We have talked before–here and elsewhere–about what makes a book, especially an adult book, appealing to teens. As you know, I just finished doing some workshops for librarians at the San Francisco Public Library. I talked about serving teens in the public library to two groups of mostly adult services (and a few children’s services) librarians, and one group of teen services librarians. As an introduction/icebreaker exercise, I thought I would get them in the mindset of being a teenager, so I asked them to share with the group what book (or author or genre) blew them away when they were 15.
I thought that the whole exercise was very revelatory and fascinating. Most (but not all) of the people in the classes were teenagers before the category of young adult books really took off, and most of the books mentioned were adult books. So let me share a few thoughts from what I heard:
One book that came up in each of the three sessions was Catcher in the Rye. The interesting thing about that was that in each case, the person who mentioned it (both male and female) said something to the effect that it was the book that told them that they weren’t alone in how they felt about things–it was a “someone gets how I feel” message.
Some books were clearly deeply important to the readers, even today. Two different people, in different sessions, mentioned The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and someone else said specifically that The Grapes of Wrath had opened her eyes to inequities. Several other people mentioned Steinbeck, incidentally: Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, in particular. Someone else mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four, which made her think about government in a whole different way. A Latina recalled being stunned to discover Bless Me, Ultima, and to realize that there was literature for and by Latinos. Others mentioned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison, and The Bell Jar.
There was, naturally, a contingent of science fiction and fantasy readers. Some couldn’t remember specific titles, but just knew that they read “everything” in the genre. Others mentioned Lord of the Rings, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, Ender’s Game, Asimov’s Foundation novels, and Michael Moorcock’s books. There was at least one Stephen King fan, and a couple of Arthurian devotees–The Once and Future King was mentioned, as was The Mists of Avalon.
I was amused that two people mentioned a book that I know you have a strong dislike for: Lord of the Flies. Others got seriously into Kurt Vonnegut or Hermann Hesse. One woman said she didn’t like to read at all until she was introduced to plays, and remembers in particular A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. A man said he also wasn’t much of a reader, except that he avidly read magazine articles on sports. Another also claimed not to have been a reader, but said he read Poe’s short stories, and biographies and autobiographies of rock musicians. Another man read business books his father had left lying around–he particularly remembers The Peter Principle and Up the Organization!
And it wasn’t only the men who read nonfiction. One woman said she read everything she could find on archaeology, and another, after watching reruns of “Upstairs, Downstairs” on PBS, found herself fascinated by a massive biography of Churchill’s mother, Jennie.
Several women mentioned reading romances, and one mentioned specifically the gothic romances of Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt. One said she read “anything with sex in it.”
Other specific titles that were mentioned: A Confederacy of Dunces, David Copperfield, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Outsiders, Forever, Rule of the Bone, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
So I’ve been thinking about these books and coming to a few conclusions in regard to teens and reading.
First of all, obviously, anything and everything seems to qualify as a book for teens. Many of the titles mentioned do in fact have young protagonists, and many deal with those important coming-of-age questions.
But others were mostly important to these people because they had important ideas. They gave the teens a way to find out about something they were interested in, or to exercise their newly-attained skills in critical thinking and reasoning. They gave them a way to experience something that either validated who they were or gave them insight into someone who was different–the old “mirrors and windows” metaphor.
I think the other interesting thing to me was that out of the fifty or so people in those three workshops, there weren’t all that many people who mentioned the same book. As I noted before, Catcher in the Rye came up several times, as did various works of Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Of course, responses to a question like this are going to vary a lot by age. I did have a mix of people from probably their early thirties to their sixties in these groups, and there were some clear differences in generations. On the other hand, I’ll bet some of these same titles would come up today.
It would be interesting to know what books, in about twenty years from now, will stick out as life-changing classics. Will there be YA books on that list? If so, what?
Any thoughts on this? (No one mentioned A Clockwork Orange, @droogmark; how old were you when you read it?) And how about our readers? What book sticks out in your mind from your teenage years?