If The Catcher in the Rye is an adult novel, then why are so many teens obsessed with it? The distinction between YA and adult fiction can be as thin as to be unnoticeable to the casual observer. And such a petty thing as genre distinction will never hold back a teen who loves reading. More than that, YA author Robin Wasserman, in an excellent essay about Stephen King’s ability to write great teen characters, posits “There are some adult books that, for whatever reason, seem specially formulated to wend their way into teenagers’ brains and take root, and I think it’s because—like one of those high-frequency tones the rest of us are too old to notice—these books are whispering secret truths certain teenagers need to hear.” These are some books that whispered to me as a teen. And then whispered again, and again, and again because I reread them so many times.
Here’s Robin Wasserman again: “What Stephen King reader didn’t fall in love with him a teenager?” I fell hard when I read It. But I didn’t reread It for the way it made me terrified to go to the bathroom or how I stayed up all night reading because I was afraid to turn out the light. I reread it because it’s about a group of friends who love each other, and how that love is the most powerful kind of magic. The young versions of the characters are just on the cusp of puberty. The book’s nostalgia for that age, as well as the late 1950s time period in which it is set, perfectly reflect a teenager’s nostalgia for their lost childhood, which seems to be an ocean of time away from their drastically different present. Also, you’re welcome for not using one of the terrifying clown versions of this book’s cover. I had the Tim Curry TV movie tie-in one, which had his picture on the spine, and I would hide it behind my other books so that he couldn’t see me. Eventually I just threw it away and bought another one, but I was still scared it was going to reappear on my bookshelf one night, Talky Tina–style.
Yeats and Gráinne the warrior queen.
After years spent devouring Lynda Barry’s comics and her MG/YA book The Good Times Are Killing Me, I was primed to love Cruddy. But it still surprised me with its depth of honesty, strangeness, horror, and love. This book is disgusting. And beautiful. It’s dark. And hopeful. It’s twisted. And hilarious. Cruddy switches between the present, in which main character Roberta traverses her town with a new friend, and the past, in which a young Roberta sets off on a road trip with her violent and unstable father. But that doesn’t even begin to capture this book. Barry excels at creating worlds that feel alien and uniquely hers while still being relatable. The things she does with language alone are incredible. I still sometimes yell out “Shit and goddamn! The interruption! My program!” if people interrupt me while I am watching television. Cruddy is a masterpiece, and should be read by people of all ages, but I’m especially glad I read it as a teen so that it could creep inside me and warp my fragile developing mind.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Alvarez tells the story of the Mirabel sisters, national heroes in the Dominican Republic who fought against the dictator Trujillo’s murderous regime. This book is at once stirring historical fiction and a wrenching family epic. The POV switches between the four sisters, and between past and present, where Dedé is the only sister who survived. Alvarez makes you love the characters and to hope against hope that they will somehow avoid the catastrophe that every step of their lives is building toward. Before I read this book I knew about Trujillo, but Alvarez’s version of the Mirabels gives a visceral experience of life in that place, in that time. The small, everyday moments of life—school, church, marriage—continue to pile up, even as fear and violence squeeze and distort reality.
Morvern Callar starts out dark: “He’d cut His throat with the knife. He’d near chopped off his hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn’t object so I lit a Silk Cut.” Morvern’s boyfriend has killed himself, but instead of calling an ambulance, Morvern lights a cigarette, shaves her legs, and then goes to work. She floats around her Scottish town, listening to her Walkman and working at the grocery store. We float with her, as she drifts into a book deal, a vacation by the sea, and the rave scene. Morvern is untethered, free, and for the time we spend with her, we are too.
Dreamland by Kevin Baker
A historical epic, Dreamland blends gangsters, sweatshop workers, Jewish immigrants, and, of course, Coney Island. When thinking about history, a common trap is to glorify the past, to laud it as more magical, safer, better than the present. Baker does not do this. His descriptions of prostitution, opium addiction, violence, and alcoholism are stark. After I read this book, I was obsessed with Coney Island history, and eventually New York City history in general. But it’s hard to read this and not pine for the Coney Island that was. For a time when you could ride the subway for a nickel, take a trip to the moon and then a trip to hell, and spend the night in a hotel shaped like an elephant. For a time when amusement parks were meant to inspire a sense of wonder as well as to make a tidy profit. But there I go, romanticizing the past.
When a book opens with a cast of characters, and that list includes sprites, dogs, and humans described as “bohemians,” you know you’re in for a good time. The main character, George, is a storyteller who lives in Ithaca and writer-in-residence at Cornell, where the story takes place. Also in residence at Cornell are a colony of dogs who run their own version of a university, the Bohemians, who are like a frat only co-ed and way cooler, and the sprites, tiny magical creatures. Meanwhile, watching over all of this is Mr. Sunshine, another storyteller, who tinkers with the lives of those in Ithaca to bring about his desired tale. This book made Cornell seem so magical that I decided that was where I needed to go to college. Sadly, I don’t think the real school has sprites, Bohemians, or a dog college.