What makes an adult book right for teens?

(Courtesy of W.W. Norton)
(Courtesy of W.W. Norton)

The new Caldecott, Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winners garnered lots of attention at Monday’s American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia. But among the lesser-known prizes is an unusual one of particular interest to high school teachers and parents of older teens. It’s called the Alex Award, and it’s given each year to 10 books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

The list caught my eye because the first book is Mark Slouka’s “Brewster” about two high school guys in a blue-collar town in the late 1960s. I thought it was one of the best books of 2013, but as an old high school teacher myself, I had never thought of it as a novel I would have given to my students. It seems too mournful, too retrospective, too steeped in the wisdom of middle age for people who had just recently learned to drive.

At the risk of putting him on the spot, I decided to ask Slouka himself: Would you have enjoyed reading “Brewster” when you were 17?

“Though it sounds — and probably is — self-serving to say so, I think I would have loved it,” he told me. “I think it would have made me feel less alone in the world, and 17 can be a lonely time of life.”

“I didn’t write ‘Brewster’ for teenagers,” he acknowledges. “It’s an adult book that just happens to be about teenagers. But in my heart of hearts, I dream of teenagers responding to the novel’s hardness and its inner decency — the way an earlier generation responded to Salinger’s use of the word ‘crap,’ his willingness to speak a truth that resonated with them.”

Slouka has heard that some local high schools are reading “Brewster,” but he says he knows that its official reception would depend on how conservative the district is. “Ideally, it’ll be banned somewhere,” he jokes, “and kids will be hiding it from the principal in their coats.”

There’s nothing like a little book banning to raise interest. It’s a shame, though, that discussions about what teens should read so often get stuck in screaming matches over censorship. It would be valuable to have more conversations like this about what might appeal to teens, what might stretch them, inspire them.

“Past a certain age — say 15 or so — I don’t believe in categories of any kind,” Slouka says, “with the possible exception of out-and-out pornography or outrageously violent stuff a la ‘American Psycho.’ Literature is literature. Its purpose is to challenge and disorient us, to break us down a little bit so that we are forced to rebuild ourselves. Over time, over the course of many books, we construct a deeper, truer self.”

I hope there are teenagers out there reading “Brewster.” Let me know how you enjoyed it.

Here are the other Alex Award winners for 2014:

  • “The Death of Bees,” by Lisa O’Donnell
  • “Golden Boy,” by Abigail Tarttelin
  • Help for the Haunted,” by John Searles
  • Lexicon,” by Max Barry
  • “Lives of Tao,” by Wesley Chu
  • “Mother, Mother,” by Koren Zailckas
  • “Relish,” by Lucy Knisley
  • “The Sea of Tranquility,” by Katja Millay
  • “The Universe Versus Alex Woods,” by Gavin Extence

The Alex Awards are named after Margaret “Alex” Edwards, who worked at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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