Recent buzz around the question of whether adults can read young adult lit without shame may have left you standing paralyzed over a copy of Harry Potter, waiting for a final verdict. I’m firmly on the side of “read what you want”—and must also point out the fact that there’s plenty of candy-coated lit on both sides of the age divide—but more important is the fact that the border between YA and adult fiction can be thin and at times inconsequential, as “YA” often signifies little more than a teen protagonist. To prove it, here are 5 fantastic adult titles that feature teen narrators and address teen issues, but would be approved by even the most naysaying of anti-YA grownups. Read them because you love literature about the upheaval of being young, or read them because you’re still unsure whether your ability to buy a drink puts an automatic age alert on your bookstore credit card. (And don’t fight it if they become your gateway reads to straight YA.)
The Last Days of California, by Mary Miller
14-year-old Jess and her family are crossing the country in a car that smells like fast food, wearing King Jesus Returns! T-shirts and handing out literature on the end of the world. Miller nails the bored rhythms of a family road trip, spiked by their compelling, tabloid-ready destination: California and the Rapture. In between breaking the bad news to nonbelievers and helping her alluring older sister hide her pregnancy, Jess floats in motel pools, questions her faith, and flirts with boys, bending the rules in the days she’s almost certain aren’t her last.
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
In this brilliant, creepingly believable work of speculative fiction, 11-year-old Julia wakes on a summer morning to a chilling news report: the earth’s rotation has inexplicably slowed. As the slowing continues, days and nights stretch interminably and people start going off the grid. Julia experiences first love, first loss, and a front-seat view of her parents’ shifting marriage, and serves as a quotidian filter on an epic, slowly unfolding disaster that could lead to the end of the world.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
Pessl’s sprawling, enthralling, divisive debut novel dropped onto shelves as an instant must-read in 2007. Fortified with red herrings, oddball turns of phrase, and a mindbending payoff, it’s a book that plays around in the genre sandbox. Teenaged Blue van Meer (and if you find that name annoying, this may not be the book for you) is the trailing tail of the comet that is her father, an itinerant, widowed professor who moves them from one low-rent college to another, never putting down roots. Blue moves equally lightly until her senior year, when she’s drawn into the orbit of femme fatale film teacher Hannah, and the elite clique of students whose relationship with her borders on the inappropriate. The book opens with Hannah dead and Blue recovering (or not) at college, then backs up to tell the story of how everything went south.
The Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell
On a frigid morning in a Glasgow housing project, two girls bury their parents in the backyard. We don’t know how they died, but we do know the world is better off without them. The story is told in alternating chapters by the two sisters—bright, foulmouthed Marnie, and eccentric Nelly, who speaks like a child’s idea of an Evelyn Waugh character—and their lonely next-door neighbor, known as the neighborhood perv since he tried to solicit a young prostitute in a moment of weakness. As winter turns to spring, the girls’ secret is threatened by an angry drug dealer, the reappearance of their wayward grandfather, and a dog who just won’t stop digging.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt
This book is often invoked as proof that young narrators have just as much to teach us as fiction’s heartland spouses and aging patriarchs. The grief of Brunt’s 14-year-old protagonist, June, over the death of her beloved Uncle Finn is complicated by the fact that he was also (in her secret heart) her first romantic love. When his lover, dying of the same disease that killed Finn, reaches out to June, she finds solace in knowing someone who loved her uncle as much as she did, and juggles their tentative, secret friendship with the pain of distant parents, a changing bond with her sister, and the sense that she was born in the wrong place and time.
What’s your favorite adult book with a young narrator?