Young adult books that changed our lives
(CNN) — What makes a book memorable? Its ability to shock, sadden or awaken some sort of emotion? Or, is it the extent to which you see yourself in the characters or the worlds they inhabit?
All these characteristics and then some, judging from the responses we got to the question, “Which young adult books changed your life?”
We posed the question to members of the CNN Digital newsroom to find out which books have stuck with them since adolescence. Is it definitive? No. But what library is? To even things out, we sought input from the millennials in the newsroom, too.
“Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, 1868
It’s a classic young adult book from before the young adult section existed in the bookstore (or, before there were even bookstores as we know them?). And it has withstood the test of time. Don’t believe us? Consider: The tale of the March sisters’ journey from childhood into adulthood was made into a Hollywood movie in 1994, more than 100 years after it was first published.
“Growing up with a single mom and two sisters in a family struggling to make ends meet, ‘Little Women’ spoke to me in countless ways and remains one of my favorite books to this day,” CNN Digital Correspondent Kelly Wallace said.
“Sure, the unmistakable power of women and girls was part of it, but so were the characters, namely Jo March and her relentless and opinionated spirit, her desire to chart a unique path and her sense that she could do something really great when she grew up. I saw a lot of myself in Jo — or wanted to see a lot of myself in her character. I, too, had big dreams and a sense of doing something really important when I got older. Reading ‘Little Women’ on my couch in my Brooklyn home during my tween years confirmed it was possible.”
“Chronicles of Narnia” C.S. Lewis, 1950 to 1956
Who didn’t have a Narnia moment at some point growing up in the latter half of the 20th century? Through seven novels, C.S. Lewis staged battles between good and evil in a magical kingdom of talking animals and nobility, bewitching children of all ages.
“‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ opened my eyes to the idea that a complex alternate world could be imagined in such a detailed way,” CNN iReport’s Henry Hanks said. “It opened up my imagination and inspired me to seek out other stories of science fiction and fantasy.”
The rest of the books in the series proved equally gripping, both within the pages and the images.
“As wonderful and influential as Lewis’ first story in the series is, I have always thought ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ was a more exciting story,” said CNN Living’s Ann Hoevel. “The White Witch — as flawed and evil as she was — was one of the most powerful women characters I’d ever read about. Jadis intimidated all the men with her physical strength and beauty and made her desires a reality by sheer force of will. To this day, I’m a sucker for antique rings and origin stories, and it is all this book’s fault.”
“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964
“Harriet Welsch’s life looked nothing like mine; I remember looking up ‘dumbwaiter’ and ‘egg cream’ in the dictionary, and having a long think about why an 11-year-old might need a nanny,” CNN Living’s Jamie Gumbrecht said.
“But when I read ‘Harriet the Spy’ in fifth grade, I was taken by Harriet’s habit of wandering, observing and writing. The book inspired a temporary fixation with tomato sandwiches, a still-strong tendency to wear jeans and sweatshirts no matter the weather and maybe a journalism career. It was then, after all, that I first stopped caring what people thought, and just started writing everything down. I’ve still got my copy of ‘Harriet,’ and all those ridiculous notebooks.”
“A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle, 1968, and other books in the Time Quintet series
The heroines of Madeleine L’Engle novels taught a generation of girls that being smart could come in handy and that they could be attractive for being smart. Meg Murry O’Keefe, Vicky Austin, Camilla Dickinson and Katherine Forrester love science, poetry and music — pursuits that sometimes set them at arm’s length from their peers, but eventually lead them to fulfilling careers and adventurous, loving lives.
“The heroines are never the pretty, popular girls (though they, too, are drawn in a nuanced way). They’re the smart, awkward, introspective and unexpectedly brave young misfits who succeed later in life,” Eatocracy’s Kat Kinsman said. “While they might suffer some social and emotional punishment for their dedication to their craft, it’s trusting in themselves intellectually and artistically that gives them the capacity to love and be loved later in life.”
