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Deep books for sophisticated but young readers

This list was first compiled in response to a request from a 14 year old who likes books meaty enough to read for a while. She had just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo and was asking for another "fat" book.

These are in no apparent order. Our prejudice is to let our kids read/listen to whatever they choose, so I can't guarantee total absence of "mature" themes.

Click here for some books that are slightly easier to read.


  • A Box Full of Matches by Nicholson Baker
    One of the best books "about nothing" that we've ever come across.
    A gentle family man describes his philosophy of life in a diary format. Features highly opinionated disquisitions on topics such as:
    • The best way to scrub an encrusted pan in the morning in the dark and make sure it's clean.
    • The progression of a fever.
    • The best ways to pick up a pair of underwear with your bare toes.
    Will make you want a pet duck.
    Suitable for: Mature high school level readers (others are likely to be bored out of their minds rather than amused) and adults.
  • The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth
    Well, it's not physically fat, but it is fat in ideas. The gentle words of the plot quietly convey both the great good and the unspeakable, unthinking evil that humans do to each other. The story of an innocent British citizen who is freed after laboring for 25 years in a Soviet gulag. By the time Alexander Bayliss leaves the gulag, he does not forgive and does not forget, but accepts that good and bad can come to all people for no reason. This is a great book to read in times of sorrow.
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
    Fictionalized biography of Vermeer told from the point of view of a servant girl in his household.
  • The Awakening and Selected Stories
    by Kate Chopin
    Hard to believe that these stories were written more than a century ago. Although they are firmly rooted in the bayous of Lousisiana just before the turn of the 20th century, the women in these stories face choices heartrendingly similar to those of women today. My favorites this week are Regret, in which a childless woman, set in her ways, is obliged to care for a some of her neighbors' children for a while. And, The Awakening itself, a novella about a woman who seems to have it all, but does not.
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: A Novel
    by Louise Erdrich
  • Love Medicine
    Louise Erdrich
  • The Language of Good-Bye
    by Maribeth Fischer
    A novel about unexpected consequences.
  • Little Women
    Lousia May Alcott
  • The Cider House Rules
    by John Irving
    Complex, heavily plotted, LONG, John Irving disquisition on the dicotomy between official rules/laws and unwritten norms is unequally enforced based on gender, social status, and other factors. In other words, it's about the politics and the realities of Making Hard Choices.
    Unlike Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, orphans in The Cider House Rules are routinely well cared for and frequently give in to temptation (for good causes, of course). Irving bravely compares himself to these two, and to Dickens, and bravely proclaims the utility and necessity of lying (aka creation of fiction) in the face of unfair rules.
    Once you finish reading The Cider House Rules, you will feel compelled to (re)read David Copperfield and Jane Eyre.
  • Widow for One Year
    by John Irving
    If you like John Irving, I think you'll find The Cider House Rules and Hotel New Hampshire much more interesting.
  • The Princess Bride
    William Goldman
    Everyone in the family loves this book, and we might just love the movie more. But that's because we know that Mandy Patinkin can do no wrong.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
    Say you got stuck on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a hyena, a tiger named Richard Parker, a locker of stores and a succinct but helpful survival manual. What would you do? This lovely, serious book about fate, faith, and man's relationship with animals and nature describes exactly what a teenage boy does to survive.
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    The best book about the relationship between a teenage girl and her father that I've ever read. Great analyses of the teenage mindset and how bullying pervades society. Melodramatic scenes of horrific violence that are strongly foreshadowed early on.
  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Earle Stegner
    Elderly historian recreates the story of his grandmother's life in the American West. I found the flashback format annoying; the grandmother's life and plight is so much more interesting than the historian's pitiful contemporary problems. And the ending of the present-day plot is positively gross. And yet, the story of the grandmother's eventually unsuccessful marriage to an intelligent, dynamic but unlucky man who was way ahead of his time resonates.
  • Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
    Collection of short stories about a fictional Vermeer painting.
  • City of Light
    by Lauren Belfer
    Kind of a Handmaid's Tale (without the explicit sex) that takes place in Buffalo, NY at the dawn of the 20th century.
  • Till We Have Faces : A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis
    The legend of Cupid and Psyche is revisited in this beautiful but extremely sad consideration of the necessarily stressful interactions between humanity and its deities.
  • Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
    Makes the case for either marriage for love or marriage for convenience, but that it's necessary to decide upfront which it's going to be. Still relevant after all these years.
  • Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
    Actually, she has become a Dickens fan; but this is a good one to start with.
  • Three Musketeers by Dumas
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  • Saint Maybe and Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
    Comedy about why war is not funny.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    Magical realism
  • War and Peace by Tolstoy
  • Gone With the Wind
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (very intense)
  • The White Deer by James Thurber
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Hawaii and Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Winter's Tale (A Harvest Book) by Mark Helprin
    New York-state-based magical realism. One of our favorite books.
  • Snow Crash
    by Neal Stephenson
  • A Clockwork Orange
    by Anthony Burgess
    Very violent sci fi. Challenging to read because it's written in a mush of English and Russian. But there are translations of the hard words in a glossary in the back.
  • Beloved
    by Toni Morrison
    What being a slave does to a person's humanity
  • Song of Solomon
    by Toni Morrison
  • Crime and Punishment
    by Feodor Dostoevsky
  • Brothers Karamazov
    by Feodor Dostoevsky
  • Hotel World
    by Ali Smith
    Extremely weird tale, told in the first person by a dead person, about the meaning of loss, love and life.
  • The Catcher in the Rye
    by JD Salinger Not a fat book, but required reading for all teenagers who become frustrated with pretention. My brother's favorite teenage angst novel.
  • Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture
    by Apostolos K. Doxiadis
    A mathematical fairy tale.
  • Watership Down
    by Richard Adams
    A rabbit-civilization faces challenges.
  • Horatio Hornblower
  • The King Must Die by Mary Renault
  • Jane Eyre
    by Charlotte Bronte
    A difficult book; much, much sadder than I had remembered from when I'd read it to myself a very long time ago. It's about temptation and the definition of bigamy. My daughter was really shocked by the way children (Jane Eyre and her classmates) were treated in the beginning of the book. She was horrified by the sacrifices that Jane felt required to make in order to resist temptation and preserve her good name. I'm pretty sure that, although the book is fiction, the conditions it describes are ones that affected many women at the time depicted in the novel.
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Christy by Catherine Marshall
  • The Once and Future King by T. H. White
  • Victor Hugo
  • Balzac
  • The Secret Life of Bees
    by Sue Monk Kidd
    Huckleberry Finn in the 1960s and with all girls and the Goddess. I would have liked to have felt more Joy but my friends tell me that the 14 year old narrator is still in shock from all that she's learned. Anyway, the bees and the Sisters June, May, & August make this book well worth reading.
  • The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies.
  • Evelina : Or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World by Fanny Burney
  • Anna Karenina
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Dr. Zhivago
  • Colleen McCullough's series on Rome (The First Man in Rome, Caesar, Caesar's Women, The Grass Crown).
  • The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough
  • The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (the first of a trilogy)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  • Turgenev's Fathers and Sons
  • Pride and Prejudice
    by Jane Austen
    It is amazing how a book that was written nearly two centuries ago can ring so true to this day.
    It's an age-old story, obviously. A teenage girl is mortified by her family and feels that they adversely affect her romantic prospects.
    And, the young man she favors agrees.

    All of Jane Austen


Lists of books

Books listed below were NOT judged appropriate for this particular child, but were recommended by parents of other sophisticated young readers.

  • Books by Ursula LeGuin, Joan Slonczewski
    Child rates these "preachy".
  • Theo's Odyssey by Catherine Clement
    Child deems this "didactic" based only on Amazon review... Shrug.
  • Phillip Pullman -- Golden Compass
    Some parents have concerns about its themes and plot, which involve abuse and murder of children. and other adult themes.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Not that we adults don't love the book, but not for a 14 year old.
  • Shogun by James Clavell
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
    Starts out very depressing...
  • Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
    Cave-girl romance novels. This one is great, but we really don't want to encourage her to read the sequels...
  • The Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset, for which Undset won the Nobel Prize in literature. Set in 14th Century Norway.
    Involving for an adult reading it, but very difficult to read, perhaps because the translation is old. The theme of the book: struggling to avoid pre-marital sex is difficult, even among church-loving people. Fascinating, detailed depictions of life on the farms, and in villages, towns and convents of medieval Norway.

Books not recommended

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