A flatlay of classic books for teenagers

How many have you read? Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

If you hadn’t noticed, young adult (YA) books have exploded in recent years. They’re everywhere, often transcending age boundaries – a 2012 survey revealed that 55% of YA readers are actually adults – and bookshelves with dozens of film adaptations. Ever since the release of blockbuster series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, in particular, YA books have dominated popular culture and it’s not hard to see why. Featuring characters we love (and those we love to hate), addictive plots, imagination and inventiveness by the bucket-load, it’s unsurprising that YA books have made it into the mainstream.

In comparison, classics can seem like damp squibs, conjuring images of submissive women doting on disdainful husbands, countless pastoral scenes, winding plots and outdated cultural attitudes. Look a little bit closer, though, and it’s clear that many young adult novels draw inspiration from some of the most well-known classics, from Twilight’s similarities to gothic romance (think Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights) to The Hunger Games’ dystopian roots in books such as Brave New World and Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

Many classics, at their core, also remain incredibly relevant to our current day and age. Jane Eyre, for instance, is full of Charlotte Brontë’s commentary on family, social class, gender inequality, religion and yes, love – all of which are as important in 2021 as they were when Jane Eyre was first published in 1847.

But there are teen-friendly classics beyond the Brontës’, The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, and this list aims to highlight some of them. If you want breakneck plots, to glean knowledge of different cultures, a creeping sense of dread or just a laugh, have a look at our list for your next read.

Adventure and intrigue

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

A fast-paced story set in Havana featuring Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman with money troubles. When a mysterious Englishman offers him money in return for a little spying, things start to get more complicated. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds, though, as there are a few unexpected twists to keep you glued to this fun espionage novel.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1933)

Although best known for The Maltese Falcon, this book is classic hard-boiled Hammett with its pacy plot, snappy dialogue and sprinkling of humour. Nick Charles and his wife Nora are planning to have a quiet Christmas with their pet Schnauzer and a case of good Scotch… until a bullet-riddled corpse and a missing inventor forces Nick back into the sleuthing business.

Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929)

The first in Gladys Mitchell’s crime series starring the inimitable Mrs Bradley, a psychoanalyst and unorthodox amateur detective. A great choice for fans of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. Speedy Death is a classic country house mystery that begins with Mrs Bradley as prime suspect.

A more worldly experience

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Okonkwo is a great warrior whose fame has spread throughout the local region. Wanting to escape his father’s legacy, he is determined not to show weakness but his pride may also lead to his downfall. Arguably the most authentic novel ever written about Nigerian life at the turn of the twentieth century, Achebe’s first novel is considered to be his magnum opus.

 

Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan (1943)

A collection of short stories in which Narayan describes how, in India, “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story”. Malgudi Days is made up of 19 stories full of colour, vitality and the essence of India, each chronicling the life of a resident of the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi.

 

The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek (1957)

Another collection of short stories, though these couldn’t be more different from Narayan’s Malgudi Days; The Elephant is filled with hilarious and unnerving short stories that satirise life in Poland under a totalitarian regime. Fans of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected or Kafka’s Metamorphosis will love this book.

 

Gothic literature

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

A classic of the genre, The Turn of the Screw is intensely creepy and must only be read with the light on. A young governess is sent to a country house to care for two ethereal yet strangely distant and silent children, Miles and Flora. A chilling ghost story on the one hand, The Turn of the Screw could also be viewed as a subtle exploration of Victorian culture.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Most of the Blackwood family are dead, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, her sister Constance – accused and acquitted of the deaths – and their disabled uncle are the only ones left alive. The tension and paranoia gradually build to superb effect, and Merricat is one of the best-written literary characters ever. 

 

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story first published in 1892, is regarded as an important early work of American feminist writing, which illustrates the 19th century’s harsh attitude towards women’s mental and physical health. This edition also includes another novella by the same author, which imagines what would happen if society was run entirely by women.

Good for a laugh

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse (1938)

The British do funny novels like no-one else and Wodehouse is a true genius of the tradition. A marvellous cure for a rainy winter’s day is to settle yourself in a cosy spot with this book – potentially the finest of all Wodehouse’s work. Written, as ever, with the utmost warmth, affection and splendour, this will lift your spirits and have you weeping with laughter in no time.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

Stella Gibbons’ debut novel turns English bucolic literary tradition on its head and is still one of the funniest books ever written. Far outlasting the targets of its satire, this wickedly funny tale of rural life in the 1930s details the season orphaned London socialite Flora Poste’s spends amongst her rustic relations, the Starkadders.

 

The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith (1982)

The memoir of a respectable man, Charles Pooter, who has just moved into a desirable home in Holloway. Full of suburban angst, this novel remains remarkably modern – and no less amusing – even a century after it was first published in the renowned satirical magazine, Punch. A glorious caricature and social history of middle-class London life in the late Victorian era.

 

Sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian fiction

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

In Anthony Burgess’ nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by Alex – a 15-year-old boy who enjoys rampaging through a dystopian world with his gang of droogs, on the hunt for terrible thrills. In essence, this is an exploration of the morality of free will; whether it is better to choose to be bad than to be conditioned to be good.

Blindness by Jose Saramago (1995)

An unexplained plague of “white blindness” weeps the country and the government hastily try to quarantine the afflicted to stop the spread of the disease. A convincing portrait on the complete breakdown of civilisation in the wake of an epidemic no one can contain. Saramago’s idiosyncratic writing style may not be for everyone but this is an incredible book nonetheless.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Picture the setting: a totalitarian Christian theocracy in a post-nuclear world. Most women are incapable of having children so the few who still can are forced to be breeding machines, subjugated for the greater good of society. Often harrowing but always compelling, Margaret Atwood’s classic tale is a fascinating take on a dystopia rooted in gender discrimination. 

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

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