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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

The Classics, New Adult, and Adult Books for Teens

Thinking about this idea of “New Adult” books (which Angela discussed here on Thursday), over on my personal blog I took a look at the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best books of the 20th Century, and found that half of the books on the list fit into one or another definition of New Adult.

As I looked over this list of the 20th century that could be called New Adult, I realized that the “classics” (both of the 20th Century and before) are in many ways the original “Adult Books for Teens.” Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Call of the Wild, and The Great Gatsby were and are many teens’ first exposure to adult literature: often because they are taught in class, but also because, although they were originally written for adults, they have been reclassified down as young adult or even children’s book (in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird).

So, to try to get a handle on what books to discuss, rather than just the amorphous word “classics”, I went to Rollie Welch’s A Core Collection for Young Adults, 2nd ed. (Neal-Schuman, 2011). Welch lists just under 900 books that he considers to be the core collection that a YA collection should have. Welch says he includes “classic titles that have long been included on recommended reading lists for both high school and college classes.” So I went through Welch’s list and jotted down which titles were originally published for adults. I don’t claim to have been particularly scientific about the process, since there were so many titles to get through, but my rough calculation is that about 90 of Welch’s 900 are (or were) adult books, for a healthy 10%.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Welch includes a number of contemporary popular adult novels like The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lovely Bones, and some Nicholas Sparks books. But the largest group of these adult books are the same books that we all read in high school. Many of the same titles from the Modern Library list: The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Flies, A Clockwork Orange, The Catcher in the Rye, The Call of the Wild; a healthy contingent are 19th Century Classics like Jane Austen, The Brontes, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Mark Twain; and of course, there is the ever-present Shakespeare.

I don’t intend to start an argument here about the Dead White Men’s Canon, or whether we should be teaching the “classics” in high school. What I’m interested in here is the idea of introducing teens to adult books, whatever books they may be. Indeed, in many cases, as I hinted above, these books have become intrinsically linked with high school and are not even seen as adult books any longer (when was the last time most of us read Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye?). I think this is a really powerful testimony to the reading abilities of teens, which often gets unwittingly (or maybe sometimes wittingly) disparaged around discussions of YA literature, when, for instance, we say that teens won’t or can’t read a particular challenging book. But we know that many teens are able to read and enjoy Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Hurston.

I don’t have a grand point to make here about the classics.  This is a more a celebration of the fact that teens have been reading adult books for a very long time, and will continue to do so.  For anyone interested, here’s the list I made of the adult books for the Core Collection.  Feel free to discuss any aspect of this list below:

  • Adams, Douglas, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The
  • Adams, Richard, Watership Down
  • Alcott, Louisa May, Little Women
  • Angelou, Maya, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • Atwood, Margaret, Handmaid’s Tale, The
  • Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice
  • Austin, Jane, Pride and Prejudice
  • Babbitt, Natalie, Tuck Everlasting
  • Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre
  • Bronte, Charlotte, Wuthering Heights
  • Burgess, Anthony, Clockwork Orange, A
  • Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Tarzan of the Apes
  • Card, Orson Scott, Ender’s Game
  • Card, Orson Scott, Ender’s Shadow
  • Chabon, Michael, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey, Canterbury Tales
  • Clarke, Arthur C., 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • De Saavedra, Miguel Cervantes, Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha, The
  • Dickens, Charles, Christmas Carol, A
  • Dickens, Charles, Tale of Two Cities, A
  • Dickinson, Emily , Collected Poems Of Emily Dickinson
  • Dimery, Robert (EDT), 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan, Complete Sherlock Holmes, The
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Great Gatsby, The
  • Golding, William, Lord of the Flies
  • Griffin, John Howard, Black Like Me
  • Gruen, Sara, Water for Elephants
  • Hamilton, Edith, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
  • Hansberry, Lorraine, Raisin in the Sun, A
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Scarlet Letter, The
  • Hemingway, Ernest, Old Man and the Sea, The
  • Henry, O. , Best Short Stories of O. Henry, The
  • Hosseini, Khaled, Thousand Splendid Suns, A
  • Hughes, Langston, Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
  • Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes were Watching God
  • Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World
  • Kesey, Ken, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Keyes, Daniel, Flowers for Algernon
  • King, Stephen, Stand, The
  • King, Stephen, Body, The
  • King, Stephen, Firestarter
  • King, Stephen, Stand, The
  • Knowles, John, Separate Peace, A
  • Krakauer, Jon, Into the Wild
  • Le Guin, Ursula, Wizard of the Earthsea
  • Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • London, Jack, Call of the Wild, The
  • Mezrich, Ben, Accidental Billionaires, The: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal
  • Montgomery, Lucy Maud, Anne of Green Gables
  • Moore, Alan, Watchmen
  • Niffenegger, Audrey, Time Traveler’s Wife, The
  • O’Brien, Robert C., Z for Zachariah
  • O’Brien, Tim, Things They Carried, The
  • Orwell, George, 1984
  • Orwell, George , Animal Farm
  • Pelzer, David, Child Called It, A
  • Remarque, Erich Maria , All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Salinger, J.D., Catcher in the Rye, The
  • Satrapi, Marjane, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
  • Satrapi, Marjane, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
  • Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
  • Sebold, Alice, Lovely Bones, The
  • Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • Shakespeare, MacBeth
  • Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
  • Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein
  • Sinclair, Upton, Jungle, The
  • Small, David, Stitches: A Memoir
  • Smith, Betty, Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A
  • Sparks, Nicholas, Notebook, The
  • Sparks, Nicholas, Walk to Remember, A
  • Spiegelman, Art, Maus, A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History
  • Spiegelman, Art, Maus II, A Survior’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began
  • Steinbeck, John, Of Mice and Men
  • Steinbeck, John, Grapes of Wrath, The
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, The
  • Tolkien, J.R.R., Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings trilogy)
  • Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The
  • Twain, Mark, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The
  • Verne, Jules, Journey to the Center of the Earth, A
  • Verne, Jules, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Walker, Alice, Color Purple, The
  • Wells, H.G., Invisible Man, The
  • Wells, H.G., Island of Dr. Moreau, The
  • Wells, H.G., Time Machine, The
  • Wells, H.G., War of the Worlds, The
  • Wiesel, Elie, Night
  • Wright, Richard, Native Son
  • Wright, Richard, Black Boy


About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark


  1. Elizabeth Burns says

    Mark, part of the problem is there is no set defintion for “New Adult.” Given that at the moment some of the most vocal proponents are young women who want to see themselves in books, I think the “Dead White Canon” does matter — or rather doesn’t, because those books are not giving those readers what they are saying they want. That said, I do think there are book out there that give those things. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think NA works as a standalone genre or category; it does work as readers saying they want more of a certain type of book that publishers have long said they do not want. (Authors and editors and agents have backed this up).

    I also agree completely that this is an opportunity to introduce readers to adult lit; but part of the confusion is also who is reading/wanting NA? Is it teens or twentysomethings? So that plays into it, also. I have to say there are a number of titles on your list that if I gave them to a reader asking for NA, she’d come back wondering what I was smoking. It’s such a long list, but I would like to know why, for example, the Verne or Wells books fits NA. So while I agree that there is an opportunity here, I disagree with spreading the net so large that the definition and reading wants get lost.