ColumnRead a short book. Sustain your mind.
When I was a teenager, I related more to books than I did to most other kids – and certainly to most adults. There was something about Huck and Holden and Ponyboy and their stories that was more real to my inner thought-space than were the characters who populated my adolescent landscape – teachers who didn’t get it, kids and cliques who judged without so much as a hint of eye contact, adults who seemed to have long forgotten the angst of their own youth.
Great fiction (whose net was cast wide enough to include my age group) didn’t talk down to me. It didn’t mock or tease or obfuscate. The characters were my comrades – respectful, smart and compassionate, and in some private way, just between them and me, they seemed to have my back. They respected both my sensibilities and civil rights. They were mature like me, of course, and they spoke the way I spoke inside my head – indignantly, sometimes with rage, yet often with a fearlessness that I didn’t possess. They unraveled their worlds to understand the wrongness of their shame and guilt and I was grateful to have them to show me the way through difficult times.
Great fiction is just that – great fiction. And great characters, regardless of their age or yours, always illuminate your way. Speaking on behalf of my inner kid and his fictional comrades, what was and is now designated as “Young Adult” literature is not, contrary to popular belief, a genre that’s dumbed down, a mere pat on the head for all those precious little readers out there. What it is is literature that happens to examine subject matter through characters that appeal to teens.
What does this mean? According to Katie MacBride, of the Mill Valley [CA] Public Library, who helped me compile the list below, what adults don’t get (especially those engaged in the twisted and ongoing battle to censor what teens see and read, including virtually every book included here) is that young adults live – wait for it – here on Earth, just like us, and not in some sterilized prep-room for “real” life. “Personal crises, sex and gender issues, violence, class warfare, politics – they experience and have to process it all,” she says. “If a book truly reaches young people, it’s a great book – and it will likely reach you too.” Amen. Unless of course, you somehow lost your depth as you grew older. (A concept that perhaps is more common than we’d like to admit.)
Arresting plotline? Universal themes? Relatable characters? Forget the “target age group” and dig in. Here are 10 books (an insanely partial list) even mature adults need to read – or reread, as the case may be. I know not every Young Adult title (specifically, for ages 12-17) is right for “Adult” Adults, but these are. (Oh, and we don’t do spoilers here. So read on…)
Some Stalwarts: Three Classics
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951) – Mark Twain’s Huck Finn aside, Salinger’s masterpiece is perhaps the greatest “crossover” novel of all time. Here, in a work not specifically directed at a young audience, we see through the eyes of the everlasting and ultimately relatable 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, the embodiment of teenage angst and alienation. His flashback story exposes cultural and interpersonal superficiality, and explores the challenge of maintaining authenticity in a postmodern world.
Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954) – The story of a group of young boys forced to create their own civilization on a deserted island is a perfect lens for the examination of the greatest and most horrifying human impulses. The struggle between the urges to live and function as a society and the lure of power and corruption is front and center in this classic novel that’s as much about grand human needs, desires and flaws as it is about anything specific to teenage years.
The Chosen, Chiam Potok (1967) – Set in the insular microcosm of the Jewish community of 1940s Brooklyn, New York, this celebrated novel explores issues of friendship, family and diversity, and the struggle to find oneself in a world where entrenched forces have the power to lock in an individual’s destiny. Fifteen-year-olds Bobby and Danny represent a sort of yin and yang existence, and the trials of their relationship offer timeless insights that reach far beyond their age and culture.
New Tales for New Times: Three More for the Canon
The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993) – Joining the lofty ranks of 1984, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale, this great dystopian achievement presents a bleak future as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy named Jonas. Occupying a pivotal role in his pathologically calculated society, Jonas functions as a bridge between the memories of the old world and the blankness of the new as it is forcibly transitioned to a horrifying “Sameness.” Like it’s heralded predecessors, this novel offers us a look at where we are as a society and what we are becoming.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky (1999) – A series of letters written by a high school freshman reveals the challenges he faces as he tries to merge a complicated and confusing personal life into a mainstream world. The story deals with issues ranging from homosexuality to rape and suicide, and examines how the painful details and idiosyncrasies of one’s life can lead from withdrawal to participation and back again – a challenge not uncommon to anyone, at any age, in any culture.
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson, 1999 – It’s hard to speak about Speak without “spoiling” the plot. Suffice to say that Melinda Sordino enters high school with a secret – a secret so deeply painful that she cannot even think it to herself, let alone share it with the world around her, which is now threatening to leave her behind. A novel that takes on issues that far outscope adolescence, Speak seeks to adjust our vocabulary and thinking around suffering and self-blame. For this, it has become a favorite target of censors across the country – efforts that are, in this case (and in this writer’s opinion), criminal in their own right.
Read On: The 2000s
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (2006) – “Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.” So says Death, who knows all and tells a tale of young Liesel Meminger (alternating with her own accounts) as she navigates Nazi Germany in this story of survival and discovery. Somewhere in the abstract sadness (Death likes to distill feelings and happenings to a macabre and basic color scheme) and primal reality of the events that swirl around her, Liesel scratches out a life for herself that features some semblance of humanity. Among her coping skills is her budding relationship with books, some of which she rescues from Nazi book burnings as she dares to feel in the face of fate.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, 2008 – Okay, okay, calm down, I’ll say it. Yes, this is a great book. A killer read, in fact. This dystopian bestseller, the first of a trilogy that’s taking the world by storm, is the first person account of a great heroine – the “girl on fire,” Katniss Everdeen – who is one of many children forced to pay for the sins of their parents (daring to rise up against a post-apocalyptic Totalitarian regime) in a annual, government-sponsored, unspeakably horrifying spectacle. Thick with cultural symbolism and metaphor (everything from consumer and celebrity culture to class warfare and environmental degradation comes to mind), The Hunger Games is also a spectacular thriller of a novel. Put it down. Dare you… and “may the odds be ever in your favor.”
Jumpstart the World, Catherine Ryan Hyde, 2010 – Thrust into an adult living situation (that is to say, living alone) while still in high school, Elle faces an all-too-sudden and accelerated need to occupy into her own emotional self. A literal cast-off, she’s forced to quickly react and assign meaning to unfamiliar relationships and people and their roles (gender and otherwise) in her jumpstarted life. “Independence has no reverse gear. Fear or no fear,” realizes Elle. The struggle then becomes to “just be as close to yourself as you can possibly bring yourself to be.” Sound wise? Simple, almost effortless prose belies life’s certain complications in this great read from the author of Pay it Forward.
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, 2012 – Suffering, dignity, destiny, coping with the diminishing returns of life. Alas, “the world is not a wish-granting factory” and cancer survivor (for the time being), 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster must deal with that fact. A deep and intensely philosophical book, The Fault in Our Stars boldly submits that “some infinites are bigger than others” and then crawls inside a few unfortunately smaller ones, bravely exploring shortened lifespans from the inside looking out – without the polite pulling of punches. How does love and life appear through such a prism? How can such a read shed light on your own life experience? In a world where life is “a side effect of dying,” you might ask, what’s it worth to you? Yong Adult fiction? Read it and you tell me.
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly feature, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
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Top image: Pink Sherbet Photography