There’s nothing quite like the experience of reading as a child. Whether under the covers with a flashlight or sitting under a shady tree, we remember the books we read as kids like no others. This special bond sometimes works in reverse too, as books we read as adults somehow transport us back to our childhoods, capturing those same fleeting, transient feelings that colored our youthful adventures with the written word.
That’s what the 10 books here manage to do. Whether your childhood was in the 1950s or the 1990s, these books will remind you what it felt like to be a kid.
It, by Stephen King
It is a terrifying novel, it’s true, and the new film adaptation has updated the timeline of its first section to the 1980s. But the original book begins in the 1950s, and King perfectly captures the time and the sense of freedom enjoyed by small-town kids of the era. Childhood is a powerful theme in all of King’s novels, and he has always understood that kids are both smarter than many adults remember, and more capable of faith than their parents or older siblings. It will still scare the pants off you, but there are sections of beautiful writing that feel absolutely authentic to anyone who grew up during the Eisenhower administration.
A Prayer for Owen Meaney, by John Irving
With patience and affection, Irving captures what it was like to grow up in the 1950s in this terrific novel. While John Wheelwright and Owen Meaney aren’t typical kids in any sense—Owen’s growing conviction that he is an instrument of god isn’t exactly typical for a kid in any decade—Irving’s attention to detail renders a childhood air instantly recognizable to those who paralleled John and Owen’s fictional existence in their own lives. The decade was one where a slow subversion of tradition and accepted norms would eventually explode into the chaos of the ’60s, and it’s realistically presented here as a restless questioning of a kid’s purpose.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
Hinton’s classic proto-young adult novel has been a classic since its debut, in part because Hinton—a teenager herself when she wrote it—nails the passion, confusion, and alienation of being a kid in the 1960s. Your circumstances and experiences may be different from those described in the book, but the pain of lost innocence and that first moment you realized that you wouldn’t—couldn’t—be a kid forever soaks every page . Even if you’ve never dealt with “socs” before, or even if you were the socs growing up, you’ll feel it when you read this classic.
The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr
With little details only a skilled writer could capture, Karr paints a portrait of her childhood in Texas during the 1960s. It’s these details that sell the setting to people who actually grew up during the 1960s, a time TV and movies tend to paint as endlessly tumultuous, but which was, in reality, not so different from the decade before. Karr offers a frank exploration of her troubled family life and the town where she grew up in during a period of history when mental health and substance abuse weren’t considered things “normal” people worried about.
The Ice Storm, by Rick Moody
The 1970s were a profoundly strange time for fashion, politics, and youth culture. Growing up in the 1970s, kids were more free-range than today, often left unsupervised as their parents, dealing with the counter-cultural hangover left by the prior decade, pursued their own happiness. Moody’s novel recalls this sense of isolation and freedom perfectly, resulting a book that easily evokes the decade for anyone who came of age when Led Zeppelin was still together. He excels at detailing the emotional devastation of a boozy, druggy suburbia where everyone is on their own in one sense or another.
The Basketball Diaries, by Jim Carroll
The fact Jim Carroll survived his childhood at all is pretty remarkable, and this ragged novel based on his own life offers a searing look at his personal journey from high school basketball star to heroin addict living on the streets before his 18th birthday. Although Carroll is actually writing about the 1960s, it’s the 70s his prose evokes; Carroll simply got to the darker part of the American dream a little earlier than everyone else. Take away the drugs and sexual abuse and you have the embodiment of teenage angst, restless heart syndrome, and the willingness to experiment with your own life anyone growing up in the 1970s will recognize.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon
The ’80s were a hazy time—glamorous on the surface but boiling with change underneath. You can trace a lot of the culture of the era back decades, but the 1990s ended a lot of those connections. The kids who grew up in the ’80s had a sense they’d come late to a party, and were going to have to decide if they went on to the next one, or went home. While the characters in Chabon’s debut are a little older, they’re just shedding their childhoods, so if you spent your youth in the 1980s, you’ll still recognize every single detail.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, by Dito Montiel
Montiel, a New York icon now in Hollywood making films, wrote a book that perfectly captures growing up in a big city in the 1980s. While Montiel’s story features more violence than most people will experience in their childhoods, he captures the sense of modernity and excitement that defined ’80s kids, who were the first generation to wake up to a world filled with video games and personal electronics, an expanding menu of entertainment choices, and the burgeoning sense that kids weren’t so much kids any more, but smaller adults, capable of all the heartache and violence as their parents or elder siblings.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
If you grew up in the 1990s, you’ll recognize your life in this book, even if you’re nothing like the introverted Charlie. In the ’90s, the old assumptions about childhood as a time of innocence and carefree adventure were fading away fast, replaced by a new sense that kids were just as troubled as adults. Charlie’s emotional journey is messy and internal—these aren’t kids who go off into the woods on adventures and stumble over bodies, or solve crimes in their spare time. They’re kids who brood and cry and make tentative, heroic steps towards adulthood. If you lived it, you’ll find it in these pages.
Ghost World, by Dan Clowes
The 1990s have their own peculiar feel, a world-weariness that seemed to soak into every teenage life. Kids affected a cynicism and blank-faced, fashionable disdain and combined it with a fascination for pop culture—the weirder and danker, the better. Nothing epitomizes this spirit of tired adventure like Ghost World, or the consequences of Early Onset Adulthood that plagued kids in that decade. Clowes captures the disappointing sense that everything was played out and nothing mattered, as well as the fashions, attitudes, and cultural iconography almost perfectly.