Two things you should know about me that might not be obvious: 1) I’m dead set on not having kids (for several reasons that could be their own blog post, except that it’s really nobody’s business) and 2) I have one niece who just turned six and is basically my child anyway.
My niece is, in my unbiased opinion, the best child ever. Not only is she objectively adorable, she’s super smart and—bonus!—she already loves books although she doesn’t read on her own yet. She was also born on Jane Austen’s birthday, and from that day forward I’ve been mentally saving up a list of books I read in my youth that I think are incredibly important. Some of them I still own and will hopefully literally pass down to her at some point, while others I plan on gifting her when she’s old enough to really appreciate them. Here are my Top 10, in order of age recommendation—
1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
I was eight years old when I first discovered Anne Shirley, the lovable, fiery red-headed orphan girl from the late 1800s. Anne showed me that it’s okay to be a little weird, to have a big imagination and big dreams. Anne is this tiny girl with huge emotions that everyone around her wishes she would control, but she proves that it’s her biggest asset in the many ways she influences those around her. I read the entire series over again every few years, following Anne from an eleven-year-old girl to a young woman teaching school to a wife and mother; each time I re-read these books, I gain something new from them.
2. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I considered leaving this off the list because it seems very cliché to rant about how Harry Potter changed my life when I was nine. And yet, I can’t really picture my adolescence without the constant waiting for the next book to come out, and the obsessive re-reading of the existing series in anticipation of the latest book release. In many ways, I feel I grew up while reading Harry Potter, learning about life as well as having an escape from my boring muggle circumstances. Besides, it’s basically a series about love overcoming all obstacles, and that’s something I think we could all use right now.
Another clichéd choice, but hear me out! As dated as Judy Blume may be in certain ways, this book is a classic. For a quiet, bookish child like myself, this was a way for me to learn about what was going to happen to my body. My friends and I checked this book out from the library when we were too shy to even ask our parents about our periods. Fun fact about me: I literally had to write my mom a letter asking her to take me bra shopping—that’s how terrified I was of the whole puberty thing. I highly doubt my niece will be quite that shy, but I never underestimate the power of books to teach us things we’re afraid to ask our parents.
4. The Principles of Love by Emily Franklin
I really struggled with my YA choices for this list. There are so many good ones out there, and so many amazing ones that will be published by the time Edith is old enough for them. I chose The Principles of Love series for multiple reasons. For one, it’s a series with romance that isn’t strictly about romance. For another thing, the main character, Love, has this unique perspective on the world that really resonated with me as a teenager (and even now when I revisit them as an adult). I enjoyed this series for its escapist qualities; I’m a sucker for boarding school narratives, but Love exists somewhat outside the circle of the wealthy and privileged.
5. Noteworthy by Riley Redgate
I raved about this book in my review recently, and maybe I just haven’t read enough diverse YA to really have a grasp on the state of things, but I felt that Noteworthy really breaks down the barriers between “mainstream” and “diverse” fiction—the diverse characters appear so organically that it reflects the future I want to see in the rest of fiction. Additionally, this book deals with bisexuality in a way that I think would be accessible to folks who don’t identify as queer, and it was a truly beautiful reading experience. Plus, who doesn’t want to read about a cross-dressing a cappella singer? I mean really?
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Hands down my favorite lesbian YA that I’ve read (to date, although I have several on my tbr for this year). Why? Danforth’s descriptions are distinctly not YA, and this book is full of beautiful language. This is a fantastic coming-of-age novel, dealing with loss of parents, sexuality, and first love. When Cameron falls in love with her best friend, her family sends her to a gay conversion camp. While this is an extreme take on what can happen when you’re growing up gay in America, I want my niece to know what could happen—what did happen, what is probably still happening—and recognize the importance of tolerance, empathy, and the freedom to be oneself.
7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
My niece will most likely encounter Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights in high school, but Jane Eyre was the first so-called classic novel that I fell in love with on my own. It’s a long, sprawling coming-of-age story about a girl who has nothing; it’s also about the power of love, no matter the time or distance. Also, it’s subtly feminist in a Victorian sense, and I think it’s important for young people to understand just how far we’ve come.
8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This is such an important book to read in this day and age, especially if you’re a woman. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia about a world in which women have no rights, but are used for their wombs, stripped of their voice in society. I can’t express how necessary it is for young people (especially young girls) to understand the flip side of what we have—and where we might be going if the conservatives have anything to say about it.
9. Jazz by Toni Morrison
This was the book that really taught me the power of re-reading, how can open up your understanding of a text as well as let you fall in love with characters all over again. Spoiler alert: it’s not about jazz music. Rather, this is a novel about passion, lust, race, and just being human. Morrison’s language is absolutely music inside my head. This is another book I come back to year after year, despite the fact that it’s covered in my annotations from sophomore year of college, because each time I come back I leave with something. Jazz is a gift to the reader who opens up to it.
10. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
I saved this one for last because it’s definitely not a book for teenagers. I read this when I was 22, and even then it was somewhat shocking how much sex is packed in this novel. Why would I anticipate that my six-year-old niece should read this book? What kind of sick aunt am I? Just an aunt who knows the importance of embracing your own sexuality, along with its challenges and perils. This was a really controversial book when it came out in the 70s, and I think certain aspects of it are still controversial today. Plus I just want someone else to read this book so I can discuss it. I figure I can wait twenty years or so. It’s worth it.
Did I miss anything? What books do you imagine handing over to the next generation? Let me know in the comments.