Your Transition to Adult Reading

First Adult Book


A few months back, The Guardian wondered which book marked your transition from child to adult? Oh boy, are these cats making me feel uncultured. I definitely made my way to Catcher in the Rye and Animal Farm, but not before taking a little detour to the land of Oprah’s Book Club.

By middle school, I grew out of The Baby-Sitters Club feeling very lost and vaguely remember asking teachers and librarians what to read. Though YA in the mid-90’s wasn’t anything like it is today, I know they led me toward authors like Caroline B. Cooney, who I devoured pretty thoroughly. I still felt somewhat babied and frustrated by the reading, but didn’t really know how to pick out a “grown up” book. Enter Oprah!

BookRiot‘s Rebecca Schinsky mentioned this phenomenon in a podcast episode, and it seems I too fell into the bubble of readers transitioning out of middle grade just as Oprah’s Book Club took off. I’m not sure how I ended up with a copy of Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, but assume I grabbed it from an overflowing shelf and my parents (who never restricted my reading) bought it for me. While I can’t call it the most ideal book for a thirteen year old, it definitely reignited my curiosity in reading…among other things. I followed that up with more titles from Oprah’s list, like Where the Heart Is and White Oleander, and don’t think I ever looked back.

I do wonder how this impacted my reading life. Is it why I’m more attracted to confronting reads? If so, thanks Oprah!


What book or books marked your transition to adult reading? How do you think that impacted your reading life?

  • Yeah, I never transitioned. I went from Narnia and Little House to the BSC to Fear Street to… not reading at all between the ages of 12 and 21, or somewhere around there. Oh, sure, there were school books, but I never connected to any of them (and probably didn’t actually read half of them). When I finally picked up a non-school book again, it was Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, so – especially since it’s based on a children’s book – I guess you could call that my transition.

    • Oh, I forgot about the Fear Street books – I definitely read through most of those. I did much less reading for fun between those ages, too…I think it’s a tough age to find good reading unless you have a great guide, and while my parents always encouraged my reading, they weren’t huge readers themselves.

      • Plus being so overworked in high school, even though I’d always loved to read, it suddenly wasn’t a very appealing escape anymore. So much easier to zone out in front of the TV. And in college (at least the early years) I barely even had time for that. It wasn’t until I changed my major that my schedule opened up and allowed me more free time to get back to reading for fun.

  • My transition was eventually reading stuff my mom passed on, therefore a lot of early Atwood and John Irving. I also read a bunch of books by Chaim Potok before I really understood what Zionism was. Made for some interesting dinner conversations.

  • suzinrva

    I distinctly remember reading Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo” in middle school because it was the biggest book I could find at the library that looked interesting. And it was!

    • I totally took the “biggest book” strategy a few times, too! And I definitely remember ending up with some big nonfiction titles that I didn’t understand at all haha.

  • What a great question! And – She’s Come Undone is quite a jump into the deep end of adult reading (I hated it, but read it a little later – the main character just made me so angry!). I’m trying to think back to my transition to adult reading and I’m having a hard time remembering (shock!). I was really into Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, VC Andrews (my mom read Flowers in the Attic and thought something was legitimately wrong with me for liking that stuff!). I think I then moved to things my mom had on the shelves at home. I remember Jaws for some reason, some Pat Conroy (who I still adore), I did my 11th grade term paper on In Cold Blood (loved the teacher for letting me go “off list” with my own weird choice – and got into a Capote obsession after that!), and some Nora Roberts (juicy trash). I also loved The Secret Garden, but I think that still counts as middle grade? Why can I not remember what I read in early high school?!! Aah!

    • I don’t think I really retained much of She’s Come Undone, since I remembered very little of the synopsis when I looked it up on Wikipedia while writing this…might be interesting to re-read!

  • Emily@As the Crowe Flies

    This is fascinating and making think back on my own reading. I was a teen in the 1980s, and if there were good books being published then for readers like me, I’m totally unaware of it. Most of my friends were readin Sweet Valley High books, but my parents thought those would rot my brain, so I was limited to how many I could read. I pretty much went from Judy Blume and S E Hinton’s books to reading adult fare.

    • It’s crazy how much the reading landscape for teenagers has changed in just 10-15 years. Pretty much every adult genre is represented in YA fiction and that just wasn’t the case.

  • I read George Orwell’s 1984 in eighth grade, that was probably it for me! We read a lot of great “adult” books in my high school English curriculum, a few that stick out to me in particular are All Quiet on the Western Front and The Good Earth. I read She’s Come Undone my senior year in HS (outside of class). Leisure reading dropped off though in college to make way for assignments, but roared back when I finished school and got my first job. Now I can’t imagine not having a book at the ready every day!

    • I think most of my middle school novels would still be considered middle grade, but I would have loved to have someone push me toward books like 1984 in 8th grade!

