I have a weakness for rankings, which brings me to this list of
THE GREATEST FICTIONAL TEENS
Picking between a teenager in a literary classic, a young adult novel, and a recent movie is like choosing between apples, oranges, and kumquats. Some of the following may be ranked too high or low, and I’m sure I’ll whiff on a few figures that belong here. So be it.
1. HUCKLEBERRY FINN. From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884. Age: thirteen or fourteen. Huck has always had his haters, whether they be 19th-century matrons who objected to his uncouth manners or modern critics who wince at his use of the N-word. Still, Huck is the moral center of what Ernest Hemingway, and others, believed and believe to be the greatest American novel.
2. JANE EYRE. From Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847. Age: eighteen (when she meets Rochester). Like Huck, Jane has shown incredible staying power. Young and old, readers still love this British classic, one of the ultimate chick-lit treasures. What makes it timeless is Jane’s grit and resolve, and the great gothic weirdness of the crazed-wife-in-the-attic angle.
3. ROMEO AND JULIET. From Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1593. Ages: thirteen (Juliet) and fifteen or sixteen (Romeo). Some people love this play and some feel they had it rammed down their throats in high school, where it remains a staple of lit studies. Either way, the characters remain a byword for youthful love.
4. HARRY POTTER. From the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, 1997 to 2007. Ages: eleven through seventeen. Will kids still devour this wizard series a century from now? What we know is that Harry, Ron, Hermione, and their Hogwarts cohorts have been an enormous hit with old as well as young readers.
5. NANCY DREW. From Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Clock (and numerous sequels), Edward Stratemeyer, 1930. Ages: sixteen, then eighteen. The Hardy Boys books debuted three years earlier, but super-sleuth Nancy has aged better. Heroines who solve crimes with brains and guile are always appealing, which is why this franchise keeps getting new life. Nancy was sixteen for the first 29 years of the series, and turned eighteen in 1959.
6. ARCHIE ANDREWS. From Archie Comics, created by Bob Montana, 1941. Age: seventeen. For more than six decades, the comics’ oldest seventeen year old has tried to choose between the blond, sweet Betty Cooper and the raven-haired rich girl, Veronica Lodge. Life is good for Archie, Jughead Jones, Reggie Mantle, and other teenage residents of Riverdale.
7. JO MARCH. From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868. Age: fifteen. The other March girls — Meg, Beth and Amy — have their charms, but most readers prefer the strong-willed, tomboyish Jo, who is fifteen at the start of the novel.
8. PETER PARKER / SPIDER-MAN. From Amazing Fantasy, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, 1962. Age: seventeen. DC’s Superman may be the greatest of all superheroes, but Marvel’s Spider-Man is the number-one teenage hero. Peter Parker is a picked-on high school nerd when he’s not slapping on the spider suit and saving the world from the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, and other evil freaks.
9. JIM STARK. From Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray, 1955. Age: seventeen. This ranking may seem too high for post-baby boomers who’ve never heard of the ultimate 1950s troubled-teens film. At twenty-four, James Dean played the sexy-brooding Jim alongside real-life teens Natalie Wood (seventeen when the film was released) and Sal Mineo (sixteen).
10. HOLDEN CAULFIELD. From Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951. Age: sixteen. For decades, this acid-tongued prep school dropout was an icon of misfit youth, but Holden’s appeal may be fading. The New York Times in 2009 reported than many modern students find him “weird,” “whiny,” and “immature.”
11. KATNISS EVERDEEN. From The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008. Age: sixteen. Katniss is one of the toughest young-adult heroines, using brains, brawn, and skill to overcome some pretty nasty adversaries in Collins’ three-book trilogy, which includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
12. ANTONIA SHIMERDA. From My Antonia by Willa Cather, 1918. Age: fourteen (at the start of the book). Pronounced “Anton-ee-a,” the title character of Cather’s classic is a farm girl from Bohemia with “the most trusting, responsive eyes in the world.” Jim Burden, her neighbor, narrates this sometimes sweet, sometimes stark tale of an immigrant growing up in Nebraska.
13. TESS DURBYFIELD. From Tess of the D’urbervilles. Thomas Hardy, 1891. Age: sixteen (at the start of the novel). If you’re looking for a delightful page-turner to read at the beach, keep looking. Tess is a lovely young English woman surrounded by creeps who suffers so much that you’re a little relieved when her life is extinguished.
