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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

AB4T First Encounters: Smith, Smith, Mitchell, and Bronte

And now for another installment of Adult Books 4 Teens: First Encounters, our reviewers’ thoughts on the first adult books they read.  Today’s guest post is from Sarah Flowers:

I remember four books as my first adult books. They may not have been the very first I read (like Diane, I’m sure I read Readers’ Digest Condensed Books at an early age), but these are the ones that stayed with me—that I read, and later re-read, and recommended to others, including my own children. The first three, I distinctly remember reading in 7th grade, when I was 12 and 13; the fourth I read during the summer between 7th & 8th grades.

Interestingly, all four, I think, are books that would meet our AB4T criteria today. They have protagonists who are teenaged, at least at the beginning of the book; they are all coming-of-age stories; they contain strong story-telling, and they are (at least moderately) well-written.

So what are they? First, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. Francie Nolan is twelve years old, when the book opens, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early 1900s. Francie lives with her younger brother, Neely, and their parents, the hard-working Katie and the handsome and charming but alcoholic Johnny. There are scenes from this book that are burned in my mind: Katie’s condensed-milk can bank, nailed to the floor of the closet; Francie and Neely catching the big Christmas tree and lugging it home; Francie watching the older girls in the tenement prepare for their dates on Saturday nights; Francie going to the library and trying to read every book, while always returning to her favorites.

I remember that my mother suggested I read the book—it came out in 1943, when she was 13, so I suppose she read it as a teenager, too—and after I read it, she re-read it. She said to me, “If I had remembered everything that was in this book, I don’t think I would have recommended it to you.” I have an idea of some of the scenes she might have been referring to, but at the time, they sailed over my head. Years later, when I re-read it, I remember thinking myself, “Hmm. . . . I don’t think I noticed that part when I was 12!”

The next book was I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. I remember that I found this book at a used book sale, and bought it for 25 cents (I still have the same edition). From the first line (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”) I was captivated by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her life in a tumble-down castle in England in the 1930s. Cassandra’s wry sense of humor is delightful as she “captures” the various characters: her sister Rose, her brother Thomas, their eccentric father, their stepmother Topaz, and the newly arrived (wealthy) neighbors, Simon and Neil Cotton and their mother. Again, there are scenes that stay with me: Cassandra’s Midsummer Night ritual; Rose and Cassandra’s trip to London to retrieve a legacy of some ancient fur coats; Simon sharing music with Cassandra; and many more. It was probably the first bittersweet love story I had read—a book that didn’t totally have a happy ending, but that was satisfying nonetheless.

The third book I remember from that year was Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I remember being terrifically impressed that I had read a book of over 1000 pages! But I know I tore through it, enjoying the epic story of Scarlett and Rhett and the Civil War from the South’s viewpoint. I had not seen the movie when I first read the book, so didn’t picture Vivien Leigh as Scarlett—who was 16 years old in the first chapter. I remember even then being annoyed with Scarlett for mooning after Ashley.

The final book of the four that I recall from that year is Jane Eyre. I know that my mother had been suggesting that I read it, and I know that I tried several times during that year, but I couldn’t make it past those first few chapters, at Lowood Academy. In fact, I even remember that my mother told me just to skim over the first chapters; that she was sure I would love it once Jane got to Thornfield Hall. That summer after 7th grade (1965), my father had some kind of grant to attend a class at George Washington University. We all packed up and moved to Camp Springs, Maryland, for the summer—directly across the road from Andrews Air Force Base. We lived in an apartment complex, and of course we didn’t have very many of our things with us. I remember clearly reading the same volume of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books over and over again—it had The Intern, by Doctor X, Night of Camp David, by Fletcher Knebel, and House of Many Rooms, by Rodello Hunter. I was dying for something new to read. I’m not sure why we didn’t go to the library—perhaps my parents didn’t think we could get a card, since we were temporary residents.

Then one evening, we went to have dinner at the home of some friends of my parents’. I wandered into their den, and saw a copy of Jane Eyre on the shelf, and thought, “Why not give it another try?” By the time my parents were ready to go home, I was well into the story. I was crushed when my mother said we couldn’t take the book with us, but she reassured me that we would try to find a copy. And we did—or rather, my father did. One day, when he came back from his classes at GWU, he brought with him a paperback copy of Jane Eyre.

So those are my first encounters: four coming-of-age stories with young female protagonists, and all of them still in print and still popular today!

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