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YA Disguised as Classics

I hate to you break it to you, fellow summer-lovers, but it’s almost fall. That means the days are getting shorter and it’s almost time to put aside your fun summer reads (hello, Divergent) in favor of school-sanctioned classics. But wait! I have some good news. Some of those “classics” are really YA in disguise. YA as an official format/genre isn’t too old – most people date its birth to the 1950s or 60s. But there are plenty of things published before then that share characteristics with what we think of today as YA – stories about teenagers coming of age, falling in love, and learning to navigate the world around them. Sure, the language is a little old fashioned, but there are plenty of resources to help you navigate the older text – try searching YouTube to find videos of other people discussing the books! (I’m also a fan of watching the movie – after you read the book! – to see how someone else imagined the setting and characters and hear the dialogue sounds out loud). Here’s a short list of some of my favorite “secretly YA” classics!
Pride and Prejudice – Lizzy, the witty, no-nonsense heroine of Pride and Prejudice, tells another character that she’s “not yet one and twenty” – either a teenager or just out of her teenage years. Lizzy’s the second oldest of five girls, so there are plenty of teenage characters. Like many contemporary protagonists, Lizzy struggles to figure out her own feelings while balancing complicated family relationships and one very confusing suitor. Recommended for fans of Meg Cabot and Stephanie Perkins.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Scout is a little younger than most YA protagonists (she’s only 10), but this novel is a classic coming-of-age story. At the heart of the story is Scout’s growing realization about the world’s many injustices. That theme – the loss of childhood innocence – is found in many contemporary YA novels. The story tackles serious issues of racism and rape, but plenty of funny moments and Scout’s honest narration keep the novel from feeling too issue-driven.  Recommended for fans of Catherine Gilbert Murdoch’s Dairy Queen series and The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt.

Jane Eyre – If you’re a fan of darker, moodier romances, Jane Eyre is a great pick. It tells the story of Jane, orphaned, abused and neglected by the aunt and uncle who raised her and the orphanage she’s eventually sent to. When Jane turns 18, too old to stay at the orphanage, she becomes the governess for the ward of the mysterious, wild Mr. Rochester who lives in an isolated mansion at the edge of the moor. Strange happenings plague the house, but despite the house and its master’s many oddities, Jane finds herself falling in love with him. Recommended for fans of the Twlight series and other tales of star-crossed lovers.

All Quiet on the Western Front – The spare, heart-wrenching novel tells the story of a group of teenaged German soldiers fighting on the Western Front during WWI. The novel follows their horrific experiences fighting in the war and their disillusionment with the army’s commanding officers. Like To Kill A Mockingbird, it depicts the loss of innocence, but AQOTWF is a much darker and sadder novel than TKAM, although it’s equally wonderful. Recommended for fans of The Things A Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt and Mitali Perkins’ Bamboo People.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list of the many classics featuring teenage heroes and heroines- what are some of your favorites?

–Emily Calkins, currently reading Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1

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  1. Melissa Melissa

    Scout is a little younger than most YA protagonists (she’s only 10)

    She’s six when the book begins. This is not a YA novel by any stretch of the imagination. It is a book written from an adult perspective, an adult looking back on events of her childhood and seeing what she didn’t understand then through the lens of years of experience.

    That said, it is a marvelous book.

  2. House of the Seven Gables would make a good YA classic.

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