High school isn’t just prom dates and team sports and driver’s licenses and acne. It’s more than the fluff dramas we’ve been given on the CW and FOX, as entertaining as those dramas can be. High school is a time of transition, of self-discovery, of heartbreak and searing joy. It’s a time of life that is so easily dismissed, one that contains far more pain and wonder and richness than the stereotyped depictions on television offer.
It’s often assumed that books about high school must be for high school readers, and that adult readers have long left their adolescent years behind. The prevalence of John Green novels and the Twilight series, both valuable in their own right and marketed toward young adult readers, may lead adult readers to dismiss books about high school as nothing but narratives about cheerleaders, jocks, and outcasts. But adolescence contains far more than these stereotypes, and in the hands of a skillful author, its depiction comes alive on the page. The following books don’t trivialize the highs and lows of adolescence. They capture for adult readers the immediacy of high school and coming of age.
A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
Jarrar’s first novel follows Nidali and her family as they move from Kuwait to Egypt and then to Texas after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. A rebellious and spunky young protagonist, Nidali navigates cultural transition and family struggles with humor and charm. Jarrar’s book is a loving and warm portrait of a family, and a fantastic coming of age novel for adults about a charismatic young woman.
Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim
Heim’s first novel, which was later made into the film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, brings together two young men who once shared a Little League team. As a teenager, Brian Lackey suffers nosebleeds, blackouts and nightmares, believing that he was once abducted by aliens. Neil McCormick is a teenage hustler living dangerously. Heim brings these two characters together again across the length of a novel that explores sexual abuse, the faults of memory, and the nature of truth.
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Jackson’s first novel spans the summer where two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, leave Brooklyn to stay with the grandmother in Barbados. Phaedra, the younger sister, explores Barbados through the prism of her grandmother’s work as a midwife while sixteen-year-old Dionne rebels and wants to return home, discovering her own sexuality and the beginnings of romantic love. Jackson’s novel beautifully addresses themes of family and dislocation in lyrical prose, a gorgeous coming of age story for adult readers.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Wasserman is an accomplished author of young adult novels, and this year’s Girls on Fire is her first novel for adults. The book charts a dangerous triangle of friendship between Hannah, Lacey and Nikki against the backdrop of early-90s grunge music, sex and drugs. Hannah is an awkward, quiet teenager until she’s taken under Lacey’s wing, a reckless teenager obsessed with Kurt Cobain. What follows is the unraveling of secrets both girls keep from one another, told in alternating chapter from each girl’s point of view, and in a non-linear structure that spirals toward the novel’s inevitable and devastating end.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Pessl’s first novel is set at an elite boarding school where Blue Van Meer, the book’s brilliant and precocious teenage protagonist, arrives without friends. She’s quickly swept into the world of the Bluebloods, a secret society of eccentric students, and into the aftermath of a murder that keeps them second-guessing one another on a trail of clues. Organized by chapters named after common required high school reading, including Heart of Darkness and Paradise Lost, Pessl’s novel is a compelling, compulsive mystery that delves into the darker side of high school.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Told in the collective-first perspective of a group of men looking back on their high school years, Eugenides’s debut novel charts their obsession with the Lisbon sisters who shared their neighborhood and high school halls before all five girls committed suicide. A coming of age story that reflects on the difficulty of memory and the inscrutability of the past, the novel also delves into the underbelly of the suburbs and the failure of American industry. Eugenides spins a lyrical and haunting tale that is as luminous as it is heartbreaking.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
In Woodson’s most recent novel, 1970s Brooklyn comes alive on the page through the book’s young protagonist, August, who moves to New York from Tennessee with her father and brother and comes of age amid a new group of girlfriends testing their own boundaries and imagining the future ahead of them. August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi dream of becoming lawyers and dancers, while also contending with the leers of men and the world’s dangers as they grow. Set against the backdrop of a changing era, from the Vietnam War to the 1977 blackout across New York City, Woodson’s novel beautifully explores girlhood and the bedrock of female friendship.
Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in October 2016. Her first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and released in September 2014. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics.