The Reading Life: Young Adult Punk Rock Lit

I was in a class last spring that focused on young adult literature. It was fantastic. Our big project was to come up with a theme-based program plan for a public library; we had to create an annotated bibliography of the best books that represented our theme, plan events for the program, and create promotional materials.

The poster I created for my fake event. (That's David Bowie up there!)

My theme was “Rock ‘n’ Roll Library.” It’s a riff on the Ramones song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” which is a great song from a terrible movie. In my program plan, I wanted to have a punk rock show at the library, featuring local teen bands. I also wanted to have some cool stuff to do, like Make-Your-Own Punk Rock Posters. Of course, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School would be playing in the background.

The bibliography I created includes books that are centered around musically-driven lives. Books about music are sort of weird in that you need to listen to the music to get it, but once you understand the music, reading about it makes so much sense. For example, my favorite band on the planet is The Clash. I love them. I listen to them daily. And because I already know their music, reading about them means a lot more. It works the other way around, too. Are you reading about death metal? Listening to some will help you get into the book.

Without further ado, here are some great young adult titles in which music plays a vital role.

Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers

Johnny is a teenaged alcoholic who gets bullied at school for wearing eyeliner and listening to 80s punk. He meets Maria, a slightly suicidal Goth chick, who encourages him to enter a drag contest as Debbie Harry. This novel would be great for teenagers unsure of their sexual identity.

Recommended track: “Heart of Glass,” Blondie

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Charlie is a high school freshman who deals with childhood trauma through music and friendship. His letters are personal, raw, and strangely beautiful. Early 90s rock permeates the story; Charlie makes a mixtape for one of his friends that readers can recreate and listen to while they read. This is the saddest book I think I’ve ever read.

Recommended track: “Asleep,” The Smiths

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick and Norah spend one crazy night wandering around Manhattan, discovering punk music at every turn. While they are finding new music in the city, they are also falling in love.

Recommended track: “Riot Radio,” The Dead 60s


Born to Rock by Gordon Korman

Leo has a full scholarship to Harvard and is the president of his high school’s Young Republicans club. Events turn his life around, and he ends up on tour with the revival of Purge, a 1980s punk band, whose lead singer just might be Leo’s biological father.

Recommended track: “We Were (Born to Rock),” Quiet Riot

I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert

Emily is a punk rocker (sound familiar?) who decides to move from sleeping with rock stars to becoming one. She and her best friend rise to the top of the music scene, only to crash back down. This is a feminist, powerful take on the punk rock scene.

Recommended track: “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” The Ramones

Guitar Girl by Sarra Manning

Molly is a superstar in the rock world at the age of 17. Sex, drugs, music—it’s all a part of being famous. Molly’s first-person account of her experience in a girl band is sharply-written and compelling.

Recommended track: “Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill

King Dork by Frank Portman

Tom hates The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s the book that ends up changing his life. Wry observations about music, high school, and sexuality abound in this scathingly witty novel written by a punk musician.

Recommended track: “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?,” Green Day

What books do you rock out to? Let us know in the comments!

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About Amanda K

Amanda K holds a master's degree in Library and Information Studies. She's a housewife, a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a sewist, and an aspiring gourmet home cook. View all posts by Amanda K

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