Best of: books for ages 18+ #1: ‘1984’ by George Orwell
It’s everywhere throughout pop culture. Room 101, Big Brother, Newspeak – the concepts Orwell created have a life far beyond the pages of this short novel. Even the term Orwellian is in frequent use, meaning a state of constant surveillance.
Published in 1949, Orwell’s dystopia tells the story of Winston Smith, who works for The Ministry of Truth, a governmental department. Through his eyes, we see a world different to our own in many ways, but with a number of scary similarities. Written at the time of the Cold War, it isn’t difficult to see unpleasant parallels with real-life political and social situations.
Recognised from its publication as one of the greatest pieces of literary fiction of all time, this book must be on everyone’s ‘to read’ list, if only to make a whole plethora of pop-culture references suddenly become clear. It’s scary, depressing, futuristic and political, which make it not ideal for dipping in and out of, or light reading, but if you can stomach it, you won’t regret picking it up.
By the same author: A range of essays and political writing, and other works of fiction, including the very famous (and brilliant!) ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’.
Winner of multiple awards including the 1999 ‘Newbery Medal’, ‘Holes’ tells the story of an overweight teenage boy named Stanley Yelnats, who always finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Convicted of a crime he did not commit, Stanley finds himself sent to the foreboding Camp Green Lake, where he has to keep his head down and make friends in order to survive.
Flitting between the modern day and the 1880s, the story offers a lot of perspectives. Gritty yet hilarious, silly yet deep, ‘Holes’ offers something for everyone of every age. A staple of the modern-day classroom, ‘Holes’ is a great read for an ambitious 8-year-old or a reluctant adult and everyone inbetween.
Adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 2001, ‘Holes’ also has two sequels which continue the mystery and adventure of the original. A story which throws into question the notion of justice and the reliability of the adults in the novel, ‘Holes’ is a haunting tale of friendship and what is right. It will stay with you.
By the same author: ‘Small Steps’, ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’ and more.
Best of: books for ages 18+ #2: ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak
Published only ten years ago, this book has received numerous awards and remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 230 weeks.
Set in Germany during World War Two, the story follows Liesel, a little girl being looked after by a foster family following the death of her brother.
‘The Book Thief’ is narrated by Death. The choice to do this was contested by some critics, but leads to a powerful exploration of what stories can mean to people in desperate times. It’s experimental, it’s long, and at times it is dark, but deeply satisfying, particularly if you don’t mind difficult subject matters. The writing style is at times distracting, but never frustrating, as it is so fundamental to everything that makes this novel so great.
Many people avoid books that make them cry, but this one is so guaranteed to provoke a tear that you’d choose it particularly for that reason. Sob your heart out and enjoy.
By the same author: Another high-quality novel called ‘The Messenger’ and a series of books, which starts with ‘The Underdog’.
Matilda tells the story of a brilliantly intelligent young girl growing up in a family that doesn’t appreciate her. Matilda struggles to make herself heard by her parents, and her teacher, Miss Honey, wants to get her access to the work she needs to fulfil her educational needs. Funny and dark, Dahl’s sense of humour is as strong here as ever. Matilda is a modern heroine who uses every method possible to achieve her ends and get revenge on the adults who treat her badly.
Whilst Matilda is definitely a book for children, the themes of discovering who you are and being repressed by those who do not understand you will resonate with teens everywhere. At times silly but never trite, Matilda is a favourite for people of all ages and stages.
The 1996 film by Danny DeVito was a big hit, but in 2010, ‘Matilda’ was adapted into a very successful musical with lyrics by talented comedian Tim Minchin. The musical, which achieved critical and popular acclaim on the West End, features songs such as ‘When I Grow Up’. It won seven Olivier awards and five Tony awards on its transfer to Broadway.
By the same author: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘The BFG’ and many more.
Best of: books for ages 18+ #3: ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley
Written in the 1930s but set in London in year 2540, ‘Brave New World’ is another futuristic dystopia. Set in a world where humans are raised artificially in ‘hatcheries’, where they are assigned castes (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon), each caste is raised to fill a different role in society.
The population of the novel enjoy recreational sex and regular use of the universally popular drug, soma, which has no side effects, and offers a feeling of extreme happiness. Family ties do not exist, and marriage and monogamous relationships have been abandoned, so society has a very different structure and appearance to our own.
The novel focuses on the character of Bernard, an ‘Alpha’ who is very unusual in that he is not completely satisfied by the status quo. Working in the field of conditioning (moulding children’s thoughts so they unthinkingly accept their caste), he is uncomfortable with the system and its implications.
Complex and worrying, you won’t come across a more thought-provoking story, or a more entertaining one, either.
By the same author: a utopic novel called ‘Island’, and many other novels, essays, screenplays and poems! Huxley was a busy chap.
