I hope you are having a wonderful birthday. I’m pretty excited that you are 16 now and I’m looking forward to hearing about all your adventures as you move out on your own, meet new people, date, drive, and generally rock the world.
For your birthday, I’ve put together a list of 16 books I think everyone should read. Some of them you may have already read, but they may be worth reading every couple of years. Some may be books you want to wait until you are a little older to read (Team of Rivals, Unbroken), and some may be “too young” (The Giver), though there’s really no such thing as “too young” if a story speaks to you. But they are all books that will cause you to think and feel and question and hope and understand. And they are all books that you will enjoy reading (I hope)because they are great stories, well-told.
Here’s your reading list for the next decade or so, in no particular order:
1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: I love this book and read it at least half a dozen times from middle school until I graduated from college. Every time I read it I found something new to learn from and to help me understand the complexities of the worlds that people come from and how their experiences shape them. I hope as you read this you can see and feel and understand our responsibility to love and help each other as best we can.
2. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand: I read this just after Elsa was born and could not put it down. It is sometimes unreal – despite being a true story – how much this man went through in his life. But the events of his life – from running in the Olympics to surviving a POW camp – are not the real story here. The real story is how he handled the hand he’d been dealt and became someone who continues to inspire.
3. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: I’m a die-hard fan of Abraham Lincoln and this book made me cry for our country at losing him too soon. While it is a fascinating look at how one man stepped up to the plate and took on an extremely difficult task, the thing I loved most about it were the stories of Lincoln and his relationships with others. He is an amazing example of kindness, generosity, charity, compassion, and fairness. We could all learn from him.
4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: This is a fun read. Romantic and humorous, but also a lesson in making assumptions and labeling people. (Also recommended by Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: I read this the summer before my senior year in high school, and though it took me several weeks, the pay off was huge. One of the final lines of the book became my mantra through my senior year and through college (and I may be paraphrasing here): “All of human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘Wait’ and ‘hope.'”
6. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: Aside from being a classic and one of Dickens’ more readable novels, this is a great story of forgiveness and sacrifice and redemption.
7. Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: I am, admittedly, a Civil War buff, but Micah backs me up on this. Killer Angels is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg and so well-told that by the end, again, you may shed a few tears for our country. But even if you don’t, I think it is an event to be familiar with and this book is a good way to do it.
8. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis: I’m not always sure how my beliefs – in God, and in myself – fit into the world, practically speaking. Thankfully, Mr. Lewis has provided a way for me to wrap my mind around ideas and events that are somewhat unfathomable – or at least give me enough footing to keep moving forward with faith.
9. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis: does a great job of looking at things from the “other” side, where good is bad and bad is good. It can be a little mental gymnastics at times, but it is also an interesting perspective on how the devil works in our lives, in little ways that we don’t normally think about. Oh, and it’s a fun read.
10. A Separate Peace by John Knowles: There are few books that capture the wars that we have to fight on a daily basis with ourselves in such a powerful story. And I think that most teenagers, and probably most adults as well, could stand to be reminded through Gene’s experience that life is not a competition. It’s better spent enjoying other people’s talents than envying them.
11. The Chosen by Chaim Potok: After reading this book I committed my entire junior year to reading Chaim Potok. The Chosen ended up being my favorite. I think I was drawn to the amazing friendship between Reuven and Danny. As well as they relationships they have with their fathers. So different, but so interesting and thought-provoking.
12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery: All girls need a little Anne in their lives. I would find it hard to believe that any girl could reach adulthood without making the acquaintance of Anne (with an E) Shirley. She still inspires me to see the beauty in the mundane and to celebrate it as something amazing. This is a habit that, if developed, will benefit you throughout your life. Also, she’s a bit of a firecracker, and that’s always fun.
13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: Of course I have to include another coming-of-age book, and bonus that it takes place in Brooklyn. I love this book not only because of its setting, but because of how Francie takes charge of her life and learns from her mistakes and misfortunes. And I love the way her aunts and her mom all help each other out. I have sisters – both biological and not – who have been there for me and helped me through difficulties. I hope you have many in your life as well.
14. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain: A friend gave this book to me soon after Micah and I were married and living in Hawaii. We read it together in a couple of days and laughed at Mr. Twain’s wit, and then hoped that, despite our different backgrounds and miscommunications, we could grow together as Adam and Eve did.
15. The Giver by Lois Lowry: This is intended, I believe, for an audience younger than you. But if you haven’t read it yet, waste no time. I’ve read it several times, including once since we’ve been in Brooklyn, and I still love it. Jonas and his faith and courage in what he is doing is inspiring. I haven’t read the other three in the quartet (Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son), but I’ve heard good things.
16. Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Wuthering Heights by Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte, respectively: Okay, so I’m cheating and combining 3 books in one. But I read all these the summer between my junior and senior years of high school because I wanted to read a book by each of the Brontes and they are now forever linked in my mind. Though they are very different, I found examples of strong women in them who were true to themselves. (Well, except for Catherine in Wuthering Heights . . . .)
And if you ever want to come visit the big city, we’ll pull out our air mattress for you.
ps to my readers: What would you add to the list? What are the books that shaped who you are? Already I can see that I missed The Help by Kathryn Stockett. . . .