Today’s blog started out as a dinner table conversation where we were talking about finding suitable books for younger children with teenage reading ages, but without teenage content, and it got me thinking. I was one of those children once, and what was I reading in my first couple of years at high school (12-14). I thought hard and came up with what is not perhaps the best list for teenage readers, but was a great ramble back into my past!
I was a shocking reader. Not because I could not or would not read, but because I read all the time, even in class (Please don’t pass that on to my son!). One of my earliest memories is of a teacher catching me reading during his social studies lesson. It was a truly great book for a 12 year old girl – Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. A book about drugs and fame in Hollywood. It is probably tame by today’s standards, but none the less probably not what I would recommend by any stretch of the imagination.
After confiscating my book the teacher and I brokered a deal. I could read in his class if I kept up my class work, but they had to be books he recommended. The first book he gave me was Waterhip Down by Richard Adams. In my twelve year old mind Valley of the Dolls was trashy and unreal. Watershed Down was set in the only too real world of rabbits and their loves and fears became mine, and it broke my heart. I loved this book, but I have not been able to read it again nor have I been able to watch the movie. What’s more every time I hear Art Garfunkle’s Bright Eyes Song, or I play it on the piano, I feel for those rabbits all over again!
Fortunately my teacher’s next recommendation was less heartbreaking and more thought provoking. We were studying the Troubles in Northern Ireland and he gave me Trinity by Leon Uris to read. This was an inspired move although I did not realise it at the time. Until then I had not realised that people wrote fiction based around real life events, and I was drawn into the history and romance between a catholic boy and a protestant girl. Leon Uris for me remains one of my favourite authors. He can take the big events in history and bring them to a personal level by telling the story of people. After Trinity I read Exodus (a book about early settlers in Israel) and Mila 18 (about the Jewish revolt in Poland during WWII – and which would have to be on my top 10 books ever) and many other books by Leon Uris. In fact last month I just finished reading A God in Ruins which, even though it was written in the early 00’s, gives great insight into american politics and the questions they still struggle with – guns and race. That teacher and Leon Uris are responsible for my love of history and politics, and my dream of one day becoming a writer.
Another author I read in my high school years has also stuck by me, and I hold her responsible for making me think about my role as a woman in society, and also helping me question how society shapes us. Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale was my first foray into the world of this great writer, and it is still my favourite of all her books. In this book Offred has one role in life, to breed. She must breed or become a dissenter, which usually results in death. Bit in the very strict society of the Republic of Gilead desire cannot be tamed, and this has a big impact on all the players. I have read many of Margaret Atwood’s books over the years; The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, Cat’s Eyes, but none have touched be as strongly as The Handmid’s Tale, although all make you look at the people around you in a different way.
I would like to say that I spent my whole time in high school reading great works of fiction by great adult authors, but I did read some works actually aimed at teenagers. I loved The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Set on the tough streets of america it was my generation’s Westside story (without the soppy love bits and music). I really rooted for Ponyboy to break free from the mould he was born into. I loved the book so much I even wagged school to go and see the movie. It was worth getting caught for (sorry Mum and Dad!). I also read the follow up That Was Then, This is Now, but I will always remember the Outsiders more fondly because it took me into the world of teenagers in another country.
It was at the early age I also began my love of mystery novels. I had read all the Famous Five and Secret Seven book in our local library, and at high school I graduated to Nancy Drew. I thought I had read every Nancy Drew story, but in looking for books for this blog I realised I fell a long way short. Well, I did read every one in our local library and the school library! I loved them all because Nancy always used her brains to solve the mystery, by my favourite was The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, possibly because I found the setting of New Orleans quite exotic.
There are two books I know I read when I was at high school but they did not resonate with me until much later on. I read my sister’s copy of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. I had read a number of books by concentration camp survivors, and of course Exodus and Mila18 by Leon Uris, so this book of a life lived in an attic during the war seemed a little tame at the time. Then in my early 20s I visited the Anne Frank museum and saw how the family lived and I had a new appreciation for the grumbling of a teenage girl about her family and life in general. I think now that it is easy to over-look the smallness of the everyday things she wrote about, but place them into the context of where those things occurred and you marvel at the fact they managed any life at all.
The other book I appreciated more as an adult was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I believe I read this book on the recommendation of a teacher, but at the time I could not see why a children’s book was so important. It was only on re-reading it as an adult I realised how cleaver the book is in looking at how we treat differences in others, and how much we are all the same underneath.
So far I have not written about any of the good books we had to actually read for high school, and you may be thinking that I wrote them off as unimportant, and in the main I think I did at the time. However three have stayed with me until now, so I am holding them up as inspired choices by my English teachers. The first is The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. I am not merely putting this down because we all have to study Shakespeare and it is an easy one to add to the list because of the strong female central character, but because this was the first Shakespeare I ever studied and I loved the story and the characters and the plot. And because of this one play I have had a life long enjoyment of Shakespeare. If I had not had this as my first Shakespeare play I might not have ever gone to the Globe in London and seen Shakespeare in the round. Nor would I have gone to see the Complete Works of Shakespeare at the theatre, or any of the many other Shakespeare productions I have been too over the years. And my life would have been a lot less bright and humorous if I had missed these performances out.
The Black Narcissus by Rumour Godden has stuck in my mind on and off over the years, and I am trying to track down a copy to confirm to myself that I am remembering it correctly. I believe this was my first example of a clever story that was written beautifully. You know the type of book I mean, one where the story is great but is made better by the beautiful language that is used to tell it. I always feel emense pleasure when I get a book that, and I hope when I finally get my new copy of Black Narcissus it will remind me of my first experience of a beautiful book.
Last, but by no means least is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I have not read this book since I read it in the sixth form (over 30 years ago), but the characterisations in this book were so strong that I still feel Lenny’s bewilderment, and George’s frustration with the world, and the shock I felt when George turns on his friend. That is very powerful writing! I have read other Steinbeck novels and I have to say my favourite would be the Grapes of Wrath in terms of story line, but you cannot go past Of Mice and Men as a study on human nature.
At the end of writing all of this three things came out of this personal journey back to my early reading history. The first is, I had not realised how much novels I read over thirty years ago would still resonate with me. The second was I had not realised how much they influenced my life choices, my view of the world and my adult me – such is the power of books. The third and most important thing is I have learned that there are worse things than reading adult books when you are still young. I don’t remember the sex scenes and drugs, or even the gory bits from concentration camps and wars, what I remember are the themes and the emotions and the stories, all the great gifts a good book has to give!
All Links from this page will take you to book depository.com as this was the one site where I could find copies of all the books I mentioned.
Image from public domainpictures.net