14. MIRANDA. From The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1611. Age: fifteen. Prospero’s daughter has been raised on an island with her dad, a spirit of the air named Ariel, and a son of a witch named Caliban who has the hots for her. The good news: the lovely Ferdinand washes up on the island, and after a few twists and turns, love prevails.
15. PRINCESS LEIA / LUKE SKYWALER. From Star Wars (and sequels), directed by George Lucas. Ages: sixteen (Leia), eighteen (Luke). Described as “a beautiful young girl (about sixteen)” in the Star Wars screenplay, Leia is smart, tough, and sexy — her cinnamon-buns hairstyle only adds to her hotness. Luke has about one-tenth the charisma of Han Solo, but he’s the central Star Wars character, so you gotta put up with him.
16. BELLA SWAN. From Twilight (plus sequels) by Stephenie Meyer, 2005. Age: seventeen. A new student at a backwater northwest high school, Bella can’t understand why the smoldering, chalk-faced Edward seems to hate her. No, wait, that’s not hate — it’s love! The potentially fatal passion of a vampire for a Virgo dominates Meyer’s four-book series, which continues with New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.
17. FERRIS BUELLER. From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, written and directed by John Hughes, 1986. Age: seventeen. A lot of baby boomers loved this guy, although it’s hard to explain the attraction. Ferris is a super-popular kid with a super-hot girlfriend who skips school and has fun. Matthew Broderick did a great job of making the kid a charmer.
18. BABY HOUSEMAN. From Dirty Dancing, directed by Emile Ardolino, 1987. Age: seventeen. Teachers with seating charts beware: this girl can sit in the front, middle, or back, but as Johnny Castle says, “nobody puts Baby in the corner.”
19. CELIE. From The Color Purple by Alice Walker, 1982. Age: fourteen (at the start of the book). At fourteen, Celie has given birth to two children by her stepfather, who takes them away from her. Meek and mild for most of the novel, she eventually stands up to her dirtbag of a husband.
20. EDDIE HASKELL. From “Leave it To Beaver,” 1957-1962. Ages: twelve through the teenage years. “Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I’m gonna — oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.” The finest two-faced teenage creep on television, Eddie was one of the best reasons to watch “Leave it to Beaver.”
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order):
PAMELA ANDREWS. From Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson, 1740. Age: fifteen. Squire B can’t keep his hands off this “poor maiden of little more than fifteen years of age.” He flings himself on her time and again, arranges a kidnapping, and finally — in desperation — marries her. What a prince.
STARGIRL CARAWAY. From Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli, 2000. Age fifteen. The title character is a new and offbeat sophomore at an Arizona high school who is so kind-hearted that her classmates, in classic mean-kid style, treat her like dirt.
PONYBOY CURTIS. From The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, 1967. Age fourteen. He’s a sensitive, likable youngster, but who names their kid “Ponyboy?”
KATHERINE DANZIGER. From Forever by Judy Blume, 1975. Age: eighteen. This is one of the Blume books that school libraries ban because of the S-E-X. A high school senior, Katherine falls for Michael and eventually does the deed with him.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. From Napoleon Dynamite, directed by Jared Hess, 2004. Age: seventeen. Napoleon is quirky and hilarious and his friend Pedro (“Vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true”) may be even better.
HORATIO HORNBLOWER. From Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester, 1950. Age: seventeen. “S-seventeen, sir,” stutters the young Hornblower when asked his age by a whiskered man on the Justinian. The shy, seasick boy seems like an unlikely maritime hero, but he’s a fast learner.
THE LITTLE MERMAID. From “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, 1837. Age: fifteen. The fifth daughter of the Sea King gets to view the above-water world on her fifteenth birthday, beginning a chain of events that ends with her death. For a happy ending, see the 1989 Disney film.
MARTY MCFLY. From Back to the Future, directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis, 1985. Age: seventeen. Nobody played seventeen year olds like twenty-four-year-old Michael J. Fox, who portrayed McFly, Scott Howard in Teen Wolf, and Alex Keaton in TV’s “Family Ties” all in the same year.
SCARLETT O’HARA. From Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1936. Age: sixteen (at start of book). Scarlett’s green eyes are “turbulent, willfull (and), lusty with life,” wrote Mitchell of this flirty yet strong-willed Southern belle.
JEFF SPICOLI. From Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling and co-written by Cameron Crowe, 1982. Age: fifteen. Painfully serious at other times, Sean Penn was hilarious playing this stoned surfer dude.
CARRIE WHITE. From Carrie by Stephen King, 1974. Age: sixteen. The book version of Carrie is plumper and grumpier than the character played by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 movie, but just as deadly.