six thought-provoking novels for teens & adults

I don’t often recommend books targeted at readers in their teens
as my blog’s focus is on readers ages 12 and down.
However, I have discovered some exceptional reads for this age group recently
and that’s what I’ve got for you today.
Keep in mind that I’m an adult and I found these compelling
so if you’re looking for summer reading for yourself,
you might check these out.
Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story), written by Daniel Nayeri
published in 2020 by Levine Querido
354 pages

Winner of the 2020 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, this remarkable novel utterly captivated me. These are the fictionalized memoirs of Khousrou Nayeri, who now goes by the name Daniel. Written in the voice of his 12-year-old self, he narrates the events of his early life in Iran, his tumultuous years as a refugee, and the difficult transition he faced as a newcomer in Oklahoma.

Nayeri’s life in Iran was one of privilege, of pedigree, of silky cream puffs and saffron-scented cakes. When his mother converted to Christianity, an offense punishable by death in Iran, his life took a dramatic, sudden turn. Fleeing for their lives, he, his sister, and his mother spent years on a fraught refugee journey before finally being granted asylum in Oklahoma.

In a chapter-less format, the bits and pieces of Nayeri’s life accumulate like a necklace being strung with jewels — some laughing and golden, some blood red, some impenetrably dark, all precious. The timeline proceeds by fits and starts, just the way our understanding of a new acquaintance proceeds, with new details shedding light on what we’ve heard before. Reaching back into Persian mythology, weaving in Islamic history and a smattering of Christian apologetics, commenting on the absurdity of Western toilets, this account roams far and wide.  Nayeri employs a strong narrative voice, that of a delightful, wounded, perceptive young boy. Often humorous, at times uncomfortably blunt and strange, with an ever-present current of both heartbreak and courage, his account is powerful, enlightening, and profoundly human.

In the children’s literature world, books are categorized based on the age of the protagonist. Thus this book lands in the children’s fiction section of my library. However it truly belongs to the young adult grouping as its award suggests. Themes ranging from acute spousal and parental abuse to religious faith to excrement all jostle side-by-side here with lightning-fast transitions demanding a reader willing to venture into the unfamiliar, to think about significant matters, to experience a new lens on the world. It’s one of the most compelling books I’ve read. Highly recommended for readers ages 14 through adult.

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien
published in 2020 by First Second
446 pages

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this book for a l-o-n-g time and it is just as awesome as I expected it to be! If you’ve got any teen-age basketball nuts in your sphere, this is a no-brainer, do-not-miss choice. But don’t limit it to the sports-minded crowd. It’s much more than “just” a sports story.

Gene Yang, comic artist extraordinaire, was utterly unmindful of sports even though he taught at a California high school that lived and breathed basketball, with teams rated in the top echelons of the whole country. At one point though, the zephyr of an idea wafted his way, the awakening realization that the story of this team’s pursuit of their first ever California State basketball championship was a story begging to be told.

Yang immersed himself in the lives of that team and here tells the story of their powerful athleticism and personal challenges. He chronicles that superb year and the impassioned hunt for the trophy, while simultaneously exploring the history of men’s and women’s basketball, racism impacting Black, Chinese, and Sikh players, the sexism encountered by women’s teams, the difficulties and immense potential inherent in coaching, the particular development of basketball in Catholic schools, and classic comics superheroes — all threads masterfully interwoven in the narrative. He also wrestles with sex-abuse allegations against one of the school’s well-loved coaches.

Intriguingly Yang also uses his storytelling to consider the ways we take important steps in our lives, steps into various unknowns, challenges, and ventures. Although basketball is a game of gravity-defying leaps, in life it is often the unseen, unheralded, at times seemingly small steps that prove to be life-changing for ourselves and for wider communities.

It’s an exceptional read for any hoops fan, but if that’s not you please don’t dismiss it. As I said, there is much more than basketball here. Don’t miss the Notes which shed extra light on many of the panels in the book. I’d recommend this for ages 12 or 13 to adult.

Superman Smashes the Klan, written by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru
published in 2020 by DC Comics
239 pages

Here’s another fabulous read from Gene Luen Yang that may look like just another superhero comic from the cover but trust me — it is a thought-provoking, supremely relevant read on racism and white supremacy.

In his afterword, Yang provides a history of the legendary comic strip and radio program star, Superman, which reveals that his original creators, both sons of Jewish immigrants, designed Superman as a heroic immigrant from the start. This book is based on a 16-episode radio series aired in 1946 called The Clan of the Fiery Cross which saw Superman contending with a barely-disguised version of the KKK. Although the story is set in the 1940s, the racial slurs and insidious white nationalist slogans are tragically current.

The Lee family has just moved from Chinatown to Metropolis. Immediately Roberta, her older brother Tommy, and their parents are assaulted by a barrage of anti-Asian racism. The most violent offender is a white supremacist group called The Klan of the Fiery Kross who claim as their mission “to burn away America’s impurities” by which they mean non-white citizens. When the Klan sets fire to the Lees’ property, Superman comes to their rescue, but to stop the Klan will require the help of a number of common ordinary citizens making difficult choices to do what is right.

This episode takes place before Superman knows his own origin story or his relationship to Kryptonite. Both Roberta and Superman wrestle with feeling like they don’t belong, with a sense of not knowing where home legitimately is, and with the need to hide key aspects of their heritage and identity in order to protect themselves from fear-based hatred from the dominant white culture.

A number of thought-provoking story lines are woven into the main action via some wonderfully complex characters. Mr. Lee holds bigoted views towards Black members of the community and is ashamed of his wife’s speaking Chinese. The nephew of the Grand Scorpion in the Klan wrestles with family loyalty vs. the responsibility to do what he knows is right. Tommy initially smothers his Chinese-American identity in order to fit in with his new neighborhood.

