How to Choose Books for Anxious & Sensitive Teens

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In the high school years, we have a preconceived idea of what our teens should be reading. Reading with Teens is one of the highlights of high school if you can find the right books. However, if you’re homeschooling a sensitive or anxious teen, the typical assigned reading for high school can be difficult or trauma inducing. How to Choose Books for Anxious & Sensitive Teens will help you to discern what books are right for your teen and you’ll have a better understanding of why lighthearted choices are just as good for your teen’s high school reading list.

stack of books on a table in front of a large bookshelf

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When you are considering what books to read with your teens in high school, the content of the book is important especially if you have sensitive and anxious teens.

So, let’s start by talking about who might be a sensitive teen and why some books are difficult for them.

Then I’ll share some books that you can use in high school with your anxious teens.

Who Are Sensitive Teens?

teen boy sitting on the floor reading a book in his lap

We could define what sensitive means, but that can be a range of emotional responses to negative influences.

But, we can talk about which teens are most susceptible to sensitivity.

Teens with neurodivergences like:

  • gifted intensities or overexcitabilities– emotional OE teens are especially susceptible to being sensitive, but these aren’t called intensities for nothing. Additionally, gifted kids and teens are often heightened at an early age to the difficult issues facing the world. They don’t like reminders because it leads to more anxiety.
  • autism spectrum disorder– which by definition means social conventions are not running at top speed
  • anxiety– I think it goes without saying that anxious teens don’t enjoy anxiety producing moments in their literature.
  • depression– most of the time, our teens fighting depression don’t need to add to their depression unnecessarily.
  • ADHD– yes, did you know that people with ADHD can have emotional swings? If you live with a person with ADHD, you probably know this already. People with ADHD also struggle with a variety of sensitivities.

And, if you are teaching a teen who is neurodivergent, then you know where there is one diagnosis, there is often another.

Which, in the case of sensitivity, increases the chances that your teen will be bothered (and not in the good way) by content in many typical book choices for high schoolers.

Book Content & Neurodivergence

a copy of Jane Eyre on top of a curriculum book

What disturbs a sensitive teen in a book will not always be the same, but there is a pattern in books that our teens don’t miss and it can add to their feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Let’s talk about it.

  • Books often orphan and abuse children and teens– I understand this sets up the conflict. More on this in a moment.
  • The child or teen is usually different– and they are treated cruelly for their differences
  • These children are almost always neurodivergent– which is evident by how they are described and how they behave and it makes their treatment all the more difficult when our kids and teens see themselves so clearly in these characters.
  • Neurodivergent kids, especially those with gifted intensities have a strong sense of justice– and they are further damaged by the injustice of the character’s situation. These are kids who lie awake worrying about injustice in the real world. They don’t need their books to add to their burden.

So, books and movies often depict a character who is “different” and they are bullied for it. Sadly, the stories almost justify the bullying by making it clear to readers that the character stands out and invites the cruelty they experience from others.

Whether it is intentional or not, these characters portray neurodivergence and they are bullied for being who they are. So, it hits home more for our teens with neurodivergence. While neurotypical teens can separate themselves from the situation, kids and teens who identify with the main character so fully cannot.

And, it’s damaging.

I understand that these plot points set up the conflict of the story.

However, I’m not at all convinced that cruel treatment of those who are different is necessary for the suspension of disbelief.

Any Marvel movie proves this point abundantly (because, let’s face it, even with the bad experiences that set up the hero’s story, there is way too much disbelief to suspend.).

The books I’m sharing with you today handle neurodivergence well and I’ll explain why.

What about High School Level Books for Sensitive Teens?

a tall stack of books on a table in front of a large bookcase

The point of a book that brings up issues that are difficult, is to introduce your teens to the topic and to raise awareness.

If a topic is on the list of things not to read with your neurodivergent teen, then they already get it. If an issue bothers them, they are already sensitive to the problem.

So, how do we address that a book might seem to young for high school level work?

Middle grade novel really means the content cannot be too graphic (in language or sexual content) and the protagonist is generally younger.

Young adult removes some or all of the content restrictions, but the reading level is not any different necessarily.

Remember that a neurodivergent teen is not always (and often is not) on the same emotional level as their neurotypical peers and agemates.

In other words, many middle grade novels we often associate with younger readers can be a really good fit for our teens.

More appropriate reading choices frees up their brain to enjoy the story instead of having to guard against trauma inducing plots.

We always think that a book for teens must have sophisticated themes in order for them to be worthwhile. That’s just not true.

