The school year is winding down, which means that teens (young people of any age, really) can finally give the classics a rest and dive instead into the young adult novels that really reflect what it’s like to grow up today. Not so fast, though: Lots of YA books, for all their fantastical plot elements and contemporary detail (in at least one of these novels, witches and iPods are never far apart), address some of the same themes the classics do, including race, female sexuality, mental illness, and obviously enough, love. In honor of the classics, YA, and the joy of reading of both together, we’ve rounded up eight of the most-taught books in America and paired them with contemporary reads that tread the same, timeless territory.
Classic: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
YA Equivalent: The Fault in Our Stars
In Shakespeare’s classic romance/tragedy, the lovers are torn apart -- or, “star-cross’d,” to use the play’s phase—by the feud between their families, the Montagues and Capulets of Verona, Italy. In John Green’s bestselling novel -- the movie version of which is set to hit theaters in early June -- the lovers are torn apart by cancer.
Both Hazel and Augustus have had experiences with the c-word, but Hazel -- whose thyroid cancer has spread to her lungs -- is the “grenade” in the relationship, threatening to explode at any moment, and break Augustus’s heart. The novel, which takes its title from another Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, continues in the tradition inaugurated by Romeo and Juliet, illustrating love’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Classic: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
YA Equivalent: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures contains a number of allusions to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story centers on a young girl descended from a family of witches -- (spell) Casters -- who draws a non-magical young man, Ethan Wate, into her world and family on the eve of her 16th birthday, at which time it will be decided whether she will grow into a force of good or evil. The book even contains three older witches called the Sisters, a seemingly direct nod to Shakespeare’s play. Set in the gothic American south, Beautiful Creatures, like Macbeth, explores issues of family and prophecy, while pulling readers into a world rich with fantastical detail and intrigue.
Classic: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
YA Equivalent: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn introduced readers to one of the greatest rebels in American literature. From Huck faking his own death (which sets the novel in motion) to his various adventures and schemes in Kentucky, Illinois, and Arkansas, the novel painted a vivid picture of youth and independence, while also shedding light on America’s troubled racial history.
In Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, bestselling young adult author Sherman Alexie gives readers another renegade to look up to -- an aspiring cartoonist who flouts the expectations of his Native American community -- while offering a glimpse of another, no less problematic, aspect of America’s racial landscape.
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Classic: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Equivalent: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird examined race and prejudice in mid-century Alabama through the eyes of Scout, the white daughter of a lawyer defending a black man accused of rape. Heidi W. Durrow’s novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, also looks at race in America. But in this case, the protagonist is a half-black, half-white young girl growing up in a community (1980s Portland, Oregon) that, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “demands her to be either white or black.” This alternative take on racial issues will complement Lee’s classic while opening additional questions about prejudice, community, and the boundary-eroding powers of friendship.
Classic: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
YA Equivalent: Great by Sara Benincasa
Writer and comedian (and former Bookish contributor) Sara Benincasa’s Great is a glossy update of Fitzgerald’s classic that is no less attentive to issues of class, sexuality, and ambition in America. And its largely female cast will appeal to any reader who finds classic American literature to be somewhat of a boys’ club.
Classic: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
YA Equivalent: The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel about adulteress Hester Prynne opened a literary and cultural debate about America’s sexual double standards and social mores. E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List tackles a similar problem in a contemporary setting through Ruby Oliver, a down-on-her-luck 15 year-old navigating the wilds of fancy private school Tate Prep. After being dumped by her boyfriend—and shamed by her former friends—Ruby proceeds to see a shrink and recount all her past boyfriends (“official and unofficial”) in an effort to reconsider, or not, her life choices. The Hairpin praised The Boyfriend List, saying, “Your heart breaks for Ruby even as she makes you laugh with her wry and true observations about life as a teenage girl.”
Classic: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
YA Equivalent: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
If you haven’t already jumped on the Hunger Games bandwagon, now’s the time. Collins’ bestselling trilogy pays tribute to Lord of the Flies with its story about a world in which teenagers have to fight each other to the death to survive. Just as in Golding’s classic, the experience proves humanizing for some, while others slide all too easily into kill-or-be-killed mode.
Classic: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
YA Equivalent: Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown
John Steinbeck’s deceptively slim novel packs a powerful story about a sibling relationship constrained by both economic hardship and the realities of mental illness. In Perfect Escape, Jennifer Brown offers a variation on this theme: In the wake of a cheating scandal, teenager Kenra decides to “get away from it all” by going on a roadtrip with her brother, Grayson, who suffers from acute OCD.
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