Some of the most pivotal things we ever learn come from the books we read when we are young. In some cases, maybe we are too young to read these books and get them, but the toughest part about learning anything is that it always comes too soon and before we’re “ready.”
In middle school in the late 90s, I found a copy of V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic in my grandparents basement. I loved it and went on to read scads more of Andrews’s books the next few years. It wasn’t about the “smut” aspect nor about being a guilty pleasure. What resonated was how much I understood Cathy’s voice and how much I hated watching her go through what she had to go through. Adults failed her and her siblings over and over, lied to them, locked them up, and drove them to the ends they did. Adults — who should have supported and nurtured and put children first — chose instead to indulge in their own selfish desires.
I’ve read that Andrews’s novel was a rite of passage for girls of a certain generation. That the book defined them and their experiences. How it betrays a sense of nostalgia in a way few other books do or can. While they’re excellent pieces (try this one and this one), I disagree that this book and series belong to a certain group or that they’re a guilty pleasure or a gateway to reading “bad” books. Flowers in the Attic may indeed be and do those things, but it’s a book that continues to draw in new readers. Part of that is the book’s reputation as being “the incest book,” but a far larger part is the fact it’s the first time many young readers first encounter a story outside their worldview but told through the voice of a character who could so easily be them.
It’s the first time many see that there’s not a promised happily ever after, even in a fictional world. That adults can be ugly, cruel, and reckless and that’s just how it is sometimes. Even though it’s an “adult” novel, it speaks to teen readers because it’s Cathy’s story.
That same unfair world emerges in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Written for teen readers, it’s the first experience many have seeing a story where the good guy doesn’t win. Where standing up for what you believe in and holding your ethical values in highest esteem might not do anything for you. The world is cruel and dark, and sometimes, the assholes win.
What could have been a triumphant story simply isn’t. That’s not how this story worked, and Cormier doesn’t lie to his readers. Instead, he tells them a truth about how the world sometimes operates, and for young readers, this message is not only jarring, but it’s one that sticks with them decades later because of how true it is.
There are Jerrys, there are Archies, and there are all kinds of shades of people between them.
Perhaps Holden Caulfield is one of those shades between. The first time younger readers pick up Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is, for many, the first time they read about someone their age (or not far from it) who is so disillusioned with the world. That someone who has been afforded as many privileges and comforts as he has been could believe all adults are phony. The cynical, jaded approach to life comes into a reader’s hands often right when they begin questioning who it is they are and what it is that they believe — and it’s Holden’s voice they remember because it either serves as a guide to surviving adolescence or a cautionary tale.
Judy Blume’s Forever earns space on the heart shelf of many alongside Flowers in the Attic because it, too, went somewhere young readers had never been before: the bedroom of a teen girl ready to have sex for the first time. The book captured those feelings of doing something “big” and “grown-up” and making the choice to do so without the permission of an adult or authority figure. Blume captures those nerves and insecurities, the confidence and excitement, in a way that teen readers get because it’s what they’ve thought or felt themselves. More than that, they get to experience it with Katherine — Forever is the first time they read about people their own age having sex because they want to.
Much of this could be said about Blume’s other books, too: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the first time many discover masturbation in a way where it wasn’t the punchline to a joke.
What about finality? About meeting the moment when what once lived no longer does? For many young readers, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is the first time they encounter death and the grief and anguish accompanying it. It’s an unfair loss that comes far too soon for the reader and for Jesse, the main character. There’s no tamping it down or glossing it over. Paterson shows readers that death is messy and complicated and there’s not a way to make sense of it. It’s a hard and harsh lesson woven into a story about magic and fantasy and the way a friendship buds where it seemed like no possibility once existed, but it endures because of how it fashions that honesty to readers at their level.
We sit some or all of these books in a special place in our memories because they showed us a glimpse into a world we otherwise never knew before we read them — a world in which zigs, rather than zags. Where what we thought of as childhood truths instead became myths. These books took us out of our comfort zone and our shelters and pushed the boundaries. They tested our limits, breaking us down in order to rebuild us.
When we try to read any of these books again as adults, it’s different. No book is ever the same on the second read, since each revisiting is colored or marred by what we bring to it. From having set firms lines between “real” and “fantasy.” From having been or experienced a Jerry or an Archie, a Katherine or a Jesse.
Perhaps we’ve just matured in our needs as readers: Flowers in the Attic might not elicit any emotional resonance because now the writing is weak, the story itself over-the-top, “angsty.” Or maybe it’s that the whys and hows of an incestuous relationship don’t matter to us anymore because we’ve labeled that box and stored it somewhere.
Maybe in some small part, that’s why as adults we’re quick to call some of these books — and perhaps YA books more broadly — “guilty pleasures”: we remember how it felt to be 11 or 14 reading these stories for the first time and having a moment all of our own. One where we expanded internally as much as we did externally. When maybe we were “too young” to really get it.
We build mythologies about those books as a way to remember how being young — and breaking through the myths we believed back then — feels. There’s no guilt in dusting or rearranging the books sitting on your heart shelf. There is only pleasure in knowing what’s there and that the myths we build around those things exist in what they once brought, even if they don’t hold up years later.
Each book in some way shattered the idea that the rules are the rules and that’s how it is. Meeting this when we’re young — “too young” — is how we build a framework for confronting challenges through the rest of our lives. We’re never truly ready for what comes at us.
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