Books that Are on the Approved List for My Sensitive Teens

swallows and amazons book stack on a map

Before I list out the books, I want to caution you that what may be ok for my teens, might not be ok for your teens and the opposite is true as well.

So, look over these books and find what you need to about them, so that you know what’s happening.

Keep in mind that some of these books may seem young for a teen, but they will likely fit the bill for the emotional needs of your teens.

All of the books were chosen to highlight neurodivergent characters in a strong and positive light.

  • The Penderwicks– I’m going to suggest the original, but all of the books in the series are a good fit. This is the story of four girls and their neighbor boy (sound familiar?), but heads up that the story premise involves a single dad who is recently widowed. The death of their mother comes up often and is one of the story shaping facts.
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society– a story of gifted children who head on an adventure that only the most capable can do and this is after they enter a contest involving puzzles to be chosen. This is a great book for gifted teens.Thhe Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place– a series of 6 books about children raised initially by wolves and their governess.
  • Anne of Green Gables– you can’t miss with Anne Shirley, who is so clearly neurodivergent and navigates life on Prince Edward Island with her adoptive parents. Read the whole series and watch Anne grow up.
  • A Wrinkle in Time– this is a wonderful book series by Madeleine L’Engle which features a neurodivergent family and their quest.
  • The Hobbit– the adventures of a hobbit as he joins some dwarves on their quest
  • The Lord of the Rings– this high fantasy book is a classic tale of unlikely heroes and a quest
  • The Chronicles of Narnia– the 7 book series by C.S. Lewis. You don’t want to miss the Pevencie kids and their adventures in Narnia.
  • Fahrenheit 451– is a science fiction classic about a world in which books are banned
  • Little Women– often considered a book for young girls, but I would argue it is an excellent coing of age story and is not to be missed by teenage boys. The rest of the series is also worth your time as an educational philosophy unfolds.
  • The Wizard of Earthsea– another fantasy book with a series, you’ll enjoy the adventure in this one.
  • The Trumpet of the Swan– for young readers featuring traditionally, a swan and a boy who are neurodivergent. I love the way Sam advocates for the swan and navigates his own obvious neurodivergence.
  • Sherlock Holmes– I’m linking you to the Audible version narrated by Stephen Frye. Worth all your time to listen. Mr. Holmes is quite neurodivergent and he’s portrayed in a mostly positive light. Side note: the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch is considerably darker and focuses on Sherlock’s neurodivergence as an undesirable trait. I encourage you to stick with the original stories which have an uplifting quality.
  • Treasure Island– the classic by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Pride & Prejudice– Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy make a great pair of neurodivergence!
  • A Christmas Carol– one of the safer choices from Dickens, who writes about difficult circumstances for children in late 19th century London.
  • Agatha Christie– there are so many to choose from, but the mystery genre often has solid quirky characters as the detectives. This link goes to Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Swallows & Amazons– the first in a 12 book series involving adventuring kids in the Lake District of England.
  • 20,000 Leagues under the Sea– Jules Verne books explore science fiction from the perspective of Victorian times.
  • Around the World in 80 Days– another choice classic from Jules Verne that is an adventure based on a wager.
  • Don Quixote– generally considered the first modern novel, your teens can follow the exploits of this knight errant. Bonus points for reading in Spanish like I once did!
  • Short stories of Edgar Allan Poe– although Gothic horror, you can choose Poe’s mysteries as well. You can explore Poe and his stories more inside Legends & Lore our U.S. History course taught through the lore of our American culture.
  • Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn– by Mark Twain
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz– have you ever read the original book and series of 14 books written by L. Frank Baum?
  • Alice in Wonderland– and the sequal Through the Looking Glass
  • The Three Muskateers– set prior to the French Revolution
  • Redwall– while there is some nerve wracking content in these epic tales of woodland animals, it is handled well and is not over done or super realistic. This series of 22 books has been well loved in our home for a long time.
  • Watership Down– this tale of rabbits is on the top 100 fantasy and science fiction from NPR. I highly recommend the Audible version of this one.
  • The Father Brown Mysteries– by Chesterton is another from the mystery genre
  • The Westing Game– murder and a will, the perfect set up for a mystery
  • Ender’s Game– another piece of science fiction on the top 100 NPR list, a young and brilliant boy may be the key to saving his world from hostile aliens
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey– is an allegory about humans exploring the universe. This is another title from the top 100 list on NPR.

More Help for Reading with Your Teens

book stack on an outdoor porch

If you need more help reading with your teens, check out these posts below. Reading with your teens is always worth the time!

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Let’s help our sensitive and anxious teens to be strong readers with resilience by choosing books that will help them to grow without traumatizing.

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