There are thousands of books about the friendships and romances of teenage girls, so it would have been impossible not to include one on this list. It’s a very important genre, speaking to many young people about the issues that define their lives at the time of reading. Of all the books that fit into this category, the ‘Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants’ is a beautifully-written and sensitively-portrayed tale of four girls and the first summer they spend apart.
In a way, the trousers are a simple linking device – one of the four protagonists found a pair of trousers in a second-hand shop that was equally flattering to all four girls in the friendship group and they decide to send them to one another when keeping in touch over the summer. All four girls get a chance to take the limelight in the book and we are immersed in their personal worlds.
What could be a light and fluffy novel actually deals with some key issues. Death, loneliness and discovering one’s true identity all play their role in this essential coming of age novel.
The novel sadly never received critical success. However, there are four sequels, and in 2005, a film adaptation of the first book was created and was well-received.
By the same author: ‘The Last Summer (of You and Me)’, ‘The Second Summer of the Sisterhood’ and more.
Best of: books for ages 18+ #4: ‘Go Ask Alice’ – Anonymous
Published in 1971 and set between 1968 and 1970, this book caused a lot of controversy at the time of its publication simply because it was presented as a diary, and not as fiction.
The diarist, whose name we never learn, is a fifteen-year-old girl, who reveals to us her concerns about various aspects of her life, including her drug use, which starts out after she unwittingly ingests LCD in a drink spiked with it at a party. Her drug use becomes more and more intense throughout the book, and we watch as she descends into addiction.
Utterly controversial in the 1970s, it has been described by some as pure anti-drugs propaganda and sometimes dismissed as being unbelievable. It is clear, however, that whatever you feel about the style, it is a powerful story about some of the issues that touch teenage life most deeply.
By the same author: It was discovered that the diary, published anonymously, was written by a teen therapist called Beatrice Sparks. She has written a number of other ‘anonymous’ diaries, which all serve as cautionary tales for teenagers dealing with the same issues.
Best of: books for ages 18+ #5: ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J K Rowling
Published in 2012, this huge novel was much anticipated, mainly due to the author’s fame. Slated and praised in approximately measures by the English papers and tabloids, one thing was certain: there weren’t many comparisons to be drawn with the children’s books about the young wizard.
Set in a small town in the West Country, the novel focuses on the minute details of characters’ lives, and the corruption and evil that can brew in the most innocuous of circumstances. Featuring a wide range of personalities, what is clear is that very few are positive portrayals. Upper class and lower class alike are slated, and, apart from the cast of teenagers, nobody gets off lightly.
The novel is at once an intense social commentary and a drama-thriller. We are given jigsaw pieces to put together, until a complete picture of the town evolves. Themes include class, race, money, socialism, drugs, sex, ethics and altruism – it’s by no means light reading. It is, however, an incredible, fast-paced rollercoaster, which will impress you with the wit and make you sob unbearably at the climax. Enjoy.
By the same author: The incredibly popular ‘Harry Potter’ series, and crime thrillers staring Cormoran Strike under the pseudonym ‘Robert Galbraith’.
This book stands out from the rest of this list as it is not fiction, but in fact an autobiography. Anne Frank was a teenage girl living in a hidden attic during the Second World War. Along with her family, Anne Frank was Jewish and went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942. She was thirteen at the time.
This book would be powerful as a work of fiction, but when you remember that the words you are reading were written by a child who had no idea how the story would end, it becomes a difficult and almost voyeuristic act. By turns passionate, funny and even mundane, the diary is everything you could hope it would be. A vital and candid book for understanding the shared nature of teenage experience, it is also a hugely important book when looking at 20th-century history and its impact on the ordinary people living through the period.
The diary ends when Anne is fifteen, which makes the age bracket of 10-14 the ideal time to read the book for the first time. Her experiences of budding sexuality do mean that some parents may wish to save the book for older teens, however.
By the same author: Tales from the Secret Annex
This unusual American teen novel tells the story of ‘Stargirl’, a young teenager who refuses to answer to the name she was given at birth. Stargirl doesn’t care what her peers are doing, and instead focuses on helping other people and having fun.
Told from the perspective of Leo, the more ordinary boy who falls for Stargirl, the novel considers what it means to follow your heart as well as how we act as part of a society. Set for the most part in an American high school, the story has its share of cliques and typical teen problems, but throws the genre into confusion by addressing non-conformity throughout.
If you want to think about what it means to stand out from the crowd, and how doing so will affect you as a teenager, this book provides good food for thought. The content is appropriate for younger readers, but the teenage issues might not be interesting to those not yet at secondary school. Short and easy to read, it’s a good starting point for reflective young people wanting to make the jump from children’s books to teen fiction.
By the same author: ‘Love, Stargirl’, ‘Maniac Magee’, ‘Wringer’ and more.