As a child and teenager, I ate books up. I had a book in my purse at all times and I often flagged pages with lines that really spoke to me: habits I still have today. Being an introvert in high school wasn’t always easy because I preferred a quiet Saturday night in with my new book over a party. As I got older, I realized how often I returned to these stories. I wasn’t surprised that I was reading it for the hundredth time, nor that I was buying a new copy because the original had quite literally fallen apart, but I was always amazed at how much I still had to learn from these characters and their stories even as I grew into my adult years.
1. “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” by Ann Brashares
Admittedly, this is a full series and not one single book. But I still love kicking off the summer months with the classic series I was introduced to in middle school. Having four characters to relate to was like being at an ice cream store with unlimited toppings: Tibby’s rebellious side, Carmen’s eagerness to preserve the tradition of friendship, Lena’s shy demeanor, and the thin line Bridgette often walked between confidence and self-doubt were all things I related to. My group of friends in high school went through big changes when the new school in our town was built, so we did everything we could to stay connected all the way through graduation.
In 2011, the year I graduated college, Ann Brashares published “Sisterhood Everlasting.” This book jumped forward about ten years and the girls had all but gone separate ways. It’s a sad but beautiful story about their everlasting bond between each other, and it came at a time where my friends and I were all at crossroads in our lives. I’ll always return to the stories of these four friends every summer to try and cope with how fast life changes for everyone.
2. “Dreamland” by Sarah Dessen
If you’ve never read a Sarah Dessen novel, drop what you’re doing, take 3 days off work, and settle in with the full lexicon. My first exposure to Dessen’s work was the 2003 film “How To Deal” with Mandy Moore. I related to Halley on many levels, and this film was the perfect summer event to kick off my first year of middle school. I immediately ran out and bought the first Dessen novel I could, and it was an eye-opener.
I was looking forward to the friends I’d be making in middle school and, if I’m being totally honest, all the boys. I’d finally gotten past the “boys are gross” phase and just couldn’t wait for my first kiss. But this novel was a cautionary tale and I’m glad I read it when I did. Caitlin falls in love with Rogerson, but the romance takes a dark turn. Without ruining the plot of the novel, it dealt a lot with abuse and violence in a relationship: I knew boyfriends sometimes hit their girlfriends and that it was wrong, but I personally had never known anyone who went through this. I read this story in one sitting the first time and it made me realize how and why people stay with an abusive partner. I sympathized with Caitlin, and even though I was frustrated every time she stayed quiet about Rogerson or got into his car to run off with him, I could see how much she struggled between what she wanted and what was right.
I read this novel again during my second year of teaching and around the same time, I had a student show some of the same signs Caitlin did when things got particularly dangerous. I spoke up and my student received help and guidance, and I learned that not all those who experience this physical violence fit a “type.” If I’ve learned anything from this story and from YA in general, it’s that sympathy is a very easy thing to feel when you have someone’s best interest at heart.
3. “The Spectacular Now” by Tim Tharp
This book came out my senior year of high school. I’d had enough credits to graduate high school at the end of my junior year, but I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted yet, so I enrolled full time at the community college. I found this book on a “New Items!” shelf at Books-A-Million and decided to give it a go. I read it once, fell back into my studies, and didn’t think much about it again. I even donated my copy to a consignment shop when I needed to get some extra cash for school books about a year later.
I saw the trailer for a movie on Facebook about three years ago with a story that sounded familiar. When I realized what it was, I went out and bought the book again and read it one sitting. Tharp’s voice flows so easily in this story, and there’s never a point where I questioned why a certain scene was in the book, or why a character even existed. This book is a well-oiled, beautifully designed clock. Sutter is on the verge of understanding that peaking in high school is only a great idea when one is in high school. His relationship with Aimee helps him grow up and it helps her build up the confidence she needs to claim a new, better life. The final scene with Sutter’s arms spread open as he walks down the street under the moon evoked those summer feelings when anything is possible and three months of freedom lie ahead.
Reading YA novels as an adult will teach you so many things about yourself. You get in touch with the younger you who embraced emotion and didn’t worry as much about deadlines and numbers and figures. They help you learn more about the people around you and the relationships in your life. It’s also nice to remember what the world looks like through the eyes of a teen every once in a while as opposed to a jaded thirty-something year old who worries about being able to afford a house or pay all the bills.