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Essential Reading: Young Adult

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Photo by Maciej Ostrowski

It's official, here at Literary Mama we’re crazy about young adult books, but not for our teens—for ourselves! Maybe it’s the adventurous story lines, or the pull of young, romantic love, or maybe just because we are young-at-heart. Here are some timeless classics and modern bestsellers we really think you should poach from the YA bookshelves. 

Kate Haas, Creative Nonfiction Editor, shares this: "I'm going to reach waaay back and recommend An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. It's not nearly as famous as her blockbuster, Little Women, but a better book in many ways. True, this story of country mouse, Polly, who comes to stay with the family of her rich, fashionable friend Fanny, dutifully advocates maidenly modesty, honoring parents, and the sorry evils of makeup and alcohol. However, these sops to convention are but a smoke screen behind which lurks some pretty radical stuff for a YA book from 1869. Polly, who supports herself by giving music lessons, would rather remain poor and free than marry a (very nice and rich) man she doesn't love, and she introduces Fanny to a community of happy, independent women artists and writers. In a scene that still resonates today, Polly discomfits the rich young women at her sewing circle by chastising them for not considering the backbreaking labor that produces their fancy dresses; and the author even (genteelly) alludes to how poverty forces young girls into prostitution. It's not all grim; there are crushes and romance, humor and pathos, and a wonderful scene sure to charm the DIY crowd, in which Polly helps Fanny thriftily revamp her old clothes to be stylish again. It may be over a century old, but its themes—girls supporting each other, female independence, and self-respect—make An Old-Fashioned Girl worth a look to a new generation."

Sarah Plummer, Poetry Editorial Assistant, related to this story: "Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is a coming-of-age novel routinely prescribed to young women, alongside other celebrities of YA Fiction like Jane Eyre and The Diary of Anne Frank. This is not always a guarantee of readability, but it stands out as a book I'd be prepared to recommend to a discriminating reader. Teenage narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, fills three notebooks with a relatable recount of her complex, close-knit family, with moments of incisive introspection, and an appropriate amount of levity. Living together with her romantic older sister, eccentric stepmother, and reclusive father in their castle of a home, Cassandra navigates the essential troubles of adolescence, at the heart of which is the realization that life, and love, are terrifically harder and more absurd than we could ever know. Despite being set in 1934, this winsome tale achieves something quite rare: earnestly distilling a time and place, while somehow remaining ageless. Many poignant writings are the result of isolation and, I have found, can ring true at just the right time. I am forever indebted to Cassandra Mortmain and Dodie Smith for making me feel known, both as a young adult and a slightly older adult, during my own moments of dislocation and change."

Amanda Jaros, Editor-in-chief, recommends this classic: "I always loved Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain. The book was published in 1959 and follows teenaged Sam Gribley who runs away from his New York City home to live on his great-grandfather's land in the Catskill Mountains. Sam told his father he was going to the wilderness, to which his father said 'Every boy should try it.' He knows nothing about being an outdoorsman, and Sam leaves home with only 'a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, and $40, which I saved from selling magazine subscriptions.' In the form of diary entries, he recounts learning to make a fire from a man who lives nearby, his fishing and food gathering escapades, and how he steals a young falcon from a nest to train it and keep it as his companion and hunting partner. This kind of story is fanciful in any era, but particularly hard to imagine these days. Yet, I love the idea of staking one's claim to a piece of land and the simple complexity of survival outdoors. Craighead George's descriptions of a life lived in the natural world are thoughtful and Sam's voice comes through honest and true. Sam thrives for a year before he is discovered by another teen, Matt, who had heard about a 'wild boy' living in the mountains and writes about Sam in the newspaper, eventually leading his parents to find him. Matt says to Sam 'Let’s face it . . . you can't live in America and be quietly different. If you're going to be different, you are going to stand out and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you and you won't be different anymore.' A profound statement that certainly applies to our modern love of wilderness and desire to be unique individuals. My Side of the Mountain is its own form of unique; a powerful read for anyone who has ever dreamed of getting away from it all and creating a new life in her own private world."

Felicity Landa, Fiction Editor, brings us up to the present with her pick: "I had the pleasure of meeting Emily Ziff Griffin when she gave a talk at my MFA residency on turning personal experiences into fantastical, rich stories. While it's always encouraging to see a mother making strides in the writing world, I was delighted to find her debut novel as engaging as her workshop. Light Years is a thrilling story set in a technologically advanced modern day. It follows a brave and remarkable young heroine, Luisa, who suffers from a rare condition; when she experiences a powerful emotion, her senses become muddled: sounds have tastes, feelings become smells, etc. This character flaw is not only original, but also allows beautiful descriptions that engage the reader on a sensory level. Luisa's journey becomes a page-turner as she embarks on a quest to save her father, and the world, from a deadly virus that claims its victims within days. Griffin has written a powerful novel that brings forth deeply personal questions about our place in the world, and our responsibility to use our gifts to bring about change where necessary. As one of the most thought provoking and sophisticated YA novels I have read, its importance is vast in the world of kid lit. Griffin's characters are forced into situations that challenge them way beyond their years, and their bravery and camaraderie is inspiring.  I highly recommend Light Years as a must-read for both teens and adults. You will come out of it feeling empowered, and wanting a sequel!"

Abigail Lalonde, Social Media Editor, brings us her insight into a modern classic: "Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower came to me at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, my early twenties, and I have loved it ever since. There is something so soothing about the characters, the writing, the soundtrack (yes it has a soundtrack!), and all of it together that make the reader feel as though she's not alone. Perks continues to scratch that itch for me almost twenty years later. Chbosky's extremely quotable novel (a quick Pinterest search alone will make you want to read this book) follows protagonist Charlie through a traditional coming-of-age story peppered with the counterculture of the early 1990s.  An epistolary novel, Perks is written in the form of letters that allow the reader to feel a closeness to Charlie as he navigates his freshman year and a personal tragedy. In 2012, Chbosky adapted and directed a film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower that did not disappoint. While there are mature aspects to the text such as sex and drug use, I intend to give it to my daughter when she comes of age with the hope that it will satiate her human desire to feel understood."

Have you read any young adult books that left their mark? We'd love to hear. Leave a recommendation in the comments, or tweet us @LiteraryMama. You can also follow us on Instagram @Literary_Mama and Goodreads for more recommendations.


Nerys Copelovitz is a British born marketing writer and mother of three who now lives in Israel. Her writing on parenting and living in a hot spot can be found in the Times of Israel, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy and Kveller. When not sweating over a hot keyboard, or stove, she likes to read and swim, though not in tandem.


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Maciej Ostrowski is a freelance photographer.


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