Picture it: teenage Mary Shelley was on a vacation getaway, with her husband Percy and some of his rambunctious poet friends, like that rogue Lord Byron… and out of the group of legends, it’s Shelley herself who arguably published the greatest work of all at the ridiculous age of 20: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a book that has penetrated our human consciousness. In honor of Shelley’s birthday this month, here’s a list of 25 other writers who created heartbreakingly beautiful work before they could get a discount on a rental car or have their publishers demand an active Twitter account. If you’re 26, get on out of here. (However, interestingly enough, 26 seems to be a magic age for a lot of writers, starting with Thomas Pynchon, which is a whole other list.) Enjoy the depressingly youthful visages and luminous skin below.
Norman Mailer — The Naked and the Dead
Mailer became a star when this book was published. A fictional account of being a solider during WWII, it immediately established the writer’s themes: manliness, misogyny, and war.
Michael Chabon — The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Obviously Chabon was (is), annoyingly enough, the best in class from your MFA class, the one that gets that book deal soon after for his coming-of-age novel. Worst of all? The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is idiosyncratic, dreamy, and great.
Brett Easton Ellis — Less Than Zero
A bright young literary man who was the voice of a nihilistic ’80s generation that just loved drugs, BEE came strong right out of the gate as a 21-year-old college student who knew all about alienation.
Truman Capote — Other Voices, Other Rooms
What a beautiful boy! What an angel on a couch! What a psychopath! But Other Voices, Other Rooms, introduced us to quite the writer, in this story about a young southern boy who is searching, beautifully, for a father.
Zadie Smith — White Teeth
Smith feels like a part of the firmament now, but don’t forget that White Teeth was written when she was a senior at Cambridge, and it handles, nimbly, so many different characters, themes, and experiences in this comic story of immigration and assimilation that it’s surprising to realize she’s not a very old man.
Carson McCullers — The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
This stupid genius was 23 years old when The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. A story about a deaf-mute in a small town who serves as the fulcrum for everybody’s secrets, it was a wild bestseller as soon as it was released.
Jane Austen — Sense and Sensibility
While Austen’s books were not published until 1811, when she was in her mid-thirties (and, well, blame the era for that one), she wrote the stuff that we’re still reading today and constantly referencing forever, when she was in her early twenties and looked like a dewy young Anne Hathaway. What a jerk! (Sounds like I may have some pride and prejudice, if you know what I mean.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald — This Side Of Paradise
Just an early twenties whippersnapper when this roman a clef came out, FSF was writing about familiar experiences (Princeton, drinking, class, ennui… America) with the urge to impress Zelda. The F may stand for Francis but let’s be honest, it’s probably more like Fantastic.
Percy Bysshe Shelley — Queen Mab
Shelley only lived thirty years, but he left the world gifts of great poetry. “Queen Mab,” his first substantial work, an epic riff on the Queen, the quality of dreams, and philosophical ideas on death and life. Plus he was played by young, gorgeous Julian Sands in a spooky ’80s film called Gothic. (That’s the late Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley above, too.)
S.E. Hinton — The Outsiders
It takes a teenage girl to write a classic novel about teenage boys, and S.E. Hinton was in high school and just an 18-year-old baby when the book actually came out. Stay gold, ponyboy.
Helen Oyeyemi — The Icarus Girl
Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl in high school instead of studying for her A-levels. It’s a story of a child who sees a ghost, based on Nigerian mythology, messing around with doubles and dopplegangers. In the years since, she’s written five amazing books and she’s not yet thirty. The world is hers, full of spirits and wicked fairy tales, true magic, and we are just lucky to read all about it (and we loved this year’s Boy, Snow, Bird).
Jonathan Safran Foer — Everything Is Illuminated
With 2002’s Everything Is Illuminated, Princeton graduate Jonathan Safran Foer came hard out of the gate, mentored by Joyce Carol Oates, and making it look easy with his post-modern exercise starring “Jonathan Safran Foer” as a young Jewish man searching for the truth about his family’s life during WWII. He continues to take on big topics that other writers have barely addressed (September 11th, the meat industry), get haters, and dominates, along with everyone else in his overachieving family.
Emma Forrest — Namedropper
You can have your Tavi Gevinsons, your Lena Dunhams: Emma Forrest was my precocious young writer who was deadly accurate about just what it’s like to be a girl in the world, and I can still quote quips and insights from her debut, Namedropper, published when she was just barely beyond being the teenage “voice of her generation” journalist in England. (The one about how movie stars used to be better, they used to have hair that was an actual color and what color is Jennifer Aniston’s hair, really? killed me.) Even though I read her first book at the exact time in my life where I could love it with that inimitable teenage ardor, it was great to see that she got better in the intervening years, as her devastating memoir Your Voice in My Head (2013) — at one point due to be a movie with Emma Watson — proved.
Karen Russell — St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
The average hacky young writer takes their stabs at magical realism, but it’s brilliant lights like Karen Russell who can take rare premises — girls literally raised by wolves, a family that fights alligators in swampy Florida — and makes them sing. Rightfully named a MacArthur genius just last year, she’s very sweet as well and she has great hair. She is the worst.
Joyce Maynard — Looking Back
So Joyce Maynard was, I guess, my mom’s Tavi Gevinson/Lena Dunham/voice of a generation? (Well, not my mom, but someone’s mom, for sure.) After her “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” where she claimed, in 1973, that “mine is the generation of unfulfilled expectations,” she wrote a memoir about her life until then — and let’s be honest, it could probably be a source for wherever Sally Draper’s going in the last season of Mad Men.
Franciose Sagan — Bonjour Tristesse
We all need a French teen answer to The Catcher in the Rye, and for some, Bonjour Tristesse was it. Eventually made into a film with Jean Seberg at the height of her powers, it’s a story about a seventeen-year-old girl and one summer with her handsome, ladykiller father. Ennui and sexual jealousy ensue.
John Kennedy Toole — The Neon Bible
Sometimes juvenilia comes out into the world. The late John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was such a Pulitzer Prize-winning hit and instant classic of New Orleans that his first book, The Neon Bible, written when he was 16, got a release, too. It is, of course, about a young man’s coming-of-age in the American south. The Arcade Fire album of the same name is simply coincidental.
Arthur Rimbaud — A Season in Hell
Rimbaud was a case of a writer who only flowered in his teens, spending the rest of his short, sharp life afterwards as an adventurer. His relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine was the inspiration for this seminal work, “A Season in Hell,” a prose poem that has inspired legions of artists, including the surrealists.
W. Somerset Maugham — Liza of Lambeth
Written when Maugham was working as a doctor in, wait for it, Lambeth, it is a short novel about the short life of a teenage factory worker named Liza. It served as the kickoff to a storied 65-year writing career (and a world with one less doctor in it, as he gave it up) that yielded classics like Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge.
Gore Vidal — In a Yellow Wood
In my head Vidal is an old man, but he got his start at 19 with Williwaw, a novel about a murder on a U.S. Army supply ship. However, try In a Yellow Wood, named after the Robert Frost poem and written at the comparatively wiser age of 22, a story of a man freshly home from war and looking to make his way in New York and Times Square.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — Purple Hibiscus
Before Adichie’s TED talks were getting cited by Beyonce and released as ebook standalones (“We Should All Be Feminists,” available now), she was 25 years old and getting nominated for awards with Purple Hibiscus, a book about a fifteen-year-old girl living a difficult and complicated life with a tyrannical father in Nigeria. Adichie’s other books — Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah, among others — also rule.
Graham Greene — The Man Within
Greene may have derided his first novel as “hopelessly romantic,” but you don’t have to agree, despite its silly, Tobias Funke-esque title. A story of a young man, a smuggler, who commits an act of betrayal, it is both luminous and entertaining, a quality that feels particular to Greene’s work.
Evelyn Waugh — Decline and Fall
Waugh’s very first satire, Decline and Fall is the story of a dissolute Oxford student sentenced to dealing with the outside world as a teacher. When he finds true love, madcap adventure will ensue. Waugh, one of the best satirists ever, already had a razor eye for the absurdities of life in this debut.
Anton Chekhov — The Shooting Party
Based on the picture that we have here, his characters weren’t the only ones scrambling for Chekhov’s gun, and in The Shooting Party, it goes off with the death of a young woman and the mystery around who shot her. It was his first and only novel, written at 24, but then again, Chekhov was busy being hot, a doctor, the modern master of the short story, best dead playwright, probably, if I ever get to see a version of The Seagull live (what a jerk! leave some talent for the rest of the world), and the guy that uttered the most quotable quote about plotting of all time.
Ned Vizzini — It’s Kind of a Funny Story
As befitting a few writers on this list, Vizzini got his start as a teenage newspaper columnist (New York Press in this case), which led to his first book, Teen Angst? Naaah… Vizzini hit his stride with 2006’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a young adult novel about an anxiety-ridden teen’s time in a mental hospital which was made into a 2010 movie with Zach Galifianakis. A young up-and-comer in both literature and as a screenwriter, Vizzini, who suffered from depression, died last year at 32 after an apparent suicide.
Langston Hughes — The Weary Blues
The Weary Blues, named after the titular poem, was the Harlem Renaissance legend’s first collection, published when he was 24 years old. It features a symphony of voices, united by Hughes’ rhythmic work, the beauty and feeling of each of his lines. Start with this one, and realize that we should always be reading the work of Hughes.