It's hard to be 13. For one thing, you know you are an adult, but everyone around you insists on treating you like a baby. For another, your whole body is freaking out and you can't stop feeling "feelings." I was 13 in 1995 and 1996 and I grew up without a TV in a town with no mall, so I had no idea how much I was supposed to hate myself. We didn't have Facebook or 4chan and the only magazines my family subscribed to were The New Yorker, The Nation, American Girl, and National Geographic Kids. So I was pretty much forced to read for entertainment. But I know plenty of people who grew up with access to cable and Cosmo and a lot of them agree that it was books that brought them through those terrible early teen years without dating a trucker or experimenting with meth.
Books save lives because they allow you to experience a multitude of choices and terrible decisions, without making too many yourself. Books allow you to put on different perspectives and identities like "No Fear" t-shirts and wear them around for a while and then take them off and safely return to your awkward, acne-covered self. No flirting with adult men is required and you don't even have to leave your bedroom.
What follows is an annotated list by category, by me and other once-13-year-old people I spoke with on the phone, over the internet and in person, of books you should send to the 13-year-old in your life straightaway. For the most part, they aren't kids books. Far from it. When I was 13, I went straight to the adult section of the library and for a while only checked out books with the coy heart symbol on the spine. The librarians in my town were tricky. Heart meant "romance," which really meant "sex." So send these books at your own risk, or better yet, send them anonymously, like the letter writer in Sophie's World.
1984 by George Orwell
Since middle school is basically a fascist police state (I once got detention for ALLEDGEDLY writing down people's locker numbers WITH THEIR PERMISSION, five months after I allegedly wrote them down), this book will make a lot of sense to the average 13-year-old.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Mentioned by two of my friends, a librarian and a radio producer, The Giver is about a dystopian future in which you have to tell your parents your dreams every single morning! The horror.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Another thing you understand in middle school: the social dynamics of a group of unsupervised hoodlums. That's basically PE class. This book is always a good reminder that things could be worse.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My uncle, who is in his 60s, recommended Ray Bradbury, which just goes to show how timeless his work is, since he was one of my favorites too. I would say any of his books work for a 13-year-old, but the one that really kept me up at night, with that delicious-verging-on-too-much-to-handle terror, was The Martian Chronicles.
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Hilarious and brilliant; I quoted Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in papers all the way through grad school. This book could also easily fall into the "Philosophy of Everything" category.
It by Stephen King
I am embarrassed to admit that I have still never actually read a Stephen King book. But my friend Andrea first brought this up in an extensive Facebook conversation with: "I read at least a dozen Stephen King books, maybe more, between the ages of 11-13 because it was the only kind of book either of my parents owned, so if I couldn't get to the library, that was the only game in town. It was particularly horrifying and I'm still intensely afraid of clowns."
Another friend agreed saying: "Yes to Stephen King and It scaring the crap out of a 6th grader."
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
This could also be a classic, because nearly everyone who reads it cites it as a favorite. One friend wrote it taught her that "each of us must be our own hero."
Another friend spoke for all of us when he said it "holds a special place in my brain."
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
About this series, a friend (clearly a scientist now) says: "I loved this book because to me, it embodied the potential of the human mind to shape the universe... I love the idea of humankind colonizing the universe; trillions of humans all over the galaxy, hyperspace and so much more."
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
There was a time not that long ago in this country when being 13 meant something dramatically different than it means now. Kids should know that. Not everyone grew up on Hannah Montana and Fruit Loops.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Another recommendation by a librarian. A graphic novel about growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. Not just entertaining: important.
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
This book is why every single girl writes a diary, so if you love your niece, send it to her and apologize later to her parents when she becomes an English major.
Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
This recommendation came from my roommate: "This was my favorite book in seventh or eighth grade... it's a good book for weird, contemplative types." That pretty much includes everyone.
Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
Everything I know about philosophy I learned from this book. Seriously. I swear it got me out of classes in college.
The V. I. Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky
My friend Carrie writes: "A chick with a gun and a set of picklocks is what stood in for 'positive lesbian role model' circa 1994 I guess."
Ricochet River by Robin Cody
This book has everything and by everything, I mean a realistic portrayals of sex between older teenagers. It's also a great story.
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
From my brother: "There's a tendency for young adult books to be anti-sexuality, but that's kind of dumb and kind of counterproductive because teenagers are going to be sexual. This book doesn't pretend to not be about sex. It has an edge and I think that teenagers need to read stuff that is edgy but isn't Henry Miller."
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
From another friend (a KQED Arts producer): "Reading Perks was the first time I remember seeing myself so accurately in the world of fiction. Apparently, I wasn't the only sexually-repressed bookish boy who liked The Smiths and insisted on falling in love with his female best friend despite being totally gay."
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
A writer friend says: "I loved that book so much I made a bracelet out of alphabet beads that said 'HOLDEN.'"
I say this book should not be read in school, since it's basically about what a waste of time school is. Much better to receive it anonymously, wrapped in brown paper that smells like cigarettes. Better yet to just find it on a park bench, left by a hobo.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Oh romance on the heath! This was actually one of my two favorite books in eighth grade (see below for my first favorite). I partially blame my continued belief in the power of unrequited love on this book.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
My absolute favorite at 13. More unrequited love. The beginning of the end, in terms of me only trusting books with unhappy endings.
Honorable Mention: Authors
Sometimes, you just have to set a kid loose in the library. Here are a few author suggestions to text to the 13-year-old in your life: J.R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Judy Blume.
So, what more do you need? Save a life. Buy the kid in your life a good book and don't worry too much when they tell you they hate you and storm off in a rage. It'll pass and with your help, they will reach their later teens without alcohol poisonings or pregnancy.
Special thanks the many book-loving friends who took the time to talk/write to me and are quoted above: Mike Acker, John Bishop Jr., Jocelynn Cambier, Laura Caygil, Deirdre Costello, Audrey Dilling, Lizzie Parsons Figueroa, Jesse Geller, Erica Goleman, Emmanuel Hapsis, Suzanne Kleid, Andrea Kneeland, Carrie Leilam Love, Zach Powers, Derek Taylor, Will Wallace and Sara Wingate Gray.