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Giving Thanks for Putting Away Childish Literary Things

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As I write this on Thanksgiving weekend, I give thanks to the books that turn adolescent readers into adult readers. For me, it was one 19th-century novel by a woman, and one 20th-century novel by a man.

All of us who love books started with simpler fare. Perhaps it was Goodnight Moon, then The Cat in the Hat, and then kid-oriented novels such as Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (about an early computer big enough to hold gazillions of smartphones!).

But by the time we reach our mid-teens, English teachers up the ante. Two books on their agenda when I was that age included Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- both of which made me groan before I cracked their covers. A novel about some oddball governess? A farm family leaving Oklahoma? Bor-r-ring.

Then I read those two books, and my literary landscape was transformed. There was no going back to kid fiction with few nuances and little complexity. Danny Dunn was done.

Though I was a 20th-century American male, I strongly related to the British female protagonist in Bronte's 1847 novel. Jane Eyre somehow transcended time, place, and gender -- like all great literary characters can do. I admired her ethics, intelligence, independence, and self-sufficiency. Plus I was sort of a loner like her, and was from modest economic circumstances like her.

Meanwhile, The Grapes of Wrath opened my eyes more widely to matters such as injustice, gross economic inequality, and the importance of family. I was so taken with Steinbeck's 1939 novel that when I learned the movie version would be on TV at 2 a.m. one day, I stayed up to watch it despite having school just a few hours later. (This was before VCRs, of course.)

For all the lessons and such in those two books, the Bronte and Steinbeck classics were also darn good reads filled with suspense, pathos, believable dialogue, and flat-out excellent writing. Plus Jane Eyre was and is incredibly romantic.

Yes, after experiencing novels that meaty, it was time to "put away childish (literary) things." Soon, I was gobbling up Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, various Charles Dickens books, and other classics.

For many readers now in their 20s, I suspect the Harry Potter series might have been the books that helped spark that adolescent-to-adult reading transition.

Which novels catapulted your younger self into the world of more sophisticated literature?