Every nerd worth their salt has a library filled with stories of geeky heroes and heroines. To a true nerd, a well-stocked library is like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, a place of refuge and renewal. Gain strength from the following books—and give it to the teen reader in your life. They’ll thank you for the hours of bookworm joy.
An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
Colin Singleton is a prodigy with a perennially broken heart. While he can anagram just about any word forty different ways, he’s a dunce when it comes to girls named Katherine. When dumped by his latest love, Katherine XXIX, Colin ditches town with his best friend, hoping to heal his heart by logging major miles on the open road. Along the way, the two friends land in a town named Gutshot, start working for a business that makes tampon strings, and befriend a former girl nerd who has found the secret to popularity—and whose name, fortuitously, is not Katherine.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Arnold Spirit is a teenage cartoonist trying to survive life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Bullied by his peers and jaded by his lack of options, the brilliant Arnold transfers to a better school off the res. But navigating his new surroundings while trying to maintain old loyalties isn’t easy. Arnold’s razor-sharp wit and basketball skills help him cope, but it’s his courage and scrappy strength that keep him afloat. Alexie’s book is a National Book Award winner that has received infinite praise since its 2007 debut. If you haven’t yet read it, put this book at the tippy-top of your reading list.
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
From the outside, Eleanor and Park are an odd pair.: she’s the redheaded new girl who’s too busy surviving poverty and a horrible home life to even try to fit in. He’s the son of a happy home but, as one of his school’s few biracial teens, a master of staying under the radar. They should have nothing to do with each other, but find unexpected common ground on the school bus. First they share a seat, then a comic book, then cassette tapes of Joy Division and the Smiths. This instant classic is a Romeo and Juliet set in 1980s Omaha.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
In Ready Player One, life happens inside the gaming platform OASIS, where people work, play, and go to school. Virtual reality is a relief from the real world, which suffers from massive unemployment, environmental damage, and next-level overpopulation issues. And when the billionaire creator of OASIS, James Halliday, kicks the bucket, people become even more obsessed with the virtual world. Before he died, Halliday built a final, wildly immersive game, and the person who finishes it first will inherit his fortune. Wade Watts, avatar name Parzival, may be a nobody, but he’s determined to win. How, you might ask? With his encyclopedic knowledge of 80s trivia, of course!
Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
Superheroes may save the day, but villains have more fun. Nimona is a crime-loving shapeshifter, a force of chaos. She delights in spreading mischief and mayhem. Her life is missing just one thing: a partner in crime. Enter Lord Ballister Blackheart, a vengeful supervillain. Blackheart and Nimona would be an unbeatable duo, if Nimona could play along. After all, even villains have rules. But aimless destruction, Nimona’s forte, isn’t really a team sport. A graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson, Nimona is a comic powerhouse with a bittersweet backstory and stellar artwork.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Forget what you thought you knew about Frankenstein. The original, penned by Mary Shelley and published in 1818, is darker, stranger, and much, much cooler than any of its successors. Widely considered to be literature’s first science fiction novel, its author was just 21 when the novel was published. If you like your gothic sci-fi with a dash of philosophy, this book might just be your new favorite read.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield has been a friend to generations of adolescents. There’s just something about his voice: its immediacy hooks you right in. The moment you open the book, there he is, complaining about the world and its phonies. Caulfield is real from page one. His story is one of isolation, grief, and longing for connection, making The Catcher in the Rye a must-read for all teens, and a must-reread for adults.
Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, by C.D. Payne
Nick Twisp is a cynical 15-year-old in love with Frank Sinatra, French New Wave cinema, and a girl named Sheeni. Twisp is willing to do pretty much anything to win Sheeni’s affections: Change identities. Get in trouble with the law. Yep, anything. C.D. Payne’s hilarious novel is the first in a seven-part series.
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
Budding fantasy novel nerds, start here. Pullman’s multiverse is one of the best. In this world, everyone has a daemon, an animal that is the living embodiment of that person’s soul. During childhood, daemons have shapeshifting abilities, but as puberty approaches, they assume a single form, one that represents their human’s true self. The importance of daemons are at the heart of this gorgeous fantasy adventure series, following intrepid young Lyra Bellacqua, who’s more important than she realizes.
