There was a mild case of the flu that immediately sent me back to my childhood.
Usually when I’m sick, I’ll go to my parents’ house, pull out my teddy bear-shaped heat pack, and lie on the couch in dramatic fashion, regularly wrapping macaroni and cheese or teacups.
There, my favorite indulgence was returning to my childhood bookshelf while taking a shower. It contains my oldest and favorite classics – Winnie the Pooh, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and The Famous Five.
In my 20s, my favorite youth novels for teens brought me a similar joy. The seminal 2000 romance The Princess Diaries and Sarah Dessen are both favorites, both expressing the special, exhausted feeling of a 15-year-old crush that It feels like it can no longer be reached.
However, when I got sick this winter, it was the first time I felt sick and alone in a foreign city. I can’t go home and read my old books, I feel vulnerable in a new way. I stared blankly at my bookshelf. I love The Bell Jar, but do I want to read it while I’m feverish and sweaty? No one makes me feel like Tony Morrison but snot?
Instead, I did what any normal adult would do: put on a mask, put on a ridiculously large jacket, and drive to the bookstore.
So I became obsessed with teen fiction, a category traditionally marketed to teens and teens between the ages of 12 and 18. In two days, I finished the entire Heartstopper series—a graphic novel and queer romance that was recently promoted by a really cute Netflix show.
I’ve put my toes in and now I’m ready to take the plunge.
A few days later, I went back to the bookstore in a bit of embarrassment and bought all the novels written by Alice Oseman, the author of “Heartstopper.” Solitaire—published when she was 19—is great, but I especially love Radio Silence, which I wish I had read as a teenager, and it deftly navigates mental illness, academic stress, and friendship.
Jeanmarie Morosin, head of children’s publishing at Hachette, who brought Heartstopper to Australia, said it was no surprise that Oseman’s work appealed to older readers.
“For me, why young people are so emotionally charged is because it takes you back to a time before you made all the big decisions in life, when everything was in front of you and it was dramatic, “she says.
“As an adult, you’ve had relationships that have worked or not, you’ve chosen your career – but that brings you back to that exciting time…you’ll never get that again.”
The books have also changed since I grew up. In the ones I’ve read in my target demographic, romance is between boys and girls, and people of color are relegated to backgrounds; they certainly aren’t outspoken about sexism and race, like my next Starr purchase, The Hate U Give.
“YA has always been ahead of its time. If it doesn’t diversify, it’s almost a problem,” Morosin said.
“It’s a testament to and reflects the reality of the teens who read these books, and their expectations, and their outspokenness about these books. Publishers are catching up to that demand.
“People have grown up and don’t see themselves reflected in books and art. By making books for everyone, you’re creating a safe space.”
My favourite writers from my childhood were Jacqueline Wilson and Cathy Cassidy – funny, passionate British writers who told the stories of young girls from working-class families at heart and were not afraid to write about adoption and divorce story.
Wilson won the Guardian Award in 2000 for Illustrated Mom, a beautiful novel about two sisters battling their mother’s mental illness and the chaotic ways families love and care for each other.
Twenty years later, at 76, she’s still writing books—and so is Cathy Cassidy.
Cassidy describes her own love of books for young readers in the Guardian’s 10 feel-good novels, including Jerry Spinelli’s modern fairy tale Stargirl, Michael · Michael Morpurgo’s Kingdom of Kenji and my go-to “Secret Garden.”
“We all love this book, it makes us feel warm inside and happy to be alive, even though they are often moving, bittersweet stories,” she said.
Publisher Morosin agrees: There’s a “comfort” to a familiar, well-loved story.
“You reread them because you know what’s out there,” she said.
“It does sound tacky, but … it would be an honor if I could give a child that comfort and nostalgia for the rest of their lives.”