Classics for Young Adults

Readers from 13 to 18 years old are often told the books they “should” read, with adults creating “Classics” lists and turning them into required reading.  Our choices do include some of the books you’ll find on “Books Everyone Should Read” lists, but only the ones that adolescents we know have fallen in love with (or we remember falling in love with ourselves, when we were that age).  As with our Classics lists for other ages, we focused on titles that transcend time, provoke reflection and conversation, and linger in the reader’s mind.  Since the books you read at this age  help shape who you are (and who you want to be), they tend to stay with you forever – what are some of the books you read as a teen that you have never been able to forget?

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

It’s hard to believe this book has now been out for ten years.  It’s one of those “instant classics,” read by teens and adults alike since its first publication date.  Melinda, the main character, doesn’t “speak,” as she has been figuratively robbed of her voice by an “unpseakable” act.  Throughout the novel, we get hints of the events that have destroyed her friendships, family life, and daily school environment.  No spoilers in this review, so take our word for it that this novel is written with honesty and integrity and kids we know attest to it being a quick and compelling read.

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is one book that will top practically everyone’s list as a “should read” for the very best of reasons – it’s an amazing book.  While it explores racism, sexism, classism, violence, and justice, it also captures a time and place in American history as well as creating very real characters that you will come to love.  Scout is a lovable and relate-able narrator, full of spunk and charm, while her father Atticus is a shining example of what a good person is and can be.  This is one of those classics that leaves you thinking “I get what all the fuss is about”, and if it’s been a while since you read it, we encourage you to pick it up again.  It’s also one of the few classics that has a movie adaptation that is also pretty wonderful, with Gregory Peck as Atticus (exactly the way you picture him!) and a very young Robert Duvall as the mysterious Boo Radley.

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Yes, it’s science fiction, but it’s more than simply a classic in the sci-fi genre.  It is a masterpiece in its own right:  a book that draws the reader in and makes profound statements on the human condition. The characters are complex and the plot is riveting–the proverbial page-turner.  The children, who are the main characters, have depth and intelligence, but don’t sound like mini-adults.  Ender Wiggin is a special boy. He is the youngest (6 yrs old when the story starts) of a family of child geniuses (Peter being the eldest, then Valentine). This story is set in the future where aliens (called Buggers because of their physical and mental traits) have tried to invade the earth twice. Twice the Earth defeated them, but at great cost. The government is scrambling to make sure this never happens again by training the next set of star fleet commanders from childhood.  The novel stands alone as a satisfying read–but many of us are hooked enough to dig into the whole series.

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This graphic novel is actually a very serious autobiography of a young girl growing up  during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The world she has known before the age of 10 completely changes with the new regime, and as readers, we witness a culture’s descent into madness through the stark and strangely humorous artwork and dialogue.  Teens can identify with Satrapi’s search for independence and self-understanding–and also learn important historical information that continues to influence world tensions.  A brilliant novel that invites discussion.  Interested readers will want to dig into the sequel Persepolis 2:  The Story of a Return.

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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“Listen:  Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”  Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic is part sci-fi and part autobiographical account of his experiences in Dresden during the fire-bombing of World War II.   Billy believes aliens, tralfamadorians to be exact, have abducted him. We assume that it’s through these aliens that he learns to time travel, a skill he frequently uses.  With this premise, we experience with Billy the concepts of living in the moment, the rationale for pacifism, and an ironic–and often hilarious–harpooning of American culture.  The novel is a great introduction to Vonnegut’s other works–and the easy, conversation style it’s written in draws in readers, young and older adults alike.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Janie Crawford grows up in the black township of Eaton Florida, and we follow her on her life’s journey, including 3 husbands and one enduring love.  The power of Hurston’s semi-autobiographical novel is in her vivid metaphorical language, written in the rich dialect of “spoken soul.”   Zora Neale Hurston is a fascinating Harlem Renaissance writer, famous in her own time, but nearly forgotten by the 1960’s until Alice Walker worked to get Hurston’s books republished.  Since then, she has been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway as a leading American novelist of the 20th century.  This book is often on “must read” classic high school lists–and it’s one of the choices we agree with.  A rich and moving story to read–and reread.

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Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It feels like cheating that reading Sherlock Holmes counts as reading a classic.  There are 56 short stories and 4 novels that make up the Sherlock canon, and began with “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887.  While Holmes is not the first literary detective, he is far and away the most famous, and there is an argument to be made for Watson being the original (bumbling) sidekick.  A brilliant detective and master of disguise, he was also a cocaine and morphine user, violinist, expert boxer and swordsman.  While he never fell in love, perhaps the most fun story to read is “The Scandal in Bohemia”, where he was bested, not by his nemesis Dr. Moriarty, or any other master criminal, but by Irene Adler, who he would refer to afterwards as “the woman”.  If you don’t read this for the immense pleasure the stories offer (or think you don’t care for mysteries) read them for their place in history, for once you have read them, you’ll find references to the Holmes stories everywhere in popular culture, from Star Trek to the TV show House.

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Anne Frank:  The Diary of a Young Girl

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”  A girl who can write that, despite being forced to live in hiding as a mass genocide is being committed against your own people and you fear discovery and for your own life, and that of your family, yourself and everyone you know and love is a remarkable person, and Anne Frank (quite obviously) was.  It is worth reading her journal (“I will call you Kitty” she says to it) to discover the bravery and artistry that can survive and flourish in the most dire of circumstances.  While there isn’t much about this honest and heart wrenching work that hasn’t been said and doesn’t feel trite or pale in comparison to her own prose, it is worthwhile to note how relevant the insights into a girl coming of age in an age of terror are today with the upheaval in the world today (particularly in the Middle East and Africa).  It’s astonishing to think that evil did not perish with Hitler, but then again, neither did courage and beauty in the teenage soul…

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Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This may be the absolute definitive coming-of-age story, and as trite as it sounds, it will never speak to you again in the same way as when you yourself are coming of age.  Holden Caulfield is a cynical and observant 16 year old, finding his place in the world.  (And who isn’t at 16?)  It may be that he’s on the edge of a breakdown, or that may be how we all feel at 16.  Written in 1951, the book still rings true as a journey and exploration through identity, sex, death and life.  For decades, this book was the most banned, yet second most taught book in highschools.  And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, nothing will!

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Les Miserables  by Victor Hugo

This book had a bit of a renaissance in the 80’s, when the  musical opened (in 1980 in France, and then the English language version came along in 1985).  It was about years later than that when I (Meghan speaking) had to read it in highschool French.  If you think reading a 1400 page book sounds daunting, think about reading it in another language.  But having seen the play a good dozen times, I attacked it with pleasure and relished every word.  The history!  The romance!  The good (Valjean) vs the bad (Javert)!  It’s funny and moving and fierce and teaches you a good deal (both about the French Revolution and the human heart).  In short, don’t let the length put you off – it’s a compulsive page turner.

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One Response to Classics for Young Adults

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m particularly enthusiatic about your including Ender’s Game and To Kill a Mockingbird – two books that shaped me as a reader and that are timeless enough that I can share them with my high school students today and they are as fresh for them as they were for me. Great list!

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