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The Best Psychology Books for Teens

recommended by Jessica Flitter, Laura Brandt & Nancy Fenton

AP Psychology All Access by Jessica Flitter & Nancy Fenton

AP Psychology All Access
by Jessica Flitter & Nancy Fenton

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Three award-winning US high school psychology teachers—authors of the website Books for Psychology Class—share their recommendations of the best psychology books for teenagers, students and their teachers—and reflect on why storytelling is a key aspect of the art of teaching.

Interview by Cal Flyn

AP Psychology All Access by Jessica Flitter & Nancy Fenton

AP Psychology All Access
by Jessica Flitter & Nancy Fenton

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You are three American high school psychology teachers who, together, produce a website called Books for Psychology Class. It showcases the best psychology books suitable for teens, and also for your fellow teachers to draw from in class.

Nancy Fenton: Laura, Jessica, and I all teach Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology and have also taught On-Level psychology. Additionally, Laura has experience teaching IB psychology. We have known each other professionally through conferences, the AP psychology reading, and working collaboratively on books and other projects for publishers relating to psychology.

We all love to read, and when we’d finish a book we’d have an idea to use in class—but then we wouldn’t actually end up following through. So the site was started as a way for us to read a book and make a commitment to ourselves to create an original classroom activity based on the book. We also love sharing ideas with other professionals and having discussions about psychology.

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For every book that we read for the blog, one of the three of us will write a summary book, make a list of related resources—maybe the author’s website, related TED talks, other websites—and a list of the key psychological concepts relevant to the book. We also create an original activity that can be used in class. The activities we have created vary greatly and include projects and demonstrations for teachers to use in the classroom based on ideas and concepts from the book.

The Books for Psychology Class blog is designed for teachers, whether they be teachers of high school-level psychology, IB psychology, AP psychology, or university professors of psychology. Students interested in psychology can use the blog to find books related to their specific interests. We are working on creating a subsection of the blog aimed directly at students.

Laura Brandt: We run this blog as a labor of love. We don’t get anything from doing that the blog, except for sort of the satisfaction that maybe it’s helping some students and it’s helping some teachers.

Why do you think it’s useful for students and teachers to be reading psychology books like these—by which I mean, general nonfiction books aimed at the layperson—as opposed to, say, scientific journals?

LB: A lot of students express an interest in reading something outside of class that is not their textbook, and this gives us a great resource so we can say: ‘here’s something I think you’ll really enjoy,’ and hopefully that starts a love of books, a love of reading, a love of psychology. That’s a miracle.

I think we all share this idea that teaching is an art and part of that art is storytelling. And students love stories! If they can get hooked on psychology because of the stories, I think we’re willing to take that. We’re hoping it’s useful for that human interest.

“Teaching is an art and part of that art is storytelling”

And for teachers, we hope that our write-ups about these books give them those stories, and our activities give them something to do with their students to actually make it applicable. We try to mix up the activities: some of them are PowerPoints, some of them are writing prompts, some of them are interactive activities.

Well, I love the list of psychology books for teenagers you’ve compiled. Let’s start with a discussion of Moonwalking with Einstein. We interviewed Joshua Foer on the best books about memory around the time this book came out; he said that “although the idea of a disciplined, trained memory feels novel to us today, it was commonplace in ancient history.” Why do you recommend it?

LB: The book opens with Josh Foer covering the USA Memory Championships as a journalist. When he interviews the winner, he asks: ‘When did you realize you had this great memory?’ And the winner is like, ‘I don’t.’ Well, he just won the championship. Of course he does. But he says, ‘no, I have the right techniques.’ As a hook for students, that’s a great story.

Every year, I tell my class about how Josh Foer then trains for the memory championships, and wins the card placements category. He’s a national champion after that. I love the quirky descriptions about him wearing blinders so he can’t get distracted, and studying in his parents’ basement.

There are limits on mnemonic devices and memory palaces. Josh Foer describes going to dinner in New York City after he placed first in one category. He drove to dinner and took the subway home, completely forgetting that he had driven in the first place—so even as a memory champion, he is not immune to memory errors! It’s not this magic cure-all for all aspects of your life, but it can be really great for going to the grocery store. It can be really great for remembering, I don’t know, what to pack for a trip.

“Even as a memory champion, he is not immune to memory errors”

We can share these tools with students—without overstating the use of mnemonic devices. I think he does a beautiful job with that in his book. Plus, for teenagers or even university students, the writing is really accessible. It’s so story-like, and Josh Foer is such an engaging writer that it really appeals to that age group.

Jessica Flitter: I start my class with the memory unit and love this book. Josh Foer’s story is a perfect hook for students and makes psychology accessible to them. While they may not be training for memory championships in the near future, many feel like they are preparing for a mini version while tackling their class load. In the first days of class I create a memory palace for a list of foods around my house that sticks with the students throughout the year. After they realize the power of method of loci, I use the mnemonic to help them remember famous psychologists associated with locations in their school. They are always amazed when they can recall the material months later.

