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Books on Growing Up for Teens

by Laura Lambert

growing up teen
Image credit: urbazon/Getty Images

In a lot of ways, every young adult book is about growing up — finding yourself, finding love, leaving childhood, and its innocence, behind. But these nine books put the experience of growing up center stage. From a young adult romance that’s packed with mystery to a story about a girl who goes from foster home to foster home, these realistic stories will resonate with teens.

  • Tell Me Three Things

    by Julie Buxbaum

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    This is teen romance, with a twist. In Tell Me Three Things, Jessie, the new girl at a private school in Los Angeles, starts receiving emails — signed “Somebody/Nobody” — from a mysterious student who offers to be her virtual spirit guide. But amidst the high school crushes and social drama, there’s also a backdrop of grief: Jessie’s mother, whose death put the whole story in motion.

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  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

    by Erika L. Sánchez

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    Death is also a driving force in this acclaimed YA novel, a finalist for the National Book Award. In I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Julia Reyes’s older sister, Olga, is killed by a semi at age 22, which drags her family into grief. The title says it all: Julia rails against cultural expectations in her first-generation, working class Mexican American family. And eventually, a truer picture of the “perfect” daughter, Olga, emerges.

    I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter embraces the idea that even flawed, difficult characters deserve to tell their story. As Sánchez told the L.A. Review of Books, “I decided to write about a budding writer because young girls of color don’t often see themselves portrayed as storytellers. I want them to know that they can have a voice, that it’s okay to dream big. Also, the world needs to know that brown girls can be intellectual, that they can have complex inner lives.”

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  • Girl in Pieces

    by Kathleen Glasgow

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    Seventeen-year-old Charlie Davis moves from self-harm to self-healing in this intense, New York Times bestselling novel. It is not an easy read — the book spans suicide, abuse, cutting, addiction, and homelessness. But, for mature readers, there’s a depth of honesty as well. Kirkus calls it a “grittily provocative debut” that “explores the horrors of self-harm and the healing power of artistic expression.”

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  • Who Put This Song On?

    by Morgan Parker

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    Who Put This Song On is loosely based on acclaimed poet Morgan Parker’s own life, and she wrote the novel to fill a void she felt as a teen. “There’s not a Black Bell Jar,” Parker told the Washington Square Review. “So, depression . . . there’s not really a book like that, not just for Black girls, but for, like, emo Black girls in the suburbs.”

    In the book, the 17-year-old fictional Morgan Parker is indeed an emo Black girl in the suburbs. She’s depressed and anxious and navigating the microaggressions one might expect as one of the few Black students at a conservative Christian school. There is no tidy ending, here, just an acknowledgement of the challenges of this phase of growing up.

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  • What I Carry

    by Jennifer Longo

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    One lesson learned after 20+ placements in the foster care system? Pack. Light. At 17, Muriel — a.k.a. Muir — is about to age out of foster care for good. Then, she arrives at a new placement on an island in the Puget Sound, and the people she meets challenge her fierce independence.

    Longo herself has been a foster parent, and she wrote the book for her daughter, who was in the foster system before being adopted by Longo. “Muiriel’s voice is a culmination of the many kids’ voices who kindly let me listen to the truth,” Longo told BookPage.

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  • Paper Towns

    by John Green

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    It’s hard to pick just one John Green book, but for this list consider Paper Towns, which was published in 2009 before being adapted into a movie starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne in 2015.

    Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery, the story follows two quintessentially John Green characters, the anxious Quentin Jacobsen and the unattainable Margo Roth Spiegelman, childhood friends and neighbors, who drift apart until one night in high school when Margo shows up at Quentin’s window and beckons him out for a middle-of-the-night adventure. But after Margo vanishes the next day, the real mystery begins.

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  • Frankly in Love

    by David Yoon

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    Frank Li is a second-generation Korean American high school senior who falls for a girl he can’t possibly date — so he invents an elaborate dating scheme that turns a typical high school romance on its head. Frankly in Love is about so much more, though — generational divides, cultural tensions, various multifaceted identities, and the unique feeling of leaving everything known at home as college looms.

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  • When You Were Everything

    by Ashley Woodfolk

    Coming of age tales aren’t just about falling in love. Often, they’re about loss — and in the case of When You Were Everything, the devastating loss of a childhood friend. In the story, Cleo and Layla were best friends, until they weren’t. The story of how they come apart jumps back and forth between past and present, as the 16-year-olds navigate new friendships and new ways of being. “It’s a satisfying coming-of-age friendship story, with Cleo learning to stop seeing people as all good (her father, past Layla) or all bad (her mother, current Layla), and that change can be exhilarating rather than disastrous,” writes Publishers Weekly.

  • Girling Up

    by Mayim Bialik

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    And when fiction fails, there’s Mayim Bialik, PhD! In Girling Up, Bialik speaks directly to girls, using science and stories to help them navigate the tumultuous teen years. This is part puberty book, part self-help guide, all brought to you by a down-to-earth Hollywood star with a degree in neuroscience.

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