When I was a teenager, I thought my high school years were surely the best years of my life. It’s all going to be over soon, I’d thought. The best years – poof – gone in the blink of an eye.

In college, I was even more sure that I was witnessing the best years of my life. My father had even said so before he died. I can still hear him explaining that when you’re in college, you get the perks of being grown without all the responsibilities you’re assigned as an adult.

He died a few months before my seventeenth birthday but had fought a serious battle with cancer during the years leading up. Watching him become smaller and weaker from the chemo while growing into myself was a peculiar, tug-of-war state. While opportunities began to open up to me, his slowly closed.

This challenge planted a fire in me to learn about life and death at an early age. I explored religions, saw psychics, wrote poems, tried meditation, and spent more time than I should have with my bedroom door closed instead of hanging out with my father. We all have regrets.

More than fifteen years later, I reflect on some of the books that helped me understand the world and life’s cycle. Here’s what I think every teenager should read before they leave home.

 

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

by Miguel Ruiz

This book was bestowed upon me by a mentor at the alternative newsweekly where I worked fresh out of college. As teenagers, we are sensitive and self-critical. If someone doesn’t text us back or reacts to us strongly, it’s easy to take it personally. “The Four Agreements” presents four solid pieces of advice humans of any gender or age can greatly benefit from. For example, don’t take anything personally

 

The Other Side and Back: A Psychic’s Guide to Our World and Beyond

by Sylvia Browne

You don’t need to believe in an afterlife to appreciate the visions of psychic and medium Sylvia Browne. When thinking about where my father would go if he didn’t make it to my high school graduation as planned (fact), I took solace in the thought there is an alternate universe where we go to write our next human experiences. Browne thinks each of us wrote our own life stories far in advance of our time on earth. We pre-emptively decide who we need to meet to learn different lessons. Even the tough stuff, Browne argues, is planned and divine.

Tao Te Ching 

by Lao Tzu

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching delivers big, universal ideas in 81 simple yet powerful, page-long chapters. My favorite ones use water as a metaphor for life. No matter what you’re struggling with in life, you will find at least a few chapters that tell you exactly what to do—often with such specificity that you’ll wonder if the book was written for you.

Jesus Land 

by Julia Scheeres

Since I’m writing a memoir, I’ve tasked myself with reading as many of them as I can. But Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land is my all-time favorite. Growing up loved is something too many of us take for granted. I know I have. Scheeres’ memoir sheds light on her religion-disciplined upbringing, and the abusive Christian boot camp she eventually helped shut down.

Chakras for Beginners: A Guide to Balancing Your Chakra Energies

by David Pond  

A primer on chakras is never a bad idea, whether you believe in them initially or not. It’s a different way of thinking about the interconnectedness of the body, even if you take the ideas strictly as metaphor. From discovering how the throat chakra could play into self-expression to understanding how lower chakras correlate with core needs, it’s fascinating to read about that which we cannot see. Ultimately, it inspires respect for the body and all it can do.

Bright Dead Things 

by Ada Limon

I discovered Ada Limon’s first poetry book, Lucky Wreck, while interning for an independent poetry publishing press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (How do you like that for a tongue twister?) While I thought about recommending either of her first two books, I couldn’t avoid mentioning “Bright Dead Things”, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist. “How to Triumph Like a Girl” is my favorite poem in the collection.

If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons in Your Pigtails: And Other Lessons I Learned from My Mom 

by Barbara Corcoran

There’s nothing more motivating than straight talk from a shark, especially as you start your college and professional career. Framing up her life lessons with pieces of advice from her mother, NYC real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran shares her career story through cheerful anecdotes and comical moments that shed light on what it must have been like to navigate “self” while surrounded by piles of siblings.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage 

by Ann Patchett

Contrary to what the title implies, this book of narrative essays is far from a simple story of a happy marriage (if there is such a thing). “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” is a collection of nonfiction writer Ann Patchett’s most human essays. If you love coming across a more serious, personal essay in any of your favorite lifestyle magazines, consider this an ode to the form.

Letters to a Young Poet 

by Rainer Maria Rilke

You don’t have to be a writer or poet to appreciate the lessons shared in the one-way letter of a book. It can teach you how to be alone, work hard at something even when you don’t want to, and that life is an opportunity to become masterful at the thing you love most. “Art too is only a way of living, and, however one lives, one can, unwittingly, prepare oneself for it…” wrote Rilke. I own the version translated by M.D. Herter Norton, but there are oodles to choose from, as is the case with the Tao Te Ching.

Yoga for Beauty and Health

by Eugene Rawls

Unfortunately, your only hope to land one of these is finding a vintage copy. My mother bought the copy I have now from an Ohio library that was closing in the seventies. I turned some of my favorite parts into a blog post some years ago here. What I like most about this book is that it associates beauty with health, something that’s rarely echoed in lifestyle magazines showcasing the latest shade of lipstick.

I could go on for days with my favorite books since teenage-hood, but this grouping should be a pretty effective elixir for any teen finding their way through the world. I just wish I had discovered them sooner.


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