When he talked to us, he made an interesting point: that the advent of printed books made it less important for people to have a good memory. I feel like today that problem has escalated. I personally feel that my memory has really suffered because I never have to remember anything, I’m always googling everything. Is that a discussion you’ve had with students in your classes?

LB: We recommend a book on the blog called Head in the Cloud that deals with exactly that. The influence of technology on cognition was newly integrated into the IB psychology course last year. (I was living in Switzerland; I’m back in the US now.) I asked students to read the book Head in the Cloud because it talks about how, when you know something’s going to be remembered for you, you don’t make an effort because you know you can just retrieve that later.

That also poses, I think, a really interesting ethical dilemma for educators: what can we let go of, and what are the non-negotiables? I’ve given up teaching proper APA citations because they can be done online, and maybe that space could be used to teach something else. But I don’t know what the answer is. Head in the Clouds made me think. It brought up more questions than answers, for me. It’s something that’s ongoing and ever-evolving that we’ll have to continue to deal with.

Yes. Let’s talk about the second book from our list of the best psychology books for teens. This is Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry.

JF: I was taking a tour of Clark University’s archives and the office of G Stanley Hall. As I sat in Hall’s office chair, a psychology professor recommended that I read Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry. It’s a great read for students interested in clinical psychology. We try to help our students understand the difference between a clinical psychologist and psychiatrist, the latter earning a medical degree and being able to prescribe medication.

Shrinks provides a historical view, and acknowledges the field’s challenging past of questionable practices and harsh treatments of patients. The author also expands on the recent discoveries focusing on the brain and the current DSM-5. A timeline that addresses diagnosis, treatment and the rebirth of psychiatry is established for readers in order to see a more complete picture of psychiatry. The book is chock-full of terms and theories but woven together in a story that is easy to follow. For the social studies/history buff, it is a great read that digs into psychology’s short but vivid past. It also leaves the reader wondering where the path of psychiatry is headed and what is next around the corner.

“Psychiatry has to own the mistakes and the ethical issues of its past”

NF: When we chose our five books, we tried to be broad, right? We tried to have some clinical, some biology, some cognitive, some emotion, a social psych book. The book Shrinks is like a historical piece. The author feels that psychiatry has to own the mistakes and the ethical issues of its past, but that psychology, and psychiatry, is in this really great moment where they’re utilizing new research and genetics and diagnostic testing to help people more.

The book is very story-like, and is divided into three sections: the history of diagnosis, the history of treatment, and a third section, ‘psychiatry reborn’: how can we use technology in a positive way to provide treatment to reach more people. It’s a really interesting book that gives a more complete picture of psychiatry, past and present. A nice, easy to read, high-interest book that gives them a big picture.

That’s great. I’m interested in the comment about it being good for students considering a career in clinical psychology. Is part of your aim to help teenagers think not only about the subsections of psychology, but also the possible career paths within it?

NF: A lot of students, when they start taking a psychology class, think psychology is almost entirely clinical psychology. As a result, they are often surprised that psychology is much more diverse. I think they’re surprised and excited to see all the ways that psychology connects with health and medicine, how it connects to business, how it connects to education, how it connects to engineering, how it connects to economics, and many other fields.

Students love how when they take a psychology course and learn things that they can apply immediately—maybe it is the memory techniques, as we discussed earlier, or how to improve cognition, or the understanding they gain about social interactions. Psychology is a very high interest topic for many high school students. The goal for the teacher, of course, is to guide them as to how this relates to both their everyday life and potential future careers.

Well, let’s move from a book about psychiatry to one from the point of view of a patient. This is Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. This is the story of a woman who suffered a rare, sudden-onset neurological condition that resulted in psychosis. Why do you recommend it as a psychology book for teens?

LB: There are so many books about the biological basis of behavior and disorders, but this is, I think, unique in many ways. Number one, this is a young woman just starting out in her career—so in terms of age, she’s 10 years or less from the students in our classes who are 17 or 18. Furthermore, she’s a writer. So: I’m very sorry that this happened to her, but I’m very glad that it happened to a writer because it makes it so much easier to read!

It shows students what a psychotic break looks like. This is a woman who was incredibly successful as a journalist and then starts to have all of these hallucinations about bedbugs. Even a thorough cleaning of her apartment isn’t enough. And as it follows her downward trajectory, it puts a human face on mental illness—and in this case, a really successful face.

When books focus solely on the homeless population or the violent schizophrenic population, I think that’s really misrepresentative. I don’t know that this is the most representative case, but it’s different to what you might hear in films or television programs that really over-emphasize the negative.

“The optimal ratio for positive to negative emotions is 80:20”

It also brings up interesting issues around treatment. Susannah is relatively well off, or her family is, and so they’re able to get her the care that she needs. So she acknowledges that she was really lucky and if her financial situation was different, the results in terms of her recovery would have been probably entirely different. She just came out with a new book called The Great Pretender: The Underground Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness in which she focuses on the flaws of the American mental health care system.

I like the end of the book; she is able to make a full recovery, knowing that this may happen again in the future, but that it’s not a lost cause, that that there’s hope.

