5 young adult books that deserve another read...and what they taught me the first time around

A scene from the movie adaption of the S.E. Hinton book A scene from the movie adaption of the S.E. Hinton book
As adults we can read--or not read--whatever we want. It's a luxury we sometimes take for granted. Remember when August was when, back in grade school, when we'd be catching up on our required summer reading. The kinds of books we were assigned, and expected to savor, usually involved a boy, his wolf, and the Alaskan tundra. Or better yet, a boy, his dog and a rifle. The only cool character was bound to die and you had to get through 200 pages to even get there.

Then, some one (usually an older sibling) tips you off about S.E. Hinton. Her books, about young punks having sex, running away, getting punched and getting high, felt like contraband. Even the covers, with their watercolor representations of greaser punks, pulled out the puberty from your 10 year old self like taffy.

These weren't the kind of books you wrote an essay about, these were books that made you want to be a writer. Moments that seemed mundane to adults were genuine plot-lines; heartbreaking issues you might have to deal with--not losing your sleigh dog to a crevasse- but mental disorders, public humiliation and tampon insertion -- were dealt with in sentences that felt like they were coming out of your brain.

Today it's socially acceptable--even encouraged-- for adults to read children's books. Harry Potter and Twilight changed publishing history. But before that, young adult books were changing our personal history. Here are my top 5, that I'm planning to re-read. In fact, if you'll join me by reading book #1 on this list (buy it here) we can discuss it on Shine, book club-style, in two weeks.

1. Pardon Me You're Stepping On My Eyeball, by Paul Zindel
I'm pretty sure my positive experience with "How to Eat Fried Worms" compelled me to pick this book up. I liked a gross title that promised an even grosser scenario in its pages. But the story wasn't gory, it was kind of heart-breaking. Marsh Mellow thinks everyone hates him, and as a 15 year-old misfit, he's probably right. He has a pet raccoon, he harps on conspiracy theories and when he likes a girl, he insults her mercilessly. These days, the book would be called "When your child has Aspergers Syndrome" and would be written by a man with a load of initials after his name. But Zindel, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, focused on the romantic convulsions of Marsh, and his torture target Edna.

Excerpt: "It seemed every time Edna looked up from the stove, Marsh was looking her way and slurping up his grinder. He'd also suddenly become animated and do something like stroke Norma Jean's hair, or pat her on the back, or let out another horselaugh as though Norma Jean was the most sensational date in the world. Finally it seemed Marsh was waiting only to get Edna's attention, and when she'd look at him, Marsh would spring into action with his arm around Norma Jean, and finally he took her strolling out to the pool. Raccoon's head was still popping in and out, looking very bewildered. Edna felt the sad, big black eyes of the cute little furry ball were pleading with her for help. She didn't know whether Raccoon would even remember her; she'd never read anything about whether raccoons had good memories or not. But Edna had grown very fond of the animal. Edna had told herself she shouldn't feel that way; it was probably just because the animal belonged to Marsh that she loved it." (via Sheila O'Malley)
What I learned: Love between a boy and girl is painful, complicated and not just for the popular kids.


2. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, by Alvin Schwartz
This was mandatory sleepover artillery. Of all the horror collections of our youth, and there were plenty, Alvin Schwartz's trilogy of fright was the gold standard. Gathered from urban legends and folklore, there was an air of truth to each of the stories-- in the unembellished way they were recounted. The coal-drawn ghostly sketches that accompanied each story alone were enough to induce night terrors.
Excerpt:One morning John Sullivan found himself walking along a street downtown. He could not explain what he was doing there, or how he got there, or where he had been earlier. He didn't even know what time it was.

Excerpt: "He saw a woman walking toward him and stopped her. "I'm afraid I forgot my watch," he said, and smiled. "Can you tell me the time?" When she saw him, she screamed and ran." (via BarnesandNoble.com)

What I learned: Our fears are justified. What a relief.

3. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, by Paula Danziger
Enough with the teenage warlocks and vampires. This book is about a girl who's fat, okay? She's 13, her dad is verbally abusive, and she only has one friend who admits to hanging around because her mom makes her. The book is about the cruel world adults have shaped without question, and the moment when you start to question it. (I mean making "blossoming" girls highlight their new bodies in skin-tight leotards? Did Goebbels come up with that?) By the end of the book, you get the sense, as most outsiders did by the end of high school, that things would be okay once they got they hell out of there.

Excerpt: "Was I supposed to tell him I was a blimp trying to disguise myself as a real person; or that I probably had a horrible case of contagious impending pimples; or that I had this weird brother with a teddy bear filled with orange pits; or that I thought that he was cute and brave and probably thinking about how suicide would be better than talking to me?" (via Jezebel --check out Lizzie Skurnick's smart review.)

What I learned: It's okay to talk back to adults...and put orange pits in weird places.

4. Rumble Fish, by S.E. Hinton
It's hard to choose just one S.E. Hinton book so I'll choose the one Francis Ford Coppola did (he adapted the book into a movie with Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon, a combustibly hot 80's boy porridge). It's also the author's own favorite. Told in first-person, the protagonist's voice has the classic markings of a Hinton character: blunt, tough but also a little self-concious about his lack of education. There's an almost apologetic and respectful tone that comes through a person characterized by toughness.
The story follows two gutter-grade teenage brothers. The younger, the narrator, worships his older sibling. This story not only addresses identity and self-actualization, but heroin abuse and pool hall hustling (gateway drug alert). In that way, it's the kind of pre-teen fantasy that's far more interesting than sci-fi. The idea of a reckless, parent-free life littered with street sex is the best reason to get lost in a book. While the author doesn't advocate any of those things, she doesn't shy away from them either. The implication is that young adults can handle harder topics with out crushing them up and snorting them.

Excerpt: "I ran into Steve a couple of days ago. He was real surprised to see me. I was sitting on the beach and he come up to me and say "Rusty-James"? I said yes because I didn't recognize him right off. My memory's screwed up some." (via amazon.com)
What I learned: Females can write from the perspective of a boy. Also, I'd like to have sex one day, please.

5. The Secret Diary of Adrien Mole, by Sue Townsend
If "Cat" taught me adults aren't always right, and "Rumble Fish" taught me that I like boys, like, a lot--then Sue Townsend's book about the dorkiest teenage boy in history taught me that books aren't just about dead dogs, and other tragedies. I had never laughed out loud to a book and I rarely would again (Simon Rich brought it all back). A smarter pre-cursor to Bridget Jones' Diary, "Secret" crawls inside the sexually disturbed brain of a troubled british kid with a dysfunctional family and no MoJo whatsoever.

Excerpt: "Thursday January 1st
BANE HOLIDAY IN ENGLAND,
IRELAND, SCOTLAND AND WALES

These are my New Year's resolutions:

I will help the blind across the road.
I will hang my trousers up.
I will put the sleeves back on my records.
I will not start smoking.
I will stop squeezing my spots.
I will be kind to the dog.
I will help the poor and ignorant.

After hearing the disgusting noises from downstairs last night, I have also vowed never to drink alcohol.

My father got the dog drunk on cherry brandy at the party last night. If the RSPCA hear about it he could get done. Eight days have gone by since Christmas Day but my mother still hasn't worn the green lurex apron I bought her for Christmas! She will get bathcubes next year.

Just my luck, I've got a spot on my chin for the first day of the New Year!" (via yabookscentral)

What I Learned: What funny is.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Vintage YA Authors on Twitter.... And share your favorite forgotten young adult books in the comments.