15 Books Every Teen Should Read

Self on 01.11.12
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Your teen probably has an assigned reading list that covers the classics of literature, and perhaps some books popularized more recently. But the books on this list go beyond the standards: Each one was chosen to get your teens thinking, help them establish their own philosophies on life, and help them answer some of life's -- and adolescence's -- biggest questions: How do I want to live my life? How can I change the world? How can I rise to the challenges of my future?

Add these fifteen books to your family's bookshelf and prepare yourself for some deep discussions with your teens. (Bonus: If you've never read these, now is the perfect time so that you can discuss them with your son or daughter.)

1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

omnivores-dilemmaWe are what we eat -- and if you consider what Michael Pollan has to say about the industrial food chain, this is a pretty scary thought. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan documents how the evolution of the food we eat has been driven by measures of industrial efficiency rather than intelligent choices about nutrition or the pleasure of eating. 

Pollan compares this industrial food chain to other food sources that we, as omnivores, can choose instead – and discusses the political and social pressure that makes it so much harder to be a vegetarian than to stop at McDonald's. He does this non-judgmentally and with humor and flair, making the book as much of a pleasure for hunters to read as for vegans.

This book supplies an essential peek behind Oz's curtain for a generation that may see the tipping point of industrial food culture -- and when your kids start cooking for themselves, they'll be glad to know exactly what's behind their food choices.

If you want to dig deeper into the industrial food conspiracy, you might also enjoy The Raw Milk Revolution, by David E. Gumpert.

Image: Michael Pollan

2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho


A simple and entertaining tale told in the manner of folklore around a campfire, the value of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist lies in the courage it inspires. The Alchemist provides the mantra to overcome fears and take action, depending upon the world to conspire with us on a path to success, ideal for a young person deciding if and how to follow their dreams.

Great novels leave one with a sense of emptiness when the last page is turned. Fill the void with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, rich in Latin American magical realism.


Image: Harper Collins 

3. Rising Sun by John Toland


China's growing strength may make it the future of Asia-Pacific studies, but if you want your kids to understand the present and prepare for the future, they'll need a firm grasp of the past.

Start with John Toland's Rising Sun for an introduction to the history of an increasingly important region starting with the giant of previous generations: Japan. Rising Sun offers the Japanese historical perspective, adding further value to other studies of World War II in your library. 

Ready to bite off a real chunk of Asian-Pacific history? Read The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Sunzi).


Image: Amazon

4. The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind


I am tempted to jam this list exclusively with books about science, because a lack of young people trained to use science in their careers and for research is one critical issue facing those who are now in their teens. But I chose  Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War, gloriously subtitled My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, because it presents questions about modern physics in language even non-math majors can understand.

While offering a foundational knowledge of some of the theories of modern physics, The Black Hole War also serves as a window into the world of scientists: the petty intrigues, the competition, and the race to find answers to questions that include, “Is our world really a hologram?” If you live in an era of scientific discovery, then you should read this book (hint: That's all of us).

If you liked this book, you will love the humorous antics of physicist Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.

Image: Amazon


5. Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey


OK, I will admit this one gets points for the clever title, a play on the well-read classic tale of battle with the white whale, Moby Dick. And if you want to enjoy all of the literary allusions in this tale, you will wait until after reading Moby Dick to enjoy this sci-fi thriller.

Mobius Dick, on top of delivering a very entertaining story, poses thought-provoking questions like, "When is playing with science too risky?" and "When is a coincidence really just a coincidence?"

It's guaranteed to make your teen start asking some hard questions -- and his English Lit teacher will love his new familiarity with great names that appear in the book, including Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Schopenhauer.

Thirst for knowledge not yet quenched? Go ahead and read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

Image: Abe Books


6. Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

profiles-in-courageTeens are at risk of believing all integrity, honor, and persistence in the political world has been lost in a grid-locked system of flip-flopping buffoons who have been bought and paid for.

Even adults rarely look closely at what their representatives in government are doing. But democracy is only as good as the people it represents, and -- in addition to opening a window on important events in American history -- Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy reminds us that we can, and should, expect more from the leaders of any nation.

Next assignment: Pick a politician of your choice. Read his or her book.


Image: Harper Collins


7. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes


Teens today will inherit our efforts to eliminate poverty, extend education to all, reduce infant mortality, ensure universal access to clean water, and make the world a place of balance and opportunity for everyone.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes introduces theories about why some nations thrive while others struggle. And since not everyone agrees with Landes’ strong implication of cultural values in national differences, this book will give you plenty to talk about around the dinner table.

For an antidote to the “cultural values” point of view, move on to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. 


