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You are what you read

Bella Swan’s favorite reads? Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen.

From The Outsiders to The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the Twilight saga, teen fiction has long used protagonists’ reading taste as a characterization device. It’s a fast way to say a lot about a character with very little information (or effort, depending on the novel).

For instance, avid Jane Austen fans show up a lot in YA — hopeless romantics who simply want to fall in love with the boy of their dreams who just happens to come from money, acknowledging none of the bitterness, cynicism, or social commentary that underlie actual Jane Austen novels. These characters probably volunteer at the local library or host a book club.

Then there are the Holden Caulfields — misunderstood boys with dogeared copies of Catcher in the Rye, just wishing for someone to reach out and save them from adulthood. These men-children are typically awkward at social interaction and terrified of sex.

There are the Jack Kerouac toters — dreamers who fancy themselves mad to live, mad to talk, who never say a commonplace thing and burn like roman candles (or at least wish they did). These self-proclaimed rebels show up a lot in road trip novels — surprise, surprise!

There are the genuinely virtuous spirits who read Harper Lee and struggle to be their best selves. Chances are good these kids are wrestling with some kind of moral dilemma.

And then there are the black-clad, tortured souls with a taste for the depressing or macabre (such as Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe). It’s possible these characters actually struggle with suicidal thoughts, but equally likely they’re just rebelling against oppressive parents.

And the list could go on and on.

Emily Dickinson — poet, introvert, and well-known recluse — is the latest literary reference of the week. She’s been popping up all over the place in recent and upcoming intermediate and YA novels, sometimes as an actual character and sometimes as a ghost or delusion.

Nobody's SecretIn Nobody’s Secret (Chronicle, April 2013), Machaela MacColl gracefully folds factual elements of Dickinson’s life and work into a mystery starring a fictional teenage version of the poetess.

In Jenny Torres Sanchez’s Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia (Running Press Teens, June 2013), Frenchie struggles to deal with her crush’s suicide, often speaking to the grave of Emily Dickinson to work through her emotional turmoil.

Nick is bullied incessantly in Michael Fry’s The Odd Squad: Bully Bait (Hyperion, February 2013). When he and two other misfits are forced by a guidance counselor to join the Safety Patrol as a means of belonging, the three attempt to disarm their bully with the help of a crazy janitor and Emily Dickinson’s ghost.

In Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s Destiny, Rewritten (March 2013), Emily (named for Dickinson) isn’t sure she wants to be a poet when she grows up, but when her first-edition copy of her favorite Dickinson book disappears, Emily is determined to find it.

Finally, in And We Stay (January 2014) by Jenny Hubbard, Emily Bean transfers to boarding school after her boyfriend shoots himself in her school library. Plagued by guilt and grief, and haunted by the spirit of Emily Dickinson, Emily must come to terms with the horrific tragedy she has experienced.

Just as a character’s favorite book or author can act as a barometer of his or her personality, the books we love can easily become emblems of who we are. What does your literary taste say about you? What do you think will be the next popular literary allusion?

Stay gold, Ponyboy.

Shara Hardeson About Shara Hardeson

Shara Hardeson is a former editorial assistant at The Horn Book Guide.



  1. I would also add to the list of Emilymania, the wonderful and lyrical “Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things” by Kathryn Burak. This story for older readers features a high school girl named Claire, who is grieving the death of her mother and the loss of a friend who went missing without a trace. Claire finds comfort in Dickinson’s poetry, and senses her mother’s presences whenever she is in the Dickinson museum, and especially when wearing Emily’s famous white dress.

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