If there's anything the writers I know share besides an unhealthy relationship to caffeine, it's a childhood spent immersed in books. All my young adult favorites look more like accordions than novels, because they've been dropped into the bathtub so many times.
They're also seared into my consciousness like few novels I've read since. I used to chalk that up to the impressionability of youth, until I started revisiting those stories and realizing how well they stand up as literature. The ones I continue to love now, a quarter-century after first mauling their spines, tend to confront complex social issues bravely, convey emotions with tremendous, empathetic clarity, and rest on compelling narrative voices. In other words — the very elements that draw me into novels today.
It's 1961, and Wilmington, N.C.'s white junior high school has just been integrated — by exactly one student, our narrator Jerome "the Jayfox" Foxworthy. Deeply observant, wise beyond his years, and a basketball prodigy, the Jayfox befriends a troubled classmate: Bix, a baseball star who needs to master basketball to confront his stepfather and gain access to his institutionalized mother. But the concept of "faking," though central to the game, is anathema to Bix's radical notion of honesty. Not only does this book deserve a place in the pantheon of great American race novels but it features some of the most astute sportswriting I've ever read.
For the Carnegie-esque Pittsburgh clan in this novel (which was later published under the title My Father's Daughter), time stopped years ago, when the family's eldest daughter was kidnapped. Now, a grown woman claiming to be the long-gone Caroline has returned. She's embraced by the family, even as doubts linger in the mind of her young half-brother Winston. Soon, it becomes clear that Caroline's agenda is to unlock the cage of fear in which Winston and his younger sister have been forced to live. Atmospheric but never stuffy, this is a finely wrought mystery as well as a meditation on the truths we choose to live with and the truths we choose to live without.
The narrator of John LeVert's novel is a teenage boy with a keen interest in biology, and a pet theory about evolution: that all the instincts and abilities we possessed as more primitive creatures are still inside us somewhere, waiting to be called to action. His friends and family don't take it very seriously — until he starts accessing those talents: catching and re-catching a fly with froggish reflexes, summoning gazelle-like speed during a football game, and then channeling more aggressive powers when his skills gain him unwanted attention. LeVert juggles belief and disbelief, science and humor, pathos and romance, with the dexterity of a ... what kind of animal can juggle?
These three books strip literature down to its essence, and remind me why I fell in love with reading. Pick one up, and lose yourself in it. Why should kids have all the fun?
Adam Mansbach is the author of five books, most recently the best-selling not-for-children children's story, Go the F**k to Sleep.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.