If YOU, my older Reading Rants adolescent friend, are anything like the teenagers I know and work with, I would guess that you tend to troll both the teen AND adult section of your local library or bookstore when looking for new reading material. Some of you even stoop to poking through your parents’ stacks of paperbacks to see if Oprah’s recommendations are any good. You may not even know what YA (Young Adult) fiction is, because you’re too busy reading your favorite adult authors or devouring genre fiction by the thick paperback-ful. (If that’s the case, please take a look at some of the other lists here on RR–I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a teen-published book somewhere on this site that might tickle your fancy as much as those Neil Gaiman or Jean Auel tomes weighing down your backpack) Well, if you’re looking for recommendations of adult published books that you might enjoy too, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve always reviewed adult books on RR that I thought teens might like, but I thought I’d make it easier for you to find what you’re looking for by corralling them all in one place. Now, be forewarned, the only things these books share in common is that they were published for an adult audience (although some titles come from the same subject lists, so they may share some of the same topics). But why should your parents have all the fun? Check out these adult-published reads and soon you’ll be the one giving the grown-ups in your life some good book recommendations! Want more adult-published reads recommended for teens? Browse through the Alex Awards, “given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18,” awarded by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association.
Welcome to Reading Rants: Summer Reading Edition! I decided to re-read Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, partially because of this NYC reading challenge When the winning book turned out to be one I had recently devoured, I took a dive into ATGIB instead because a) I found this pretty, pretty paperback edition and b) I read it years ago and I had completely forgotten the plot. (Just wait, kids. Memory loss STINKS.)
ATGIB is in many ways a perfect summer read, that I know for a fact is probably on many of your school summer reading lists. It’s a perceptive, immersive examination of the childhood and adolescence of Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1912-1918. Based on Smith’s own life, Francie is an innocent idealist trying to make sense of a harsh world. The title comes from Francie’s fascination with a “Tree of Heaven” that grows outside her fire escape, a hardy species my grandma used to call a “weed tree” that can survive almost anywhere. Even though her father is an alcoholic singing waiter and her mother a stoic washerwoman who together barely make enough money to pay for rent and food, Francie takes great delight in little things in life like the pleasure of a bag of penny candy and a library book. The family endures many hardships, but Smith lightens the tragedy with great scenes of comic relief, like the time Papa decides to take Francie, her brother and a neighbor’s child on a doomed fishing expedition off the Carnarsie Pier, or when Aunt Sissy, a serial bigamist, insists on calling each of her husbands “John” even if that’s not their name. Even though Francie is made sadder and wiser by cruel classmates, a terrifying encounter with a child molester, the loss of a beloved family member and a young soldier who falsely promises his undying love, she never loses her zest for life or her devotion to her beloved Brooklyn, which takes on an unreal quality as she grows older: “Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” If you crave a deep, rich historical read that will transport you to another time and place while simultaneously revealing universal human truths, then you’ll want to plop yourself right under this TREE.
In the late teens and early 1920’s, many young American women were thrilled to find paying work outside the home in factories that sprang up in the wake of WWI. Two of these factories, Radium Luminous Materials in Newark, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, manufactured glow-in-the-dark wristwatches. The factories employed young women, many of them starting when they were teenagers, to delicately hand paint the watch faces with incandescent paint made with radium powder. Though scientists knew that the radioactive element could destroy human tissue and it was used in the fight against cancer, it was also considered a wonder drug that could cure anything from “hay fever…to constipation.” While the girls were elated just to be in the presence of the expensive substance (which sold for $120,000 a gram), it didn’t hurt that the jobs also paid handsomely. Because the radium powder was so expensive, the girls were admonished to use it sparingly. But the powder scattered everywhere when they tried to mix it with the paint, settling on their skin, clothes and hair, which all glowed in the dark when they got home. They also got paint in their mouths from licking the thin brushes in order to make them fine-tipped enough to paint the tiny numbers. It was fun when their clothes and teeth shone in the dark, and with all the money they were making, they could afford the latest stylish clothes, go to parties after work and enjoy being young. Until, one by one, they all began to sicken…and die, many before they reached thirty.
This is the true story of several of the women who fatally suffered from radium poisoning the 1920’s and their efforts to sue the companies that not only made them sick but refused to admit that radium was poisonous. Kate Moore‘s poignant, sympathetic work reads like a legal medical thriller as she dives deep into the lives and families of the women who were affected and chronicles their heart breaking attempts to hold the companies accountable. Shockingly, one of the companies didn’t even consider testing the ill women until the first MALE scientist died as a result of radium poisoning. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragedy where workplace safety was compromised when it came to female laborers. Radium Girls is for anyone interested in women’s history, medical mysteries, labor laws or courtroom dramas, because this story has it ALL!
What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.
