
8. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Yes, another post-apocalyptic dystopian series (not yet made into a movie!), that appears high on lists of teen favorites. In this strange world, everyone gets surgery at 16 to get a perfect face and body, yet a brainwashed mind. It tells the tale of two friends, Tally and Shay. Shay doesn’t want to get the operation, and Tally does. Shay runs away and the authorities force Tally to bring her back, or she won’t get her beauty makeover. Naturally, complications follow! To quote one reader, “425 pages that I couldn’t put down!”
9. Speak by Laurie Halse Andersen
While I haven’t read this book, I read another by Andersen (Wintergirls) that was very powerful. She must have an uncanny memory of what being a teen was like, though of course the teens she deals with are in extreme situations. In this case, Melinda has had a traumatic experience that has rendered her virtually unable to speak. How Melinda comes back to having a voice is the crux of the story. As a reader says, “Like nearly all of Anderson’s work, this is a story about justice. It’s also a story about how voices speaking out are our most positive weapon.”
10. The Giver by Lois Lowry
If your teen is a fan of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopian stories of the future, The Giver may be where it all started (published in 1993). It’s back on bestseller lists due to the so-so (in my opinion) movie, and while read in many classrooms (and banned in others), it’s well worth reading on one’s own. In this chilling future world that has seemingly abolished pain and suffering, Jonas is selected to be trained by “the Giver” – the only person who carries the history of the world, with all its flaws. What happens…well, read and find out! (And, by the way, years later Lois Lowry wrote three related books.)
I hope you’ll find books from this list to read and, if not, go to the sources above or our own high school reading list to find many other great teen novels!