I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal that has created some hubbub in the webosphere about whether Young Adult fiction is too dark/serious for the teens of America. Personally, while I do often enjoy a light-hearted tale, I see nothing wrong with teens reading stories that involve difficult subject matter and less-than-happy endings. Afterall, it’s during those adolescent years that we learn to think critically and rationally and our empathy/compassion for one another develops beyond the realm of our personal experience. Shouldn’t we see the world through another’s eyes? Isn’t that part of the purpose and the wonder of reading?
My favorite American author, Sherman Alexie, agrees with me, and wrote a strong, just response to the WSJ article, which I’ve conveniently linked for you here. I was in college and out of my teenage years when I first read some of his work, but it has influenced me as few others have. He’s a poet, an author of adult novels and short stories, and a best-selling YA book. Most of his work is dark and intense and evokes heavy emotion from its audience and I, for one, feel I’m better for having read it.
In light of all these varied opinions, I thought I’d share with you some of the books I read as a teen that helped mold me into the person I’ve become. In listing them, I realized they are none of them light, happy tales and they have all left a permanent mark in my psyche, helped to shape my view of the world and see beyond my limited scope.
1984: George Orwell’s classic is bleak, intense and ends with the “villain” triumphant. I don’t know if parents at the time of its first publication tried to keep their kids from reading it, but it was required reading in my high school and I’m so grateful for it. Reading it made me think critically (for the first time) of the role of government in society and the risks associated with real change.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: such an intensely gothic novel, influenced by the fact that its author (18-19 at the time) had suffered the loss of 2 children in their infancy while she wrote its first draft. It is also believed that the story was a metaphor for the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution on humanity, something we’re seeing reach culmination today. A sober subject, for sure, but one that young people in particular, as they inherit the problems that their parents/grandparents create, should contemplate.
To Kill A Mockingbird: this classic in American literature (written by the granddaughter of General Robert E. Lee) deals with extreme racism, rape, incest, agoraphobia and social injustice. It was required reading for me in the 9th grade and its dominant theme is tolerance -something that, with the ever-expanding world population and the gaps between cultures largely bridged by the internet/social media, kids need now perhaps more than ever.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: what’s darker than the Holocaust? Yet this work of nonfiction has been and continues to be required reading for teenagers across the nation. It provides its readers with so much more than a glimpse into the life of a young Holocaust victim, more than a deepened appreciation for the freedoms we take for granted, more than an informed view of the horrors of one of the worst travesties in human history. It provides a shining example of the resilience of humanity. For, after all she’d endured at the hands of others, Anne Frank still believed “that people are basically good.” Isn’t that a message our youth should hear?
Slaughterhouse Five: an anti-war book at its core, but also a unique look at the ways human beings cope with severe trauma. At the age of 17, every U.S. citizen is legally able to join the military and earn a paycheck by murdering complete strangers, while simultaneously risking his/her own life. Yet, there are adults who believe that 17 year-olds can’t handle reading a book about war and the toll it takes on those directly (and indirectly) involved. The more they know, the better they’ll be able to see what’s coming and deal with it afterward. If nothing else, this insight might help them feel less isolated, thereby encouraging them to seek the help they need if and when the time comes.
What about you: which books influenced you the most during your formative years?