Teenagers in Literature

Next time you're feeling like you and your students are living on different planets, try dipping into one of these entertaining and insightful reads.

Despite your most valiant efforts, it sometimes may be difficult to relate to your students. What seem to you like petty problems can be earth-shattering crises in the mind of a teenager. The passing of time (even just a few years!) can make it difficult to remember the overwhelming stress of juggling classes, after-school activities and jobs, a bustling social life, and the responsibilities of increasing independence. Indeed, the students arriving in your office each day have much more than college admission on their minds. So if you're feeling a little baffled by their seemingly strange behavior, consider reading--or re-reading--one of these books for a glimpse into the complex teenage psyche.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The timeless gold standard of teenage angst, Catcher in the Rye follows the misadventures of Holden Caulfield, an icon of American literature. Expelled from his prep school, Holden flees to Manhattan, where he explores the city and encounters some colorful characters, all while conveying to the reader his misanthropic opinions on the ills of the world. This candid portrait of an adolescent navigating the bewildering road to adulthood will transport you back to your own high school years and help you understand the often confusing world your students inhabit.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Peel away the tragedy and you'll find that Romeo and Juliet is rife with insights into the teenage mind. The star-crossed lovers are overwhelmed by their feelings and rendered incapable of making rational decisions. From sneaking out at night to eloping to Juliet faking her own death, their illogical hijinks epitomize the bizarre behavior of teenagers, for whom emotion sometimes overrides reason.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A classic coming-of-age story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie Nolan, an Irish-American girl living in poverty in Brooklyn. Through her gimlet-eyed perspective, the reader is made privy to the tumultuous process of growing up and working toward a better life. Though her circumstances are unfortunate to an extreme, her tale will help you empathize with students who are struggling to balance school, family, and work--not to mention getting into college.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep is unique in that it poignantly encapsulates the full high school experience through the eyes of a typical teenage girl. The main character, Lee Fiora, leaves her ho-hum life in Indiana to attend an elite prep school near Boston. During her years there, she gradually learns how to manage books and boys, her peers and her parents, and survival as a "have-not" in a sea of "haves." Few books paint so intimate a portrait of high school life, and this one is certain to stir your compassion for your students.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Equal parts adolescent drama and page-turning mystery, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a beautifully written novel that touches on some of the most trying issues that teenagers grapple with: friendship, romance, the pressure to succeed academically, and the sometimes rocky transition into adulthood. Its main character, brilliant and complicated Blue van Meer, is attending yet another new school due to her father's job as a visiting professor. Raised in an inconstant but highly intellectual atmosphere, Blue has trouble making friends, until a quirky and perceptive teacher takes her under her wing. Although Blue is perhaps more cerebral and erudite than the average high schooler, her predicaments are universally relatable.

Next time you're feeling like you and your students are living on different planets, try dipping into one of these entertaining and insightful reads. They'll serve up a healthy dose of nostalgia for your former teenage self and give you a renewed understanding of where your students are coming from.


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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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