June 18, 2019
A number of you noted last week that you’d like to see us address the issue of finding high quality books for older children, particularly books for teens. So today we’re doing just that!
Being on the lookout for new books and authors requires constant vigilance. It’s a never-ending process, and one that requires a great deal of providence. You never know from what strange corner of the universe you’ll discover your next great read! I personally try to jot down the names of books or authors whenever someone I respect mentions them in passing so that I can look them up afterwards. Sometimes I read these books and sometimes I don’t, but either way it’s helpful to glean ideas from what others around me are reading.
Discovering good books for teens, however, seems to be a twofold issue. One part involves finding good books that you as a parent or teacher can provide to teens. The other part involves empowering teens to seek out good literature for themselves, and giving them the tools they’ll need to recognize and enjoy it. Adolescence is a time where you want to encourage readers to seek out new literature for themselves, and to begin assuming responsibility for their own reading habits if they haven’t done so already.
As much as possible, you want to encourage adolescents to find books for themselves, which may entail giving them more latitude in their reading habits. At this stage in development, I would ensure that good books (outside of academic reading) are always available, but otherwise refrain from giving too many directions.
This is something my mom did a great job of. For instance, she let me re-read books we had previously read aloud almost exclusively for about a year. She even let me not read much if at all independently for long stretches of time. But when I finally asked to go to our local bookstores so I could look for some books by Willa Cather, you’d better believe she was ready to go almost immediately!
Before that time, I would read books for school and I re-read a handful of the books we had read aloud earlier, but I didn’t really love to read. But, once I started picking out books for myself, I never stopped! Now I really appreciate that my mom let me take my time and didn’t rush me into reading. I think that the freedom she gave me to choose my own books when I was 12-13 really helped me gain independence in my reading habits.
One type of resource that I would recommend to readers of all ages, but to adolescents in particular is literary anthologies. Anthologies are a great instrument to use when “spreading a broad feast” for teens, especially since they provide so much opportunity for exploration and discovery. Anthologies of short stories, plays, essays, and poems are widely available and good ones expose readers to a diverse collection of works. Readers can gain a great sense of an author’s style from a short story, and then actively pursue more works by the authors they liked best.
I also like this sort of book because it’s easier to pick up and set down than a novel. You can read a handful of stories, then take a break to read a full-length novel, then return without missing a beat. I often find that I’ll read a story, then go look for a book by that author and return to the anthology when I’m again in need of inspiration.
In short, anthologies can be deep wells to draw from and can provide good exposure to a wide range of literary styles, in addition to introducing readers to new authors.
Since I was drawn primarily to “classic literature” as a teen, I began using resources like Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels to mine ideas for future reading. Modern Library also has a similar list. Those lists gave me ideas of titles, as well as authors, to keep an eye out for at bookstores or even on our bookshelves at home. I never read all of those books, and honestly don’t intend to, but they were a great place to begin.
Now that I am older and have read more widely, I don’t refer to that sort of list anymore. I do, however, note what titles are on the bookshelves of close friends and I do sometimes look at the recommendations Goodreads gives me. Several months ago, I actually took photographs of a friend’s entire library because her shelves were so incredible. Now whenever I need ideas I can just look back at the images! I’ll also often look at the Goodreads accounts of friends whose taste I respect to see how they’ve rated books.
In addition to looking at book lists, you can also mine major book awards lists for new titles. We often recommend Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books here. In addition, you can look at winners of the Pulitzer prize, Nobel prize in literature, National Book Awards, and Costa Book Awards. The Booker Prize is hit or miss for me, but still absolutely worth looking at.
As a quick note: do also look at the short-lists and list of runners up for each award, as those are often wonderful, as well!
Our close friends can be one of our most helpful tools in discovering new literature. So many of my all-time favorite books came as recommendations or gifts from friends. Over time I have identified those friends who are good literary “matches” for me and I’ll often turn to them for recommendations or insight. I did this as a teen, as well, and it gave me a list of interesting new books to read, in addition to strengthening my relationships with friends.
Teens can, and absolutely should, rely on one another for recommendations. (It's important, though, to identify friends whose opinions and taste you respect and not to simply read a book just because an acquaintance has read it.) But once you've found a good book friend, hang on to them! It's possible that you've established a reading friendship for life.
Other questions to consider
Share your experience
What about you all? Where do you find great books for teens? And what other resources have you found to be helpful besides the ones we listed here? Do you have experience working with a teenager to help them begin establishing greater ownership over their own reading? Let us know in the comments below!