When I was a kid, young adult literature wasn’t called YA. It was called Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Thank god for Judy Blume — I’m pretty sure I read everything she wrote (and, thanks to Deenie, lived in fear of failing the scoliosis test and spending high school in a back brace).
But since YA wasn’t a thing, with all the marketing and shiny, neon-colored covers that go along with it, I also read a lot of stuff that might or might not have been written with teens in mind — and certainly hadn’t been vetted (unless you count the town librarian’s withering glare at the check-out desk).
So here are four inappropriate books that I read, and maybe shouldn’t have read, and loved even though they really confused me.
1) Go Ask Alice: The first awesome thing about this novel was that it was supposedly anonymously written. And supposedly “a real diary,” as the book’s cover boasted. This was before Oprah old off James Frey for his fake memoir. The Go Ask Alice author was, in fact, the late Beatrice Sparks, who was born in 1917 and was a Mormon. I suspect, in retrospect, the book was meant as a moralistic after-school special of sorts, but it didn’t have that affect on me. Because it was ALL ABOUT DRUGS! And it was set in the 1960s! I was so all in. I don’t even know how many times I read that book and fantasized about running off the San Francisco and doing god knows what. I was never all that clear on what drugs the nameless character was taking (it’s possible that the author didn’t, either). But I was convinced that drugs were cool and fun.
2) Still Life with Woodpecker: This is a book about a terrorist who hooks up with a teenager. It’s racy and fantastic and, honestly, you probably need to be a teenager to really like it. I tried reading Tom Robbins again as I got older and either I’d already gone through his best work, or I just couldn’t relate to it anymore. Still. The colorful bizarreness and surreal characters alluded to a world of reading way more exciting than The Scarlet Letter ** or whatever. There was philosophy and art and sex. Plus, the book cover looked like a pack of Camel cigarettes, so.
3) And I Don’t Want to Live This Life: The subtitle is “A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder,” which sounds really horrible, but this is the memoir by Nancy Spungen’s mother, Deborah, about her daughter’s relationship with Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols. I was obsessed with everything punk. I wore a Sex Pistols t-shirt like, all the time. I inhaled this book, every gorey detail. The drugs, the violence, the skinny black jeans and the Chelsea Hotel. Really, the jeans and the New York City scene of the late 1970s intrigued me far more than heroin, which seemed seedy and painful. But this book sparked my imagination (not necessarily in the best way) such that I’ve worked it into multiple pieces of my own writing.
4) Faith and the Good Thing: And now for something completely different. I read this novel by Charles Johnson in my freshman year of college. Actually, my English teacher read passages of it aloud in class and I was hooked. The writing is strange and otherworldly. It feels like voodoo and danger, but also like a revealing dream in which the dreamer who can cross the woods at night and walk the hot coals will come through cleansed and enhanced with magical vision. It’s about the journey from youth to wisdom, from passing through childhood into some deeper understanding of life. I’ve since given this book as a gift to people I really liked. I’ve never heard from anyone who received it from me that they were as enchanted as I was. Oh well.
**The Scarlet Letter is actually a dark and wonderful book. Just not when being read under duress for 10th grade English class.