A Few Words on a Few Classics

Classics. They can be categorized in many ways. They’re not always appreciated when initially published, but over the years their reputations grow and grow. Moby Dick anyone? Some eventual classics are appreciated and sell plenty of copies, but they don’t always win the awards or the accolades. Still, they last, and eventually earn the label. And then there are the classics whose status as such might be debated, but they are books that deserve the label all the same. For example, many may argue that this book is pure trash (including me!), but I’d still argue that Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews is, in many ways, a “classic,” because it has done what many books fail to do: Stood the test of time. Even though many might lament this, people are still reading this book. Sure, it’s not Tolstoy, but it has stuck around.

That, I think, is one of the signs of a classic. They’re not always the best novels ever written, nor are they the most successful. But something about these books has struck a chord with readers through the years, and somehow they persist.

Recently, I read a few classic YA novels. Two for the first time, one for perhaps the fourth time. Two are well-known. One still isn’t. But I’m still calling them classics, because they are.

My book club, which only reads YA books, decided on a classics double-header a few months ago. We selected The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton and Forever by Judy Blume—two books that I had never read, despite their classic status.

The Outsiders, written by Hinton when she was just a teenager herself, is gritty yet also innocent, set as it is the fifties (or maybe sixties), when wearing a leather jacket was a sign of toughness and not just a fashion statement. It’s a raw, powerful novel about fitting in, or not fitting in, as the case may be. It’s an indictment of social inequality, a comment on how people judge each other unfairly based on stereotypes and preconceptions. But more than that, it’s just a great story about a group of lost boys, trying to find their places in the world. Ponyboy, Johnny, Dallas, Sodapop—who can forget these names, these characters? Reading it, I was struck by its honesty and the spare power of its language. Sure, some of it can seem dated and corny, but it was revolutionary for its time, and is still a moving and powerful work.

I had read bits of Forever when I was a teenager—and by bits, I mean the “dirty” parts. My fiend Shelly had a well-worn copy. Maybe it was even a library copy. I can’t remember. I just remember thumbing through the underlined “dirty” passages about sex. I think, at the time, I was shocked that such frank sexual matter appeared in a book written expressly for teenagers. But none of the information—that is, the scenes and descriptions of them “doing it”—was news to me. After all, Shelly’s family had pay cable. We’d watched plenty of soft-core porn on Cinemax. I knew what sex was all about, even if I’d never had it myself. Still, finding such things in a book was a thrill, and felt, somehow, even more transgressive than watching an R-rated movie.

Reading Forever as an adult—as someone who’d himself written a relatively sexually charged YA novel—I was more impressed by Blume’s storytelling ease and her directness, her ability to create such realistic characters in Katherine and Michael. The prose is unfussy, unfancy. The story zips along like a good pageturner. Blume makes her accomplishment look easy, even artless. But any writer knows that writing a book like this isn’t easy at all. Such a streamlined, tight, and entertaining piece of work can only spring from an immensely talented writer. Forever, as far as I know, never won any huge accolades (though Blume herself has since become an award-winning icon) when it first came out. But it has surely outlived many other books of the era, and it still holds up as an honest, heartfelt, funny, but also sad depiction of first love and first sex.

I’ve written about John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. a few times before. The novel had long been out of print. This year, however, Flux reissued the novel in a 25th-anniversay edition. I was thrilled to contribute a back-of-the-book to this edition, along with contributions from Donovan’s niece, Stacey, and authors Brent Hartinger and Kathleen T. Horning. Like The Outsiders and Forever, I came to I’ll Get There. later in life, well after my actual teenage years. But reading it for the first time—and then again and again over the years—I knew that it was a classic, a lovely story that deserved to last. Not just because it was a groundbreaking work—the first YA novel to deal with gay characters—but because it was a beautifully written novel. Even though it’s not a widely known blockbuster like The Outsiders or Forever, it’s still a classic, one of those obscure gems that manage to find new fans and admirers through the years. Thanks to Flux, Donovan’s novel has new life, and here’s hoping it stays in print for years to come.

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