A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle
Madeleine L’Engle is probably most famous for the Time Quintet, which includes A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. However, she penned another collection that is equally compelling. A Ring of Endless Light is the fourth in the Austin Family series, but can be read as a standalone novel. The greatest selling point of this coming-of-age tale might be its inclusion of human-dolphin telepathy.
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Ah, Hamlet, the James Dean of the Elizabethan Age. Every tortured soul borrows something from the Prince of Denmark. He is the poster boy of pouting, the man of endless woe. Shakespeare’s play is one of political intrigue, murder, doomed love, and ghosts. Basically, it’s awesome. If that doesn’t convince you, then read it to become well-versed in 16th-century insults, ye pigeon-liver’d fool!
Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
If after reading The Catcher in the Rye, you find yourself craving more Salinger, try Franny and Zooey. The book’s titular characters are former prodigies and siblings, who discuss the meaning of life with an earnest charm that avoids preachiness. Highly recommended for searching young people!
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
This is technically a kid’s book, but it’s also a primer on how to be a nerd. In other words, Harriet the Spy is mandatory reading no matter your age. The OG of spy kids, Harriet is endlessly interested in the peculiar habits of other people. She muses on the socks of her classmates, the rich neighbor who never gets out of bed, and everything in between. Wherever she goes, Harriet carries her trusty journal, jotting down her observations, some of them not so nice. When her secret spy journal is discovered by her classmates, Harriet becomes a pariah and has to work her way back into everyone’s good graces, without compromising her powerful sense of self.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Charlie is used to taking in life from the sidelines. But when he starts high school at a new school, things change, as he becomes friends with people who actually celebrate his strangeness. He’s a rare sort of YA protagonist, one who is deeply curious about the lives of others. So often the coming-of-age genre reflects our self-obsessed natures, championing the desires of the individual above all else. But Chbosky’s hero is different, in the very best way.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Warning: if you haven’t already heard, The Bell Jar is a dark read. Esther Greenwood is a girl who seems to have it all, but during a magazine internship, she begins to fall apart. Greenwood’s telling of her descent varies between comically blunt and hauntingly poetic. No matter the tone, her struggles remain relatable. She is a young woman who hungers for everything and nothing at the same time.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
A science fiction classic, Card’s novel is about a boy taken from his family and groomed into a master tactician. Andrew Wiggin, “Ender,” is just 6 years old when he enters battle school. But in a few short years, he rises through the ranks to lead the world in the war against the “buggers,” a destructive alien race. When training games start having real-life consequences, Ender is torn. He must choose his own path forward, for better or worse.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Foer’s second novel is about grief and what we do when trying to cope. The book’s protagonist, Oskar Schell, is 9 years old, super smart, and recovering from the loss of his father, who died during the attacks on the World Trade Center. When Oskar finds a strange key, he believes it is a message from his father. The boy begins his hunt, searching all of New York for answers.
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
Another book written long ago and set in what is now the not-so-distant future, Asimov’s work is a series of short stories chronicling the evolution of robots. The book centers around Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist, as she details her history with bots. These chronicles may be different from what you’re used to. They are not stories of violent robo-rebellion. In Asimov’s world, robots are governed by three basic rules: they must not harm humans, they must follow human orders unless the orders cause harm to other humans, and they must protect themselves from harm. But, as Calvin explains, loopholes develop, and that’s when things get interesting.
That Summer, by Sarah Dessen
Slouchers unite! Sarah Dessen’s debut novel is a must read for tall girls everywhere. Haven, 15 years old and closing in on six feet, can’t help but wax nostalgic about life before her growth spurt. Especially that one summer when everything was better. The summer when her parents were in love and her moody sister Ashley was actually being nice. Because now Haven’s parents are getting divorced, and her sister has become a bridezilla. If Haven could just find her way back to that summer, all would be well. Or, at least, that’s what she thinks until secrets from that summer come to light.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The world is ending. For real. Arthur Dent and his alien best friend need to get off the blue planet ASAP. During his intergalactic travels, Arthur becomes part of a strange crew that includes a sad sack robot and a two-headed former hippie. Filled with looney mischief, Douglas Adams’ novel is unlike anything you’ve read before.