Besides the obvious presentation of toxic white supremacy and anti-immigrant stances, the story reveals the difficulty of transitioning into a new home, and the power of the press to expose dangerous secrets. It would easily work as a discussion-laden book club choice. Recommended for ages 13 or 14 and up.


Sparrow Road, written by Sheila O’Connor
published in 2011 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
246 pages

Raine O’Rourke, age 12, has just been hustled out of Milwaukee, away from her dear Grandpa Mac, to spend 8 weeks with her mom at Sparrow Road, a decaying mansion in the middle of the countryside occupied by a group of artists of varying eccentricity. Viktor, the owner, is an odd, unsettling, severe person, ancient, bony, haggard. How does someone like him own and operate such a large estate? Why hadn’t Mom told her about the strange list of rules at this place? Why did she up and leave her job to come cook and clean here — definitely not her favorite tasks — for the summer? Mama is evading honest answers as far as Raine can tell.

From the outset of this story we are thrust by these questions into an immediate sense of unease, confusion, and mystery, like the world is wobbling a bit off center.  Bit by bit with help from unexpected persons a number of secrets are brought into the open, truths long silenced are spoken in a painful, poignant, yet healing process. It’s a story about relationships — broken and healed, complicated and easy, newfound and old — and the possibilities for redemption through honest acknowledgement of mistakes made, courage, and love. The healing power of art gets a superb spotlight here as well as the destructive force of alcoholism and pain of abandonment.

That makes it sound like quite a sober book, but the mood is buoyed by the charms of rhubarb festivals, moonlit rowboat rides on the lake, tart cherry pie, and fabulous, ebullient personalities. The overall arc is one of honest healing and fresh starts. I really enjoyed this coming-of-age story. It feels like one my daughters would have loved in middle school. I’m recommending it for ages 12 and up.

Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11,  by Alan Gratz
published in 2021 by Scholastic
304 pages + back matter

It’s September 11, 2001. Brandon Chavez, 9 years old, has been suspended from school and therefore is tagging along with his dad, a chef at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Dashing off by himself to run a quick errand, Brandon becomes trapped in an elevator when a plane rams into the building unleashing terror, destruction, and death.

Eighteen years later, on September 11, 2019, Reshmina, an 11-year-old Afghani girl living in a small village discovers an American soldier wounded in a Taliban attack that morning, and despite her hatred of Americans born from her sister’s death in an American bombing, she is obligated by her Pashtun culture to offer him refuge. Bringing this soldier into her home unleashes a horrifying, destructive, deadly barrage of firepower from both sides in the conflict.

Two kids, a world and eighteen years apart, engulfed in heart-pounding danger and heart-rending losses. Their stories, told in alternating chapters, reveal the surprisingly parallel threats and wounds they suffer. Through their voices and choices, Gratz makes both of their experiences intensely personal. By tying Reshmina’s story to Brandon’s he shines an incandescent spotlight on questions about revenge which are woven throughout the novel.

I wasn’t sure I was ready to read a novel about 9/11 and in his author’s note, Alan Gratz speaks about his reluctance for many years to tackle this subject and the emotional toll it took on him to write it. Honestly, it was a hard book for me to read, triggering my old PTSD at times. It is an intense, devastating, and sorrowful pair of stories and Gratz includes gritty, traumatic details especially of the scenes at the World Trade Center. Loved family members die in this story. Therefore I would caution sensitive readers and those with anxiety challenges, and even though the protagonists in this story are ages 9 and 11, I’m suggesting it for readers ages 15 and up. Still, many teens want to know what happened in the U.S. on that day before they were born, and many need to know what has and is currently happening in Afghanistan during the past two decades. I was surprised when, several years ago, the teens in my modern history classes had extremely rudimentary and mistaken ideas of what transpired on 9/11. For those teens, this book will make history crystal clear and offer thought-provoking perspectives on the war in Afghanistan.

Secret Soldiers, by Keely Hutton
published in 2019 by Farrar Straus Giroux
309 pages

Thomas Sullivan, 13 years young, lies about his age to enlist in the British army at the outset of this engrossing WWI story. His goal is to track down his beloved older brother James who is missing in action. Although he already has the calloused fingers and implacable dust of a seasoned coal miner, Thomas is still just a young lad with a tender heart for his family and a naiveté about what heading to the Western Front will entail.

By following Thomas’s journey, Hutton transports us immediately and vividly to 1915 London and then quickly to the horrors of trench warfare, introducing us en route to an unlikely yet close-knit bunch of characters, young brothers-in-arms who easily claim a protective spot in our hearts. These boys join a secretive army cadre known as the clay-kickers or tunnelers who are literally tunneling underneath no-man’s land, creating caverns beneath the German trenches which they will pack with a staggering amount of explosives in an all-out effort to end the long stalemate at Messines in Belgium. This was an aspect of WWI I had not previously known.

Multiple times when I have taught Modern World history to teens, I have assigned them All Quiet on the Western Front, a book which has never failed to win their approval and fully engage them in the inglorious, horrific nature of warfare. Secret Soldiers is not as intense or mature a read as that classic, and as such is an excellent choice for somewhat younger readers. Still, Hutton offers a relatively unflinching depiction of life on the Western Front in all its grotesque violence, bloodshed, intensity, and desolation. Her opening poem even echoes the central theme of All Quiet. The brotherhood of these young soldiers, their loyalty and sacrifice for one another, anchors the story in an resistant, deep humanity, but be aware that this is a gritty read. I’d recommend it for ages 14 and up.