Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Teen Angst

I love a good angsty read. There have definitely been times in my life that I’ve felt like I’m gazing off a cliff into the misty abyss below, contemplating Deep Stuff, kind of like this guy:

"Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" a classic painting from the Romantic era by Caspar David Friedrich

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” a classic painting from the Romantic era by Caspar David Friedrich

Peering into the fog, I contemplate the drama of my love life (“If he likes me, why doesn’t he just say it?”), the existential saga of my twenties (“What if I went to grad school for nothing?”), and the secret doubts I have about my reading (“If I didn’t like Nimona, does that make me a fraud?”).

Somehow I pull it together, usually with a good book to take my mind off of the indecisiveness and melodrama of my angsty crises. An angsty read is a novel whose characters express the suffering of their anxieties, neuroses, sorrow, and paralysis to make a choice. At their best, their characters grow more confident, more self-aware, and more capable of managing their emotions and life’s challenges. At worst, these characters succumb to their feelings in a way that hinders their growth, blocks them from being decisive when it counts, and turns them into victims of their own angst when they easily could grow. Teen characters often have angsty times, which is why angst is so often (but not exclusively) found in YA.

With that in mind, here are novels that are especially teen angst-filled with recommendations to Buy, Borrow, or Bypass. Steel yourself for the drama because there’s some ugly crying ahead.

Fangirl coverFangirl by Rainbow Rowell 

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl ranks high up there on the list of angsty reads: Cath, twin sister to Wren, goes to college in freshman year and realizes she is growing apart from her sister. Her fiction writing teacher is not impressed by her fan fiction, and a cute, older boy is trying to court her when she’s anxiety-ridden about a potential relationship with him. Cath’s coming of age is universal to many young adults who go to college and feel like they’re growing apart from their friends, similar-aged family members, and partners from high school. Cath admirably grows into a young woman who pursues her passion for writing and distances herself from her past of being indistinguishable from her sister. Plus she opens her heart to first love and accepts that a man loves her for who she is. Fangirl is definitely a Buy. You will want to return to this novel again and again.

Angst Factor (1-10 with 10 as angstiest): 7

Verdict: Buy


CoverReveals_F15_DumplinDumplin’ by Julie Murphy

As with Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, I seemed to be the only one I knew who did not enjoy this “hot read” of fall 2015. I had many issues with Dumplin’ but the primary one was the nonstop angst of the main character, Willowdeen, or Will. Will spends much of the book as one part of a love triangle with Mysterious Loner Dude Bo and another guy, Mitch. It’s difficult to be sympathetic when the main character seems to deliberately leading people on and dragging out the melodrama. In short, Will just loves the angst, but the reader doesn’t. This could have been a great novel (and it does deal with important themes, like body image and friendship) but it’s hard to see that come through when the narrative is dragged down by a painfully mundane love triangle dressed up as gravitas (okay can we all just move on from the YA love triangle now?). Dumplin’ is a Bypass.

Angst Factor (1-10 with 10 as angstiest): 9

Verdict: Bypass


SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian TamakiSuperMutant Magic Academy, Art and Story by Jillian Tamaki 

Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy is a collection of cartoon vignettes about life at a magical boarding house for mutant teens. The cartoons are sometimes one-off stories but ultimately fit into a larger plot. The collection is hilarious because it pokes fun at teen angst in a way that most will see themselves in there (much as you might loathe to admit it). The graphic novel is obviously a satirical nod to the Harry Potter series and gives a reminder that even when crises are as large as Good vs. Evil teens everywhere are still concerned with popularity, romance, cliques, and self doubts. SuperMutant Magic Academy is a recommended Buy because you’ll want to flip through it again and again, and it is quite long so if you want to take your time with it you might want to own it.

Angst Factor (1-10 with 10 as angstiest): 5

Verdict: Buy


Skim_bookcoverSkim, Art by Jillian Tamaki and Story by Mariko Tamaki 

Before Jillian Tamaki released SuperMutant Magic Academy she co-authored a graphic novel, Skim, with her sister, Mariko. The graphic novel follows “Skim,” a Canadian teen who is an outsider in her high school. She and her best friend are not as close as they may seem. There is friction in their friendship. Skim also has a forbidden romance with one of her teachers. Looming over all of the drama is Skim’s desire to be seen as a confident individual. There are also themes of paganism and counterculture. Skim is an awesome graphic novel that illustrates teenage ennui in a way that is easily identifiable but is not disrespectful or snide. Skim is a recommended Borrow because it’s a quick read and after you read it you can decide if you want to buy it for keeps.

Angst Factor (1-10 with 10 as angstiest): 7

Verdict: Borrow


Black Hole by Charles Burns black hole by charles burns

Black Hole is a classic graphic novel by Charles Burns that tells the story of a group of teens in the Pacific Northwest who experience some kind of virus that transforms people’s features and appearance. The novel succeeds at being provocative enough to create a memorable reading experience. The teens in the novel share similar concerns and angst to many adolescents: romantic entanglements, unrequited love, drugs, counterculture, conflict with parents, and fitting in with peers. Yet having them struggle with a health crisis puts thing into perspective. Black Hole is definitely a buy. The artwork is outstanding, and it really does take time to read through it and soak up the story and images. This is one you’ll want to have on your shelf.

Angst Factor (1-10 with 10 as angstiest): 8

Verdict: Buy


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