Were books better when we were kids? Or did we just read them at a time when our hearts and souls were wide open? I still have my copies of Paula Danziger and Harriet the Spy. And I still think they’re great books. I adore them in a happy, uncritical way I could never adore the works of, say, Jonathan Franzen. The other day, I noticed that B&N was promoting Judy Blume on the NOOK and it almost made me run out and buy a device. Just so I could relive Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and It’s Not the End of the World.
So, in the spirit of celebration and nostalgia, I list 11 books that rocked my world. In no particular order, they are…
1. My Darling, My Hamburger.
“It was Marie Kazinski who asked how to stop a boy if he wants to go all the way,” Maggie whispered.
I remember finding a copy of My Darling, My Hamburger, just after my first novel, The True Meaning of Cleavage, was published. Reading the first page, I realized that I would never, ever write as well as Paul Zindel—and that was fine. Just to be in the same profession was an honor. It’s great when your childhood idols live up to your memory.
It was very humbling to go back to this book and realize how much er, “homage” I have paid to Judy Blume in my own work. What’s brilliant about this story of a fat girl who is bullied is that it’s told, not from the victim’s point of view, but from the perspective of a perfectly nice girl who gets pulled into the bullies’ circle. Jill Brenner’s irritation with the hapless “Blubber” rings so true, as does her own misery and regret when the bullies turn on her.
3. Harriet the Spy
There is no heroine in all fiction I identify with more than Harriet the Spy. I love the original cover for this book, the black and white drawing of Harriet striding down the street, notebook in hand, eyes peering through her dark rimmed glasses at the idiocies around her.
4. The Cat Ate My Gym Suit
I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat. I hate the principal because he wanted to fire Ms. Finney, my English teacher.
No list of mine could be complete without something from Paula Danziger. Her books may not have the timeless brilliance of Judy Blume, but her characters are funny, messy, and confused in a way I could truly relate to as a kid. She was one of the first women writers I read who dared to make the reader laugh. And I’ve never forgotten the power of that.
5. The Long Secret
This sequel to Harriet the Spy often gets overlooked. The center is quiet, “mousy” Beth Ellen and her utterly insane family. It’s dark for a YA book; Beth Ellen’s socialite mother and her friends are so heinous and irredeemable. But it’s great to reread as an adult, because the comedy is so bizarre. I’ve always remembered what Beth Ellen’s grandmother observation that shy people are often angry people. “There are times,” she says, “when we must express what feel, even if it is anger. If you can feel it and not express it…it might be better, but you must try to know what you feel. If we don’t know what we feel, we get into trouble.”
I still remember sneaking this book off my best friend’s older sister’s shelf and flipping through it to find “the good parts.” Which, I’ll be honest, I did not completely understand. “Ralph? What?” That was my first clue that not everything was covered by the basic birds and the bees speech. These matters became much clearer when I read…
7. Flowers in the Attic
Incest! Poison! Ballet! V.C. Andrews’ deliciously over ripe gothic tale—with its many sequels—was the Twilight of my day. I was once at a lunch with Wendy Mass, Carolyn Mackler, Rachel Vail, and Anne Brashares and every single one of us remembered this story of beautiful children locked in the attic by their greedy mother and religious fanatic grandmother as a “literary milestone” in our adolescence.
8. A Summer to Die
I did not read Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver until I was an adult. But I did read her novel of Meg, a girl who’s “sometimes angry over nothing, often miserable about everything.” One of the people who makes Meg most miserable is her seemingly perfect sister, Molly. I loved the ugliness of Meg’s feelings about life, feelings that don’t become any less complicated when Molly gets cancer and Meg has to face losing the sister she resents so much.
9. The Great Brain series
Confession: I was not a Little House girl. I tried to play Laura and Mary with my friends, but secretly, I wanted to belong to the Fitzgerald clan, wear britches and suspenders, and live in turn of the century Utah. I loved the stories of J.D.’s helpless quest to keep up with his brilliant brother Tom’s scheming. I still remember the chapter where T.D. charges the townspeople money to see their newfangled water closet flush.
I still want to be the girl who lives at The Plaza with her nanny, her pug, and her pet turtle.
11. The Chocolate War
They murdered him.
Robert Cormier’s dark, dark novel of a boy who tries to stand up to the powerful elite at his school is one of the most amazing visions of how delicious power is and how hard it is to defy those who abuse it. This is not a feel-good story about the underdog who triumphs over bullies and the crowd cheers. Jerry Renault’s story has no real happy ending. And Archie Costello is one of the most original, vile, and yes, sexy, villains in literature.
So there’s my list. Please share yours!