30 Books Every American Teenager Needs to Read

by Bethanne Patrick
Originally Published: 

However, there are some big new issues teens have to deal with, and talking about them isn’t always as easy as providing the Kotex Starter Kit. Depending on your own variables, some of these things may be old hat—or they may be scary new territory.

Many seasoned parents have learned that the most honest conversations often take place when you’re in the car or otherwise traveling side by side, instead of speaking face to face. Teenagers, bless their little unjoined prefrontal cortices, can’t always handle eye contact. It’s not rudeness, it’s brain development.

Handing your own teen one of these titles might function as one of these parallel conversations, or it might start one. And because not everyone thinks, talks or learns the same way, there are three books in each category, covering nonfiction, memoir and fiction.

Please note: I don’t think that this list is definitive, exhaustive, or diverse enough—but I wanted to be able to recommend books that I had either read or read a lot about, rather than posting titles willy-nilly to the page in an effort to hit every category of author. I’d love to know about more books from people of color, other cultures, and perspectives. You can send suggestions to Thanks for reading!

Sexual orientation

1. Nonfiction: A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World by R. B. Parkinson

Fascinating, and fact checked.

2. Memoir: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

One of the best graphic memoirs ever.

3. Novel: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Groundbreaking gay YA.

Gender identity

4. Nonfiction: Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community by Laura Erickson-Schroth (editor)

Indispensable—even for the cisgendered.

5. Memoir: Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews

Brave, funny, and real.

6. Novel: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Politics and trans issues—with a light touch.

Chronic and terminal illness

7. Nonfiction: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Required reading. Period.

8. Memoir: Needles: A Memory of Growing up with Diabetes by Andie Dominick

Not all pain comes from cancer.

9. Novel: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Read John Green—but this, too.

Body image

10. Nonfiction: The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

Skin wasn’t always in.

11. Memoir: Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher

The not-pretty side of thin.

12. Novel: Dietland by Sarai Walker

Subversive, subtle, strong.

Mental illness

13. Nonfiction: A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

Genius is fragile.

14. Memoir: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison

Difference can be funny.

15. Novel: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

A friend’s depression trajectory.

Sexual and physical abuse

16. Nonfiction: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

Older self help that still inspires.

17. Memoir: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

A woman in full.

18. Novel: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The battle’s inside scars.


19. Nonfiction: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

An embedded account of The Surge.

20. Memoir: I Am A Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story by Rick Bragg

Perspective on a confusing case.

21. Novel: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Victory isn’t free.

Substance abuse and addiction

22. Nonfiction: The Addict: One Patient, One Doctor, One Year by Michael Stein

It’s all individual.

23. Memoir: Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Meth Addiction by David Sheff AND Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff

A pair, from father and son.

24. Novel: Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes

No, not chick lit. Tough talk.

Academic and social pressure

25. Nonfiction: The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich

Hell yes it’s about peer pressure.

26. Memoir: Beamish Boy: A Memoir of Recovery and Awakening by Albert Flynn Desilver

Could be titled “Suggestible Boy.”

27. Novel: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

Destined to be a classic.

Tragedies and natural disasters

28. Nonfiction: The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger

Notable for its many-faceted narration.

29. Memoir: Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

Surviving a parent’s obsession.

30. Novel: Triangle by Katharine Weber

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, from a worker’s view.

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