I'm going to start with the books that on the surface might strike some as the most trivial, but realistically, because of the age I was when I read them, would have had the biggest impact.
Hands down, the undisputed winner for most influential YA writer has to be Judy Blume. In my previous post I mentioned I didn't come from an open family. When speaking about my adolescence, I cannot put too fine a point on this: my entire sex education consisted of a short movie and forgettable lecture in 5th grade that left me horrified, and the works of Judy Blume.
But I got so much more out of her books too. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret might have enlightened me on the more embarrassing aspects of puberty, but I also learned the importance of making up your own mind about your beliefs, and that there was no right answer for everyone. I also noted the dangers of jumping to conclusions about people you don't know; that their reality is not mine.
Then Again, Maybe I Won't taught me that while change was rarely welcomed, sometimes good and unexpected things came out of it. Deenie was my personal adolescent nightmare writ large; scoliosis terrified me; after reading Deenie it still terrified me, but I could see how someone might survive it and own it. Tiger Eyes taught me we all carry guilt, even for the things we aren't guilty of and can't control, and while that may be the nature of things, we should never stop trying to let it go.
Then, of course, there's Forever... I doubt I have to list all that I learned from this book, but the most lasting lesson was this: I'm allowed to choose for myself. I get to make my decisions on my own terms and I'm allowed to change my mind.
This, in my opinion, was Judy Blume's strength. She never preached to her readers, either directly or indirectly. She created characters that were confronted by the things her readers confronted, and then gave her characters the rational capacity to find the answers on their own. Adults don't play Yoda in her books; the kids reach their own conclusions, and as a result they serve as examples to their readers.
There are other teen authors from back in the day that come to mind: Beverly Cleary, of course, although not for her much more famous Romana series, but for The Luckiest Girl. At 16, Shelley leaves her family to spend a year in California with a family she barely knows. While quite a bit of the book is dated now and even a little twee, what stuck with me all these years was her bravery in getting on that plane by herself, her openness to experience new things, and her unapologetic, unabashed delight in the world around her. I admired her for that - I wanted to be like that too, and I am, mostly. I'll forever be grateful to Beverly Cleary for Shelley.
Finally, there's Up in Seth's Room by Norma Fox Mazer. Like Forever this deals with the weighty issues of first love and how far do you go? This book fascinated me because it straddled two myths: If you defy your parents you're automatically wrong, and if you're dating someone older, you're going to be unable to say no. Finn is 15 and falls for a 19 year old. She defies her parents after she's forbidden to see him, but she calls the shots with Seth. She decides what she is and isn't comfortable doing and she sticks to her guns. As a stubborn teen, Finn spoke to me in ways nobody else ever did.
I give my mom (deservedly) most of the credit for the strong-willed, independent woman I am today, but it's just as accurate to say these women deserve to share the credit with her; they went where she was unwilling or unable to go, and I doubt she could find much fault with their lessons.