Four Classics Every Young Adult Should Read
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I love how Tolstoy’s characters such as Pierre and Prince Andrew change their minds about topics constantly through the book. The Freemasons are THE path to goodness — until Pierre spots their hypocrisy. War is THE path to glory — until Prince Andrew perceives its futility. I laughed when I saw how Tolstoy mocks how fickle we humans are because it helped illuminate my own waffling tendencies. Even people with the most tightly held beliefs got them from somewhere, and I love how Tolstoy points out that our opinions are based on our company and subjective experiences.
Why should every young adult read it? This book made me question why I held certain beliefs — was it because I really thought they were true, or because it was socially convenient to join a certain group? I hope Tolstoy’s characters will also help you reflect on how and why you became who you are… and if you want to make any adjustments.
For the runner up Tolstoy, see: Anna Karenina. It was pretty hard not to put this one first, but see my description of Age of Innocence below.
2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The central question in East of Eden is: is a human truly free to make decisions? As well, of course, with: how can Cathy/ Kate possibly be so evil to such a kind man as Adam? The title of the book East of Eden is religious, and the subject matter plays on this theme, but not like a typical religious text would. Steinbeck features two sets of brothers who play on the Cain and Abel theme, and it can be telling to analyze why the sets play out differently.
Why should every young adult read it? I like to try to figure out what certain authors think about religion, especially those whose views are not black and white. I am curious to see which character you relate to most in this book, because I think it will tell you a lot about yourself. When I read this book, I related most to Aron — not because our names are similar — but because I had, in the past, used the Church as a shield to flee things that made me uncomfortable.
For the runner up Steinbeck, see: Grapes of Wrath. Yes, Steinbeck really likes writing about California (he grew up in Salinas). Though Cup of Gold (his earliest novel) is also an interesting read, mostly to analyze how he developed as a writer.
3. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
The first few chapters of this book are enough to give you heartache over the “rejects” whom the world despises. The scene opens on the infamous Jean Valjean who is just trying to get some food and a roof over his head, but is spurned by the villagers of France because of his history as a convict. In one particularly sad scene, he longs to be a dog, because then he could get a yard and some scraps thrown to him. The book also later deals with the tension that Javert, a strict policeman, suffers when he has to realize that the world is not black and white, and that a former convict might actually be a hero.
Why should every young adult read it? This book will prompt you to consider how society still needs to change to help those with a criminal history reintegrate. It will also challenge you to try to understand why characters such as Javert would go to such extreme lengths to convict a seemingly harmless man like Valjean. It will also, of course, provide much more context and backstory for beautiful and tragic musical characters like Fantine and Eponine. It really made me appreciate how the composers of Les Mis took such an epic and boiled it down to the musical we know today.
For the runner up Hugo, see: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo really likes the underdogs)
4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Wharton presents a thought-provoking 1920’s New York, where a divorcée is spurned, but also admired, for her boldness and vivacity. Wharton, much like Austen, uses characters to represent and question themes such as innocence and guile. Another interesting comparison could be between Anna Karenina and Countess Ellen, who appear in different continents and different time periods, but suffer comparable societal prejudice after being separated or divorced from husbands.
Why should every young adult read it? As a woman, it made me very grateful for progress that has been made in terms of not shunning women for marriages gone wrong and sparing men from any blame. As a human, it was fascinating to see the changes New York City, and by extension, the whole country, has gone through since the publication.
For the runner up Wharton, see: The House of Mirth.
Happy reading! Would love to get suggestions for more classics to check out in the comments. Thanks!