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Books to inspire pre-teens

With a Young Adult (YA) market that’s growing at an incredible pace, full of varied levels of depth, we have often been asked about recommendations that are less frivolous. Here is a list of some of the books we found particularly inspiring for our own children to take on a more substantial literary diet. They are our favourites, not only for introducing our younger teens to great literature or non-fiction, but also for opening the way to interesting discussions on politics, society and ethics, amongst others. Whether short or long, famous or obscure, these are accessible books that still stimulate the mind.

The suggested ages are based on the average reading level at that age, but advanced readers have read these earlier. There is no pressure, it’s just a guideline, and the best way to know is to read them as well as these are all valid for adults too.

In order of accessibility (age recommendation):

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon (11+ years)
A book that is utterly worthy of all the accolades, it was originally written for adults but its charm also appeals to the younger readers and defies categorisation. Not only a very minuscule insight into Aspergers, but also a mystery, a domestic story, and a coming-of-age rolled into one. The marvellously direct voice of Christopher is deceptively simple but allows a younger reader to enjoy. (For those who are in London, go see the breathtaking stage production as well).

Hunger Games Suzanne Collins (12+ years)
Don’t roll your eyes. If your child is struggling with the idea of some ‘thoughtful books’ and you want to kick-start a habit of not reading literary candy floss, you should start here. Unlike some of the other highly popular YA dystopian fiction that have become a phenomenon, the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy is very well-written. As incongruous as it may sound, the awful conceit (a competition that requires children to, literally, eliminate each other from the game) is sensitively handled while simultaneously highlighting the gruesome nature of our macabre fascination with reality TV. By the third book, it is a fully fledge introduction into leadership and symbolism, the roots of revolution and political strategy. It never succumbs to sensationalism or trite romances but is a astonishingly sharp critique and well structured. I anticipate that this trilogy will survive the test of time and be on the curriculum for 12+ in the years to come.

The Hollow People – Brian Keaney (11/12+ years)
On the surface, this is just yet another YA dystopian thriller and, as such, an easier read. It soon becomes apparent to an adult reader, however, that it is a rich source of discussion topics – I couldn’t actually help jotting down almost 20 questions I wanted to discuss with the young ‘uns – about society and responsibility (Dr Sigmundus says “society is answerable to authority; authority is not answerable to society”), types of leadership, dictatorship and the concept of free will.

The Red Scarf Girl – Ji Li Jian (11+ years)
A short but interesting autobiography of a privileged girl in Beijing who’s life is thrown into turmoil by the Cultural Revolution and the ‘Great Leap Forward’. A simple read with good insight into China in the early 70s. A must for young history lovers, to be enjoyed more for content than style.

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck (11+ years)
Steinbeck’s classic is a gem of a little story that dives deep into themes such as loneliness, dreams and loyalty while portraying the nomadic lives of ranch hands in America during the Great Depression. To top it off are the most exquisite descriptions of landscapes and farm life. Of Mice and Men is not necessarily a children’s book but it’s a perfect introduction to great literature to anyone over the age of 11.

Animal Farm George Orwell (11/12+ years)
Animal Farm might be on a thousand different lists, but we could not refrain from including it in our recommendation for intelligent young adults. Ostensibly a children’s fable about farm animals’ revolt against their (human) farmer, it is not only a parable of the Russian Revolution and the messy battle for power as Orwell intended, but also a cautionary satire that can be translated to other examples of dictatorships and government propaganda. No reading list, or history class, should be without this singularly spectacular piece of work.

Age of the FishÖdön von Horváth (12+ years)
Also known as ‘Youth without God’ – the literal translation of the original “Jugend Ohne Gott” – The Age of the Fish is a brilliantly succinct and multi-layered novel about identity, integrity and the freedom of speech and thought. Written by von Horváth after he had himself faced censure from the Nazis’ Third Reich, emigrating first to Vienna and then later, after the Anschluss with Austria, onto Paris. The story is told from the point of view of a disaffected teacher who, despite all his muted criticisms about his emotionally-numbed pupils and the totalitarian state he lives in, is ensnared in a web of deceit and impotence.

Armadale – Wilkie Collins (12+ years)
A contemporary of Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens and George Eliot, Wilkie Collins was not only at the forefront of the detective novel (The Moonstone) but, as the hugely successful author of mystery and the sensational novel, he was also a celebrity of the time. The whole idea of the sensational novel is wonderfully disparaged by a Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford University, Henry Mansel, in an article in 1862, representing the conservative views of the time: ‘Written to meet an ephemeral demand, aspiring only to an ephemeral existence, it is natural that they should have recourse to rapid and ephemeral methods of awakening the interest of their readers, striving to act as the dram or the dose, rather than as the solid food, because the effect is more immediately perceptible. 

