Last Friday, Jessica Roake over at Slate lamented the fall of Holden Caulfield in the esteem of modern teenagers — “The problem is that Catcher in the Rye is no longer a book for cool high school students,” she writes. “Catcher in the Rye is a book for cool high school teachers.” A host of factors have added to the books current lack of cool, the most important probably being its ubiquitousness on modern high school syllabi — how can something truly feel underground, transformative, if your teachers are assigning it?
“The perfect teenage book should feel like it’s being passed around secretly, its message too raw and powerful for adults to understand,” Roake explains. “It should inspire highlighting and ponderous margin notes that embarrass you 20 years later. Most of all, it should feel like it’s speaking directly to you, and only you, even if everyone else in your class is working on the same essay question.” We totally concur, and after the jump, we’ve put forward ten novels that we think might just have the chops to replace our beloved Catcher in our collective teenage imaginations. But then again, maybe nothing will ever replace it. Click through to check out our list, and if you don’t see your favorite, add and argue in the comments.
Black Swan Green , David Mitchell
Roake suggests Black Swan Green, the semi-autobiographical story of a sensitive young boy — stutterer, poet — growing up in England, and we agree wholeheartedly. Not only is this book impeccably written and rather moving (whether you’re a floundering teenager or no), but as former teenagers ourselves, we recognize that pretentious joy of drawling “Oh, David Mitchell? Yes, you’ve read Cloud Atlas, but how about Black Swan Green?” Taking in his entire oeuvre wouldn’t hurt them either.
We The Animals , Justin Torres
Torres’s slight, back-pocket worthy debut is the barbaric yawp of three brothers, the coming-of-age of one. It tackles distress and difference, family, and the delicate dangers of the world, in delicious prose that will make your chest sear at any age, with a dark enough bent that teenagers will blush with pleasure over trading in the hallways.
Vernon God Little , DBC Pierre
This terrifying, hilarious, dangerous book, which won the Booker Prize in 2003 (the judges called it a “coruscating black comedy”), tells the story of Vernon, a fifteen-year-old boy whose best friend kills sixteen bullies and then himself. The whole of Vernon’s small Texas town turns on him, arrests him in his underwear, glares at him from the streets and from the television. Obviously, Vernon must run away to Mexico.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics , Marisha Pessl
The same kids who are about to be passing The Secret History around their dorm rooms are likely to pass Special Topics between their lockers. Murder, eccentric cliques, whip-smart teenagers with bones to pick, and delicate familial relationships are all wrapped up in a satisfying scholarly setting. Though some critics have called it too smart for its own good, that seems to us to be just the kind of thing teenagers are after. And some adults.
Rats Saw God , Rob Thomas
First off: no, not that Rob Thomas. We’re talking about the Rob Thomas who created Veronica Mars and Party Down. Back with us? Okay. Life has gone downhill quickly for 18-year-old Steve York, once a straight-A student, now an apathetic druggie. Whether it’s because of his inability to get along with his father, or the fact that his heart had been run through frappé, puree, and liquefy on a love blender” by one Wanda “Dub” Varner, he’s not sure, but when he’s assigned to write a 100-page essay on the state of things, he takes a funny, introspective journey of enlightenment through the last few years of his life.
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You , Peter Cameron
By all rights a proper modern Holden, Cameron’s James Sveck is a cynical, sensitive, too-smart-for-his-own-good type of eighteen year old, pushing against the constraints of what’s expected of him (college) and propriety (not cyber-stalking his mother’s employees, no matter how attractive). Both hilarious and sad, we think any teenager could find something to identify with here.
Old School , Tobias Wolff
As far as subject matter datedness goes, Wolff’s slight, incisive novel isn’t much better than Salinger’s — it’s set in an elite prep school in 1960 — but then again, it was written in 2003, which changes things somewhat. This novel is sneaky, quiet, satirical, and earnest at once, peppered with gems for constant readers (nods to Hemingway, Frost, Rand) and what with that unnamed narrator at an unnamed school, a skin of understanding that anyone can slip into.
Project X , Jim Shepard
Like Catcher, this novel is a tragedy. It’s somewhat more tragic, to be sure, as two lonely eighth grade misfits plan a Columbine-style attack on their suburban high school. But like Salinger, Shepard excels at creating the flat, believable tone of a disaffected teenager, at letting us follow along without ever needing to convince us that our protagonist has the way of things. It’s a rocky road, that.
King Dork , Frank Portman
If you’re a teenager who loathes The Catcher in the Rye, despite of the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that everyone in your high school is holding it above their heads in triumph, then you’ve found a kindred spirit in 14-year-old Tom Henderson. But then again, when opening a copy of a book owned by your late father, you really don’t know what you’ll find. Secret codes from beyond the grave, perhaps. Part mystery-novel, part rock’n’roll geek on a weird crusade, this book is for all the haters.
Black Hole , Charles Burns
Sure, this graphic novel is a little too big to hide behind your Chemistry book, but teenagers who binge on Twin Peaks after dark (i.e. all of them, if they know what’s good for them) will love this weird, upsetting story about a gruesome STD that causes bizarre mutations. It’s not a gross-out book though; Burns focuses on the psychological effects of “the bug,” taking us through a black-and-white horrorland that entices as it terrifies. Plus, it might get teenagers to watch who they hook up with. Or at least check for tails and tiny mouths.