I have a soft spot in my heart for precocious protagonists—adolescent characters wise beyond their years, sometimes living in difficult circumstances, who can be both hilarious and heartbreaking. When I was a child I loved Harriet the Spy and I’m still delighted by smart-alecky kids—in literature, not in real-life! It’s comforting that as an adult I can still find books that feature characters who are spunky, smart, and bound to stumble into adventure, like in Alan Bradley’s mystery series featuring the 11-year-old aspiring chemist Flavia de Luce. As a reviewer in Booklist noted, “Only those who dislike precocious young heroines with extraordinary vocabulary and audacious courage can fail to like this amazingly entertaining book.” The first title in the series is Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
An even younger and equally charming youngster, Bertie Pollock, is a recurring character in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. He appears more prominently in some of the titles than others, but is always memorable. In the first book in the series he is five, but already “speaks fluent Italian, plays the saxophone, and reads W. H. Auden for fun” (Booklist). McCall Smith is almost guaranteed to put you in a good mood.
For an angst-ridden, but hilarious take on the teenage years you can follow the saga of self-proclaimed British intellectual and poet, Adrian Mole in Sue Townsend’s funny series that begins with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. The series was begun in the early eighties, and Adrian ages into adulthood through the next eight books. In the final book, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years he is 39, married, and forced by unfortunate circumstances to move back home with his parents.
One of the most endearing young protagonists I’ve encountered is the teenaged Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling castle in the English countryside in the 1930s. As in the Adrian Mole books, she “captures” her life with vivid diary entries. For a book that is similar in tone try Stella Gibbons’s 1932 classic Cold Comfort Farm, in which Flora Poste attempts to organize and normalize her quirky new family. And finally, one of my favorite smart-mouthed young characters is the sassy juvenile con artist Addie Pray in Paper Moon by Joe David Brown (adapted into the 1973 film for which the pre-teen Tatum O’Neil won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Addie).
These books are nice diversions from the dark, disturbed books I often read. And that’s one of the primary joys of reading—no matter what my mood, there is a book out there to match it.