Fun Home By Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s graphic novel is a gripping exploration of her father’s hidden sexuality and ambiguous death, and the effects that the tortuous course of his life—and her parents’ fraught marriage—had on her own emerging identity. I just made it sound like pulp fiction, but it’s really the opposite: a deeply intelligent, and intellectual, bildungsroman, told in Bechdel’s amazing combination of words and pictures. And did I mention that Fun Home refers to the funeral parlor that is the family business? This book wholly deserves its status as an instant classic.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry By Mildred D. Taylor
This Newbery Medal winner, first published in 1976, is unforgettable because of the voice of its young narrator, Cassie Logan. In piercing prose, she tells us what it was like to be the daughter of a black farmer and a school teacher in 1933 Mississippi. The book is full of racism and danger, but also hope. I read the book aloud to my son when he was 12, and I felt like he got the history lesson, in the best way.
This Beautiful Life By Helen Schulman
The best parts of Schulman’s cautionary novel about teen sexting are told from the point of view of Jake, a 15-year-old at the New York prep school Riverdale. He gets a porn video from a younger girl named Daisy, and in a rash, unthinking moment forwards it to one friend—as you can imagine, that proves to be a mistake of devastating proportions. The book takes place in the rarefied society of wealthy New York, but its reach is much broader, I think, and I give Schulman a lot of credit for the care she takes with the teenage characters, especially the boys, who have stuck with me.
Moon Over Manifest By Clare Vanderpool
This is one of the best books I’ve listened to with my kids and husband. Another Newbury winner, it unfurls as a historical detective story, moving back and forth between the Depression-era present in the made-up town of Manifest, Kansas, and the World War I past a generation earlier. In the audio version, different actors read various characters’ voices, adding to the drama. I especially love the relationship between the girl narrator, Abilene Tucker, and Miss Sadie, the wise older seer of Manifest. Their bond shows, without ever having to tell, what a lost child can gain in love and knowledge from someone who takes on the role of adoptive grandparent.
The Great Gilly Hopkins By Katherine Paterson
This is also a fabulous book to listen to with kids, though expect to cry. Gilly is a foster child who acts crazy mean because she can’t let go of the dream of her biological mother. She has a foster mother, who won’t give up on her, though, and a vulnerable foster brother who teaches her what it means to be needed. This book tackles some of the toughest themes in American life—race, class, and parental abandonment—reaching across the generations since it was written, in 1978, with realism and relevance.