This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Dear teen peeps, I was recently given the opportunity to review some fabulous up and coming YA fiction titles for the New York Times that are considered “crossover” books–that is, books that both you AND the adults in your life might enjoy reading. The print review appeared in the May 31 issue of the NYT Sunday Book review, but you can read it online here. Any of these titles would make outstanding summer reading choices and maybe even give you and your parents something to talk about while sunning at the beach or grilling the ‘dogs. Want more suggestions for laid back vacation prose? Then check out the entire 2015 NYT super-sized Summer Reading Book Review!
First, it was Lise, falling from her desk during a quiz, clutching her throat and frothing at the mouth. Then it was Gabby, twisting and jerking in her chair right in the middle of the spring concert, still holding her cello as she crashed to the floor. And finally Kim, who dropped during P.E., screaming and vomiting. Soon, there is an epidemic of seizing girls in Deenie’s small high school, twitching, ticking and muttering. “There was a low rumble everywhere…the thrum of confusion, skidding sneakers, a girl’s lone yelp, a teacher trying to be heard…more than twenty wrapped around the hallway in groups and individually. Drooping against lockers, slumped on the floor, their legs flung out, doll-like, one in the middle of a corridor, spinning like a flower child.” What is causing the strange convulsions that seem to have infected the female teenage population of Deenie’s school? Is it the poison-green algae covered local lake that is off limits but still tempts everyone with its silky, warm water? “They weren’t supposed to go into the lake. No one was. School trips, Girl Scout outings, science class, you might go and look at it, stand behind the orange mesh fences.” Or is it the HPV vaccine that the school system made mandatory for every high school girl? “The first shots were six months ago. HPV vaccines are more effective if administered before sexual debut. That’s what the department of health poster in the nurse’s office said.” No one knows for sure, but the parents in Deenie’s town are getting very anxious, eager to find the person or thing responsible for the plague that seems to be affecting their best and brightest girls. And Deenie is worried that it is only a matter of time before their scrutiny falls on her. Because the one thing the first three afflicted girls have in common is their close connection to her. “’But nothing happened to me,’ [Deenie] said. ‘I’m fine.’ ‘Well,’ Gabby said, looking down as their feet dusted along the glistening grass of the square, ‘some people are just carriers. Maybe that’s what you are.’” Deenie is running scared, desperate to find out the real reason that all friends have fallen ill. But the secret to their mysterious seizures is actually much closer to home than she ever could have imagined. Megan Abbott’s gripping adult-published tale of adolescent lies, lust and power reads like a modern day version of The Crucibleand boldly scrutinizes society’s long standing, Lord of the Flies fear of teenage sexuality and power. Coming to an e-reader, library or bookstore near you June 2014.
Liz and Bean are used to being on their own. When their aspiring singer mom takes off for a few days every now and then to follow her dreams, the two girls just hunker down, make chicken pot pies in the toaster oven and tell anyone who asks that she’s just visiting a friend in L.A. and will be back soon. But this time, Mom’s been gone for almost two weeks. The chicken potpies are running low and the neighbors are starting to sniff around. Liz makes the call that the sisters need to hightail it to their Uncle Tinsley’s house in Virginia before they get trundled off to foster care. Once they get to 1970’s small town Byler, they find a safe haven with Uncle Tinsley, an eccentric but kind old man who used to own the cotton mill. Mom visits, but then heads out to New York to scout singing opportunities and apartments, leaving the girls to start school in Byler. Liz and Bean love Byler, but the small town isn’t as idyllic as they first thought. The high school is being integrated for the first time, and racial tensions are high. The girls also find themselves stuck in the middle of a nasty feud between Uncle Tinsely and Mr. Maddox, the mill foreman. When Liz publically accuses Maddox of some downright dirty behavior, the incident sets off a firestorm of rumors, gossip and backstabbing in the small town that changes both girls’ lives forever. How will the sisters turn the tide of negativity that has risen up against them because of Maddox’s lies? And where is their mom when they need her the most? By turns witty, warm and provocative, this all ages read by the author of The Glass Castle is a perfect choice for your high school mother-daughter book club or to throw in your beach bag this summer.
