In children’s books, something awful usually happens to the adults, leaving the young heroes to solve whatever horrible problem has befallen them on their own. Within the safe spaces of these stories, kids can start staking out the freedom to become their own person, without the ever-present safety of their parents.
And then, one day, a book comes along that challenges our childish view of the world once and for all. Maybe we snuck it off our grandma’s nightstand, got it from the library, or secretly borrowed it from a friend. We learn that the world is a little darker and meaner than we thought, and also richer and more sensuous. Gently, we find the space to start maturing into the adults we must become ourselves someday.
Here are the books that first nudged our editors into the grown-up world. What were yours?
0 The Clan of the Cave Bear
Editor Courtney, The Clan of the Cave Bear What I remember most vividly about Clan of the Cave Bear is not the steamy sex scenes my mom and her best friend blushingly cooed about in hushed tones over Vantage light cigarettes, but the sheer heft of the paperback. Clocking in at 500 pages and adorned with a topless blonde-haired female caveperson, the book had me flummoxed as to how I might stealthily smuggle it into my bedroom. But I was determined. Once I got it, I was disappointed to find it wasn’t racy right off the bat, but I eventually made my way to the "good part"—and was just as flummoxed. Age and time have revealed to me that those parts probably weren’t so good for women, but back then, they were the most revelatory words I’d read. Listening to it now, I’m struck less by the sexiness than I am by the vivid depiction of a pre-historic time—the landscape, the nature, the primitive existence—which is perhaps the most evocative feature of Jean M. Auel’s Earth's Children series, after all. The Collector
Editor Kat, The Collector You can draw a straight line from the day I picked up my dad's ancient copy of The Collector to my adult fascination with true crime. At 13, I was too young to grasp every dreadful nuance of the story about a village misfit who becomes obsessed with a young woman and imprisons her in his basement. I devoured it anyway. Fowles plunges you into the warped, angry, and misogynistic logic of his villain, and then—just when you’re comfortably creeped out—switches to the victim's perspective. Miranda is spoiled and naïve, as I realized on later readings, but her blossoming passion for life made her utterly vivid to my adolescent self. I returned to this book several times over the years (which puts me in awkward company with the many real-life killers who call this one a favorite) and it's lost none of its terrifying power. And for fellow fans of , James Wilby’s Frederick gives Santino Fontana’s Joe a run for his money for best creepy narration ever. You The Princess Bride
**Editor Rachel S.,
**From a very early age, I learned that the safest places were anywhere I could hide and read a book. I started by reading every single thing on my siblings' shelves, and when I ran out of those, the library had a seemingly endless supply of novels about dragons and outer space and kids who snuck out at night in Hoboken, New Jersey. I was probably 12 when I checked out The Princess Bride The Princess Bride, expecting a zany but wholesome love story just like the movie. Instead, I was mesmerized by its depiction of grown-up pain and suffering, including Prince Humperdinck's horrifying Zoo of Death. While the film was PG, the book teetered on the edge of R. I carried it around shyly for the next few weeks, hoping no one would notice that it had the word "bastard" on the back cover. And then another kid at my school did notice, and gave me a weird but knowing look. It turns out books don’t always make you invisible—sometimes they can make you be seen. Damage
Editor Emily, Damage I was a very melodramatic child, so it's fitting that Damage was the first book I gathered the courage to sneak off my mom's bookshelf. The geometric black and white cover, the single word title, the spare description containing the right powerful words: "passion", "illicit", "obsession", "emptiness", "catastrophe"; I just had to read this. And wowza. I can almost imagine looking down from above at my 10-year-old self, reading this all in one go while lying on my mom's bedroom floor on a summer afternoon, eyes wide, not at all sure what I had gotten myself into. Despite all the sex in the story, my biggest takeaway was its vision of grotesque narcissism, as well as how enthralling drama with a capital "D" could be. It's been fun to revisit this one as an adult (and in audio—Steven Crossley is obviously a master), and to realize that not all grownups are as screwed up or myopic as Hart's characters (in fact most aren't) and that I still thoroughly enjoy melodrama. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Editor Tricia, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret My dad loved Judy Blume and pushed with a passion—it was something the whole family could read together and was one of the first book series I read on my own. But Margaret was something different. It was the first Blume book I was lead to think of as "subversive." My older sister, who was and can still be a little "Lucy-esque," taunted me about this book, saying I wouldn’t understand it. Then I found her well-worn paperback copy not-so-discretely left sticking out among the other books in the bookcase. It was a plant, I’m sure, and I took the bait. So, at age nine, I hid in a closet, flashlight in hand, to read this forbidden text. Its revelations left me enlightened and full of questions at the same time—as all good books should. Superfudge It
Editor Abby, It It should be no surprise that the fear factor in It was beyond anything for which my 13-year-old self was prepared. The gruesome murders of children, the sheer mental torture that was Pennywise—all of it made for some sleepless nights and the return of my bedroom nightlight. But I was also unprepared for the utter uselessness of the adults who existed in the world of the terrified children who took it upon themselves to battle the monster—nor the weightiness of the grown-up version of these kids tackling the whole subject of mortality. It erased my childish thought that being grown was an antidote to fear. In some ways it left me more unsettled than it did scared. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Signature Performance by Elijah Wood
Editor Rachael X., The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I was in second grade when I snuck The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain out of my school’s library unnoticed. Some words were too hard to sound out, and others, I noticed, were covered in black ink. I especially didn’t understand the cultural significance or controversy surrounding the language. And at the time, all that mattered to me was that I was finally reading a grown-up book. Now, equipped with the masterfully performed twangs and drawls of Elijah Wood's narration, I’m looking forward to exploring the youthful shenanigans of Huck and Jim as they sail along the Mississippi river—and the deeper questions about how this canonical narrative fits into the complicated history of the United States.