TIME magazine recently ran a big package on “young adult” novels, in an attempt to define the nascent genre, giving us both “The 100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time” and “17 Famous Writers on Their Favorite Young Adult Books.” Unfortunately, the canonical list failed to reflect the range of stories covered in young adult literature, ignoring current YA literature and calling any work with a teen protagonist “young adult.”
The “17 Famous Writers” list also suffered from a disconnect between the content and the buzzword; despite the headline, it seemed clear that authors were asked about “the books they loved as a child.” As a result, current young adult literature was roundly ignored. With that in mind, Flavorwire wanted to flip the script on TIME‘s “Famous Writers” list by asking some of our favorite contemporary young adult authors about their favorite books for grown-ups. The results, which feature responses that are both sly and serious, range from coming-of-age stories to science fiction adventures.
Gayle Forman: The Unspeakable and Other Acts of Discussion, Meghan Daum
I read, and love, too many books, adult to YA, to pick a favorite. So how about the latest favorite, which is Meghan Daum’s essay collection, The Unspeakable. Some essay collections can be hit or miss, compendiums of previously published pieces under a not-always-fitting umbrella. Daum wrote all the essays in this collection for this collection and it shows. They are smart, trenchant, unflinchingly honest — a phrase you realize is overused once you see actual unflinching honesty — and funny as hell.
From the opening piece, about her mother’s death and her own near-death experience to an essay about her musings on parenthood while volunteering in the foster-care system to one about her unabashed love for her dog, the essays all pick apart the disconnect between normative behaviors — how we’re supposed to feel/act — and how we really do, with Daum offering herself up as guinea pig and lab experiment. I whipped through The Unspeakable like it was a page-turnery thriller and weeks later, I can’t stop thinking about it, and nothing I seem to read after quite measures up. In YA, we have a word for that syndrome. It’s called TEABS [The End of an Awesome Book Syndrome].
Gayle Forman‘s books include If I Stay and the upcoming I Was Here, out on January 27.
Bennett Madison: Hey, Joe, Ben Neihart
Naming a favorite ‘adult’ book is tough. That’s kind of a broad category! Instead, just to narrow down the field, can I offer one of my favorite ‘adult’ books that might have been published as YA, if it had come out at a different time? If so, I’ll leave aside the obvious choices— who isn’t sick of The Catcher in the Rye at this point? — and point to Ben Neihart’s now out-of-print Hey, Joe.
Set over the course of a single night in New Orleans in the 1990s, the story follows Joe, a goofy, bighearted, teenager roaming around on a quest to conquer the city, have a good time, and get laid. I read it when I was sixteen, in a period when lots of books about queer teenagers were drearily preoccupied with homophobia, hate crimes, and traumatic coming out stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But in contrast, Joe’s joyfulness toward the world and casual fuck-itness about his sexuality — is he gay? Bi? Joe gives it very little thought— felt revolutionary.
The book’s not perfect — it struggles a bit when it tries to graft a slightly ridiculous crime plot onto a frame that’s too lithe to support it— but it hardly matters because of Joe’s irresistible enthusiasm and Neihart’s glittering prose. (Also, the book is really sexy, but maybe it’s gross to say that now that Joe’s about fifteen years too young for me.)
Bennett Madison‘s books include September Girls and The Blonde of the Joke.
Andrew Smith: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
One of my favorite adult literary novels of all time is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. With rich prose and striking characters, the novel tells an inventive and enchanting story about the search for all things lost. It’s one of the very few novels I will read again and again.
Andrew Smith‘s books include Grasshopper Jungle and The Alex Crow, due in March.
Sara Zarr: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro
Each story is perfectly illuminating and written with absolute authority. Munro works magic in how she covers decades and generations in a single story, showing how no moment or person exists in isolation.
Sara Zarr‘s books include The Lucy Variations and How to Save a Life.
E. Lockhart: Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins
I mainly read YA because I have a PhD in literature and I need the complexity and emotion to remain intellectually engaged, but sometimes I do like to relax with an adult book. It’s nice to rest my mind with long descriptions and philosophical digressions and to read about feelings like ambivalence and activities like elder care. I really enjoy Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume because he writes so well about vegetables before he gets to the sexy bits.