When Cheryl Strayed was twenty-six, she found herself essentially orphaned, divorced and struggling with a potential heroin addiction. Mourning the recent death of her mother, she decided that the best cure for her crippling depression was to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a professional level mountain hiking trail that starts at the Mexican border, winds through the entire state of California and ends near Mount Hood in Oregon. Cheryl was not an experienced hiker, but through the kindness of strangers and her own iron will, she slowly and painfully became one, one blackened and lost toenail at a time. Her boots were too small, her pack too big and her knowledge of hiking limited to The Pacific Crest Trail guides, volumes 1 & 2. She quickly tired of her dehydrated meals and purified water, and began obsessively dreaming of the Snapple lemonade bottles that she could rarely afford on her limited budget stocked at each trail stop: “…there was both yellow and pink. They were like diamonds or pornography. I could look, but I couldn’t touch.” Besides Snapple emergencies, there were also bears, rattlesnakes, dangerous snowy passages and a few lecherous male hikers. But Cheryl powered through, the thought of her tough, cool, loving mom always spurring her on: “Where was my mother? I wondered. I’d carried her so long, staggering beneath her weight. On the other side of the river, I let myself think. And something inside me released.” Both humorous and incredibly touching, this soulful journey of self-discovery may be one of the best coming of age stories I have ever read. Strayed’s writing is luminous and accessible–whether you’re twenty-six, sixteen or sixty, you will be able to relate to some aspect of her inspiring account. I became so immersed in Cheryl’s story that I couldn’t stop talking about it to anyone who would listen—and neither will you when you get your hands on this terrific memoir from your nearest library, bookstore or e-reader.
One of my favorite books of all time is Craig Thompson’s transcendent adolescent love story Blankets. I feel as though I have preached the gospel of that gorgeous graphic novel to thousands of friends, colleagues and students–probably until they were sick of hearing about it! Thompson’s latest opus is also about love, a fervent love between a girl and a boy that morphs several times during their lifetimes. When Dodola and Zam first meet in a slave market as children in a fantastical Middle Eastern world that includes both oil pipelines and medieval camel caravans, they are lost and afraid. After escaping the slavers and fleeing to the desert, they lead a charmed but lonely existence on a boat that has been mysteriously beached on miles of sand, where Dodola entertains Zam with stories of queens, heroes and warriors from the Quran and the Bible. At first Dodola acts as a mother to toddler Zam, though she is little more than a child herself. But as Zam grows, their relationship becomes more like that of squabbling siblings. Until the day that Zam witnesses the terrible thing that Dodola must trade away in exchange for their food from the brutish men in the caravans. He cannot forget what he has seen, and soon his feelings for Dodola begin to change into something lustful and wild that he doesn’t understand. So he runs away to the bustling city, searching for a way to relieve his forbidden thoughts, while Dodola is left frantically searching for him before she is stolen away by bandits and forced to become a member of the Sultan’s harem. Through their mutual trials and struggles, they never forget their life on the little boat and never stop looking for each other in the faces of strangers that pass by. It is many years before they meet again, and they each have been drastically changed by their circumstances. Will their hearts recognize each other? Is there a possibility that their love can survive under the harsh laws of a judgmental society that condemns them both? This lushly illustrated and deeply felt graphic novel is both hard to read and hard to stop reading. Thompson is clearly in love with Arabic script and design, which dance sinuously through the panels, and his interweaving of Christian and Arabic mythology, showing their ultimate similarities instead of their often harped upon differences is masterful. The story and art took Thompson six years to complete, and it shows on every dazzlingly detailed page. But while it is a beautifully rendered story of love, faith and perseverance, it is also a sad story of sexual abuse, dominance, misogyny and guilt that is probably best for older teens and the adults in their lives. Extraordinary.
When world champion alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree dies of ovarian cancer, it is the beginning of the end for the renowned family-run Swamplandia! Florida Everglades theme park. Her husband, the jocular Chief Bigtree, heads to the mainland in search of investors to help pay the park’s staggering debt, her eldest son Kiwi goes to work for the competition, the ominously titled “World of Darkness,” while middle daughter Osceolo decides to elope with her boyfriend Louis Thanksgiving (who just happens to be a dredgeman that died sometime in the 1930’s). This leaves thirteen-year-old Ava on her own in the swamp, waiting for her family to come back and save the only home she’s ever known. Worried that her sister has followed a ghost to her doom, Ava takes the dubious advice of an itinerant bird wrangler who claims to be able to guide Ava to the underworld, where not only could she find and save her sister, but maybe, just maybe, she could see her beloved mother one more time. Ava is so desperate to see her kin that she agrees to go on the journey, even though a still, small voice keeps insisting that what she seeks does not exist. And when the journey turns dark, Ava is forced to discard the magical thinking of girlhood and accept the harsh reality and deep unfairness of the adult world. This is not a book to be rushed through. It may not even be a book for many of you, this slow boiling, twilight character study of a beleaguered family of forlorn alligator wrestlers. But for some of you, those of you not afraid to walk in Ava or Kiwi’s dirty bare feet for awhile, this story is a shining metaphor for the treacherous swamp of adolescence, which is often studded with pits of quicksand and camouflaged alligators, just waiting to swallow you up or drag you down. And only those with the spirit of a wrestler and a heart as big a tree will make it through to the other side. If you’re in the mood for something other than the usual teen angst fare that happens to be gorgeously written to boot, take trip down south to visit Swamplandia! . I hear it’s pretty pleasant there this time of year…