When my nephew, who just turned 13, announced he was reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower for a class assignment, I was a bit concerned. The book reads like a laundry list of hot contentious topics: teen suicide, oral sex, homosexuality, physical abuse, molestation, rape, bullying. Not the fare I would pick for a 12 year old. But, in the right hands, books about sexuality and how society views different aspects of it can transform a young life. Unfortunately for my nephew, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an independent assignment, and there was no interaction between student and teacher, no discussion, no follow up. What a waste of an opportunity. So I asked him about the book, and the fact that my nephew didn’t want to talk about it spoke volumes. (I am, after all, the cool aunt.) He was too young to get some references, and too immature to care about others. So while I think literature can be a great place to deal with BIG ISSUES that every teen needs to know, there’s a time and a place for it.
So, I’ve put a list of my favourite 5 books that teens should read and the best time to read them.
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Even my grade ten students say that grade nine or ten is the earliest one should read this book. It’s about Charlie, an introverted teenager, entering his freshman year of high school solo because his best friend has committed suicide. In an unlikely turn, Charlie befriends two seniors, and becomes part of their social group. The story is written as a series of letters to a nameless addressee that Charlie believes to be sympathetic to his personal woes. It’s an easy read, and rings true, even though I often got the feeling that Stephen Chbosky was really trying to fill the entire book with EVERY horrible moment high school throws at you. The fact that Charlie sees psychiatrists and therapists throughout the book is one of the best aspects of this bildungsroman, and reminded me of…
2. The Catcher in the Rye
Best Age: 14-16
This classic is one of the books that Charlie reads in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and in a lot of ways, the main characters of both books are eerily similar, especially with their personal issues. While The Catcher in the Rye a bit dated in terms of what kids do for fun, I love this book because it shows kids in their mature and ‘adult’ guises – as teenagers often can come across as wise and old, even when they make tragic mistakes. Salinger writes in a ways that makes Holden seem very real to modern teenagers. Holden Caulfield is often pretending to be something he’s not, but something he desperately wants to be (even if it will end badly). There’s profanity, there’s sexuality, but there is also such heart-rending moments you can’t help but feel deeply for him – especially when you realize where he’s telling the story.
3. The Colour Purple
Best Age: 13-16
The first time I read this novel, I was shocked beyond belief, not necessarily because of the violence, but because of how Celie talks about herself as if she’s a character she’s watching: detached and distant even when she’s at her most vulnerable. The portrayals of sex in the book are harrowing at some parts and beautiful in others, which gives a full view of the issue, as it does issues of race and gender. But the main message of surviving trauma and finally finding your own way and your own voice is extremely important, especially to younger girls. In many ways, the more recent
4. Push by Sapphire (the movie was called Precious), deals with many of the same issues – although I found it even more disturbing and would recommend it to an older crowd.
5. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4
Best Age: 12-13
The only one on the list that is funny. It’s also honest and almost as popular now as it was back in 1982. It deals with early pubescence in a great way to warm up kids to the other, more serious books that are out there.