When teenagers are the main characters

Teenagers make great characters in books. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

We all know there is a lot of book material in the teenage life and these stories prove my point. Family, romance, relationships and looming adulthood are the ingredients for great characters. I love to read about teenagers and how they make decisions during life-changing events. These stories are even richer when there is a larger historical, social or economic backdrop. And who can resist a suspenseful thriller with teenage secrets and lurking danger? Take a look at the titles I’ve reviewed and see if you can add to the list.

Billy Bathgate by E. L. Doctorow – 4 bookmarks – fifteen-year-old Billy Bathgate from the 1930s Bronx becomes a protégé of the notorious hot-head New York mobster Dutch Schultz.

Calmer Girls by Jennifer Kelland Perry – 4 bookmarks – teenage sisters confront romance, jealousy and tense family issues in this absorbing story set in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Defending Jacob by William Landay – 3 bookmarks – Andy and Laurie Barber face conflicting emotions of doubt and guilt when their teenage son is named a murder suspect.

Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin – 4 bookmarks – exciting psychological thriller that tackles serious family issues, obesity and the food industry.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo – 4 bookmarks – intense teenage relationships and family conflicts in a struggling Maine town.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson – 4 bookmarks – fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook grows up fast during Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever plague in 1793.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman – 3 bookmarks – seventeen-year-old Mia clings to life in the hospital and wonders if the decision to live is up to her.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight – 3 bookmarks – debut novel about a mysterious death and the secret life of teenagers at an elite private school in Brooklyn.

“Saint Marie” from Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich – 4 bookmarks – a dark tale about a half-Native American girl in a Catholic convent and the desire for revenge.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – 5 bookmarks – unforgettable World War II story about Liesel Meminger, given up to a foster family outside Munich, Germany. Strong friendships and new family relationships make this an incredible story.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant – 3 bookmarks – coming of age story about Addie Baum, daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, set in Boston during the early 1900s.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – 4 bookmarks – heartbreaking teen love story in the face of devastating illness.

The Fever by Megan Abbott – 3 bookmarks – what’s causing bizarre symptoms and seizures at a small town high school? Dark secrets and teenage culture muddle up the picture.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer – 5 bookmarks – six talented teenagers meet at a summer camp for the arts during the 1970s and grapple with the complicated relationship between talent, success, money and happiness.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson – 4 bookmarks – debut novel about eight privileged high schoolers from a wealthy suburb of San Francisco and a new English teacher who tries to connect with them.

Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements – 4 bookmarks – fifteen-year-old Bobby Phillips wakes up one morning to discover that he is invisible and must place his trust in an unlikely friendship.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson – 3 bookmarks – teen angst and coming of age story about high school senior boy, a modern Catcher in the Rye.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – 4 bookmarks – family wealth and rivalry are too much for three teenage cousins and their best friend, who decide to take matters into their own hands, with disastrous results.

Of course there are many more classics I’ve read but haven’t reviewed. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and A Separate Peace by John Knowles are two examples. What are your favorite teenager books?

Thanks for visiting  – come back soon!

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

empire falls pic

Empire Falls
Richard Russo


Empire Falls is a great novel with many layers and characters and that’s just the kind of story I like to read. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 and HBO made it into a miniseries in 2005 (check it out here). I read it much later than most people, but I think the story and characters survive the time.

Its first layer is about Empire Falls, Maine, a town that is struggling to survive and is controlled by Francine Whiting, of the once-strong Whiting Industries. This backdrop introduces you to those who have chosen to stay and they make up many of Russo’s subsequent interconnecting layers. We learn about Miles Roby, his failed marriage to Janine and his own parents’ unhappy marriage. We meet Janine’s fiancé, Walt Comeau, and try to understand the new life she is about to begin. And later on we see how Miles struggles to understand his mother Grace and the choices she made as a young woman.

But this story is also about Miles and Janine’s high school daughter Tick, her friends Zack Minty, Candace and especially John Voss and these intense teenage relationships and conflicts. Russo has skillfully introduced this sleeper plot and we see how it slowly moves the story to its climax. I also like how Russo includes many other side characters, such as Jimmy Minty, Otto Meyer, Miles’ brother David, Charlene and Father Mark and develops them so we know that their lives are just as complicated, and are key parts of the story.

In addition to an excellent plot that is carefully constructed and both serious and humorous, this story is about the control of money and people, survival and the search for happiness. And on top of that, many of Russo’s characters struggle to understand the meaning of life and religion as they face both painful memories and discoveries.

There are many seemingly small pieces of conversations that, upon a second look, show how much thought went into writing Empire Falls. For example, Russo shows just how complicated father-son relationships are as he parallels Miles and Max with Jimmy Minty and his father. Both Miles and Jimmy hang onto their fathers, despite their flaws. Jimmy says, “He did slap my mom around a little…But I miss him anyway. You only get one father, is the way I look at it.” Later Miles tries to explain to David why he keeps giving their own father a second chance: “He’s pretty good at getting to me. I guess I don’t want to be sold short when I’m old.”

I think my favorite scene is when Jimmy Minty and Miles argue at the football game. Russo shows so well just how someone who is as unsophisticated as Jimmy still has excellent insight into people. Jimmy says, “You’re not the only one people like, okay? And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in…You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives.”

I also think Miles’ relationship with Cindy Whiting is very interesting and was glad to see how Cindy’s character developed from someone pathetic and needy into someone strong and independent. She’s also an example of a character we think is less significant, but who comes up with something important to say. She tells Miles, “It’s like you decided a long time ago that someone like me is incapable of joy…It doesn’t occur to you that I might be happy.”

The Whiting family dynamics and history are also very interesting and amusing and Russo has a different style of describing these people, using irony and a cold kind of humor. I liked this part just as much, particularly the story of Francine’s gazebo.

Empire Falls has a tidy and satisfying ending, with just enough open story lines to make me hopeful about the characters and their futures.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!