Young Adult—with a capital YA—is a massive part of the publishing marketplace. John Green, the author of books like The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, has full-on rock star status these days, and he and his fellow YA authors have tons of shelf space at the bookstore.
It wasn’t always this way. For generations, kids like me and my friends reached for adult books in an attempt to punch above our fighting weight. We were looking for books to help pull us through the muck of adolescence and put narrative weight behind our search for our adult identities. Oh, and, yeah, we were also looking for sex scenes we could share with our friends over pizza and French fries in the cafeteria.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews: This is a terrible, terrible book, but I dare you to find a woman who grew up in the ’80s who hasn’t read it. It is about incest, child abuse and psychological torture. Yep. And we loved it. A lot. (So much so that Lifetime just remade the TV miniseries with big-time stars like Ellen Burstyn, Kiernan Shipka and Heather Graham.) Incest, people! Seriously.
Congo by Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park gets all the press, and rightly so, but for many of us, Congo was our first excursion into Crichton-land. Crichton imagined his novel as a retelling of King Solomon’s Mines. I imagined it as the worst possible outcome of the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World. How do you stop a gorilla from charging? Take away his credit card.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King: One of the tag lines for Pet Sematary was, “Pets are for life.” The book tells the story of a dead cat that comes back to life, and not for another cuddle or a bowl of kibble. Between this and the 1989 movie, I have never looked at one of those sad pet tombstones the same way again.
Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice: No sparkly vampires here. This was full on Southern Gothic with the emphasis on goth. In high school, reading Anne Rice was crazy cool. The books were impossible to get in the library. I am not a Rice completist. This is the only book I read and turns out it was too scary for me. I should have learned my lesson with Stephen King’s undead cat.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith: This is one of those deep cuts for the advanced book readers who weren’t ready for John le Carré but liked their Cold War crime served extra-cold. I will never forget the premise: Dead bodies are found frozen in the snow in the big park in central Moscow with their fingerprints cut off. I still don’t know how you solve that one, and I read the whole book.
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis: From my seat in my middle school library in Tennessee, the idea of being young and rich in Los Angeles was, ahem, intoxicating. The seedy truth of Ellis’s drug-addled postmodern classic freaked me out way more than Nancy Reagan and that egg in a frying pan combined. Even so, I still watched the movie on HBO more than I should have because, well, Robert Downey Jr.
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins: What did we do before there were housewives of either the Desperate or Real variety? We read Jackie Collins. Hollywood Wives is trashy but not too trashy, dirty but not too dirty. It’s like when you switched from Seventeen magazine to Cosmopolitan. (There’s also a Hollywood Wives: The New Generation that Collins published in 2002, but with Real Housewives in every zip code, who has the time?)
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel: OK, I admit it, I never made it all the way through this book, or any of the others in the Earth’s Children series. (There are six.) So many of my friends read these books that followed a girl named Ayla. My friends told me there were sex scenes. I never found them. Just lots of Cro-Magnons and woolly mammoths. But, hey, reading about an earthquake 30,000 years ago is super grown-up, right?