Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up, maturing, accumulated wisdom and all that jazz. Perhaps it's because I’m turning 30 this year (sidebar: what the what?). As I approach that milestone birthday, and think back on how much I have learned and changed since another important birthday, my 18th, my feelings can best be summed up in the words of the Grateful Dead: What a long, strange it’s been.
Of course, books were a constant companion along the way, and a source of much of that accumulated wisdom. From how to cope with being my own for the first time to evolving relationships with friends and family members to the myriad mysteries of the male sex, books were there to teach, challenge, illuminate, comfort and, when all else failed, provide a much-needed respite from the sheer overwhelmingness of that incredibly transitional period.
For as many books as I read when I was 18, though, there are plenty more that I read after I was 18, or hadn’t even been published yet, that I wish I had known about at that particular moment in my life. Since time travel still isn’t a thing (curse you, Back to the Future II ), I’ll have to do the next best thing — pass on all the books I wish I had read at 18 to a younger generation — women who will be better informed and better prepared to meet all of the triumphs and challenges of being not a girl, not yet a woman (am I dating myself? I’m dating myself).
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
In her 2014 memoir/advice book, Amy Poehler proves she's the big sister we all wish we had. Not only does she give great advice about relationships, careers, and becoming a strong, confident woman, she reminds us that it's OK to not have any idea what the hell you're doing when you're 18, as long as you keep an open mind, try new things until you find what you love, and when opportunity comes along, always say, "Yes, please."
Foreve r by Judy Blume
If Amy Poehler is our fantasy big sister, Judy Blume is our fairy godmother. What's remarkable about Forever is that even though it was written 40(!) years ago, so much of it is still relevant to the whirlwind of emotions that accompany first love — the excitement, the uncertainty, the heartache. How does Blume manage to capture the timelessness and truth of teenage relationships so well? Maybe she's not actually a fairy godmother, but a wizard instead...
He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo
Sweet baby Jesus on a Christmas tree, reading this book at 18 would have saved me so much time, energy, and tears. I'm not usually one for dating advice books, but the one simple idea around which this book is based — that if a guy likes you, like, like likes you, he will not let any obstacle get in his way of pursuing you, and if he does, then he's just not that into you and therefore isn't worth your time — is so obvious to me after two decades of dating that I don't know why it's not included as a self-evident truth in the Constitution. Spare yourself some stress and heartache — read this book, embrace what it says about relationships, and find a guy who's worth your time because he knows you're worth his.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
The period between childhood and adulthood can be tricky for families, particularly mothers and daughters. It's that point when you start to realize, "Holy crap, my mother is actually a PERSON with desires, flaws and complexities, not just this machine who nags me about homework and does my laundry." Rebecca Wells' wonderful 1996 novel probes the delicate, dynamic relationships between mothers and daughters, reminding us that at the end of the day, we're all humans just doing our best. There are also tons of great words of Ya-Ya wisdom like, “It’s life. You don’t figure it out. You just climb up on the beast and ride.” Amen.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Like her former Weekend Update co-anchor and "comedy wife" Amy Poehler, Tina Fey's 2011 memoir shows what a bad 21st century bitch looks like. With her trademark sassy wit, Fey sets out some easy-to-follow keys to success — working hard, taking chances, and yes, being a little bossy from time to time.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Hopefully your post-high school experience doesn't involve a grueling initiation ritual or hostile government takeover, but there's still much in Veronica Roth's 2011 dystopian novel that calls to mind the experience of building a new life for yourself in a college setting. From being unsure if you're where you belong to leaving behind family and familiar surroundings, Divergent is a reminder that whether you're in the 21st century or the distant future, you're not alone in facing the challenges of growing up.
Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing and Giving Back by Kimberly Palmer
Nothing makes money sound less sexy than the phrase "financial literacy," but that doesn't mean you shouldn't start learning how to manage your money ASAP. This book was written by U.S. News and World Report Alpha Consumer columnist Kimberly Palmer in 2010, in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, so the information and advice is based on saving and spending in our contemporary circumstances.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfield's 2005 novel Prep may be about boarding school, but reading it as a college student, there was a lot I was able to relate to — the challenges of being away from home, the delicate process of navigating roommate relations, the struggle to blend in and stand out at the same time. If, like me, your transition to college life is a little rocky, Prep is a great book to turn to as a reminder that you're not alone.
Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman
Even if you're not an artist, this book, which includes the full text of a commencement speech writer Neil Gaiman gave at Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 2012, contains some useful words of wisdom about career planning (or lack thereof), not being afraid of failure, and remembering to enjoy success. It's good advice whether you're 18 or 81.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
There are a lot of things about being a woman that are tough to deal with, not the least of which is getting your period (although if you're 18, chances are the alternative isn't better). The beauty of Anita Diamant's 1997 novel based on the biblical story of Dinah is the way it embraces femininity and its power in ways that are too often overlooked. If you're still learning how to love all of the magical mysteries of womanhood, this book will unlock some of them for you while telling a fascinating story.
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons
The sad truth is that by 18, most girls have a victim, perpetrator or witness of girl-on-girl bullying. Rachel Simmons' book (first published in 2002, and updated in 2011) peels back the layers of this distressing culture, providing valuable insight into why and how girls treat each other so badly, and how we can treat each other — and ourselves — with more respect.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Need a dose of inspiration? Look no farther than this 2013 memoir by activist and Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who survived an attack by the Taliban in Pakistan for her outspokenness about women's education. Not only is Yousafzai's determination, intelligence and grace inspiring, reading her account of growing up in a world so vastly different than ours is a valuable and eye-opening experience.
Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind
Franz Wedekind's Expressionist play may have been written in the early 1890s, but it captures teenage angst in a way that still seems perfectly relevant in the 21st century. It also serves as a cautionary tale that you can only keep curious young adults in ignorance for so long before nature takes over, a lesson that some people need to be reminded of even today.
1984 by George Orwell
More and more, George Orwell's 1949 classic dystopian novel feels more and more like non-fiction, especially when you consider that everyday, people are finding new ways to use technology to watch each other 24/7. To a generation that barely remembers a world without the Internet, smartphones, and Facebook, it might seem like no big deal, but 1984 remains a chilling warning about the dangers of living life with Big Brother peeking over your shoulder.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
You've heard the word "feminist" thrown around a lot recently, but you're probably still trying to figure out exactly what it means to you, and society at large. That's OK, most of us are. Roxane Gay's 2014 collection of essays is a good place to start in untangling all the complexities of what feminism in the 21st century means — they're witty, smart, and fearlessly honest.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Being 18 is prime time for deep soul-searching regarding what your values and goals are, which makes Richard Bach's 1970 novella the perfect companion piece. This modern-day fable may have a seagull as a protagonist, but there's something innately humane about his desire to break free from the ordinary and expected path, and soar higher than most people ever dare.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
What would a list of coming-of-age books be without some Virginia Woolf? As one of her most experimental and challenging works, To the Lighthouse isn't exactly a beach read, but it is an intriguing exploration of the passage of time, the struggles of creativity, and familial relationships in Woolf's trademark understated, stream-of-conscious style.
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
What is a book of children's poems doing on a list of books for 18-year-olds? Sometimes, in our quest to be more adult, we lose sight of the wonder, whimsy and invincibility we felt as children. Poems like "Listen to the Mustn'ts" by Shel Silverstein are a great way to keep us in touch with those feelings, at 18 or any age.