On a recent thread on Facebook, someone noted that in the growing absence of book reviews in popular culture that blogs have become a good source of information about books. While a blog is different than, say, a (supposedly) unbiased review in a newspaper, I do enjoy following blogs and learning about books I might not come across. So, because I happen to have recently read an excellent book narrated by a young girl (see below), here’s a quick list of my favorite novels about young people.
There are a few old chestnuts here, but I was trying to go for choices less obvious than the very obvious To Kill a Mockingbird and for books that are not technically considered pure YA/children’s lit (with one exception that absolutely must be on this list). I’ll also exclude Harry Potter on the assumption that you might have heard of him already.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something—sorry!—and I’m sure this list might be different if I compiled it next week or next month. So consider it a snapshot in time and thought. Random order, except for numbers one and ten.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I’ve loved this book unreservedly from day one when I first read it as a disgruntled teenager, and from that famous first line. Yes, Holden is whiny and perhaps precious. I don’t care. You must be some kind of phony if you can’t find charm in this book, even now, years and a lifetime removed from that initial reading!
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. Ellen’s spunky ways are never cloying and (almost) always impressive in this tour de force of voice set in the south in the early 1970’s. If you’re trying to write a first person narrator of any age, you must read and study this book, though it will make you despair of even coming close in your own work.
Before I Die by Jenny Downham. A girl with cancer is dying and decides to live her whole life before she goes. Warning: you’ll need an entire box of tissues and someone to hug right after you finish.
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott. I barely recommend this to anyone because it’s one of the darkest books I’ve ever read, though also one of the most memorable. An uncomfortable masterpiece about a kid growing up on the streets and in the foster care system, sadly somewhat autobiographical from what I understand. From a craft standpoint, it’s also interesting for being successfully told in reverse chronological order.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. I haven’t read these two for a while, so I’m not sure how they hold up, but I LMAO when I first read about poor Adrian’s struggles to survive his teen years in England. I still remember the elegance of the After Eight dinner mints.
Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun. A Korean-American girl runs away from home and makes her way on the streets. Stark and beautiful and lonely, like an Edward Hopper painting. Prose that will make you cry, it’s so exact.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I would hazard a guess that almost any female writer who read like a demon loved spy/writer-in-the-making Harriet and her notebooks, her spy rounds through the Upper East Side, all those egg creams and tomato sandwiches, and her decision to send her first completed story to The New Yorker.
Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. Another one I haven’t read for a while, but I remember it as dark and true and scary. Rich kids running terribly amok in 1980s Los Angeles, looking for an escape even as they realize there isn’t one. (Okay, they’re college-age, but they’re all high school friends, so I’m counting it anyway.)
Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato. This is the book that inspired this list. Mathilda’s sister has died and her family isn’t handling their grief well, leaving Mathilda to mourn alone. Another great narrative voice, and also excellent dialogue. No surprise to learn that the author is a playwright. This is the kind of book you want to read really fast and at the same time slowly, because you can’t bear to imagine it ending.
A Year and a Day by yours truly. This is vain of me, yes, and highly immodest, but I worked hard to write this book, and it’s exactly the book I wanted to write. Fifteen-year-old Alice’s mother kills herself, and Alice and her brother deal with the aftermath in the year after. Set in small-town Iowa in 1975, the careful reader may assume a few certain things about the author after reading this book: yes, I detasseled corn; no, I did not get the part of Emily in my high school’s production of Our Town. Also, there really was a Donutland in Iowa City.
Official disclosure per the FTC overlords: Bought these books all with my own hard-earned cash. No freebies and/or sponsorship deals…though wouldn’t this be nice: “Work in Progress, a Literary Blog sponsored by The Catcher in the Rye.”