E. Lockhart‘s books include We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.
Jenny Han: I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
My favorite adult book is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, about a teenaged girl named Cassandra who lives in a crumbling castle in England with a failed writer for a father and a nudist stepmother. It was set in the 1930s, written in the 1940s, and yet it feels as fresh and as contemporary as if it were written today. Her voice is utterly disarming and lovely and it has never left me.
Jenny Han‘s books include To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Summer I Turned Pretty.
Sarah Dessen: A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving and The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
It’s so hard to pick favorites when it comes to books I love. But two I always come back to, again and again, are John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. At the heart of both are just the most amazing, well-written characters, the kind that you find yourself thinking about days, weeks, even years after you finish reading. I love all of Irving’s work, but Owen Meany is special. I’ve probably re-read it five times. And while anything by Anne Tyler’s is guaranteed to be wonderful, I have a soft sport for The Accidental Tourist. Two quirky, lonely people who manage to find each other: what’s not to love?
Sarah Dessen‘s books include The Moon and More and the upcoming Saint Anything, due in May.
Robin Wasserman: What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson
I’m going to cheat and interpret “favorite” as “favorite-of-the-year,” which would be Adam Wilson’s What’s Important Is Feeling, a short story collection that explores the perils and glories of male adolescence, the pain of loss, the necessity of human connection, and the very important question of whether a live lobster makes for a practical sex toy. The stories are unexpected, absurd, hilariously obscene — yet also, in places, so full of pain and longing that this is the first book I’ve read in years that’s managed to make me cry.
Robin Wasserman‘s books include The Waking Dark and The Book of Blood and Shadow.
Nova Ren Suma: The Last Life, Claire Messud
There is this one book I come back to again and again, needing to revisit every few years: The Last Life by Claire Messud. It’s told through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old girl, a sweeping story of complicated family history, loss of innocence, nationalism and racism and search for identity, and every time I read it I find something memorable and gutting and new.
Nova Ren Suma‘s books include Imaginary Girls, 17 and Gone, and The Walls Around Us, due in March.
Brandy Colbert: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read Americanah almost two years ago, but I still think about it often. As always, Adichie has created complex characters whose stories unfold in gorgeous prose, but I’m particularly impressed with the honest yet nuanced way she handled the topics of race, hair (yes, hair), and relationships.
Brandy Colbert is the author of Pointe.
Natalie Standiford: Slaves of New York, Tama Janowitz
After a childhood spent devouring books about brave pioneer girls and sickly British orphans, followed by an adolescent diet of Fitzgerald and Hemingway (all of which I loved, don’t get me wrong, but none of it much resembled my real life), I was amazed to discover, once I finally grew up, the stories of Tama Janowitz, in particular, Slaves of New York. The main character, Eleanor, was me! Much more like me than Laura Ingalls, that’s for sure. We were both in our twenties, lived in the East Village, and had a tendency to feel faint when out partying. We were both tentative and unsure of ourselves, though she was much funnier about it than I was. I couldn’t get enough of her.
Natalie Standiford‘s books include The Boy on the Bridge and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters.
Una LaMarche: Just Between Us Girls: Secrets About Men From The Madam Who Knows, Sydney Biddle Barrows
“I stole this book off of my Aunt Karen’s shelf in 1997. It taught me many invaluable lessons about comportment and grooming in front of men who might someday be paying me for sex.”
Una LaMarche‘s books include Five Summers and Like No Other.
Morgan Rhodes: The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
“The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite adult novels. Despite an original publication date of 1986, its super-trendy dystopian and feminist themes clearly show that Atwood is not only an esteemed author but also a very powerful psychic.”
Morgan Rhodes is the author of the Falling Kingdoms series.
Tommy Wallach: The George Smiley novels, John le Carré
[Smiley is a character in Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, and The Secret Pilgrim]
I love John le Carré’s George Smiley novels because, like Graham Greene, le Carré really is writing literary fiction, only in the guise of genre. It reminds me that what differentiates “bad” genre fiction from “literary” genre fiction is all in the execution.
Tommy Wallach is the author of We All Looked Up, due in March 2015.
Ransom Riggs: Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
I devoured Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation in one big gulp. It’s a bizarre and beautiful mind-trip of a book about an expedition into a wilderness abandoned long ago, after military experiments rendered the place uninhabitable for reasons that become clear only as the story unfolds. It’s like Lost but weirder and more focused, told with a sharp eye for environmental and psychological detail, and narrated in a style both oddly formal and totally hypnotic. I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Ransom Riggs‘ books include including Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children and its followup, Hollow City.