I count the Sweet Valley High series as one of my favorite things about childhood, even though those books contained many adult themes (underage drinking, motorcycle accidents, and drug overdoses, to name a few) that weren’t appropriate for the nine-year-old me. But didn’t we all have books like that as kids? Mine were from the SVH series, but maybe yours was 99 Fear Street or Flowers in the Attic. The young-adult genre is filled with delightfully racy and trashy books that our parents either were oblivious to or tried to ban us from reading, but that we somehow managed to get our hands on anyway. And, sex-filled or drug-addled though those volumes may be, our childhoods just wouldn’t have been the same without them.
Any Christopher Pike Book
Books like The Last Vampire, Whisper of Death, and Slumber Party were gateways for future readers of Anne Rice and John Grisham. When kids started to feel too old for RL Stine’s Goosebumps series, they moved right along to Pike. One of the creepiest by far is Die Softly, which involves cheerleaders, murders, voyeurism, and cocaine.
Fear Street Series
Speaking of RL Stine, he also wrote a collection of horror books aimed at teens. The characters were a little older than the Goosebumps characters, and their experiences were a lot scarier. Remember the 99 Fear Street trilogy, in which a teen is scalded to death in the shower, and a child’s and dog’s ghosts are stuck behind the house’s walls and cry out for help? Truly disturbing.
Go Ask Alice
This is written in diary form from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old girl battling a severe drug addiction. She runs away from home, prostitutes herself for drugs, and constantly tries to clean up her act before succumbing to addiction once more. But the worst is saved for the end, when she’s slipped acid after getting clean and is forced into a mental hospital. She dies from an overdose a few weeks later. Pretty intense story line for kids, but a great cautionary tale, I guess.
Flowers in the Attic
VC Andrews’ highly unsettling, cringe-worthy book might not have been geared toward kids, but most people I know who’ve read it did so in their youth. You’d think it was written for the younger set, since the narrator’s twelve years old, but the instances of incest, rampant child abuse, and poisoning suggest otherwise.
Stephen King’s first published novel shows teenagers at their cruelest, mothers at their craziest, and outcasts with telekinetic powers at their most vengeful. Given its intense focus on death, humiliation, trauma, and Christian fundamentalism, no wonder it’s one of the most frequently banned library books in the United States.
Judy Blume is not afraid to cover teenage sexuality. She wrote about puberty from both gender perspectives in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. In Forever, she chronicles a sexual relationship between two high-schoolers and discusses its physical and emotional repercussions. But even though the characters practice safe sex, the book riles up parents and educators because it actually acknowledges that teenagers have sex.
Killing Mr. Griffin
A young psychopath named Mark convinces a few other students in his class to kidnap their unpopular English teacher, Mr. Griffin, ostensibly to “teach him a lesson” for failing them. In the end, Mr. Griffin dies, the conspirators try to cover it up, and everyone is found out. As if the teacher’s death weren’t horrifying enough, an innocent grandmother is murdered as well.
Perhaps these aren’t the most age-appropriate book choices in terms of subject matter (incest, murder, genocide, drug addiction, etc.), but they do teach kids some important life lessons. For example, Go Ask Alice instilled a fear of hard drugs in me better than any school assembly could have. Forever emphasizes the importance of communication and honesty in relationships. Carrie shows that you should never torment someone else because she’s different—especially because she could have supernatural powers that can kill everyone you know. That’s just good advice at any age.