I CliffsNoted My Way Through H.S. Lit & All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

April 25, 2012

Confession: Hi. I’m Sarah. I write novels for teens. And I’ve never read the classics.

Catcher in the RyeLast weekend, my friend Courtney and I got to chatting about classic lit, and while she won two prestigious high school reading awards for tackling such tomes as War and Peace on her own time, I could only recall a pathetic handful of titles from my teen years.

Vexing! As a young adult author, I’m all about books for teens. Why couldn’t I discuss my high school literary experience beyond V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic? The question sent me on an unexpected weekend trip into the deep dark recesses (emphasis on dark) (emphasis on recess) of adolescence.

My Literary Childhood: An Incomplete History

My grammar school years were bookishly bountiful. Taught myself to read after a few lessons in pre-school. Wrote and illustrated my first book (inspired by and/or ripped off from the movie E.T.) in first grade, complete with such witty dialogue as “Burp! Hiccup!”

E.T. by Sarah Ockler

Spiderman at PARP CeremonyWon the second grade PARP (Parents as Reading Partners) award for most books read at home, the ceremony for which included a visit from Spiderman.

By fifth grade, long after I’d burned through Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and all the Sweet Valley High books, I was sneaking adult romance novels from the library and hiding them in a Super Duper grocery bag under my bed, reading by flashlight after dark, just like my best friends. (Side note: Fifty Shades of Gray infiltrates the mommy bloggers? Please. Fifth grade, baby. We were all over that stuff before we even knew what “that stuff” was.)

Clearly I was on the fast track to literary stardom. So what happened to this once promising pre-pubescent prodigy of the page?

Adolescence: The Wonderless Years

Sarah Ockler, Sophomore with Giant HairI pondered the odd paradox of my teen years, my confusing adolescence fraught with #MiddleClassProblems. Was my Wonder Bread suburban education somehow… inadequate? Were my parents’ tax dollars funneled into non-literary budget items like the industrial pool cleaner that ensured second-degree chemical burns upon each reluctant gym class dip? Or the carefully preserved grasshoppers for bio class, the smell of which still haunts my memory and prevents me from eating heavily-soy-sauced cuisine? Certainly it wasn’t the deep fried erasers casually passed off as French fries in the cafeteria. Why, then, after rising before five a.m. every day to be ferried off by the magic bus and deposited into a series of fiberglass desks for four years of my life, was I not exposed to more classic literature?

If my hair could reach record-breaking new heights each year, why not my mind?

Could this hole in my academic experienced be correlated with my over-reliance on adverbs, italics, and emoticons in my adult communications?

More importantly, did this educational oversight contribute to my growing up to write banned books in a super-secret evil plan to infiltrate and pollute young, impressionable minds?

All The Crazy Kids Love Twenty Boy Summer

Stephen King was my Charles Dickens, Mary Higgins Clark my Virginia Woolf. My wisdom and guidance came from “One to Grow On” commericial intermissions during Saturday morning cartoons.

How could this have happened?

*Ponders in an uncharacteristically studious manner*

Sweet, unreliable memory! Dusty recollections of yesteryear! Suddenly, the elusive answer rose like a brilliant phoenix of obviousness from the ashes of numbskullery!

I didn’t do my homework!

I had this uncanny ability to b.s. my way through class by anticipating the desired direction of the discussions and turning the teachers’ questions into the very answers they wanted to hear (tip: strategy somewhat less effective with parents). I could also zone out while subconsciously absorbing enough material to answer any question thrown at me as if I’d been paying attention all along.

Impressive, yes. If only I could use my powers for good instead of evil!

Unfortunately, my highly developed powers of persuasion were no help with tests. Enter CliffsNotes, my pre-smart phone, pre-Google guardian angels! These black-and-yellow booklets told me everything I needed to know about Hester Prynne and Tom Sawyer. Themes! Author bios! More themes! Ah, CliffsNotes. Able to save even the laziest butts from detention and failure in a single bound!

Right. It’s a wonder they let me graduate. Especially with that hair. Apparently my lack of reading enthusiasm extended to all ares of life, because those yellow-orange tones prove that I did not follow the fine-print directions on the Sun-In bottle!

Sarah's graduation

True Confessions: A Catalogue of Lost Classics

Back then, I was young and impressionable and angry in that nobody-understands-me sort of way. And now I’m… older. So I’ll give you some concrete examples, but please… no judgments!

