We hear a lot about YA, or young adult, literature these days, and it is constantly on my mind as of late with the frenzy of Summer Reading upon us. I have been asked for a lot of recommendations for teen readers over the past couple of weeks which has caused me to reflect on what books I immersed myself in as a teenager, way back before the recent explosion in literature published with teenagers in mind. It is probably not too surprising to find out that your librarian was a library-loving teenager, always tucked into a corner somewhere with their nose shoved in a book. It didn't take much to get me to sit still and read, in fact it probably required force to get me to do much of anything else. I usually sought out stories with a rebellious spirit and a dark side. If asked my favorite genre, I probably would have answered "horror" or just glared (teenagers!) but if asked for a list of my favorite books, this would have been it.
Yep, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I remember reading this moody American classic for the first time immediately after I bought it at Goodwill for a quarter and feeling like I had discovered some great secret. The Bell Jar follows the unraveling of the brilliant and talented Esther Greenwood into insanity. This haunting novel is especially perfect for teen girls and budding artists.
I had to read The Great Gatsby in a high school English class. I didn't love everything we had to read in school--I'm not that kind of book lover. In fact, I still hate The Scarlet Letter. There, I said it. Sorry, Hawthorne. The Great Gatsby is a fantastic read for teens, especially for anyone fascinated by the roaring 20s.
With my up-all-night reading of The Joy Luck Club began my lifelong love of multi-generational family sagas. I remember having many discussions with my mom over this novel we shared at an age when that didn't always come easy. This book could be great for a teen who is having trouble seeing eye to eye with their parents, not that there are very many of those around...*ahem*.
I still list The Women's Room as one of my all time favorites. Checked out from my high school's library, this is another novel that made me feel like I had discovered a secret world of really cool, super adult literature, and it probably influenced my adult taste in literary fiction more than anything else I've read. Young feminists will find a lot to love about this story of a woman's journey of self-discovery through marriage and children, divorce, and later-in-life college study and academia set in tumultuous mid-20th century America.
My mom gave me her much loved paperback copy of The Good Earth when I was about 12 or 13 and I read it twice. I remember many tears. Good for a teen who likes to have a good cry over a book now and then, The Good Earth is the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, and his family in agrarian China.
20 years after this book's publication, ebola is back in the news in a really horrible way so it may or may not be a good time to recommend The Hot Zone but I'm all about honesty and this book was one of my most favorite favorite reads as a teenager. I bought it at a drugstore on a family summer vacation to the mountains in 1994 because I was "really interested in viruses" at the time. The Hot Zone is the terrifying true story of a virus which is currently wreaking havoc in west Africa.
Ending up in Richmond was extra cool for me as a hardcore teenage E. A. Poe fanatic. I had memorized a good deal of "The Raven" and would quote it often, and I carried around the complete works in my backpack. Poe is excellent for lovers of horror and tragic romance, and the short story is great for teens who don't take easily to hefty novels.
What began as an act of rebellion (because my mom wouldn't let me see the movie so I checked out the book at the library and made a point to read it in front of her) ended up as another book that will remain a favorite of mine forever. A Clockwork Orange works a pretty cool message about redemption that teens will respond to into a story of a violent future taken over by criminals, and the Slavic slang used by the gangs made me want to study Russian, which I later did in college.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was another rebellious read from the Davenport (Iowa) Public Library. At least, it felt like rebellion. Depictions of alcohol and drug use abound in this raucous classic about a reporter on a long weekend road trip.
It really doesn't get better than this dark short story by Franz Kafka about a man who awakens to find himself transformed into a giant beetle. Considering all the changes one goes through at that age, it isn't surprising that The Metamorphosis strikes a chord with many a teen.
Siddhartha, first published in 1922, tells the spiritual journey of a boy from the Indian subcontinent during the time of the Buddha. This novel is peaceful, elegant, and spiritual--great for contemplative teens. I read it between shifts at the restaurant where I worked for some much needed respite from the diners.
Written in 1962 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a powerful story of one day in life of a man imprisoned in a gulag (prison labor camp) in Soviet Russia. It's hard to be a teenager, which I suppose is why stories of terrible struggle are so popular with them.
The novel that defined the beat generation, On the Road was written by Jack Kerouac in 1957 and has been carried around by teenagers as a badge of cool ever since. It usually needs little introduction and has inspired many a road trip across America.
We would like to know, what sort of books did you discover as a teenager? Why did they speak to you?
Happy Summer Reading!