Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
Ah, the book that started it all (for me at least). Along with my entire generation, I fell in love with reading thanks to Harry Potter. Young Adult books get a lot of flak for whatever reason, but this young adult book created a generation of readers and writers.
It’s been almost twenty years since Harry Potter appeared on page, but he remains as beloved today—if not more so—as he was when the boy who lived first charmed us. Harry Potter continues to win over new generations—now through theme parks and Pottermore—as parents introduce him to their children. (And I should know, my son has a Harry Potter nursery.) Sure, Harry Potter is relatively new compared to your traditional classics. But its ability to reinvigorate the YA market and touch audiences of all ages make it more than worthy of the “classic” label.
“Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.” – J.K. Rowling
Sloppy Firsts remains one of my all-time favorite YA realistic fiction novels. Technically, at the time it was published, it had to be published as an adult novel because of sexual themes. But it has to be one of the most honest and real depictions of a normal girl going through high school that exists. It’s written as a diary, and it’s done beautifully. From the perfectly described teenage angst to the bad-boy teenager you can’t help but have a mad crush on, everything about it just works as a YA novel. Don’t get me wrong, it works for adults too…but it loses something. All of the angst and poor-unfortunate-me and teenage sarcasm is slightly less relatable as an adult. I don’t know how else to describe it: it’s just the perfect YA novel.
And yes, I know this book is also relatively new for a classic. But real talk: YA itself is a relatively new category. Sure, Anne of Green Gables, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ender’s Game are sometimes considered YA. But more often than not, they’re over in adult. I know YA is hard to define, but to me, Sloppy Firsts is everything YA strives to be—making it a classic in my eyes.
Cat’s Cradle is one of my all-time favorite books. It represents everything you could want in classic sci-fi and everything you wish you could find in modern sci-fi: zany characters; complex social critiques; and an invention capable of destroying the world. The book address serious themes, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite a weapon that can destroy the world, talk of the atomic bomb, and general sadness, Cat’s Cradle is laugh-out-loud funny. My personal copy is littered with highlighted phrases that left me in near tears from laughter.
And that’s the beauty of Vonnegut’s work, Cat’s Cradle in particular. He offers these lofty ideas and scathing social commentary, but he does it under the guise of humor. He turns science fiction fun, while still allowing it to explore the big ideas, which is exactly what I want in my science fiction.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
This collection of short stories is probably the first work of science fiction that I ever read and loved. The stories link together to form something like a loosely structured short novel—Bradbury was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—that tells the story of the colonization of Mars. I can remember the exact moment that captured my attention, on only the second page:
They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
I’m not completely sure how we’re determining “classic” here…obviously quite loosely, since Sunshine was published in 2003. I guess the version of classic that Sunshine fits into is “this is a really whomping great read and a whole bunch of people agree with me.” Super scientific, right? Anyway, I love almost everything McKinley’s ever written (except for Pegasus, which worries me, and okay also Deerskin, because it’s just so so upsetting). I think she brings something uniquely her own to the fantasy genre, in a way I have trouble describing: the closest I can get is that I feel that her stories are somehow especially intuitive, although that risks saying nothing at all.
Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This is a cheat, a way to get both Pratchett and Gaiman on the list without having to lose McKinley. That said, this is a wonderful, absolutely hilarious book; and I think it absolutely deserves to be on a list of (new) fantasy classics.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
The Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
Sabriel, by Garth Nix
The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer
I feel so strongly that any list of classic romances must include Georgette Heyer—but it’s quite difficult to pick which Heyer should stand for all of them. In the end, I think Sophy is my favorite by just a hair; although novels like Venetia, Cotillion, and A Civil Contract are all jostling with it for the top spot. Heyer’s witty dialogue, feisty heroines, and Wodehousian endings are as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.
Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase
This book frequently tops the list of best romance novels ever written, and while I’m not quite convinced about that (at least since discovering Judith Ivory), that’s certainly the general area in which it belongs. I think that most of the excellence is in Chase’s depiction of Sebastian Ballister, the Marquess of Dain. Dain is written with unusual insight, depth, and sensitivity—which are all even more unusual when found in the male lead.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
I was tempted to include the Miss Marple books here, which are my personal Christie favorites, but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with its remarkable twist ending, beat them out. It’s an extremely controversial book—and a genre-changing one—but it’s also one of Christie’s most thickly plotted and her most cleverly structured.
Indemnity Only, by Sara Paretsky
Our mystery expert recommends this, the first in a series featuring private detective V. I. Warshawski. A woman with a pleasingly dry wit and an overactive death drive (our expert says: “you want to be her when you grow up”), V.I is a notable addition to the hard-boiled mystery novel pantheon. Paretsky brings a feminist perspective to the genre—a perspective more commonly found today than it was thirty years ago, when the series began.