I met a wonderful agent yesterday at the Atlanta Writers Conference, Matthew Elblonk from DeFiore and Co. We were talking about young adult fiction and how when we were kids, there wasn’t such a defined genre. The realm of fantasy always held crossover titles like The Chronicles of Narnia, the Tolkien books and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. There were the much-loved S.E. Hinton books, The Contender by Paul Lipsyte and Pigman by Paul Zindel.
But by and large, the books assigned in junior high English were adult books that either featured young characters or had enough imagination involved to engage younger readers. For me those were books like A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451 and a number of Steinbeck titles. There were also the books with animals for main characters, like Watership Down and Animal Farm, which were fantastical enough to have a child-like quality to them, however layered their meaning.
When it came to choosing my own reading, I recall going from the Little House books to everything by Louis L’Amour and, already an ardent Ray Bradbury fan, Robert Heinlein. These were all adult books with simple, albeit in the case of the sci-fi selections, mind-blowing premises. It was great for a young reader to have to reach for the meaning and references in these books. I think it built a certain reading sophistication early on.
Now young adult readers have a universe of wonderful books to choose from that are written specifically with them in mind. The Harry Potter series, of course, appeals to adult readers as well, as do other series like Twilight. And though younger readers may not always have to reach as far as they would in a book written for an older frame of reference, the engagement they get from books aimed at them delivers a kind of emotional closeness to the story and characters that adult titles don’t always deliver.
Regardless of what we read as younger people, it’s a period during which what you read literally changes your mind. I wish I could read today with as much absorption and openness. But I’m thankful for the permanent imprint that so much of that great reading left behind.
What were your most important novels as a teen or pre-teen? Have you reread any of them?