Mary Hastings Fox
Do today’s teenagers still read books, or has social media replaced print completely? Studies show that, by college, most are reading because they must. When they do read for pleasure, they are more likely to prefer books where kids must fend for themselves or die (The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games.) I thought it might be fun to think back to my favorite young adult books to see how things have changed.
1. Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene ( Mildred A. Wirt)
A first favorite was Nancy Drew, and I stuck with her all through high school. Mildred Wirt, ghostwriter “Carolyn Keene” for 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, was an independent, resourceful woman herself. She endowed Nancy and many of her other heroines with these same qualities. The message was that any girl could be anything, and this is part of what made her so beloved with young readers. But there was more. The relationship of distant fathers and their determined daughters can always fulfill a young girl’s fantasy about who she will be as a woman. While Nancy is loaded with brains and wit, she is often isolated in a dangerous world, and it’s often not clear that any help will come in time, if ever. In my mind, this is the reason why Nancy Drew is still wildly popular after 75 years – she knows that her choices can be wrong and that she doesn’t know everything she needs to. She is essentially on her own and still, she persists!
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The book’s protagonist, Scout Finch, is a precocious, pre-teen tomboy, trying to understand the nature of bigotry in the 1930’s South. Her father Atticus is an impossibly good and wise man wise who holds her hand as layers of people’s manners and charm fall away to expose the moral core of bigotry and violence underneath. There are many of the title’s “mockingbird” characters in this novel–gentle, innocent victims of bigotry and the evil nature of mankind. The real mockingbird is the myth of human goodness. The town is forced to see each other’s racism and stubborn beliefs about class and race.
This book is, ideally, read at a time of the reader’s own coming-of-age. It’s also a time in life when kids are beginning to understand the greater worlds of literature. Atticus is the anchor to integrity and morality that centers his children during violent storms that threaten everything they know. In short, he’s the perfect father.
The message of love and tolerance amidst social pressure is important, but the main hooks for the teen reader are the drama of the story, the author’s fluid prose, and her exquisite characters.
3. Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout
…was rarely read by the girls of my generation. The heroes are two men: Archie Goodwin–earthy, gutsy, gritty, and very masculine–the wise-cracking gumshoe detective and the foil of his boss, Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is an overweight, orchid-loving intellectual and a gourmand. He is also a recluse who hates to work, and who, book in hand, prefers never to move from his chair except for dinner. Most women in the series are merely decorative, as Wolfe, among his other shortcomings, is a misogynist who barely tolerates Archie’s womanizing. So why would a girl read this stuff? Why to fix them, of course. I was alternately Archie and Wolfe in the stories and, being far less lop-sided than they were, I was better than either of them at solving the murders, at understanding everyone’s motives, and at making my life work. What girl could resist?
4. Murder on The Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Agatha’s most famous protagonist was Hercule Poirot, and he was my favorite. He constantly referred to his approach to solving mysteries as using his brain’s “little gray cells.” Christie was no slouch in this department. She was an exceptionally smart and gifted writer, deftly combining sharp structure with a psychological spin. Her novels streamed along with unique but believable dialogue, flawless mood-setting, and carefully constructed murder plots that to this day serve as blueprints for modern detective writers. She left a library of work that’s both intelligent and timeless. I can pick up one that I read decades ago, and it feels fresh and timeless. Murder and good writing—a combination that made the “Queen of Crime” one of the best writers in history–and on top of that, she managed it while staying G-rated. I’ve still never met a teenager who didn’t say they loved the book when closing the last page on Poirot.
5. Grendel by John Gardner
This is one of my favorite coming-of-age novels, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece that should be read by anyone who enjoys reading fiction. The way Gardner takes a character that you thought you knew and adds layers upon layers of depth to it is absolutely astounding. This is a fantasy book but it’s not light reading for a teen-ager.
Grendel’s internal conflicts drive the story in one of the best character analyses I’ve ever read. Grendel is not really a story about a monster, it’s the story of an isolated person trying to make sense of the world as a hated and tortured adolescent. While the hero (Beowulf) still wins in the end, Grendel, the monster, is the protagonist, and it’s his last thoughts that stay with us. “Grendel is dying and so may you all,” he says, which is, after all, is consistent with the nature of a dragon. (Sound like any teen-agers you know?) At seventeen, I went off to college with a new understanding of the complexity and foreknowledge of what it might be like to be a human.
About Mary . . .
Mary Hastings Fox studied literature and poetry before becoming a psychologist. She is an associate professor of psychology and education at the University of Maryland and has had her own psychology practice for 30 years. In addition to writing other people’s true stories, she published a textbook and numerous journal articles on organizational psychology. Most of her writing is now is deeply rooted in nature. The Last Skipjack is her first novel, with a sequel in progress.
And a Note from Rhonda
You’ll find that the hyperlinks above lead you to online shopping at this essay’s featured independent bookstore, Scuppernong Books in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Scuppernong is as warm and welcoming as any bookstore you’ll find. It also features a community bar with hot coffee, cool wine, and craft beer. Check their website regularly for featured author readings (including mine!) and other events! #shopindie