  • Kerry M

    I don’t remember exactly what my first adult book was, but I know I switched from Redwall to the Wheel of Time around about 7th grade or so. I was big into fantasy novels then, and I believe the Redwall series is considered YA (?) while the WoT series is adult fantasy (though not very risque compared to many fantasy novels…). I read The Dive from Clausen’s Pier when it first came out, which, based on Googling its release year, would have made me 15 or 16. Probably not the first adult book I read, but one of the first that stuck with me all these years.

    And would you believe I’ve *still* never read She’s Come Undone?

    • Wow, you’ve been with Wheel of Time the whole way through! I think I might like fantasy more now if I had picked it up when it was younger.

      • Kerry M

        Oh yeah. Big WoT fan. It was really hard to read the last volume (took me three tries to finish it–not because it wasn’t good, but because I didn’t want it to end).

        I agree on fantasy; I think if I’d started the Wheel of Time series as an adult, I never would have pushed through all 14 volumes, and if I hadn’t gotten hooked on those epic fantasy books at a young age, I probably wouldn’t reach for them now. As it is, I’m only an occasional fantasy reader, but I do love a good dose of magic now and then.

  • Elena

    For me, it was ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I never looked back! I’ve been reading adult ficiton and crime ever since. I found it because my parents and my aunt gave me two huge books of comic adaptations of classic and memorable novels that would appeal to teens. I was 12 at the time and struggling with the so-called ‘children’s books’ and had no interest in what is now YA fiction. So, I read and re-read the comic adaptation of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ until I decided it was time I read the original work.

  • Megan Folse

    I’ve been reading adult books since about 4th grade (I remember attempting to tackle the Leviathan in 5th grade-it didn’t happen), so I can’t remember for the life of me. I read both adult fiction and YA back then. Primarily YA. But I love Wally Lamb’s books. My favorite of his is “I Know This Much Is True”. I read that my junior year in high school, along with White Oleander.

  • I remember being devastated that I had read most of the books in the children’s section because the thought of having to read “boring” adult books was basically the worst thing ever. I never went the Oprah’s book club route but I think the chick lit phenomenon marked the transition for me. I remember discovering Sophie Kinsella and being surprised that adult books could be so funny.

    • I think chick lit came a little later for me, mostly as recommendations from friends in high school. There are a few I still remember!

  • I’d bet doughnuts to dollars that my first adult book was by Stephen King. The memories from that time are fuzzy and so long ago… (I’m OLD, lol)

  • I definitely picked up some Oprah books too when I was transitioning from younger books. I tend to think of Mary Higgins Clark as my first “adult” author though because most of the adults in my family (mom, grandma, aunts) are mystery readers and it felt very grown up to start reading what they were reading.

    • My mom wasn’t much of a reader, but I did pick up a few of my dad’s Dean Koontz books later on…and quickly decided I didn’t love them :)

  • Ti Reed

    From my Nancy Drew books, I picked up Victoria Holt and Daphne du Maurier and then Stephen King. There was no turning back after that.

  • Maggie Nambot

    One of the first classics I read on my own was Sense and Sensibility in 11th grade, and I remember it resonating with me on a more adult-level. I felt myself wanting to be more like Eleanor. Even now, nearly a decade later, I still think of how Eleanor would handle a difficult situation that I’m in. I wouldn’t consider Sense and Sensibility the most adult book I’ve read, but I think it was the first mature book that impacted me like that.

  • I read whatever was on my mom’s bookshelves, but the ones that made an impact were Christy, Roots, and The Eight by Katherine Neville. You’re so right about books for youth being so different now. My kids have so much choice. I pretty much went from kids’ stuff to adult stuff with no transition.

    • I think having reading parents definitely makes a big difference, too. My parents always encouraged my reading, but have never been huge readers (except when we go on vacation and they have time to relax :)

  • Guest

    White Oleander here!

  • Great post but not great that I can’t remember my defining “adult” book. It was probably chick-lit or something off of Oprah’s list when college textbooks and teaching books were replaced with something just for me. By then it was baby books, parenting books and adult books mashed together.

  • Mine was The Last Don by Mario Puzo, I think I was around 11 and my father had it, and I just took it and started reading. I know there were a bunch of things I didn’t fully get, but to this day, that was the book that took me to the adult section. Great post!

    • It’s interesting how many of us were reading from our parents shelves :) I know I picked up The Exorcist way too early because my dad was reading it.

  • What a funny coincidence! I definitely read She’s Come Undone at way too young an age as well. ;)

    On the topic of WAY TOO EARLY, I distinctly remember taking Beloved and The Bell Jar to summer camp with me after eighth grade. I think I may also have had The Notebook, so hopefully that balanced things out a little.

    Other than that, Judy Blume did a great job of introducing me to more adult topics. I also snatched my mom’s copies of “Wifey” and “Forever” by her, which were at least nominally off-limits. Sneaky sneaky.

    • I saw someone below mention 1984, that was also a middle/early high school read.

