Briefly Books: Great Books for Teen Readers

By Jan Bloom

Q: My 16-year-old son is tired of reading classics and would like to read something more modern. What are your suggestions?

A: First of all, ask your son what “classic” book or books made him tired. Most classics are, by the very definition of “classic,” old. This means they were written in a time that did not know two-hour movies and one-hour television programs. They tend to have longer sentences with a more complex structure, as well as more detailed descriptions, with memories, hopes, dreams, insights, and analysis all woven into the story. Oftentimes a young adult reader who is unfamiliar with the slower pace of a classic will develop an appreciation of these older books if he can stay still long enough to immerse himself in the world created by the author. Reading aloud or listening to an audio book can hasten appreciation of an older style of writing.

Some books labeled “classics” are on lists because they are full of obtuse symbolism and those reading them did not want to be thought nitwits if they let on that the books were incomprehensible. This “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome can be overcome by using reading guides such as those published by Progeny Press (www.progenypress.com), which help with understanding and enjoying such books.

Other books become classics when the author does something for the first time. Always identify the worldview behind the list of classics since you do not want your readers to be exposed to books that were the first to use profanity or describe a new twist on immorality. Your son may have shown wisdom beyond his years by rejecting a book that was not good.

Many homeschool curricula have trustworthy lists of classics, as do literature textbooks by Christian publishers such as A Beka, Bob Jones, or Alpha Omega. Once your son reads classics that fit the Philippians 4:8 guidelines, he may begin to enjoy books that generations of readers have enjoyed, because they speak to eternal themes in a timeless way.

You asked about modern books. This can be a controversial topic since the world says, “As long as a child is reading, it doesn’t matter what is read,” while ultra-conservatives say, “Anything newer than a hundred years old is revisionist and tainted.” I think both views are shortsighted. Ideas have consequences, so obviously what a person reads matters hugely. And thousands of great books have been written in the past century. But we must help our readers choose good books that give accurate information, bring enjoyment, and prepare them to be culturally relevant as well as spiritually sound.

Until our young adult readers become proficient at discernment, we can help prolong their innocence with a bit of detective work and a bit of censorship. Because yesterday’s standards, which had their basis in the Bible, have been rejected by many authors and publishers, more caution must be used when choosing a book written since 1960. I judge many books by their covers—including the artwork, the recommendations, and the brief summary. Be wary of books with cover artwork that makes you uncomfortable due to grotesque images, scantily clad heroines, or suggestive poses.

Take note of the reviewers quoted to see if you recognize any who have an anti-Christian agenda. Read the summary on the flyleaf or the back cover to see if terms such as “coming of age,” “a realistic look at life,” and “a new view about . . .” are used, because these are euphemisms for early sexual experimentation and alternate lifestyle choices.

Finally, examine the dialogue on a few different pages to get a sense of how the characters talk. Though I do not like bad language, I would not dismiss a book if it had a few expletives or profanities, as long as those words were in the context of a character or a situation that would, in real life, engender an expletive or two. But if characters frequently swear, curse, or use crude language, they will not be invited to spend time with me.

One of the easiest ways to discover good modern books is through the learned opinions of others whose worldview is established on righteousness. I gather much of my information about modern books from magazines (World Magazine often has great reviews), books about books (Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart, Honey for a Teen’s Heart, and Honey for a Woman’s Heart are my favorites), and conversations with other readers. I also have a file of curriculum guides, including Ambleside (www.AmblesideOnLine.org), My Father’s World (www.mfwbooks.com), Tapestry of Grace (www.TapestryOfGrace.com), BiblioPlan (www.BiblioPlan.net), as well as vendor catalogs such as those published by Beautiful Feet Books (www.bfbooks.com), Bethlehem Books (www.BethlehemBooks.com), Veritas Press (www.VeritasPress.com), and Yesterday’s Classics (www.YesterdaysClassics.com) with their lists of recommended and/or reprinted books.

A varied diet of classics, potential classics, and timely books of the day will encourage intellectual growth, a broader perspective on things that really matter, and a deeper understanding of people and the times in which we live. The list of authors introduces potential classics as well as timely books of the day. I hope each of these authors will show to advantage and enlighten, entertain, and encourage your teen readers who want books that are realistic, truthful, interesting, and enjoyable. I’ve chosen to list the authors in alphabetical order for convenience, with just a brief tag for their main genre. I apologize in advance for my tags. If “Christian” is a part of it, it merely denotes a publisher committed to a Christian worldview. It in no way puts the other books into a “non-Christian” camp.

10 Authors of Classics for Teens

1. Austen, Jane

2. Bronte, Charlotte

3. Dickens, Charles

4. Dostoevsky, Fyodor

5. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

6. Hawthorne, Nathaniel

7. Melville, Herman

8. Tolstoy, Leo

9. Twain, Mark

10. Verne, Jules

30 Potential Classics & Timely Books

1. Alcorn, Randy—Christian intrigue (Safely Home is one of the most convicting books I’ve ever read.)

2. Austin, Lynn—Christian historical and modern sagas

3. Chesterton, G. K.—mysteries (Father Brown)

4. Christie, Agatha—mysteries

5. Christopher, John—fantasy

6. Costain, Thomas—historical saga (The Silver Chalice is one of my favorites.)

7. Douglas, Lloyd—historical saga (The Robe is a much better book than movie!)

8. Goudge, Elizabeth—life stories (also one of Elizabeth Elliot’s and Ruth Graham’s favorites)

9. Hannegraf, Hank—Biblical intrigue

10. Herriott, James—animals

11. Hope, Anthony—historical intrigue

12. Hunt, Angela Elwell—Christian historical and modern sagas

13. L’Amour, Louis—Western and spy

14. Lawhead, Stephen—Christian fantasy, historical saga

15. Lewis, C. S.—fantasy

16. MacInnes, Helen—historical intrigue (recommended by Francis and Edith Schaeffer)

17. McCullough, David—history and biography

18. Myers, Bill—Christian thriller

19. Orczy, Baroness—historical intrigue

20. Peretti, Frank—Christian intrigue (This Present Darkness changed the face of Christian publishing.)

21. Peters, Ellis—mysteries (Brother Cadfael mysteries)

22. Rivers, Francine—Christian historical and modern sagas

23. Sabatini, Rafael—swashbucklers

24. Sayers, Dorothy—mysteries (Lord Peter Wimsey is the detective’s detective.)

25. Seton, Ernest Thompson—nature

26. Stafford, Tim—Christian historical saga

27. Stout, Rex—mysteries (Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin)

28. Tolkien, J. R. R.—fantasy

29. Whitlow, Robert—Christian legal thriller

30. Wodehouse, P.G.—humor

Jan and her husband, Gary, bravely began homeschooling in 1982. Their three children, homeschooled through high school, are now adults who still love to read and learn. The oldest two of Jan’s four grandchildren are being homeschooled this year in kindergarten and first grade. Jan earned a degree in physics and math from the University of Minnesota College of Education. The two volumes of her reference book, Who Should We Then Read?, are considered mandatory for book lovers who are looking for great authors. Jan has a Yahoo group (booksbloom) and a blog (booksbloom.wordpress.com) as well as a website, http://www.booksbloom.com/.

Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Fall 2010. Used with permission. Visit them at Schoolhouse Store, where shipping is always free! (U.S. only)