When I started reading Nova Ren Suma’s new book, 17 & Gone, from the first paragraph I sensed that this would be a haunting book, one that would stay with me long after I closed the cover. It gave me the idea of building a blog post around the books that have haunted me over the years — the ones where characters and scenes continue to resonate in my mind and heart, even many years later when I can’t recall every detail.
So here are some books published for teens (though I cheated and included a children’s book) that have haunted me — some I read during my own teen years, others as recently as last year. Some of my haunting books are ones that would be familiar to many readers (The Giver, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Ring of Endless Light…), so I’ve tried to stick to more obscure titles, in keeping with the title and mission of this column — which means that some of them are out of print. However, many are likely to be available either at your local library or at used bookstores.
This list is a very personal one — someone else, someone who reads more contemporary YA, or who is less squeamish about horror — might have a very different list of haunting books.
Here’s the list, in chronological order of when I read them:
Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy
This is technically a children’s book, but I read it the summer before 8th grade, so I’m counting it. Set in post-World War II New York City, this is the story of Alan, a young Jewish-American boy who is tasked by his father with befriending Naomi, a creative but mentally unstable refugee traumatized by the Nazis. Alan, frankly, would rather be playing baseball, but he and Naomi gradually become close friends — until they’re separated by a horrific act of bullying and bigotry. Before I read this book, I had cried at sad parts in books before (if you’ve read Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, you know what I’m talking about), but this is the first book I remember reading where the ending is not only sad, but unabashedly tragic, almost hopeless. The final scene is practically burned into my brain.
I learned while writing this post that a film of Alan and Naomi was made in 1992; I’m really curious to watch it and see if they kept the book’s ending.
This Time of Darkness by H.M. (Helen) Hoover
I read this book for the first time in 8th or 9th grade, and often call it “the dystopia that warped my brain” and gave me an on-going taste for the genre. Main character Amy (all of the the children in her class have “A” names) lives in a sealed underground city where society is deeply socially stratified and the outside world is considered an uninhabitable wasteland or even a myth. Sound familiar? This trope is still alive and well in dystopian fiction, but it was still new when Hoover was writing in the 70s and 80s.
Some aspects of the novel might seem dated to 21st century readers, but what Hoover captures incredibly well is the combination of numbing conformity, insanity, and despair in Amy’s society and the process of adapting psychologically when she finally gets free with the help of Axel, a boy who says that he comes from the mythical Outside.
The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein
Wein has gotten a lot of acclaim recently for Code Name Verity, but before that she wrote a series of historical novels with a hint of magic realism. The first one, The Winter Prince, came out when I was in 9th grade, at the height of my obsession with the tales of King Arthur. Given how many Arthurian retellings I read at that age, it means something that this is the one that has stuck with me. It’s told in the first person by Medraut (aka Mordred), son of King Arthur and his half-sister Morgause. Medraut is fiercely competent but also wounded — used and abused by his sorceress mother, he feels displaced in his father’s household now that King Arthur has two legitimate children with Queen Guenevere. His relationship with Lleu, the clever but sickly heir to the throne, is a complex mixture of love and resentment. The voice and the relationships are incredibly well-drawn, and the suspense over whether Medraut will choose light or darkness continues until the very end.
The Wind Blows Backward by Mary Downing Hahn
Mary Downing Hahn is best known for her ghost stories — I’m pretty sure kids are still reading and being freaked out by Wait ‘Til Helen Comes and Time for Andrew — but the book of hers that haunts me, The Wind Blows Backward, is quite different — a contemporary romance and coming-of-age story about self-discovery, depression, family secrets, and the power of mutual geekdom.
Spencer and Lauren were 8th grade best friends, united by a love of poetry and Tolkien, but in high school Spencer had filled out and started playing sports. Now they’re juniors, and Spencer is a popular jock while Lauren is still a social outcast. When Spencer comes back into Lauren’s life (at the library, no less), she is mistrustful at first, even as they begin a relationship. It sounds like a standard romance set-up, and in a lot of ways it is, but it’s also more. Hahn is unflinching when she writes about dysfunctional family dynamics, the lure of self-destruction, and what it takes to construct a new life after destroying the old one. Yet the novel ends on an uplifting, hopeful note.
The Museum of Mary Child by Cassandra Golds
I discovered this book last year and still think of it often, the imagery lingering in the back of my mind like a dream. It’s a difficult book to describe: it takes place in a fantastic alternate version of Victorian England, but one that ca”t be attached to any specific place or time. At the beginning of the novel, a young man held unjustly in prison is visited by the Society of the Caged Birds of the City, who slip from their cages at night to give comfort to those who need it. A young woman who has just been ejected from a madhouse weeps outside the door, trying to get back into the only home she’s ever known. A young girl named Heloise lives with her strict godmother, who has cut the word “love” out of the Bible and won’t allow Heloise even a doll. The godmother is the caretaker of a creepy museum called the Museum of Mary Child, and Heloise is never allowed inside. These three stories seem unrelated at first, but eventually they are revealed as parts of the same story. The dreamy, fable-like quality of this novel might not suit everyone, but I find it fascinating.
I could go on, believe me. I could talk about Dreams Underfoot, a bewitching collection of urban fantasy short stories by Charles De Lint; Finder by Emma Bull, a tale of friendship, honor and loss set in a city where runaway kids from our world and Faerie mingle; I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by John Marsden, a tale of two pen pals who spin stories of their perfect lives until they feel safe enough to reveal the truth; and several others on the long list I had to narrow down in order to write this post, but instead I’ll send you off with the hope that your own haunting books will find you.
— Erin Bush, currently reading 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma
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