“My notion of a desirable woman, up until that time, consisted of Charlie’s Angels and Solid Gold dancers, who all had impossibly long hair and meticulously painted faces. And those ladies had nothing to do with the sorts of stories I found interesting,” Ann Hoevel said.
“Fantasy adventures set in exotic lands that relied on a battle of wills or the power of intellectually dependent magic were — and still are! — my jam. And usually, it’s the men who figure everything out in those kinds of stories, even if a heroine is central to the plot. Meg Murry (and her scientist mom, who was certainly no slouch) changed that. Thank goodness!”
“The Outsiders,” by S.E. Hinton, 1967
S.E. Hinton was 15 when she started writing “The Outsiders,” about an Oklahoma band of roughneck kids called the Greasers and their battle with the outwardly refined but no less violent Socs from the other side of the tracks. It was the perennial in-group, out-group tale that teens live for, made all the more poignant because Hinton lived it as she wrote it.
“The reason the book works so well is because the story is told through the eyes and heart of Ponyboy Curtis, a sensitive kid on the edge of deciding who he wants to be, who’s being swallowed up by a world that threatens to make the choice for him,” CNN Living’s Melonyce McAfee said.
“I gobbled the book up in a marathon reading after checking it out of the school library in what must have been fifth grade. I identified with the kindhearted and book smart protagonist and his desire to be accepted by the well-healed in-group but still be true to his dirt-poor roots. In Sodapop, Ponyboy, and Darry I saw my own family, and in reading their story I realized that I better start making choices of my own before my origins sealed my destiny.”
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume, 1970
If you were born before 1990, this book probably needs no introduction. For everyone else, it’s the novel that launched author Judy Blume’s career and introduced a generation to real talk about periods and sex.
“Thank you, Judy Blume, because without you and your book, ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,’ I am pretty sure I would have remained clueless about periods and puberty during my tween and early teen years,” CNN Digital Correspondent Kelly Wallace said.
“We never had the ‘period’ talk in my household, and I can’t really remember any deep discussions about how my body might change, either. I loved Margaret, and reading about her first period and buying her first bra opened my eyes to what would happen to me one day. … It was one of the most popular books among my friends, and is a book I look forward to giving to my daughters when the time is right.”
“This book taught me how Spin the Bottle is played, and made me daydream about that game going the way I wanted (alas, I never played),” said CNN Health’s Elizabeth Landau.
“More seriously, it brought up issues of multiple identities that have stayed with me for many years. Margaret is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, so she has numerous conflicts about who she is and what she believes and where she fits in. Both of my parents are Jewish, so I don’t have this precise struggle. But I am sharply cognizant of all kinds of divisions of myself: Being a Jew and an American, being a journalist and an American, being a Northerner living in the South, etc., etc. And what do any of these specific identities really mean, and how do we weigh the values and ideas and beliefs of one against another? I think that this book introduced me to the idea that we all juggle multiple aspects of ourselves, and there are no clear cut answers as to who we really are. ”
“Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” and “Forever” by Judy Blume, 1971 and 1975
The two closest runners-up behind “Are You There God” got a few votes for their frank depictions of sex — another prominent theme in young adult books.
“The former taught me what a ‘wet dream’ was and helped me to realize that boys were just as confused about their bodies and emotions as I was. The latter was about the sexual awakening of a teen couple — and let’s just say I could relate to the swirling emotions and hormones!” CNN Entertainment producer Lisa France said.
“The Face in the Frost,” “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” and “The Chessmen of Doom” by John Bellairs, 1969, 1973 and 1989
Young adult books aren’t all about girls and periods. Fantasy and science-fiction novels offer young readers a glimpse of alternate worlds before they become jaded adults.
“Like many children, I was a tasty gazelle in the wild savannah of grade school. Sometimes things could be scary, but as I got older, the works of John Bellairs were of some comfort: At least my concerns didn’t foretell the end of the world. Johnny, Lewis and Anthony had far bigger problems to solve and I ate up their stories,” CNN’s Nicole Saidi said.
“Now that I am a writer, and an adult, I can feel the influences of the freaky, fantastic setting details from ‘The Face in the Frost’ when I think about how to describe a place in a compelling way.”