Nineteenth Century Literary Drugs!! What teen can resist a selling point like that?! This is a great place start to get a feel for language in nineteenth century but without the complexities of more ‘literary’ authors of his time. Lesser known, but much like its more famous sibling The Woman in White, the story revolves around the tangled threads of identity and destiny (though less saccharine than Collins’ The Two Destinies). Throw in a handful of revenge, and a femme fatal, and this thrilling nineteenth century ‘bestseller’ is hard to put down.

On an aside: The Woman in White is fantastic too and one of my favourites – read to perfection by Ian Holm. Sample Audible Here

Mr Pip – Lloyd Jones (13+ years)
Given the nature of the topic (Full Review here) this is definitely not for the very young, but a fabulous introduction to the impact a book can have both within the imagination and as a gesture of revolt. Jones’ ability to skilfully depict this remote Pacific setting, full of stunning natural beauty, in start contrast to the upheaval and ugly violence of revolution, and then again with a Dickensian London in such a small book is a true sleight of hand.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (12+ years)
To touch once again on perhaps the most popular romantic YA novels of our day, Twilight; this is Bella Swan’s favourite book. From the brooding, mysterious and ghostly beginning, to the cruel and dreadful end, it is a book that wraps you with the howling wind and the desolation of the wild Yorkshire moors. The more beautiful, poetic, and romantic of the classic novels, I remember Wuthering Heights as the indisputably favourite – particularly when I wanted to absorb myself in the drama of being a teen! With its dramatic setting, including a perennially louring sky (“a perfect misanthropist’s heaven”), a pervasive sense of the impending and inevitable tragedy, and the desperate (both unrequited and requited) love stories, it is not surprising that it resonates with teenage angst.

A wonderful experience also in the audio version, with some excellent recordings by Juliet Stevenson, Patricia Routledge, Michael Kitchen respectively and one with both by Janet McTeer and David Timson, to name but a few. Sample Versions Here

Black holes and Baby Universes & Other EssaysStephen Hawking (13+ years)
While some readers might shake their heads in disbelief that this book appears on this list, they may equally assume this to be harder than it really is. Hawking’s collection of essays somehow read like a cohesive memoir which, in his words, range from “autobiographical sketches through the philosophy of science to attempts to explain the excitement I feel about science and the universe.” This is an inspirational collection of writings – particularly because what it lacks in sentimentality it makes up for in humour and self-awareness. His writing style is comfortably familiar and innately approachable. It is with this light-hearted voice that he manages to achieve his hope (originally for the publication, A Brief History of Time) that ‘it gives people the feeling that they need not be cut off from the great intellectual and philosophical questions’. Here’s hoping that these bite-sized musings can lead an inquisitive child to read A Brief History of Time and, more to the point, to ask the question: ‘where did we come from, and where are we going?’

And Dickens…

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens (12+years)
I sometimes feel that there is an inexplicable laziness in prescribing that first Dickens to children: Great Expectations because it’s shorter, Oliver Twist because it’s the most recognised, in my day at least, through films and a very famous musical; David Copperfield because it’s ‘based on Charles Dickens own life, don’t you know’; and mostly because all three have a hero who is the age of the reader. While all these things are true – and the works are as incredible as they are championed to be – they are still grim enough to make it a pretty gruelling start for a 12 year old to read, even an intelligent one, who’s never read something like this before.

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Try Nicholas Nickleby instead. Partly because it is only Dickens’ third novel, and not as sophisticated as his later novels; or because Nicholas is older and more resilient than Oliver Twist or Pip, his hardships don’t feel as desperate or as cruel. The book also ticks all the right boxes for an intelligent boy (yes I did say ‘boy’ because, let’s face facts: most 12 year old boys won’t read Jane Eyre in his free time and this will be an easier ‘sell’) It has male leads: the titular young man and his abused and under-developed companion Smike both still young enough to be relatable to the reader. It has adventure. It has humour. It’s sly and witty and comical all at once. It has some gruesome villains. A section of the book takes place in the caricature of the worst of what a boys boarding school can be. And it has a happy ending.

The first six chapters are admittedly arduous for a reader unfamiliar with the language, but by the time they reach Dotheboys (“Do-the-boys”) Hall in chapter 7, the story itself will carry them through. Highly recommend starting with an audio version – the best versions are read by Alex Jennings or Simon Vance. Sample Audible Here