Earlier this summer I flailed SUPER HARD about a lit crit book called Lost Masterworks of Young Adult Literature, featuring books that had fallen out of print and/or the public eye which contributors to this collection felt deserved better name recognition. However, the titles included in the collection weren't all perfect. And it made me think about which forgotten books I would like to bring attention to. Ergo...
Top Ten Forgotten Teen Books
This list consists of books with teen characters published no more recently than 15 years ago (but ended up mostly being from the 80s oops). The only rules are that the protagonists have to be at least 14 and they have to be books I think mainstream readers would enjoy, so I can't just stuff it full of horse books. (edit: looks like without meaning to, I accidentally included zero horse books. Oops again.)
This books are all so near and dear to my heart that a paragraph or two hardly does them justice, and I'm probably going to be clumsy about expressing my effusive love, but it was such fun to revisit them all!
1. Final Grades - Anita Heyman (1983)
A 4.0 high school sudent who has always loved and excelled at writing finds herself struggling for the first time in an English class where she can't get above a B, if that. As this fundamental part of her identity is called into question, and she struggles with applying the close textual analysis her teacher demands to various parts of King Lear, she starts to question the rest of her life plan -- where she wants to go to college, why she wants to go, and even if she wants to go.
As I said in my Goodreads review, this experience was ME in grade eleven. Not the part where it affected my college plans, but the part where suddenly sucking at an English class broke my heart and made me decide I wasn't a writer after all. It got better for me, I learned good things, but the things that Rachel feels...I have felt all those things every time I've struggled and felt stupid in a class. The pithy barbs directed silently at the teacher while they lecture. The internal snark when you know which students they've chosen to call upon and why. The way you interpret their written comments. I just think it's SUCH an important book for perfectionists who've ever run into a challenge.
2. Thunderwith - Libby Hathorn (1989)
Following her mother's death, Lara Ritchie is left trying to fit into her heretofore unknown father's life, complete with a stepmother who resents her presence and four new younger siblings as they try to cut a living from the Australian outback on a primitive farm, with no phone or indoor plumbing. Struggling both in school and at home, she draws comfort from the titular character, a stray dog who occasionally appears on her property when she needs him most, like a magic talisman.
It's possible this is more well known in its native country of Australia -- but it definitely isn't here in the U.S. in this day and age, and I've always been enchanted by the title. Her life feels so real, and my heart just aches for her, and you can "Melina Marchetta!" at me all you want but to me, this is the most important teen book ever to come out of or exist from this part of the world. Even if I can't explain why.
3. The Ark - Margot Benary-Isbert (1953 - English edition; possibly earlier in Germany)
Written and set in post-war 1940s Germany -- so it must have been popular enough, in its day, to score a translation -- this is a very authentic look at how a family (minus the father, a still-absent POW), copes with rationing and keeps themselves together during the aftermath. Don't let the word "authentic" get you down, because the times may be hard but the tone of this book is overwhelmingly optimistic and focused on the good in people. Its sequel, Rowan Farm, has even more animals and is equally excellent.
4. To Take A Dare - Crescent Dragonwagon & Paul Zindel (1982)
Having run away from home at 13 and managed to pass herself off as an adult since then, the story picks up as Crystal, now 16, settles in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, finds a job in the kitchen of a local hotel, and begins putting down roots with the people and community there.
The paperback cover does it no favors, even though I've included it here (to help you overcome your prejudice!), and I'm sure people dismiss the author's name even with Paul Zindel's cred backing it, because I did. But it's not a silly book at all, quite the opposite. If you like stories about independent young people making their own destinies, this is one not to miss.
Also: this is the 80s, man. There are no social workers coming to drag her back to high school, no loving foster parents helping her rediscover her lost youth. She's been an adult for three years, and an adult she shall damn well continue to be -- while being no worse for the wear because of it. I love that.
5. The Giver* - Lynn Hall (1985)
*no not that one and honestly, Lois Lowry, that was Rude
A 15-year-old girl develops a crush on her teacher, and discovers the feelings are mutual, but that he is unwilling to cross the permissible boundaries between teacher and student.
Ahhh, this book! It is the only student/teacher novel I've ever seen that acknowledges real feelings (of some kind) on both sides yet doesn't end in disaster, probably because it's the only such novel that never lets them advance it physically. I have no idea what age group it's actually supposed to appeal to, because it's 120 pages long and is technically about a high schooler that looks like you could put it in a middle school library, but what kid cares about the romantic life of a lonely old man? (several chapters are written from his perspective)
But I'm going to pretend it belongs on this list anyway because I haven't read enough of Lynn Hall's other teen books to pick one I like better, at least not that I remember well, and I think it is amazing. (Sticks and Stones is probably the one that deserves to be here, an early book with a central gay character, but I didn't think about this until 2 days before posting and I don't have a copy handy to refresh my memory anyway.)
