Are, it seems to me, generally the ones you first read in high school. I don’t mean the ones that you’re forced to read for class, of course, though come to that I think I was scarred for life by LORD OF THE FLIES and ANIMAL FARM. No, I mean the stories you read voluntarily and fall in love with and read again and again. The books that turn into comfort reads, so that you reach for them when, say, you need to take yourself away from the exhaustion and misery of pneumonia.
For me, this was THE RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy by Patricia McKillip. And THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley. And LENS OF THE WORLD by RA MacAvoy. (Is there something about authors whose name start with Mc or Mac?) Let’s see, what else? All right: CUCKOO’S EGG by CJ Cherryh is on the list, and the Chanur series. So is SHARDS OF HONOR by Bujold. There are others, but that’s a reasonable sample.
I don’t think you can really tell, when you’re a teenager, whether a book is objectively great — I suspect you tend to forgive a book’s flaws if it really speaks to you. Though, to be sure, a book can be flawed and yet be great.
But what I do know for sure is, the really good ones grab you hard. They glow in your memory: There, that one, that one is perfect. Even years and decades later, you might be actually offended when you read any non-glowing review of one of these perfect books. And rightly so. Those stories deserve your passion: they shaped you not only as a reader, but also as a person. What you can compromise on, where you must stand firm, what matters most, the kind of person you want to be, all those deep questions of identity that you’re struggling with in your teenage years, that’s where those books sink in and take hold.
And no wonder. Because it turns out that teenagers probably really do feel everything more intensely than adults, that the memories laid down during adolescence really are more vivid and more emotionally charged, that a teenager’s social experiences really do have an important and permanent effect on how he or she reacts to all kinds of social interactions later.
Which is not necessarily a good thing, since the hothouse of teen society we call high school is often pretty toxic. The article I just linked is pretty negative about the effects of the high school experience, even for popular kids. Probably justifiably. Remember a few weeks ago when a long-time teacher, Brandy, weighed in on a discussion about “books for boys” vs “books for girls”, commenting that boys in public school totally reject books with girl protagonists, whereas boys in co-op schools don’t? I think there’s a lot to worry about in high school culture today, especially in the way it’s so divorced from the often more generous and more tolerant adult culture.
But. But, especially with that kind of concern . . . isn’t it then even more important to find the kind of story which holds up before you, in the most vivid way possible, a model to which you can rightly aspire? When, besides your teen years, do you more need to fall into stories featuring heroes who take responsibility for their own lives and for the people around them and the whole world, who show clear agency, who fight to defeat evil, who never give up or give in? Heroes who are, perhaps, a bit larger than life; who might be realistically flawed but are still genuinely admirable, who aspire to be better people and to achieve great things — and who, against long odds, succeed.
Or at least, those are the sorts of books I wanted as a kid, and the sort I hope kids fall in love with today.