My new novel, Kissing in America, is a feminist story about a young girl coming into her own as she gradually understands the complexities of grief and loss and love. As I wrote the book over the course of seven years, I kept thinking back to seven books I read when I was a teen, narratives that seeped under my skin and shaped who I am. Although they're not all traditional YA titles, they have great appeal to young adults, regardless of whether or not the books were published or marketed as YA. (In the words of Patrick Ness: "YA is not a genre. It contains all genres.") I can't imagine how I would have survived adolescence--or adulthood--without them.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, 1847
I first read Jane Eyre
when I was 16, huddled under the covers, and I fell in love with Jane's indomitable will and her ability to survive the cruelty of Lowood, and any hardship (or madwoman in the attic) that came her way. When Jane tells Rochester, "I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit...equal--as we are!", I decided, then and there, to be like Jane and to defy ever being classified as "poor, obscure, plain, and little," and to throw out all inequalities, whether of class, gender, age, or experience. Reader, we all need Jane in our lives.
Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery, 1908
Though the first volume of Anne of Green Gables
is Montgomery's best-known book, Anne of the Islandwill always be my most beloved of the series. In this book, Gilbert tells 19-year-old Anne, "You are the first Avonlea girl who has ever gone to college; and you know that all pioneers are considered to be afflicted with moonstruck madness." Montgomery herself had a difficult life filled with much to overcome--depression, a challenging marriage, the societal constrictions for a woman at the turn of the century--and reading Montgomery's journals as a companion to the Anne books adds complexity and nuance to her heroine. At the end of Anne of the Island, Anne becomes a writer, and "literary ambitions sprouted and budded in her brain." She falls in love with Gilbert on her own terms, choosing not only him--a man who values her intelligence and desire for freedom--but her biggest passion: Prince Edward Island itself, her true home.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, 1948
How can you not fall in love with a book whose first line is, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink"? I Capture the Castle
is Cassandra Mortmain's diary written in various notebooks--the Sixpenny Book, the Shilling Book--and in these pages, she struggles with poverty, loneliness, and her dreams of love. It's also a novel about writing and failure: Her father, who published a novel that was an enormous critical and commercial success, has now become a reclusive, penniless man who never completed another book. Cassandra's sister, Rose, chooses to marry a rich man to bring money to her family, and tells her sister, "I promise you will never make any more longing cat noises when I am a married woman...when I feel lonely, I sit and look at the towels till I cheer up." I Capture the Castle
also has one of my favorite last lines of all of literature: "I love you, I love you, I love you."
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, 1952
Alice Munro has said, "The complexity of things--the things within things--just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple." In the pages of her diary, Anne Frank makes sense of not only her own life, but of all the sorrows and complexities of the world. "The brightest spot of all is that at least I can write down my thoughts and feelings," Anne wrote, and her life on the page deeply changed my own: Inspired by her, I started keeping a diary, writing in it almost every day since I was 15. Anne showed the world the complex truth about teenagers: how we were not the shallow beings society seemed to assume we were, but wise and philosophical and capable of articulating even the most elusive and complicated truths. Her diary made me realize how writing can be a way to make sense of one's thoughts and one's life the way nothing else can.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, 1970
This was the first book I ever read by Toni Morrison, and it blew the lid off what I knew of literature--it showed me the power fiction has to convey tragedy and life and loss with so much sadness and terrible beauty. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes that if only she had blue eyes, everything would change: "If those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different." The novel made me think about what society expects of girls, and how the constructions of race and class and gender affect us and torture us. The Bluest Eye changed me as a reader, and made me hungry for novels that took risks and told their stories in the most poetic way. "Had any adult with the power to fulfill my desires taken me seriously and asked me what I wanted, they would have known that I did not want to have anything to own, or to possess any object. I wanted rather to feel something..." says narrator Claudia MacTeer. Reading The Bluest Eye
as a teenager changed the way I thought of myself and the way I looked and fit into the world.
Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, 1981
I first read Tiger Eyes
years before I'd lost a parent myself, and it's become a novel that I reread regularly because of its pitch-perfect portrait of grief. Davey copes with the death of her father with more capability and strength than her own mother does, and her maturity and independence inspired and comforted me when I lost both my own parents years later. "We are getting to be experts at sleeping during the day," Davey says, narrating her family's experience matter-of-factly and without sentimentality. Blume packs more honesty and emotional truth into this tiny novel than scores of other books ever achieve. "Some changes happen deep down inside of you," Davey realizes. "And the truth is, only you know about them."
In Summer Light by Zibby Oneal 1985
In Summer Light
is the perfect summer novel. It's a quiet portrait of a young artist, Kate Brewer, who's growing up in the shadow of her famous artist father, and the summer she spends at home on their family's island--a fictionalized Martha's Vineyard--while a relationship develops with Ian, a graduate student who's cataloguing her father's work. Ian is 25 and he and Kate forge a relationship that's never quite a romance, but not solely a friendship either; it's the tale of a deep bond told with a quiet maturity. "Painting has to do with knocking yourself out day after day trying to get what you want to down on the canvas. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't, but every day you try," Kate learns over the course of the summer. I was 17 when I first read In Summer Light, and I was learning then that fiction was not only a place for me to escape and to dream, but it was where I could try on different personalities--I could be Kate and Jane, Anne and Claudia, Davey and Cassandra--and I could fall in love and lose love and become an artist, and be strong and on my own. These novels helped clear the confusion of my life, and when I reread them now, they continue to clear that confusion, because even adults never stop needing heroines, and never stop coming of age.