It’s not your fault. Everyone grows up. Getting older isn’t an achievement, like throwing a no-hitter. It’s just something that happens, like getting a rash. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of, so stop pretending that having aged a few years means you’re too grown up for young adult or children’s fiction. Suddenly you’re carting around Russian novels and drinking interesting coffees and sighing heavily every time someone brings up The Hunger Games. The fact is, “good YA books” are what our ancestors simply called “good books,” a fact that should be obvious in the post–Harry Potter world we live in. And the Potter books are just one astounding example of kid lit that transcends its age label. Here are a few more must-reads aimed at kids that people of all ages will enjoy:
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
These books are so famous you no doubt know the basic premise: A series of dangerously unsupervised children invade a magical land called Narnia, conquer and rule it as despotic monarchs, then abandon it to dark magic and decline when summer vacation is over and they have to go back to school. That’s the gist of it, anyway.
Why Adults Will Enjoy It: If you’re one of the few who somehow escaped these books during your obviously flawed childhood, you’ll be surprised at their complexity and humor. Far from dour polemics, the books are filled with moral quandaries and flawed characters, from the traitor Edmund in book one to the mysteriously absent Susan in book seven.
The Tripods Series, by John Christopher
Published in the later 1960s, the original trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire) are science-fiction classics that have a dystopian premise and mood that any fan of The Hunger Games or Divergent will recognize: more dangerously unsupervised children flee from being “capped” and mind controlled by the aliens who have conquered the Earth. They have a series of adventures as they seek to overthrow the conquerers and learn more about what’s happened to their world.
Why Adults Will Enjoy It: The story goes far beyond it’s simple sci-fi elevator pitch, exploring themes of conformity, authority, and what it means to be an adult. Told in a simple and engaging first-person narrative, the ideas are still exciting 40 years later. Anyone who likes a good sci-fi story and who still looks at themselves in the mirror and sometimes feels like an awkward 13-year-old kid will find plenty to engage them.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
Daniel Handler (writing as Lemony Snicket) crafted one of the most wonderfully bizarre YA book series ever known, a tale of dangerously unsupervised children (orphans, in fact) flouting adult authority with impunity as they seek to escape their greedy and murderous uncle Count Olaf and investigate the many mysteries surrounding the death of their parents.
Why Adults Will Enjoy It: From the dedication of the first book (“To Beatrice—darling, dearest, dead”), you can tell these are not your typical children’s books. Sporting a high body count, a relentlessly downbeat mood, and plenty of subtle and even obscure jokes, A Series of Unfortunate Events also has a surprisingly complex metafictional aspect—but if all that makes your eyes glaze over, the books’ hilarious black humor will buoy even the blackest of souls.
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
This tale of still more dangerously unsupervised children (I’m detecting a theme here) running amok all over Manhattan on what is either the worst or best date ever is filled with great little details and a vibrant love of that peculiar freedom found only when you’re in high school and able to stay out all night.
Why Adults Will Enjoy It: Anyone who has ever experienced that peculiarly terrifying effervescent feeling of an infinite evening that never seems to end will identify with this story of two smart, snarky teens falling in love while having a totally believable adventure in the Big City. The book deals with universal issues of love, doubt, and how music creates such a powerful connection in our lives, and the alternating points of view (male and female) give each gender confirmation of their own experience and glimpses into the other point of view.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
The ultimate tale of dangerously unsupervised children who curse, smoke, drink, and stab each other, this book was actually written when Hinton was a teenager herself, which explains the melodramatic nature of much of her debut. The tale of Ponyboy and rival gangs in Tulsa in the 1960s, it remains an explosive (and often banned) book to this day.
Why Adults Will Enjoy It: Many books capture the sense of being a teenager, but few can convey that sense back to adults the way The Outsiders can. Once you get past some of the outdated slang and period detail, you’re once again fifteen and simultaneously angry, sad, exultant, and confused. While the events of the story go far beyond what most people experience as kids, the emotional sense of the book is 100% accurate.