I used to mentor teenage girls. I spent a lot of time with them, and sometimes part of that mentoring was teaching them interviewing skills. During many of those practices, the girls would be asked, “What’s your favorite book?”
Some would answer, “A Tale of Two Cities, by Mark Twain. The movie was really good.”
More likely they’d say, “Twilight.”
Yes, this is what I was dealing with, and sometimes I found it hard to keep my mouth shut at these asinine answers, especially given my propensity towards reading the classics. However, I did manage not to laugh. But today, I’d like to give a response. Here’s what they should’ve been reading instead. These are my top ten classic book picks for teenage girls.
1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde knows beauty and its pitfalls more than any other author. The novel is pretty clear about the dangers of focusing on beauty over brains. It doesn’t end prettily!
2. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is like Twilight, (or should I say Twilight is like it?), but it features a strong female protagonist who is alone in the world, yet able to stand her ground and on her own two feet. Instructive, if you ask me.
3. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen
I first read this in high school and I couldn’t get enough. It’s a love story, but a complicated one. It’s about marriage and relationships, but it’s also about judging and pride. Most of the teenage girls I know have already read this one. It’s fab.
4. Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier skillfully weaves a suspenseful tale, but the novel really explores marriage and beauty. The protagonist, never named, is constantly comparing herself to her husband’s previous wife, much to the detriment of their marriage. She is not a beauty, but the lesson is that her husband loves her anyway, and even more than his first wife, because love isn’t about beauty, but kindness. And there is a creepy element to this one too, which makes it an even better read.
5. Middlemarch (1874) by George Eliot
I know. Who am I kidding? No teenage girl will read this. But they should. Eliot touches on the same classic themes of marriage and love, but she does so with more skill than any of the above writers. Eliot is a master of human nature and her novels shouldn’t be missed by anybody.
6. Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy
I guess my picks are following the themes of love, romance, and marriage, but isn’t that a big concern for teenage girls? I think those issues are a big concern for everybody, which is why so much great literature touches on those themes. Hardy’s depiction of a woman torn between two men and her past mistakes is instructive for any woman or man. Tess’s guilt and Angel’s perfection teach us lessons of moderation and of forgiveness. Nobody’s perfect.
7. Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen
This is an obscure novel by a little-known novelist from the Harlem Renaissance, but her work is priceless. This novel explores a woman’s search for identity, as both a woman and an African American in a confusing time in history. She’s educated, well traveled, but ultimately confused. Her journey echoes the confusing search for identity all of us must face, usually in high school, but sometimes throughout our lives.
8. The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton
Wharton is one of the finest female American novelists. Her work centers on high society and money, but the characters are relatable and flawed. Lily Bart’s search for her place in the world, mostly confused by romance and possible marriages, will be familiar to any girl or woman.
9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith
This novel is slow to start and may not deserve to be listed with some of the other “finer” literature, but it’s story has made it a classic. It follows Irish-American Francie through her poverty-stricken childhood and teenage years. She overcomes so much, and education, not marriage, is the key to her successful rise out of poverty. It is one of my all-time favorite books!
10. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee
This is such an obvious choice, but that’s because of the serious issues it tackles, all from the perspective of a young girl, Scout. She witnesses inequality, injustice, unrest, culture clashes, and bravery in the face of all of these things. She’s motherless, but strong and smart and good. She deals with difficult and adult problems before she probably should, but given my own youth and what I’ve seen some of the other girls in my life face, many of us have challenges that we probably wish we didn’t, even at young ages. Nobody is immune from struggle, and when these struggles come, why not have a reliable friend in Scout who knows exactly what you’re going through and how to survive?
These are the ten novels I saw as worthy of reading for the young women I have known. What novels would you recommend to teenage girls? Or boys?