So, every year around this time, I reread The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It’s just a habit I’ve had since I was a teenager; it gets to be about time for my birthday, and I suddenly know what book I’ll be reading next. It’s comforting in a way that signals a new year for me and winter’s fast approach. This year, after my yearly reading, I decided to branch out a bit to see how Sylvia Plath has influenced and been incorporated into teen literature.
I had noticed two things over the past year that influenced this decision which surprised me. First one – every year I give away books for our Teen Summer Reading program, and I always have The Bell Jar as a choice. This year, I ran out of copies of that book. That got me thinking, and then what cemented it was an increase in teen patrons asking to check out the book. And, it never being on the shelf – I always had to place a request for interested patrons. I mean, it would have been her 82nd birthday on October 27th – but, not like a major milestone like a 100th birthday like in the case of poet Dylan Thomas. But, I noticed a lot of new books being published on Sylvia that included nonfiction and fiction. Maybe readers are just noticing these new books and wanting to go back to read her seminal work – who knows? All I know is it got me interested enough to want to recommend not only some old favorites that incorporate Sylvia into their story, but some newer titles I think readers might be interested in knowing about.
I’ll lead with the book that started this whole long convoluted journey for me…
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: So, yes – my very favorite book of all time. Originally published under a pseudonym in 1963, The Bell Jar tells the semi-autobiographical tale of Sylvia’s time in New York and beyond, starting with her time as an intern at a very prestigious magazine. Esther Greenwood is having a breakdown – she is questioning her place in the world as a woman, a girlfriend, an intellect, and how all those things feel like weights on her shoulders. Esther brings to life the feelings of confusion, sadness and anger in such a realistic way that I think readers come to see Esther as a friend and someone who might possibly be vocalizing their own real feelings in a way they were unable to do. I’ve had teen readers tell me that in the book they recognized themselves and suddenly the world felt a little less lonely. A story of finding yourself and questioning everything that will certainly appeal to readers who are navigating the tricky waters of personhood.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer: This is one of the new books I was telling you about! Published just a few months ago, Belzhar tells the story of Jam. Her boyfriend, Reeve, has died and she just can’t cope – the sadness is overwhelming. Her parents decide to send her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school that helps teens deal with difficult life situations in a way that they can return to their normal lives. What’s interesting about The Wooden Barn is that there is a very special class being offered – Special Topics in English. Doesn’t sound so special, but it is in that the teacher, Mrs. Quenell, specially chooses which students will be in her special topics class. She has chosen 5 students for this year’s class – Mrs. Quenell’s last one – and the special topic they’ll be studying – Sylvia Plath and her writing. All the students are required to write in journals that Mrs. Quenell has given them…and that’s when it turns strange. Jam realizes that when she writes in her journal she travels to a place where Reeve is still alive and she can be with him. But, she has to make a choice – to be with Reeve forever is to leave everything else behind. And, good grief, the big reveal at the end (and there are a couple) made me gasp out loud. An interesting study of Sylvia Plath and the depths of human emotion. Continue reading Lady Lazarus: Sylvia Plath & YA Literature