The readability for me is probably the key element for students—and maybe for teachers as well—because it’s a book that you really can’t put down. If that’s what we need to make students readers, then I’m all for it.

Well, let’s move onto book number four on our psychology books for teens reading list. This is The Upside Of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your ‘Good’ Self—Drives Success and Fulfilment. This sounds like a different take from positive psychology?

NF: The authors Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener are both positive psychologists. Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths, but in this book they demonstrate that negative emotions were naturally selected for because they do have value, they help individuals to cope and thrive. They suggest that the optimal ratio for positive to negative emotions is 80:20. This is a really unique book that challenges students to look at negative emotions in a different light.

Obviously, an anxiety disorder is not helpful for anyone, but the authors argue that anxiety can be an alert or warning that can keep you safe. The authors discuss guilt as a motivator for growth and improvement. Fear protects you, causes you to slow down and be more cautious. Selfishness can lead to bravery. So, there are positive things that come out of negative emotions.

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NF: Students are going to experience stress. Teens experience stress, adults experience stress. The book discusses cognitive restructuring, or how the act of reframing how we think about stress can help us understand and accept and deal with negative emotions. Teachers can help students to understand how cognitive restructuring can help individuals reframe their interpretation of stress to create more positive outcomes.

The positive psychology movement is important because we don’t want psychology to be only the study of mental illness and problems. We want to study human strengths but we need to have this balance. I think this is a really readable book, and it includes some great studies that maybe students preparing for a science fair could look into replicating. It exposes students to biological psychology, evolutionary psychology, theories of motivation and emotion. There is quite a bit of high interest material in this book that builds on what we would love to teach in class but often do not have time for.

It also sounds like a book that, as well as helping with the academic side of things and in developing a passion for psychology as a subject, might also be useful purely in terms of a teen’s personal growth. Would you agree?

NF: I would. I would. I think that it’s important for them to think about how feelings of self-doubt and anger in small doses can be useful, and help improve your life. And that it’s just a part of life: there will be frustration and negative emotions. The way we interpret and respond to our emotions is important.

Great. That takes us to the last title on our list of psychology books for teens: You are Not So Smart by David McRaney.

LB: I would primarily label this a social psychology book. It’s in a little bit of a different category and is structured a lot differently to anything we’ve talked about thus far. McRaney also wrote a follow-up called You are Now Less Dumb.

Ha!

LB: So he’s good at punchy titles. But I really think—and I wrote this in the write-up on our site— that this book could substitute our teaching of the whole social psychology unit. In almost every introductory psychology textbook, social psychology comes last, but I like to teach it first, because every day in a social psychology unit, students will come to me and say: ‘Miss Brandt, I saw the bystander effect.’ And if there’s one thing that every student in our class should be doing, it is taking psychology outside of the classroom and seeing how it applies in their day-to-day life.

Even for the student who never takes another psychology class, I’m very conscious of how this class can help them to lead a better life. Because psychology as a discipline is a helping science. So: how can we help them manage stress better? How can we help them interact with their peers and their parents and their future children in a more effective way?

“Psychology isn’t something that theoretically exists in the classroom. It exists every single day”

What this book does is it gives the students a concept. It’s confirmation bias, the bystander effect. It gives them a brief paragraph of description of the term that you might get from a textbook, but then it gives them two or three real life examples. ‘This is the self-fulfilling prophecy experiment, and this is how it applies to your life.’

Honestly, almost every major topic that we cover in an introductory social psychology chapter is covered in the book. It makes psychology real: this isn’t something that theoretically exists in the classroom. It exists every single day. That’s why I love this book.

That sounds great. That leads us to my final question very nicely. Why do you think psychology is a good subject for teenagers to study—whether at school, or via books like these?

LB: Psychology is going to apply regardless of whatever field they might end up in. Having exposure to it helps them focus kind their interest and see an application.

How can you take what we know from psychology with, say, Moonwalking with Einstein, to help you become a better student? How can aspects of You Are Not So Smart help you to be a more compassionate person, or to be aware of the fundamental attribution error and prevent yourself from making it? How can you take something from Brain on Fire and reduce stigma around mental illness? How can they be advocates?

I think it’s a course that all students can be successful at. All students can use it in their everyday life and in their career and it’s also a fantastic way to get students really interested in science and build on their understanding of research—by presenting it in such an engaging way.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Jessica Flitter

Laura Brandt

Nancy Fenton

Nancy Fenton, Laura Brandt and Jessica Flitter are all recipients of the American Psychological Association’s national award for excellence in teaching high school psychology.  Nancy and Jessica are the co-authors of AP Psychology All Access, and Laura was the 2017 recipient of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s national award for high school teachers.

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Jessica Flitter

Laura Brandt

Nancy Fenton

Nancy Fenton, Laura Brandt and Jessica Flitter are all recipients of the American Psychological Association’s national award for excellence in teaching high school psychology.  Nancy and Jessica are the co-authors of AP Psychology All Access, and Laura was the 2017 recipient of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s national award for high school teachers.