When I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, I began what I now refer to as my “difficult years.” I know I joke about the attitude and my unwillingness to wear Halloween costumes, for example, but this was more than that. This was growing up and being home on my own, being apart from my sister and parents, no longer spending after school hours with my grandparents. This was a seismic shift in my world.
I don’t remember everything I read in high school. I know that, late in the game, I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen, newcomers on the young adult fiction scene at the time (am I dating myself? Hello, 2001!). Always a voracious reader, I did lose myself in Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, one of my all-time favorites, and began to discover works from Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But nothing really stuck.
The first book I remember changing my world — and the book I credit with reawakening my love of literature — is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. It completely encapsulated so many of my feelings about family, loss, identity and guilt. If I’d read The Namesake as a teenager, I might have seen several key events unfolding in my life a little differently — but that book hadn’t been written yet. And neither had Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a novel about a young woman grappling with her father’s sudden death. All of these subjects, while sometimes morbid, helped me process my own conflicting emotions about loss and grief.
While I was fortunate to never lose a close relative or friend as a teenager, other losses were suddenly everywhere. A friend who suddenly stopped calling, stopped sitting at our designated lunch table. Others who moved away, leaving a ragged hole where their friendship once filled my life. A loss of time with my family; a loss of identity when I entered high school, a different one than my long-time best friend. The little losses stacked upon themselves, creating a mountain under which I was buried.
But I got through it. No one emerges from adolescence completely unscathed, but I relied on my family and extracurriculars like theatre to channel my energy and move through it. And books — amazing, amazing books — allow us to see shades of our own experiences in others, and to realize that we’re not alone with our troubles. That’s why YA fiction is so important: it provides a magic mirror into which teens and young adults can fall, experiencing life as someone else or just purely escaping the moment. The ability to see our own thoughts reflected back to us through a book is what makes reading so worthwhile to me.
Here are a few books I never read as a teen — because they didn’t yet exist; because I never found them — but wish I had.
Fat Cat by Robin Brande
Published in 2009
Catherine Locke — ace science student, budding anthopologist — is exactly the type of role model you’d want for a teen girl: funny, independent, intelligent, sassy, forward-thinking. She’s the friend you’d love to have and the student you’d dream of teaching.
But in addition to being a whiz kid and hard worker, Cat faces all the “typical” struggles of being a teenager: the search for acceptance and friendship; being the odd one out in groups; ridicule and self-consciousness about weight and appearances; and, ultimately, the sting of first love. Or unrequited love.
Reading this book at 24, I still found so many awesome lessons to be gained — and think my 14-year-old self would have really loved this one. Cat would have been my hero.
Artichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee
Published in 2008
Along the same lines as Fat Cat, Suzanne Supplee’s masterful, gorgeous and deeply poetic novel really struck a chord with me. Rosemary works hard, gets great grades in high school and rarely gives her mom a hard time, but her most definable characteristic is, first and foremost, her heavy frame. Rosie finally commits to losing weight, sure, but this is a story about way more than her quest to become thin.
What struck me most about this novel — then and now — was the tender, honest way Supplee portrays a very traumatic event: the critical illness of a parent. Having gone through something similar and grappled with a thousand and one emotions, I saw so much of myself in Rosie — and consider her one of my most favorite characters in all of YA fiction. Buy this one for the teen girls in your life, but don’t pass it along without reading it yourself.
An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green
Published in 2006
When I fell in and out of love for the first time, I would have benefited from reading some of Green’s prose about a broken-hearted teen boy burnt out on endless (ill-fated) relationships with girls named Katherine. And this novel boasts one of my favorite lines from any book, ever:
“I don’t think you can ever fill the empty space with the thing you lost. … That’s what I realized: if I did get her back somehow, she wouldn’t fill the hole that losing her created.”
I completely believe that had I read that line at 19 or 20 years old, I could have been saved years of wondering and grief after that relationship ended.
North Of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
Published in 2009
When I was gathering novels to donate to flood-ravaged schools in Nashville, this was the first one I grabbed. I can’t think of a more inspirational book than this one, the story of a young woman born with a birthmark across one cheek and a strong love of maps, compasses and art. Terra wants nothing more than to escape the controlling, abusive grip of her maniacal father, and find a free and clear space in which to create her artwork.
Being “branded” with an indelible mark on her face, it’s not until she meets Jacob, a Goth teen of Chinese heritage adopted by a loving American family. Under Jacob’s watchful eye, Terra emerges from the dark corners of her mind enough to bolster up her mother and take the trip of a lifetime. Suddenly, she can move forward and be stronger. She can be better and do more.
Terra is another fantastic role model — a young woman I both sympathize with and for while wishing I could channel some of her strength. This book was so exquisitely written and so moving, and it’s one of those books I wish I could read all over again . . . for the first time. One of my top reads of 2009, it’s not to be missed.
Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
Published in 2001
Oh, Jessica Darling — my hero. A snarky writer, a cynical teen with a soft spot for one unexpectedly fantastic bad boy, a difficult but loyal friend, sister and daughter.
What would my high school years have been like had I read Sloppy Firsts when it was first published my sophomore year? Well, Jess would have been even more of a role model than she already is — being both lovable and prickly, all rolled into one. In so many ways, I feel like Jess is already a real friend.
Of course, I would have spent all my time looking for my own Marcus Flutie. And maybe those hours were better spent trying to pass AP exams.