A site visitor requested from me a roster of books that teenagers should read before they graduate from high school. However, I never strove to work my way through the literary classics (whatever they are), so any list I compile may seem deficient to those who believe that doing so will prepare young people to be great writers. The truth is, any compilation will be of some value, especially if the collection consists of stories that speak to the adolescent’s hopes and fears about entering the adult realm.
What I offer here is a selection from the books I have read — mostly since graduating from high school, because I was not a flashlight-under-the-covers bookworm (until later, that is) — that I found memorable because of their emotional resonance. Each one of these stories is also distinguished by a distinctive style prospective young novelists should not seek to imitate but will be inspired by. (One more thing: You’re never too old to read — or find inspiration in — any of these books.)
1. His Dark Materials
Perhaps better known by the titles of its constituent parts — The Golden Compass (originally published in the United Kingdom as The Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman’s complex fantasy trilogy pits a plucky young girl and her allies against sinister forces fomenting conflict around the discovery of a mysterious substance known as Dust.
These remarkably imaginative and inventive stories have been criticized for their antireligious sentiments, but they should be applauded for their championing of intellectual liberty. They also eloquently demonstrate that world-building doesn’t require science fiction hardware, or heroic-fantasy trappings such as multitudinous races and creatures. The quest, the talisman, the helpers — all the fantasy tropes are here, but in original guises.
2. The House of the Scorpion
Nancy Farmer writes young-adult fiction that not-so-young adults will find challenging, too. In this story set in the near future, a boy growing up in a sovereign opium-growing state carved out of land formerly belonging to United States and Mexico learns the unsettling truth about his identity and sets out defy the dictates of others and control his own destiny. The House of the Scorpion deals with mature themes without being graphic or grim, but it’s laden with dark thoughts and deeds. It also demonstrates how a young protagonist can realistically navigate the grown-up world.
3. I, Claudius
This faux autobiography of the titular Roman emperor by the late British novelist and poet Robert Graves has a fascinating premise: Although Claudius is physically disabled, he is highly intelligent — and savvy enough to play the fool to survive perilous palace intrigue. The story of a life spent negotiating a treacherous world is heartbreaking and masterfully narrated. It’s a sophisticated tale, but one accessible to younger readers and engrossing as the protagonist strives to avoid dangerous confrontations and deadly plots.
4. The Shadow of the Wind
Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Gafon’s gothic melodrama is the saddest story I have ever read — a perfect package of romantic angst for hormone-addled adolescents. The story, masterfully translated by Lucia Graves (daughter of esteemed British author Robert Graves), follows a young bibliophile who becomes enmeshed in an ongoing tragedy involving a failed writer. Saturated with a brooding atmosphere, The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of style laid over a bedrock of substance.
5. Watership Down
In this novel, British novelist and poet Richard Adams creates a modern but timeless myth. Employing anthropomorphized but generally naturally behaving rabbits as protagonists, he sends a band of wanderers off from their doomed dwelling place to seek a new home. Along the way, they face perils from predators and fellow lagomorphs (the latter providing fodder for subtle political allegory) while occasionally stopping to hear their resident storyteller regale them with tales about a legendary trickster hero named El-ahrairah.
Adams deftly manages to produce a Homeric epic in which familiar animals substitute for humans — without compromising the dignity the characters must possess to appeal to discerning readers. The neat invention of a mischievous, resourceful god for a culture whose members are beset by countless types of predators (El-ahrairah means “Prince with a Thousand Enemies”) is a masterstroke that serves as an inspiration to writers who wish to incorporate an internal mythology to their story’s milieu.
Make sure to check 20 Classic Novels You Can Read in One Sitting as well, which is a list we published a while ago.