By Kate Axelrod, author of The Law of Loving Others
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Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep tells the story of fourteen-year-old Lee Fiora, who feels utterly ill at ease at the prestigious East Coast boarding school she attends. Sittenfeld depicts the thrills and agonies of being in high school in such a precise way, with a teenage protagonist who is perceptive, intelligent and cutting. Prep is hilarious but also examines issues of race and class in a really compelling way.

Into the Great Wide Open by Kevin Canty

Canty’s first novel, Into the Great Wide Open, is impeccably written and emotionally astute. It follows Kenny and Julie, two troubled suburban teenagers who fall in love. Though Kenny and Julie are essentially from different worlds, both are seeking something that their fractured families can’t offer. Canty writes about teenagers in a way that feels incredibly authentic, immediate and realistic.

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

Though the concept of this novel–a family drives out west to witness the rapture–may sound strange, it actually illustrates a very ordinary family, and the ways in which being a teenager can be so tedious and frustrating, but also exciting. Miller is known for her flash fiction and short stories, but she transitions seamlessly to the novel. Teenage Jess’s interior life is beautifully and hilariously captured, as is the way it can be so hard to like your family, even when you so clearly love them.

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

In Zanesville is the story of two best friends growing up in suburban America during the 1970s. Beard is a fantastic writer who subtly and skillfully depicts the intimacy of these girls, who are on the cusp of adulthood, a time when so much is changing. Their evolving friendship is at the forefront of the novel, but Beard also beautifully portrays family dynamics, as well as her characters’ sense of womanhood and sexuality.

Towelhead by Alicia Erian

Erian’s witty and heartbreaking novel, Towelhead, was made into an equally excellent film, but I recommend reading the book first. The novel takes place in 1990 in a Texas suburb, and Jasira has just moved in with her Lebanese father after her mother can no longer take care of her. Jasira feels out of place in her new home and at school with her peers. She’s thrust into a world where her changing body and her newfound Arab identity propel her to act out in ways that are often dark and disturbing, but also so tender and poignant.

The Virgins by Pamela Erens

At an elite boarding school, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung both struggle to fit in with the other students. Subsequently, they find refuge in each other. The novel takes place in the 1979 and is written from the remote perspective of another student who is fascinated by their relationship, which is actually nothing like outsiders imagine it to be. This novel is a stunning exploration of the complexities of first love, and the ways in which we romanticize other people’s relationships.

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We the Animals is the kind of novel you want to read in just one sitting — it is breathtaking and gut-wrenching and beautifully written. It tells the story of three brothers and their parents (their father is Puerto Rican and their mother is white) who move from Brooklyn to upstate New York. The protagonist is so relatable in his quest to carve out a place for himself in the family, while also understanding his own identity and needs. It’s impossible not to root for these family members who love each other fiercely, despite the fact that their home is a turbulent and stormy place.


KATE AXELROD was born and raised in New York City. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and a Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University. Kate has written for, The Nervous Breakdown and various other publications. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an advocate in the criminal justice system. Learn more at

(photo credit: Anna Beeke)