6. Blood Secret - Kathryn Lasky (2004. yeah we just casually jumped way far ahead)
Staying with her only living (and elderly) relative after her mother disappears, one day Jenny finds an old trunk in the basement with family artifacts, including a bit of blood-stained lace. When she picks up the lace, she finds herself in a strange dream-like world, learning long-hidden family secrets. The story is anchored in the present, but each trip back to the trunk reveals a new artifact and a flashback to an earlier ancestor.
Lasky is a very accomplished and prolific author -- but is this particular book well known? I feel like it isn't. And it should be. It does such a remarkable job of tracing the effects of the Spanish Inquisition over generations, ultimately illuminating a part of history I don't think a lot of us are taught -- (I'll hide the semi spoiler but honestly you should click it; I think it's cooler if you know the blood secret up front)[spoiler]how some Spanish/Mexican Catholics actually have Jewish ancestry that an ancestor hid along the way for survival.
7. Send No Blessings - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (1990)
Yeah, this was actually in the original book I mentioned above, but it's the best one so I'm going to highlight it again to make sure it gets seen.
A teenager in a large family that lives in a trailer yearns for love, approval, an escape from endless chores, and a chance to make something of herself. When a good and decent man, seven years her senior, falls in love with her, she realizes marriage to him could solve her problems.Over the course of a single difficult year, Beth is faced with decisions about her family, romance, marriage, school, and her own future and learns that she alone can make the choice about the kind of person she wants to be.
This book just does SUCH a good job of describing a family living well below the poverty line, short on money and possessions but not on loyalty or love for each other. You feel for her parents (her mother isn't yet 35) as much as you do for her, seeing how their lives have shrunk down to essentially just work, in order to feed and clothe their children, and how desperately the eldest wants more than that for herself.
It also deftly handles sexuality -- you KNOW how much I hate that normally, but the content is tame and Naylor handles it SO WELL -- by juxtaposing the practical effects of a lack of celibacy with the first rush of hormones, emphasizing the importance of sex education without demonizing either abstinence or the lack thereof. I Just Think It's Neat.jpg.
8. Buffalo Woman - Dorothy M. Johnson (1977)
Summary: Born in 1820 near the Black Hills, Whirlwind knew prosperity as well as eventual tragedy. She feels profoundly the chill of change: the decimation of the buffalo, the coming of white settlers to the Great Plains, the wars that reduce her people to raggedness.
Bear in mind I have not read this in many years, but what I DO remember is it being the thickest "Native American" book I'd ever seen, and perhaps the most realistic and comprehensive overview of the greatest period of change in the Sioux's traditional way of life ever to exist, before or since. A saga, really.
P.S. In writing this post, I learned it has a sequel! EVEN MORE SAGA.
P.P.S. I am no longer 100% sure this is supposed to be a teen book, but the library shelved it there so that's how I think of it.
9. The Pig-Out Blues - Jan Greenberg (1982)
Summary: A slightly overweight, broke, and bored fifteen-year-old slowly learns to handle her two major problems--her eating habits and her mother.
OK fine this is NOT properly a book I can defend as a classic. But it is to me. This is the book I read when I, at the same age as the character, realized I had become overweight, and I identified with her frustration about her body and her struggle to eat right. Have ever since. But whenever I'm sufficiently motivated, I dip back into this one to try and focus on exercise and healthier eating, and it's really comforting. You know what, I'm going to just copy/paste my review:
"An excellent picture of a teenager with a tendency to overeat and showcases both healthy and unhealthy ways to lose it. She does slip up and gain weight back at one point (with such memorable imagery -- "In layers of clothing, I pad around the apartment. Like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter, or a big rubber bear, I had room to stretch, to grow."), but the lovely thing is that in the end, it's not really a story about weight loss or lack thereof, but of Josie finding acceptance for herself at school, through the production of Romeo and Juliet, and at home, which includes learning to accept her mother."
10. ChaseR: A Novel in E-mails - Michael J. Rosen (2002)
Summary: A reluctant move to the heart of hunting country spurs a lonely teen's obsession with e-mail and Top Ten lists--and a passion for animals that takes on a life of its own.
Aaaaand I'm gonna regret this so much but picking a 10th is HARD and I can't decide on my favorite horse book so I am choosing NONE OF THEM and picking one I would probably never mention in any other context. BUT. This one is forever in my heart because even though the protagonist is a dumb boy, and you know much I love those in my YA (/sarcasm), it so often reminded me of my best friend's experiences moving from the suburbs to the country, and attending school with All The Certified Hicks. And yep, emoticons, email, and elaborate ASCII images were all the rage at the time. Which makes this an excellent Time Capsule book!
If anyone has read or even heard of any of these, I will be SHOCKED and DELIGHTED (even if you didn't like them). If I inspired you to read any of them...even better.
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