As a longtime children’s and teen librarian, often I am asked when it’s time for a reader to move up — for instance, from picture books to chapter books or from middle-grade to young-adult books. Lately, I’ve been talking to teens about what seems like an even bigger step: from young-adult to adult books. It turns out (perhaps not surprisingly) that many teens have already made that leap.
If parents still are concerned over the appropriateness of teens reading adult books, one solution is to either pre-read the book or read a second copy alongside your teen. It could even spark some thoughtful conversations.
So, what are some good adult reading possibilities for teens? Here’s a wide selection chosen by me and my colleagues Jessica Jones and Dave Burbank, as well as teens themselves:
‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,’ by Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes meets his match in the teenage Mary Russell. This is the first of a long-running series and a perfect next step for fans of the Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer. Teens will especially enjoy the battle of wills between Russell and Holmes.
‘Blanche on the Lam,’ by Barbara Neely
In this first of a quartet of books, a Black housekeeper named Blanche White becomes a prime suspect when there’s a murder in the house where she’s working. Teens will find interest in Neely’s exploration of the racism — both overt and indirect — experienced by Blanche even as they enjoy a good mystery and Blanche’s irrepressible personality.
‘Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood,’ by Trevor Noah (also available in an abridged YA version)
Known for his sharp humor as the “Daily Show” host, Noah describes growing up in apartheid South Africa with a White father and Black mother. Humor leavens the book’s harder moments, including depictions of domestic abuse and other violence. Teens will be fascinated by how Noah endured a sometimes horrific journey to adulthood to become a household name.
‘Dial ‘A’ for Aunties,’ by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Part caper, part rom-com, this mystery offers a madcap plot, an irresistible protagonist and a fascinating look at Indonesian and Chinese culture. Teens looking for a new twist on mysteries will welcome this lighthearted, often hilarious page-turner.
‘Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,’ by Barack Obama
The former president writes movingly of his efforts to understand his identity as a biracial man. Obama’s book will engage teens in the midst of their own self-discovery.
‘Ender’s Game,’ by Orson Scott Card
Kids sent to an orbital battle station to train for the next alien invasion are pitted against one another in teams: “Lord of the Flies” meets Hogwarts with laser tag substituting for magic. At this point, “Ender’s Game” is pretty much considered a YA novel. The sequels are more thoughtful, philosophic even, and at an adult level.
‘The Fifth Season,’ by N.K. Jemisin
In the first book in the Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin describes a mother’s search for her daughter in the midst of cataclysmic geological events. Teen fans of speculative fiction will savor Jemisin’s fine writing, the story’s setting and the memorable characters.
‘Gaudy Night,’ by Dorothy L. Sayers
Detective-novelist Harriet Vane must come to terms with her feelings for famous sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in this masterful, classic 1935 novel built around a mystery and set in Oxford, England. Teens who devour mysteries will enjoy the depth of this book, especially how Sayers explores the role of women in the working world.
‘Moon of the Crusted Snow,’ by Waubgeshig Rice
In a haunting but hopeful work of speculative fiction, Rice traces the tale of a family in northern Canada as it rebuilds following the collapse of society. Rice weaves his Anishinaabe heritage into an absorbing, unique story that will interest teens fans of this genre.
‘Neuromancer,’ by William Gibson
In this classic work of modern cyberpunk, a hacker faces down a powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth. Gibson’s visions of the democratizing ability of computers to dissolve geographical, economic and political boundaries — here in a common hallucinatory graphic interface called cyberspace — will fascinate teens who love speculative fiction.
‘Parable of the Sower,’ by Octavia E. Butler
In a world beset by climate change and lawlessness, Lauren Olamina was born with the ability to feel others’ emotions, and especially their pain, as her own. Although the book was published in 1993, teens will readily relate to the themes of social injustice and environmental calamity.
‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline
Rollicking action, good humor, plausible characters and a believable future from the perspective of the present day, when kids spend more time hanging out with each other in video game space than they do in the physical world. High jinks and action ensue. Cline’s book is a natural for teens who love speculative fiction.
‘A Spy in the Struggle,’ by Aya de Leon
FBI attorney Yolanda Vance is assigned to infiltrate a group of mostly teenage Black eco-activists who believe a government-protected corporation is poisoning their community. Things get complicated when Vance finds herself drawn to their cause. Teens will appreciate the emotional complexity of this mystery and the way de Leon spotlights young adults working to create a better world.
A true story about how a group of ordinary teens helped the Dutch resistance against the Nazis. The book’s teenage protagonists and their bravery will enthrall young adults, who may find themselves inspired to take up their own causes.
‘The Widows of Malabar Hill,’ by Sujata Massey
The first of a series set in 1920s Bombay and featuring a protagonist based on India’s first female lawyers. The book’s feminist theme, an intriguing setting and a doomed romance will keep teens turning the pages.
‘World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments,’ by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
A beautifully illustrated book that weaves the author’s personal story with fascinating facts about some of nature’s wonders. Teens will find much to like in the way Nezhukumatathil mixes an exploration of nature with her compelling story of growing up as the daughter of immigrants in a sometimes unwelcoming America.
‘Beach Read,’ by Emily Henry
Romance writer January Andrews and literary fiction author Augustus Everett could not be more different. So, they decide on a challenge: January will try writing serious fiction while Augustus will pen a rom-com novel. Guess what happens? Teens looking for an opposites-attract romance will enjoy this tale.
In these two books, Miller delivers provocative, imaginative retellings of the story of the goddess Circe and of Homer’s the Iliad, making them accessible and exciting to the young, modern reader.
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney
What starts as a secret relationship between two young adults becomes a painful yet unbreakable connection that determines their future. The intense sexuality between Marianne and Connell might worry parents, but many teens will find themselves drawn to the emotionally complex dynamics between the characters.
‘The Kite Runner,’ by Khaled Hosseini
Set in Afghanistan, this stirring story of an unlikely bond between two young men, Amir and Hassan, has become a modern classic, and an especially important and timely book, nearly two decades after its publication. “The Kite Runner” has some tough moments, especially when a group of bullies sets upon Hassan, but teens will readily relate to this poignant tale of friendship and betrayal.
‘Red, White & Royal Blue,’ by Casey McQuiston
In this deliciously escapist novel, Alex Claremont-Diaz, the charismatic son of the first female U.S. president, gets together with Henry, the Prince of Wales — and sexual fireworks ensue. Teens will enjoy the sometimes rowdy humor as well as McQuiston’s gift for witty dialogue.
‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
When reclusive film star Evelyn Hugo chooses little-known magazine writer Monique Grant to finally tell her life story, everyone is surprised — including Monique. Reid’s book is a page-turner, with plenty of well-drawn characters and — parental alert — sex.
Karen MacPherson is the former children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, Md., library.
Adult books for young-adult readers
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