Danny, the Champion of the World
1975, Jonathan Cape; current edition from Puffin
This book, Roald Dahl’s adaptation of his short story “The Champion of the World,” is a terrifically fun adventure story filled with the kind of fast-paced action that keeps you rushing and tumbling over the words in your hurry to know what happens next. The central adventure is one where Danny and his father devise a masterplan to poach every last pheasant from Mr. Victor Hazell’s estate, so that none are left by the time of the annual pheasant shooting party, and the obnoxious Mr. Hazell gets a mighty snubbing. But it’s not just an adventure story, it’s also an object lesson on family, love, loyalty, and human bonds of all kinds. I read it when I was 12, about Danny’s age, and it was huge for me, because it portrayed a wonderfully warm and affirming parent-child relationship, the likes of which I’d never seen—not even close. My own parents were emphatically not warm or affirming, a fact I’d taken for granted as just “life,” until Danny showed me that there was a totally different world out there, one where parents didn’t just love their children, but valued them above all else. I was an odd 12-year-old, not least because I felt a strong maternal urge even at that tender age—probably because I longed to reverse the legacy of my own mother’s style of parenthood. This book, more than maybe anything else, showed me what good parenting looked like and formed the basis of my image of who I wanted to be someday. While it is categorized as YA lit and Dahl specifically wrote it for a younger audience, I strongly suspect that he meant for parents and those who want to be parents to read it as well—the last sentence contains an instruction to parents to be “SPARKY.” As a preteen cursed with an unhappy home, I clung to this book as well as to Anne Fine’s Flour Babies, another YA novel about parenting. They gave me solace and a window into what life could be like. They gave sent hope into a hopeless place. —Ragini
When a plane carrying 50 contestants from the American Miss Teen Dream Pageant crashes on a desert island, the surviving passengers realize they have to put aside their differences and work together. Everything that’s been drilled into their heads—how to pose, how to smile, how to recite stock answers—becomes trivial in the face of their needs for food and shelter. Here, far away from civilization, they learn who they really are. Not in a scary, Lord of the Flies way; more in a liberating, “Hey, it’s OK to not want to be a beauty queen just as it’s OK to want to be a beauty queen just as it’s totally OK to be queer” kind of way. Bray’s satire of beauty-queen culture is smart and silly and ambitious and touching and, while not always subtle in its critique of contemporary Western society, a whole lot of fun. —Anna F.
The Hunger Games
I was really late to the Hunger Games party—I didn’t read the first book until this year. A million people had told me it was sooooo good, but the recommendation that finally got me was from a friend who called it the most honest fictional portrayal of a PTSD survivor she’d ever read. I was in a place where I needed to remind myself to be strong, so I dove into the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager whose district has been oppressed by the evil capitol all her life, and whose has been the one keeping her family alive since her dad was killed in a mining accident when she was little. When she volunteers to compete in the brutal Hunger Games (I don’t need to tell you guys what those are, right?) in her sister’s place, it makes sense. She knows she might not survive, but nbd—she’s been fighting for survival for as long as she can remember. This book (and the rest of the series) is amazing on multiple levels—it’s a thrilling page-turner, a romance, and a frightening statement about society (is this where reality TV is headed?). Katniss is an unforgettable character, not just a strong female lead character but instantly recognizable as a fellow survivor. I’ve never rooted for a fictional person harder. —Stephanie
Young, rich, and living in a rocketship on her parents estate, Astrid Krieger gets what she wants. She has always been adept at manipulating those around her so that she’s in control of the situation—until, that is, an anonymous classmate rats her out for cheating. Kicked out of her elite private school, she is sent to a public school, but she is determined to exact revenge on whoever ratted her out. When I finished this book, my immediate reaction was God, I wish I wrote this. It is laugh-yourself-silly, read-your-favorite-passages-out-loud-to-your-best-friend funny; it is poignant; it is layered. Though Astrid seems downright sociopathic at times, she is so complicated and well written that you’ll be rooting for her by the end. —Anna F.
2013, Harper Teen
This book is a YA fairy tale that never talks down to you. It tells the story of Sam, a bumbling virgin, on a sad summer getaway with his doofus of an older brother and their checked-out dad after his mom leaves home for a feminist collective called Women’s Land. The huge, lady-shaped void in Sam’s life is filled by the beach town’s Girls: capital-G, sexy, mysterious blondes with endless cigarette packs and names like DeeDee, Taffany, and Kristle. They also have a big secret—a clever, mythical twist on daddy issues. The story’s perfectly flawed teenage lexicon, which includes a fair amount of realistically bad words and worse ideas, takes raw look at an unfair world full of double standards about, for instance, sluts and studs. Although the protagonist is a teenage boy, the book is actually about powerful women and their magic. —Joe
2013, Zest Books
This graphic memoir just came out on Tuesday, and I think it should be everyone’s back-to-school read, especially any seniors in high school or college freshman. When Ramsey Beyer moved from a small town in Michigan to Baltimore to attend art school in 2003, she documented her “little fish in a big pond” experience on LiveJournal and on tons of tons of lists that she made into zines. She held on to those writings, and here she combines them with new drawings to share the story of her first year of college. Meeting new friends, falling for someone for the first time, questioning your artistic and life-plan choices, beginning to understand the world outside of your personal bubble—it’s all here, in compulsively readable form. I laughed, I nodded along when I recognized my own experiences, and, most of all, I wished I could send it back in time to high school me. I would have felt so much more prepared to conquer freshman year If I’d read this book. —Stephanie
The Count of Monte Cristo
1844, Journal des Débats (serial)
Unless you are proficient enough in French to read The Count of Monte Cristo in the original, try to find yourself a good translation. Some translations are really weak and neuter the text; others are abridged, which is a shame because the story never drags. (I recommend Robin Buss’s translation, published Penguin Classics in 2007.) The story is about Edmund Dantes, who, wrongly convicted of a crime, gets sent to a hellhole of a prison, escapes, and then vows to spend the rest of his life enacting the most elaborate revenge plot ever. It is considered a classic, and you can see why—it’s a smart book with fully realized characters and insightful things to say about human nature and faith and vengeance and ambition so on, but also: It is a page-turner! Here are some things you will find in this book: A guy faking his own death! Hidden treasure! Fake identities! More fake identities! Secret love children! A subplot with a lesbian subtext! When you finish this book, you will feel a hole in your heart and ask yourself why it wasn’t another thousand pages. —Anna F.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me: A Graphic Memoir
I’m very interested in the relationship between mental illness and creativity, which Tavi obviously knows, because she’s the one who tipped me off about this book, which chronicles in words and pictures Ellen Forney’s experience with bipolar disorder. She’s diagnosed in the middle of a manic phase, just before her 30th birthday and right after getting a full-back tattoo that encompasses EVERYTHING about her. Going over the diagnosis with her therapist, she realizes pretty quickly that the description is spot-on and becomes an official a member of what she calls the “Van Gogh Club” of “crazy artists,” a status that secretly pleases her because it holds so many romantic connotations, but which also terrifies her, because what if treating her mental illness ruins her art? But, even scarier, what would happen if she left it untreated? The comic-book medium is perfect for portraying the emotional ups and downs that Forney experiences as she cycles through mania and depression, the frustrating process of finding the right meds, and her struggle to understand her illness, while conveying the life-affirmingly dark sense of humor that she maintained throughout. Anyone interested in understanding bipolar disorder, the connection between art and mental illness, or just how amazing and resilient people can be should read this book. —Stephanie ♦