Part 1: Classics I Willingly Read for Class and Still Remember

  1. Catcher in the Rye
  2. Of Mice and Men
  3. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
  4. A Separate Peace
  5. Lord of the Flies

Part 2: Classics I Unapologetically CliffsNoted (And Now That I’m Confessing, I’ll Probably Have That Recurring Nightmare Where The Principal Tracks Me Down And Tells Me I Didn’t Actually Graduate)

  1. The Scarlet Letter: I recently re-read these CliffsNotes for help with Scarlet Letter references in my latest YA novel, Bittersweet.
  2. The Old Man and the… wait, what? I’m sorry, I must’ve nodded off just thinking about this book again.
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird: I think I would’ve enjoyed this one, so I must’ve been in a mood at school that month/year/decade.
  4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Something about painting a fence? Or maybe painting a raft? A raft made out of a fence?
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Maybe this was the one with the raft? I could never get past the fact that it reminded me of Strawberry Shortcake’s boy toy Huckleberry Pie. Unfortunately Twain’s book didn’t smell like chemically enhanced fruit. Talk about a missed marketing opportunity, publishers!
  6. The Canterbury Tales: Too many POV characters, dude!
  7. Anything by Shakespeare: Ye head doth hurts! Unfortunately, this movie wouldn’t be out for a few more years. Leo could’ve changed everything for me:

  1. Heart of Darkness: I have Brain of Darkness when it comes to remembering anything about this one.
  2. The Red Badge of Courage: Um, is this a euphemism? Sounds like it should be in Urban Dictionary or a George Carlin skit.
  3. Great Expectations: Honestly this one may have been Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know. I just remember it had Great in the title, but obviously I didn’t think it was. Great, I mean.
  4. Walden: probably I would totally love this one now.
  5. Our Town: Yeah, I got nothin’.
  6. The Glass Menagerie: There were little glass animal statues, right? Pretty sure I missed most of the symbolism here.

Part 3: Classics I Read on My Own (But With Admittedly Questionable Motives and/or Non-Educational Prodding)

  1. A Handmaid’s Tale: Read after watching the movie at my friend Danielle’s house and getting all swoony over Aidan Quinn.
  2. The Outsiders: Pretty sure Patrick Swayze’s penultimate badassery had something to do with this one.
  3. Some Such Collection by Edgar Allan Poe Whose Title I No Longer Recall: Read after my super-secret crush gushed about it and I feigned fascination in that oh-tell-me-more way and he loaned me his copy and I read it twice just in case he wanted to talk about it over pizza and cokes after school, followed by kissing. Then he approached me one day, all sweet and shy and big blue eyes, and looked at me longingly, and leaned in close to whisper the phrase I’d been dreaming of… “Um, so, can I get my book back?” Sigh.
  4. Slaughterhouse Five: Read last year after it was banned with Twenty Boy Summer from a high school library in Republic, MO. My first Vonnegut book was actually a gift from my pre-husband way back in 1999—Galapagos. I wish I’d discovered Vonnegut in high school, but there’s no wrong time for a little KV wisdom in your life.
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Read after the Rodney King riots because the riots brought race and class issues to the suburbs in a way I’d never seen in my lifetime, and it changed me forever. Truly. I thought if I knew more about why things were so screwed up and how they got that way, I could do something to change them.

“Books are humanity in print.” ― Barbara W. Tuchman

I’ve been thinking about those Rodney King and Malcolm X reading days recently because of the Trayvon Martin case—the talk of riots, the issues of race we can never seem to get past in this country. And it all makes me realize, once again, that books really do have the power to change lives, to open our minds, to bring us closer. Books can connect us on a singular non-racial, non-cultural, non-gender level because the best ones go straight to the heart of our humanity.

But only if we actually, you know, read them.

*Coughs into hand. Casts about for a subject change. Can’t escape fate!*

Teachers of my adolecent literature classes, including but not limited to Mr. Roberts, Mrs. Whalenmeyer, Mrs. Rosati, and others who shall remain nameless because while my love of books finally knows no bounds, my ability to recall stuff with any sense of accuracy before the turn of the millennium knows at least seven bounds, I hereby commit in front of all the great peoples of the internets, most of whom—while I toiled away at mastering the art of sleeping with my eyes open in your classrooms—weren’t even a good idea in their parents’ minds yet, to read—sans CliffsNotes or any other study aid—some (but not all) of those classics at which I once so carelessly scoffed.

All in the name of keeping an open mind, finding human connections, and cashing in on all of the wonderful lovey-dovey stuff of books.

Call For Suggestions

Readers and aforementioned great peoples of the internets, I need your help! From the part 2 list above, which classics would you recommend reading? Which were/are your favorites? What about any that aren’t on the list? What have I been missing out on all these years? Let your voice be heard in the comments, and help me assuage my decades-long ignorance of classic literature!

(Ahem… um… while we’re on the subject of confessions… I didn’t really get a lousy T-shirt from high school. Our class was voted the class with the least amount of school spirit, as evidenced by our non-existent ten year reunion and inability to fundraise for anything more costly than the post-fundraiser pizza party, so frivolous T-shirts highlighting our academic failures were certainly out of the question.)


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