ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, the latest entry in our new series for young teens. We're calling it "PG-13." That's the age many young readers start to wonder about the adult world. Even if they know they're not quite ready, they're eager for a taste of grown-up ideas.
When she was 12, author Myla Goldberg cracked a book - and got a taste of the horrors of nuclear war. She has this essay on how it changed her young mind.
MYLA GOLDBERG: Growing up, I was like any other early '80s, Cold War kid. I loved the Muppets and "Schoolhouse Rock." I was obsessed with mutually assured nuclear destruction. When Sting came on the radio, singing "I hope the Russians love their children, too," I sang along. All the while, I was picturing a mushroom cloud, and crafting my own survival plan. When the time came, I would hop a plane with my family and move to Australia.
Then I read "On the Beach," by Nevil Shute. Does it sound like a happy book about summer? It's not. On page 1, nuclear blasts from World War III have already erased life from the Earth's Northern Hemisphere. The only remaining habitable places are parts of Africa, South America, New Zealand and - you guessed it - Australia. At first, this sounds like good news. Here was a book that proved my survival plan would work. Then I got to page 10. As it turns out, most of "On the Beach" is taken up by the people of Australia waiting to die.
The radioactive fallout clouds are drifting south, and there's nothing anyone can do about it but watch. Peter Holmes is this young naval officer. He's assigned to the world's last submarine mission. So he leaves his wife and baby daughter to travel north. Is there something hopeful behind a faint radio signal they've been receiving? Not so much. By the time people were taking suicide pills to avoid slow, painful deaths by radiation sickness, I realized that nuclear war makes no exceptions - not even for 12-year-old girls.
So is this book an incredible downer? Um, yeah. But I'm grateful to have read it when I did. When you're a kid, you can't help but think that the larger rules of the world - like death, war and sickness - apply to everyone but yourself. But at some point, we're all forced to face how complicated and heartbreaking life can be. I can't think of a better way to have been allowed to figure that out than in the pages of a book.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Myla Goldberg's latest novel is called "The False Friend." Her pick for our series "PG-13" was "On the Beach" by Nevil Shute. At our website, you can find more "PG-13" recommendations as well as lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's all at nprbooks.org.