The Teen Fiction That Meant The Most To Me: Revisiting My Favourite Young Adult Books

One of the treats of my teen years were those visits to the Young Adult spread of a local independent bookstore – it had a real chalkboard feel. I loved deliberating over handpicked recommendations, noticing what was new in that week and holding the paper bag in which the book was popped…

Some of my happiest memories involved my mum running errands in town and, on occasion, bringing back a new title for me to read that afternoon. There was a simple criteria for her choices: She’d go on the cover art, the blurb and a little snippet of the text, choosing what she felt I’d enjoy. This post is dedicated to her really – and those titles plucked from the teen fiction aisle that I practically devoured:

Slow Living & the Wilds – Scarlett by Cathy Cassidy

Mindfulness and the homemade ties that bind had a head start here back in 2006. I was about 11-12 when I was swept away by the rather romantic sounding Cathy Cassidy and chain read all of her books (one of my shelves resembled a shining, shimmering rainbow thanks to the foil covers that she used back in the day) – Scarlett being the one that stands out in my mind the most. This spun a tale of a tongue-pierced 12-year-old (Scarlett, who’s calling card was her ‘ketchup’ red-dyed hair) riding a family rift all the way to Ireland where her dad has hitched up his wagon. We see Londoner Scarlett angst-ing her way through what sounds like a rather dreamy free-range stay in a cottage in the countryside. A cottage, which I’d wager, would top the AirBnB charts these days for a choice rural retreat. Enter step-mum Clare, who makes soap, is pregnant and wholesome in an earthy way. I could definitely see Clare dominating Etsy, which could be a lovely sideline to the AirBnB. She already has a kid, Holly, who Scarlett sets to turn by way of a needle-job lip piercing (ultimate edge in 2006). The book is about displacement, slowing down and battling self-interest, with a black-horse riding boy of the land, Kian, showing us the true spirit of unrest. It’s a coming of age for the wilful Scarlett, into which Cassidy sprinkled the magic she has when it comes to not being able to put a book down. The recipe for this? Vivacity, empathy, sadness, fear and hope – a heady mix that was as emotive as it was grounded in the realities you really ought to read about.

A Hand-sewn Fairytale – Dragonskin Slippers by Jessica Day George

Oh, I could write an ode to this series. It created a world… it introduced me to hand embroidery early on… it brought the incredibly deadpan and relatable character of Creel into my life. Jessica Day George took the greatest care in making her fantasy a reality: From the thoughtful descriptions of Creel’s self-starter apprenticeship, to the network of guilds, dragons, court and politics that our heroine wove in and out of. One of my most well-thumbed teen reads, Dragonskin Slippers was an imaginative balm with its creativity, inventiveness and charm. To be honest, I was sold from the moment that Creel was looking for the most sensible, comfy pair of shoes from a dragon’s hoard at the start of the story. This girl was practical and had the all-purpose wit to match. She was, in many ways, the kind of girl I wanted to read about – because she reminded me of myself. The side plots that tied the characters together were also top notch, in particular the very sweet relationship between bawdy dress shop beauty Marta and the mute, all-knowing Tobin. Exquisitely well-written, this book deserved its spot in my backpack.

The Glittering & the Gold – The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

Sheer indulgence, I believe that this was pitched as the late-19th century version of Gossip Girl back when it was released in 2007. We had Manhattan, we had old and new money, we had Worth gowns and enough intrigue to shake a stick at. In other words, as a history-loving teen with a fancy for the decadent, I was wholly enchanted and sold from the first ball-drenched chapter. With four books to sweep me off my feet in total, this was the book that had me enquiring about when the next would arrive at the bookstore. I was also well and truly spoilt as Anna Godbersen gave the gift of another series once the last in the quartet had been published – Bright Young Things and with it, another decade (the 1920s) to worship. Even then, I enjoyed historical fiction that was well-researched and Godbersen certainly did her homework to bring the gilded age to life for an unacquainted reader. I feel that this book was the one that made me more inclined to read into dress history, material culture and etiquette manuals. Anna’s epoch writing was laced with style and beauty: It was an invitation, almost, to study Art History – which, indeed I did.

Across the Atlantic – Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

An education in quiet truths, Just Listen was the summer read of 2006 that took my 12-year-old self by surprise. Sarah Dessen has a knack for crisp, cool writing: It’s the contemporary American dream of beautiful glass homes and high school tropes made smart, reflective and insightful. Just Listen, along with her is other books, is very much a lesson in perfectly balanced realism and pace. I slowed down when I read Just Listen; it took me, theoretically, to the poolside. Through Sarah’s writing, I encountered parts of life that aren’t always perfect and, you’re really taken along for the ride in a way that is genuine and ultimately meaningful. Just Listen, for example, was all about struggles – most of them silent. The story artfully addressed eating disorders and anger management ahead of the agenda – leaving you with a smile, rather than a frown on your face at the other side of it all. It’s self-discovery, but by no means contrived in it’s awareness.

The takeaway? I’ve always liked my writing smart and it’s amazing what stays with you. Those early imprints in my reading were ever so important and it’s no understatement that they inspired an individuality I may otherwise not have found. The thoughts on the four books that I’ve shared with you are by no means authoritative or groundbreaking (and of course this list could be greatly added to – I powered through a lot of reading back then), but, I like to think of this as a reminder to dip back into books that meant the world to you at a particular moment in time.

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