Jean Menzies - 5 Books That Spoke to Me as a Teenager

My teen years felt like a mishmash of reading, as they still do sometimes; an assortment of adult books my dad had leant me, books I was pushed to read for school and anything I could find in the teens section of the library. After being an avid reader as a child, secondary school felt like a transitionary period in my reading. I went from reading about children discovering magical portals to being expected to read about middle-aged adults who were having affairs and struggling at work (I still hate Death of a Salesman). At the time, books targeted towards young adults felt few and far between. After I had read all of the early teen stuff, I wanted something more substantial. It was frustrating to say the least. Everyone deserves to read about characters their own age and we should all probably read about characters at various times in their life no matter how old we are. The books I did read as a teenager, the ones that really spoke to me, reminded me of how much I loved reading and made me consider myself and the world around me. That’s the power of a good book; here are a few of them.


Sunset Song cover
Sunset Song
by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

How can a book by an adult man be such an honest depiction of the life and thoughts of a young girl in the process of become a woman? No matter the how, they did it. I read Sunset Song when I was around sixteen years old and I absolutely fell in love with the story and its lead character, Chris Guthrie. The novel follows her throughout her childhood into her twenties, growing up in rural Scottish farmland. Set in the first half of the 20th century, the central theme of self-discovery, or perhaps better phrased as getting to know oneself, remained timeless to me as a young reader. Chris remained ever the independent spirit whilst outside forces had a hand in shaping her experiences. As protagonists go, she is one who will stay with me forever.


Cover of Looking for Alaska
Looking for Alaska
by John Green

This book follows Miles, who convinces his parents to send him to boarding school where his new friends include the effervescent Alaska. Although I was recently out of school when I read this book, it still managed to strike a chord with me. Looking for Alaska was, for me, a book about grief. It explored grief as it was experienced by young people and grief at the loss of a young life. I don’t remember ever encountering what felt like such an honest portrayal of this particular image of grief before reading this book and it felt at the time to be a very intimate reading experience.


Harry Potter box set of books
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

What can I say? I am very much a part of that Harry Potter generation. I read the first book when I was six and my childminder leant me the audio cassette tapes, and the final instalment the day it was released when I was fifteen. I grew up reading these books from childhood into my teenage years and the characters grew up with me. I have still never encountered such a unique set of books that age with their readers. Although I would say that the later books still lean towards the younger end of young adult literature, they had certainly grown beyond the confines of simple children’s books by the time Harry was experiencing full teenage angst in The Order of the Phoenix. It was a very special experience to grow up with a set of characters in the way my friends and I did with the students of Hogwarts and I am certain it had a massive impact on my reading at that time and afterwards.


Roxy's Baby cover
Roxy’s Baby
by Catherine MacPhail

Roxy’s Baby follows Roxy, a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant after one night at a party. Scared and confused, she runs away from home where she lives with her mother, sister and step-father, her own father having passed away. To what seems her luck, she is quickly taken in by a couple who provide shelter and assistance to young women in her situation. But things are never quite as they seem, are they? I gobbled up Catherine MacPhail’s books in my early teens, never before having read anything with the young adult audience specifically in mind. Roxy’s Baby was the one that stuck with me, though. It didn’t shy away from the darker side of life and I appreciated that. It was also grounded in truth, having been inspired by real events the author had learnt about. How could that not stay with you?


Cover of Refugee Boy
Refugee Boy
by Benjamin Zephaniah

There was, and unfortunately still is, a distinct lack of diversity in publishing and mainstream literature. This is, however, in no way reflective of society. I have to thank my mum for making sure that I was always exposed to books about people from all over the world, with varying experiences of the world. One of the authors (and poets) who she introduced me to as a teenager was Benjamin Zephaniah. His novel, Refugee Boy, follows Alem, an Ethiopian boy whose parents leave him in London because they believe he will be safer there than he is in Ethiopia with them. The reader then follows Alem’s experience of the UK, alone, without his family. Since then I have consumed everything I can by Zephaniah and he has become one of my favourite adult poets. What more could I ask for from any author than to be with me throughout my life?

If you enjoyed this blog post from Jean, check out the other posts in our three-part series to find some great teen recommendations from Melvin Burgess and Non Pratt.

Jean, Melvin and Non will be appearing on our Authors Live: Authentic Teens in YA digital event on October 4. You can sign up for this fantastic Authors Live event here. Jean Menzies has also created three videos to help teachers and pupils get started with vlogging in the classroom - check out the videos here.

Jean Menzies

Jean Menzies is a popular and prolific vlogger, with a YouTube channel full of videos about literature, history, politics and studying. She is also the Creative Producer at Pan MacMillan and runs their exciting series BookBreaks, where you can pick up a host of reading recommendations.