Any teenager who feels connected to The Catcher in the Rye (which is a lot) can certainly identify with the impulse to write a letter to its author, J.D. Salinger. But anyone who's studied Salinger knows that he was famously reclusive, in his correspondence as well as his life. So the task of reading his mail fell to Joanna Rakoff, who read so many moving letters that she couldn't bear to keep sending the same form response Salinger's literary agency had used for years – and started answering them instead. Obviously, this doesn't end well, but one of the takeaways of My Salinger Year is that impersonation, perversely, can end up being a key factor in finding your own voice.
Full disclosure: Bret Anthony Johnston was one of my favorite professors in college. But even if I'd never met him, I would have still enjoyed his first novel, Remember Me Like This. It's the story of the Campbells, a broken family in coastal Texas desperately trying to find their way three years after the mysterious disappearance of their 12-year-old son. When he's finally found, physically unharmed but psychologically damaged, just 30 minutes from their home, his initially overjoyed father, mother, and brother end up realizing that their happy ending is far from an ending at all. The real gift of the book is its ability to keep you compelled and turning pages despite a relatively quiet and interior plotline, which is pretty much the hardest task there is in writing. (And if my word isn't enough, John Updike, Alice Sebold, and Tom Perrotta all endorsed it.)
Ariel Schrag knows about the inner lives of teenagers, having spent her own Berkeley adolescence obsessively chronicling her life via a series of comics that she photocopied and sold at school, then turned into three classic graphic novels, Awkward & Definition, Potential, and Likewise. Fans of those books will recognize some of the same themes in her first novel Adam, which follows the titular straight male teenager spending the summer with his lesbian older sister in New York. As he hangs out in lesbian clubs and participates in gay marriage rallies, he realizes most of the women assume he's a young transman – which becomes an issue when he falls for one of them, and decides to keep up the ruse to win her heart. The book is funny and sweet natured, and offers a perspective that LGBT teenagers (and older readers, too) don't often get to see.
Appearances: Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 6/24