What I Read When I Was A Teenager, by Elizabeth Wein
I was a reader as a teen – I’ll make no bones about that. I was an ambitious reader, which may be why I’ve become an ambitious writer. So I thought I’d share some of the books I read as a teen that weren’t traditional teen fiction, and maybe scrape the surface of why they appealed to me as a teen.
How Green Was My Valley by Robert Llewellyn. I never did figure out just how autobiographical this was. I loved the Welshness of it, the language rhythms which were so different from my own, and the grittiness of the landscape it described. I was kind of in love with the narrator, Huw Morgan. Maybe that’s what I was looking for as a teen: a character to fall in love with.
I was definitely, definitely in love with Claudius from Robert Graves’s I Claudius and Claudius the God. I read these when I was thirteen. I was inspired by the shocking BBC television series (1976), which yes, I was allowed to watch at 13. I am pretty sure I struggled through the politics because I adored the character so much.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Watership Down by Richard Adams. Okay, there’s no question about it, I was a literary lover. I was enchanted by the tragic wastrel Sydney Carton. He was my hero. But you know what? Ridiculously, I was equally enchanted by Hazel, the hero bunny of Watership Down. No, seriously, I was in love with Hazel. He was such a literary crush that I drew pictures of him (usually at some melodramatic plot point, like with his leg damaged, or getting attacked by the cat). I drew pictures of Sydney Carton, too, standing at the guillotine, looking tragic. I like my heroes to be somewhat damaged, I guess.
Ok, I will now skip over the obvious (Tolkien… I was in love with Frodo; TH White… in love with Arthur) and finish with something truly off the wall: John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet. John Brown’s Body is an epic poem (literally) about the American Civil War. It was published in 1928 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. I first stumbled across it at 15 or so because my grandmother (my legal guardian) had a vinyl LP with an abridged, dramatic rendition of the book; it took me a couple more years until I actually read the entire work from start to finish, and then I fell in love all over again, this time with one of the several female leads.
Sally Dupré, Sally Dupré,
Eyes that are neither black nor gray,
Why do you haunt me, night and day?
John Brown’s Body follows the stories of a dozen different families and characters – characters with allegiances to both North and South, characters both black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, through the course of the war, describing the changing circumstances for each. Rhyme, meter and verse style change accordingly throughout the book depending on the characters. For the music of the poetry alone it’s worth reading, but it also does give you a general historic overview of the American Civil War. Writing about it is making me want to read it again!
Jake Diefer, the barrel-chested Pennsylvanian,
Shippy, the little man with the sharp rat-eyes,
Luke Breckenridge, the gawky boy from the hills,
Clay Wingate, Melora Vilas, Sally Dupré,
The slaves in the cabins, ragged Spade in the woods,
We have lost these creatures under a falling hammer.
We must look for them now, again.
There’s plenty of hunting outside the enclosure for readers bold enough to sneak through the gaps in the ‘teen books’ boundary. Vary your diet!
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
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