    • Even if you read them too early, I would have been proud to take those books to camp in middle school ;)

  • I think I pretty much read half adult books and half YA (which I didn’t like that much as a young adult) since I was twelve or so. The defining book that made me say “Hey, I like adult books better!” was probably the Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Picture of Dorian Gray. I also read She’s Come Undone at a young age and loathed it- contemporary fiction has never been my go-to genre, though.
    Excellent discussion post!
    ~Litha Nelle

    • I’m actually curious what I would think of She’s Come Undone if I read it now, since I’m pretty sure most of it went over my head when I read it back then.

  • Jennine G.

    I remember hitting up tons of early Oprah books, including the ones you listed. Almost always enjoyed them too. But before Oprah, it was Danielle Steel my freshman year of high school. I think I picked it up randomly at the library and then read everything she had written up to that point. My mom never restricted my reading, but it was only because she couldn’t keep up with me. So when asked if Danielle Steel was a suitable author I said, “Oh yea, she’s great.” Haha! That was my biggest trip into romance besides some Nora Roberts I read the following year. Haven’t read any since.

    • Jennine G.

      Oh and to redeem my guilty pleasure of the past, I did also read my first classic in ninth grade. Jane Eyre. An old looking cover, with no picture to entice you either. I just recognized the title as a classic. The librarian was very impressed and excited for me to read it.

  • Oh my…that was way too long ago to remember. (It was my kids reading the Babysitter’s Club in the 90s!!!) I do know I read Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell and The President’s Lady by Irving Stone way back when I was still in elementary school!

    • Oh, my! I read Gone with the Wind in elementary school, too. Right from my mother’s book shelf. I read The President’s Lady later and went on to read more by Irving Stone. My mother loved historical fiction.

    • Wow, that’s an impressive elementary read!

  • My first adult book was Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley, and it was MUCH too adult for me. My dad (not having read it) gave it to me for Christmas or my birthday when I was in 6th or 7th grade, because I loved horses. I remember reading it during study hall and hoping the teacher wouldn’t look too closely at what I was reading — there were some REALLY graphic sex scenes!

    When i started reading adult lit for real in high school, I was drawn to Dan Brown, Jodi Picoult, and Chuck Palahniuk.

    • I definitely remember hoping adults wouldn’t see what I was reading when I was in the middle of most of those Oprah books, too!

  • I kind of detest Oprah in many ways, but I do credit her book club with getting me back into reading as an adult as well. Her rec of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was the first book I jumped at as a freshman in college and I devoured it. It is still one of my favorite books. No matter what else I think of her, she did a lot for making reading “cool” and “accessible” again, I have to say.

  • I’m not conscious of having ever made a transition into adult reading. I was reading adult books all along (Jane Eyre when I was eight, Ivanhoe at nine, Oliver Twist at ten) along with the kids’ books I read. And I guess as time went on, I just read fewer kids’ books and more adult books. I guess there WAS a transition, but I can’t pinpoint it to any particular time of my life, when I moved to reading mostly adult books.

  • Belle Sarff

    I went straight from Anne of Green Gables to the Thorn Birds in 8th grade. I just consider it my sex education class. After Thorn Birds, I became a 10th grade Danielle Steele fanatic.

  • Words for Worms

    I don’t even know my first grown up book. I’m disappointed that I can’t remember, though I did read a crap ton of Oprah books because my mom would always buy them. Say what you will, but I love me some Oprah books.

  • Pingback: #WeekendReading {Picking Favorites} and Wine {Tarkettle Road 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon} | Girlxoxo()

  • I honestly cannot remember what my first grown up book was…the time between the ages of nine and twelve is a bit of a muddle for me because I was reading such a cross of novels, mainly sci-fi (albeit Star Trek novels–still counts!) and fantasy (The Golden Compass). By grade nine though I was starting to read a bit of mystery/suspense and more historical fiction, so I guess I’d peg it around then that I was reading adult novels fully.

    Great post! Lots of food for thought :)

  • Beth

    Huh. I honestly have no idea. It was probably White Oleander maybe? Or A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews? I read those in grade 10 or 11. I don’t think I ever really paid much attention to Oprah’s book club, though. Very interesting post. Now I’m just sitting here thinking, lol.

  • jayne190

    The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood in Grade 10.

  • Pingback: The Alarming State of My Book Memory | Sarah's Book Shelves()

  • Pingback: The Sunday Post: Vol. I, Issue 4 | Cherie Reads()

  • Julia Cook

    “The Devil Wears Prada,” if that even counts, is the first book I read closely, underlining words I didn’t know and sentences I loved.

    I was 14, and being that my parents couldn’t pay me to read Harry Potter, this was a big deal.

    • Totally counts! I wish I could remember the first book I underlined and read closely…I know my copy of The Giver looks that way, but I can’t remember if that was from a first reading or one I did when I was older.