The picture of dorian gray
Oscar Wilde is often considered to be among the wittiest writers the English language has produced. Where there may sometimes be some concern that young adult readers will encounter difficulty with the language of a classic, Wilde’s prose is alive with a scintillating sense of humour that carries the reader along effortlessly. To quote much of it in isolation here would be to do it an injustice (the book is at its best when its barbs are buried in its prose), but it’s impossible not to quote it at all.
“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”
Perhaps more important than the simple pleasure of its language, The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the relatively straightforward tale of a man so beautiful that it renders him immortal and incorruptible. It’s an odd premise, but one that immediately grabs the reader’s attention and draws them in.
Many of us remember our first encounters with Steinbeck from the books that we were made read for school. Depending on your age at the time, that might have been Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath (perhaps even The Pearl, though that’s far rarer school fare). Where Cannery Row differs from those books is that it never seems to last quite long enough. Every sentence leaves the reader wanting more.
Where some of the other more commonly recommended Steinbeck books can feel a little contrived, Cannery Row manages to feel strangely true-to-life. The cast of characters feel as though they’ve all just been thrown together, but rather than feeling haphazard the whole book seems to fit together perfectly with Steinbeck’s prose. To read Cannery Row is an invitation to fall in love with Steinbeck’s style.
Obviously, some of the appeal of the two above has been that they are relatively short. Emma, by contrast, is a very long read altogether. That said, Emma is also an excellent introduction to Austen for readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure. It’s almost certainly the most frivolous of the Austen novels, with a healthy sense of humour running through the whole novel.
It’s also a novel that is fundamentally concerned with the inexperience of youth, a topic that is perhaps closer to the lived-experience of most young adult readers than the themes of many other classic novels. If nothing else, the combination of humour and appropriateness to its audience makes Emma a perfect fit for young adult readers who might not be able to identify with some of Austen’s other characters so well, but who can certainly appreciate her style.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson is perhaps better known for her short fiction than for her novels, but of those novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a particular highlight. There is a simple pleasure to Jackson’s prose that simultaneously conjures a sense of menace and draws the reader in. Hers is a style that is particularly well-suited to the mystery genre and the sense of strange isolation on which it thrives.
The novel is presented from the point of view of the 18-year-old Merricat, who is effectively the only member of her family not living in total isolation. Given Jackson’s profound influence on genre fiction writers, Jackson sits in a perfect spot for young adult readers looking for classic fiction who already know that they enjoy mystery or horror stories.
A connecticut yankee at king arthur's court
Whenever people mention Twain in the context of young adult reading, they tend to talk about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Given that it’s a coming-of-age novel, there’s a certain inescapable logic to it, but there are other Twain novels that are far more immediately engaging (and also far less likely to be required reading for school). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court does exactly what it says on the tin, telling the story of a 19th century man who finds himself transported to medieval England.
The book’s approach to the down-to-earth practicality of life in sixth century England means that it resonates more closely with Don Quixote than with something like Le Morte d'Arthur, with which it shares more obvious thematic similarities.
The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas remains perhaps the quintessential writer of serialised fiction. Where books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers can often look imposing, the fact that Dumas published the works as serials meant that there is a very reliable natural rhythm to the text. Almost every chapter has its own independent cliffhanger, while some offer side stories and divergences. That aside, the language is typical of 19th century French, which trends towards longer, multi-clause sentences, and it prepares readers for more old-fashioned English (which often trended in a similar direction).
The Count of Monte Cristo is particularly well-paced, keeping the action and the tension high throughout. It’s has a little less of the feel of an action movie than The Three Musketeers, but it makes up for that in that the whole narrative is contained to one book. Above all else, it’s the story of one man’s quest for revenge and the extent to which it drives him.
It also makes a very strong case for further education… and unlimited inherited wealth, obviously, but education first.
The Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling’s writing is tricky to recommend, not least because it’s so often laden with the (often racist) views of the time in which it was written. With that said, The Jungle Book remains a beautiful work that often combines the artifice of Kipling’s prose with some elements of the stories that readers will already be familiar with from the Disney adaptation.
Where The Jungle Book really excels is in its frankly staggering descriptions of the jungle and its inhabitants. There are some genuine highlights, but to quote the passages that mark Kipling’s writing as truly special would only diminish them when you encounter them in their proper context. It’s worth reading for the relationship between Shere Khan, who is described as being like a fire that tears through the jungle, and real fire, which terrifies him.
The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Valley of Fear
There are those who will argue (until they’re blue in the face) that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t qualify as classic literature, and while we will grudgingly accept that they’re probably right about the short stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a different animal to the serials. Where most readers will already be familiar with the basic format of the Sherlock Holmes stories from a young age, The Hound of the Baskervilles presents us with something new.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be said for the formal differences between this, the longest of the Holmes stories (and perhaps the only one that can properly be called a ‘novel’ rather than a novella’) and the short story collections. However, focussing on the formal differences ignores the stylistic differences, which see The Hound of the Baskervilles as something of a blend between the typical detective stories and a gothic horror. With Holmes isolated outside London, the sense of comfort and security that often underpins the short stories is absent. It’s an interesting twist on an established premise and eminently readable. It’d be a shame to miss it.
The catcher in the rye
This might seem like the most obvious possible suggestion, but we’ve kept it until the very end for just that reason. The Catcher in the Rye is a book that captures the feeling of a particular period in life so well that it’s almost an entirely different book depending on when in your life you read it. If it seems obvious, then that’s only because it is.
While The Catcher in the Rye is a fine book in its own right, the real reason we recommend it to young adults is not just because of the book’s style and pacing, nor even for Holden Caulfield himself. Rather, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those rare books that will read entirely differently later in life. It seems a shame to deprive yourself of the opportunity to read it at just the right time. It’s not a book to get around to some day, but a book to read now and then read again later.