Parents may worry that adult books could be inappropriate for teens. Yet these days, some young adult books, especially those aimed at older teens, often can hold their own against adult books when it comes to sex and violence. In fact, some adult books — light fiction or cozy mysteries — actually may offer less sex or violence than some YA books. If parents still are concerned over the appropriateness of teens reading adult books, one solution is either to pre-read the book or read a second copy alongside your teen. This could even spark some thoughtful conversations.
So, what are some good adult reading possibilities for teens? One great place to start is the American Library Association’s Alex Awards, which are given annually to 10 books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12-18.” Those are great choices, and here are some more, a wide selection of mystery, romance, nonfiction and science fiction:
“The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” by Laurie R. King. Sherlock Holmes meets his match in the teenage Mary Russell. This is the first of a long-running series and a perfect next step for fans of the Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer. Teens will especially enjoy the battle of wills between Russell and Holmes.
“Blanche on the Lam” by Barbara Neely. In this first of a quartet of books, a Black housekeeper named Blanche White becomes a prime suspect when there’s a murder in the house where she’s working. Teens will find interest in Neely’s exploration of the racism — both overt and indirect — experienced by Blanche even as they enjoy a good mystery and Blanche’s irrepressible personality.
“Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah (also available in an abridged YA version). Known for his sharp humor as “The Daily Show” host, Noah describes growing up during apartheid in South Africa with a white father and Black mother. Humor leavens the book’s harder moments, including depictions of domestic abuse and other violence. Teens will be fascinated by how Noah endured a sometimes horrific journey to adulthood to become a household name.
“Dial ‘A’ For Aunties” by Jesse Q. Sutanto. Part caper, part rom-com, this page turner of a mystery offers a madcap plot, an irresistible protagonist and a fascinating look at Indonesian and Chinese culture. Teens looking for a new twist on mysteries will welcome this lighthearted, often hilarious page-turner.
“Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” by Barack Obama. The former president writes movingly of his efforts to understand his identity as a biracial man. Obama’s book will engage teens in the midst of their own self-discovery.
“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. Kids sent to an orbital battle station to train for the next alien invasion are pitted against each other in teams: “Lord of the Flies” meets Hogwarts with laser tag substituting for magic. At this point, “Ender’s Game” is pretty much considered a YA novel. The sequels are more thoughtful, philosophic even, and at an adult level.
“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin. In the first book in the Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin describes a mother’s search for her daughter in the midst of cataclysmic geological events. Teen fans of speculative fiction will savor Jemisin’s fine writing, the story’s setting and the memorable characters.
“Gaudy Night” by Dorothy L. Sayers. Detective-novelist Harriet Vane must come to terms with her feelings for famous sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in this masterful, classic 1935 novel built around a mystery and set in Oxford, England. Teens who devour mysteries will enjoy the depth of this book, especially how Sayers explores the role of women in the working world.
“Moon of the Crusted Snow” by Waubgeshig Rice. A haunting but hopeful work of speculative fiction, Rice’s story traces the tale of a family in northern Canada as it rebuilds following the collapse of society. Rice weaves his Anishinaabe heritage into an absorbing, unique story that will interest teens fans of this genre.
“Neuromancer” by William Gibson. In this classic work of modern cyberpunk, a hacker faces down a powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth. Gibson’s visions of the democratizing ability of computers to dissolve geographical, economic and political boundaries — here in a common hallucinatory graphic interface called cyberspace — will fascinate teens who love speculative fiction.
“Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler. In a world beset by climate change and lawlessness, Lauren Olamina was born with the ability to feel others’ emotions, especially their pain, as her own. Although the book was published in 1993, teens will readily relate to the themes of social injustice and environmental calamity.
“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline. Rollicking action, good humor, plausible characters and a believable future from the perspective of a now-a-day time when kids spend more time hanging out with each other in the video game space than they do in the physical world. High jinks and action ensue. Cline’s book is a natural for teens who love speculative fiction.
“A Spy in the Struggle” by Aya de Leon. FBI attorney Yolanda Vance is assigned to infiltrate a group of mostly teenage Black eco-activists who believe a government-protected corporation is poisoning their community. Things get complicated when Vance finds herself drawn to their cause. Teens will appreciate the emotional complexity of this mystery and the way de Leon spotlights young adults working to create a better world.
“Three Ordinary Girls: The Remarkable Story of Three Dutch Teenagers Who Became Spies, Saboteurs, Nazi Assassins — and World War II Heroes” by Tim Brady. A true story about how a group of ordinary teens helped the Dutch resistance against the Nazis. The book’s teenage protagonists and their bravery will enthrall young adults, who may find themselves inspired to take up their own causes.
“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey. The first of a series set in 1920s Bombay and featuring a protagonist based on India’s first female lawyers. The book’s feminist theme, an intriguing setting and a doomed romance will keep teens turning the pages.
“World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. A beautifully illustrated book that weaves the author’s personal story with fascinating facts about some of nature’s wonders. Teens will find much to like in the way Nezhukumatathil mixes an exploration of nature with her compelling story of growing up as the daughter of immigrants in a sometimes unwelcoming America.
And here are some books recommended by teens:
“Beach Read” by Emily Henry
“Circe” and “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller
“Normal People” by Sally Rooney
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
“Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston
“The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Karen MacPherson is the former children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, Md., library.