A photo of a caterpillar cake with candles shaped like the number twenty atop; the candles flicker

20 books everyone should read before they’re 20

From timeless tales of teenage heartbreak to heady philosophical texts to vital non-fiction, here's a reading list we recommend for anyone in their teens.

There are few times more formative in our reading lives than our teen years. We are beginning to question the world around us – our role in it, the parts of it we wish to keep, the part of it we wish to change – and, accordingly, the people we want to be, and literature can be, and is, a fundamental part of that growth.

Here, we’ve chosen 20 books to help facilitate that growth: to inform, to stir, and to open up the world for a life sprawling ahead.

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

Fifty years before ‘autofiction’ turned up, Sylvia Plath turned her own battle with mental health, psychosis and depression into The Bell Jar. Published posthumously, a month after Plath died by suicide, the book has always lingered under a tragic pall, but its pertinence to younger readers is yet to wane.

Things start glamorously enough, with the young Esther navigating glamorous soirees and dashing men while working as a guest editor on a teenage fashion magazine. 

But The Bell Jar gradually descends into an examination of the lethargy and struggle of being a young woman who is not well, and being a young woman who rallies against the constraints of polite middle-class, middle-American society. Women of Esther’s generation are expected to give up whatever nascent careers they embark upon for marriage and motherhood; Esther just wants to write poetry. The bell jar of the title is one of suffocation and isolation, both from society and as a result of mental illness.

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