Image: WW Norton


8. Livingstone by Tim Jeal


Tim Jeal offers up a warts-and-all look at David Livingstone's historical attempt to explore new territories and improve the lives of native inhabitants.

As a rich piece of history -- and as a cautionary tale on the danger of trying to bring a new set of cultural values to peoples with a rich culture of their own -- Livingstone is an obvious follow-up to the questions raised by The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

Also try The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, or At Play in the Fields of the Lord, by Peter Matthiessen.


Image: Barnes and Noble

9. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart 

cradle-to-cradleThe same industrial logic behind the evolution of modern food illustrated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma pervades all of the things we make and use.

The current generation continues to take the easy way out, leaving a legacy of waste and resource depletion overshadowing the hopes and dreams of the youth. Cradle to Cradle is nothing less than the bible of the next industrial revolution: a must-read for the entrepreneurs of the future. 

If you liked this, you might also want to read World Changing 2.0 by Alex Steffan.


Image: William McDonough

10. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

life-of-piI cannot rule out that my selection of Life of Pi relates partly to the positive impression Yann Martel makes in person (we met during the time he lived in Berlin, Germany), but that this tale of a teen boy stranded in a life boat with a tiger increasingly appears on high school reading lists indicates that it makes the grade.

Life of Pi is a humorous survey of religion masterfully told, with a twist at the end that will leave you guessing what's real and what's fiction.

Depressed a great tale has come to a close? For a cure, take one Cider House Rules, by John Irving, and call us in the morning.

Image: Amazon


11. Better Off by Eric Brende


When MIT graduate student Eric Brende tells readers at the beginning of Better Off that, without the force of human will, technology will become our master instead of our tool, it's the start of an epic journey to balance human joy with labor-saving devices.

Never preachy or didactic, Brende’s first-hand report of his personal experiences during a year off the grid could have your teen thinking twice before she pulls out her cell phone for every little thing.

To imagine where we end up if we don’t take control, immerse yourself in Oryx and Crake by Barbara Atwood.


 Image: Harper Collins 


12. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon


We don’t even want to suggest that your kids may have to look for the signs of the decline and fall of modern empires, so we ground this selection on the fact that every must-read list needs at least one book that challenges the brain with Engish-from-another-era.

On this list, Edward Gibbon’s classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a look at the failings of history’s first great experiment with democracy, fills that role.

Buy this book, put it near a comfortable chair, and open it to any page. Once your teen is hooked, a more structured reading ensues naturally. If that doesn’t work, mention in passing to your teen that the book was banned by the Catholic Church -- few things are more appealing to a teen than scandal.

Speaking of banned by the Church, check out Dr. Copernicus by John Banville.

Image: Amazon


13. Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom

think-lisa-bloomIt is a pity that Lisa Bloom addresses her book to the female gender, because boys are also more caught up than ever before in the culture of celebrity, beauty, and popularity. Although it clocks in at 288 pages, Think can be consumed in one sitting, after which – hopefully – the reader will look at beauty, media, and pop culture with new eyes.

Though the statistics -- which would be humorous if they weren't such a sad reflection of reality -- address mostly women, the lessons of this book apply to all teens who form their worldviews based on the messages of reality tv, faux news, and the blogosphere, without the benefit of critical thought. Read Think to reverse the decline and prevent the fall of the American empire.

 Bloom’s mother, famous attorney Gloria Allred, offers inspiration as well in Fight Back and Win: My Thirty-year Fight Against Injustice--and How You Can Win Your Own Battles.

Image: Barnes and Noble


14. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

bright-lights-big-cityThe greed and immorality of the 1980’s have returned with a vengeance, as recent scandals -- like the fall of Lehman Brothers or the Madoff pyramid scheme -- demonstrate, which makes McInerney’s iconic novel, Bright Lights Big City,  about a young man trying to lead the fast life in New York City as timely now as when it first appeared in 1984.

Give it to your teens in hopes that they'll learn from the characters' experiences, and save themselves from walking a devastating pathway before redemption can be found.

Another great read about finding yourself in New York City: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.


Image: Barnes and Noble


15. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier


Thanks to fellow writer Amy for the tip on Born Confused. No list of must-reads for teens can be complete without a book that explores the theme of the American experience from a point-of-view representing minorities.

Hidier, herself born and raised in America and of Indian ancestry, weaves a poetic tale of growing up in America under the strictures of a family rooted in South Asian Indian culture. Get a jump on a book that could be on the next generation’s required reading lists.

For more unique point-of-view, try I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. 


Image: Barnes and Noble


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