“The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier, 1974
In the face of overwhelming pressure to bend to the status quo and join his classmates in Trinity High’s annual chocolate sale, freshman Jerry Renault just quietly said no. His adversaries weren’t just garden variety high school lunks, but rather a decades-old secret, sadistic cabal of students operating with the full cooperation of the faculty. Having recently lost his mother — and the attention of his father, still mourning her loss — Jerry wasn’t about to give up the one thing he had left: his free will.
“A quote from ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ stuck up in Jerry’s locker acts as his emotional compass, asking ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ He does, merely by refusing to play along and facing the physical and emotional punishment he knows he’ll incur as a result. It’s a powerful lesson about standing by what you believe in, even if you must do so alone,” Kat Kinsman said.
“Morning Is a Long Time Coming,” by Bette Greene, 1978
“Summer of My German Soldier” is a frequent inclusion in high school English curriculums, but far fewer people followed along to find out what happened to the teenage protagonist, Patty Bergen, after the German soldier she’d been harboring was caught and summarily executed.
“Anton Riker had been one of the few people to ever treat Patty (the eldest daughter of the only Jewish family in town) as a creature of worth, so after reform school and graduation, she leaves Jenkinsville, Arkansas, behind and travels to Europe to find the family who made him into the kind, insightful person he was,” Kat Kinsman said.
“Little does she know that freed from the stigma, shame and abuse she weathered back home, she’ll finally be able to see and accept herself as a person who’s always been worth loving — and that the people around her were just too limited to see it. Home and family, she finds, are where you make them.”
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams 1979
“I read a Scotch tape-reinforced copy of the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ snagged from an English teacher’s classroom sometime in the mid-1990s. I laughed and laughed and laughed, but had no idea there were more books, that it had started as a radio show or that it was a mortifyingly awful-amazing TV show,” Jamie Gumbrecht said.
“One morning, I happened to catch a radio interview about it, and was stunned to realize that there was more Douglas Adams out there to read and apparently, I wasn’t the only one doing so. (Oh, high school.) Shortly thereafter, I fell in with a grand group of friends, the kind of kids who made high school memorable and giggled when you answered “42” on a tough Quiz Bowl question. (Oh, high school.) And you know what? I read it now, and I still laugh and laugh and laugh.”
“Both Sides of Time” by Caroline B. Cooney, 1995
“This is the first time I remember feeling like I belonged when I picked up a book,” CNN’s Ashley Strickland said.
“Like 15-year-old Annie Lockwood, I, too, felt like a hopeless romantic living in the wrong century. It’s an overwhelming age, trying to figure out who you are and where you’ll end up. Cooney captured that sentiment perfectly and placed it at the heart of her writing. I was a literature and history nerd fascinated by the past, eager to explore it, and here was a character with the chance to do so over a quartet of wonderfully written books. It seemed like Cooney was able to reach into my soul and write the exact story I wanted. So naturally, I read them over and over.”
“Sirena” by Donna Jo Napoli , 1998
“As a precocious reader without many young adult choices, I was always turning to mythology. And then Napoli wove together this lyrical retelling of the Philoctetes story from Greek mythology,” Ashley Strickland said. “Rather than pandering to younger readers, she poured out a poignant tale of relatable longing with the most beautiful language. The lesson was also unforgettable: Don’t change yourself for anyone.”
“Shadowland” by Meg Cabot (under pseudonym Jenny Carroll), 2000
“Stumbling upon Cabot was probably one of the best discoveries I made as a young reader,” Ashley Strickland said.
“She got it, where other authors were making the effort but falling flat. Reading her effortless writing style was like catching up with your best friend in the hallway after a long weekend. She knew the stories that teens wanted to read, where we could find ourselves on the page and be able to laugh at the awkwardness we so well recognized. Although this series is about a girl who mediates between the living and the dead, it remains incredibly relatable. Any situation feels overwhelming when you’re the new girl just trying to survive high school. Through her books and heroines, Cabot offered escapism and empowerment right when I needed it most.”