Compiling a list of great books written by college undergrads is more difficult than anticipated, probably because throughout history, most budding writers spent their college years writing for a college newspaper or smaller, literary-minded journals. And there are more than a few authors who dropped out of college before writing their breakout novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald, who bailed out of Princeton, is one well-known example). However, we did manage to come up with the following list, which is surprisingly diverse, and even includes a U.S. president! Check it out.
- While partying hard at Bennington college, a small campus of about 500 people, rich kid Bret Easton Ellis somehow managed in his junior year to write and publish his first novel,Less Than Zero. Ellis’ physically abusive father wanted his son to major in business. But one Bennington professor was so impressed with Ellis’ writing, he connected him with a literary agent. Ellis remains a controversial figure, with some critics lambasting not only his writing, but his tone and subject matter as well. However many of his books, including Less Than Zero, continue to be reassessed for their ground breaking qualities by members of the literary establishment.
- Next time you find yourself suffering from writer’s block, consider the fact that Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, wrote her autobiography The Story of My Life while attending Radcliffe College. Keller, who counted American writer Mark Twain as one of her many admirers, was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. In addition to authoring a total of 12 books, Keller found a way to speak words and spent much of her life giving speeches around the world.
- British author Helen Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while studying for her A levels at Cardinal Memorial School and published two plays while studying social and political sciences at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Oyeyemi was born in Nigeri, and immigrated to London with her parents. The Icarus Girl draws upon the Yoruba and Western myths she heard as a child, as well as elements of Gothic and contemporary horror fiction.
- Susan Eloise Hinton wrote her first book, The Outsiders, while she was still in high school. The success of that book, which, in a gritty and authentic voice, described the lives of the members of rival high school gangs, gave Hinton a nasty case of writer’s block. While studying at the University of Tulsa, she gradually worked through her writer’s block and finished a second young adult novel That Was Then, This Is Now. Several of Hinton’s books have been made into films.
- While in his senior year at Harvard, John F. Kennedy wrote his honors thesis, "Appeasement in Munich," based on his 1939 trip to Europe and his experiences in London the day Germany invaded Poland, which included hearing speeches in the House of Commons supporting the declaration of war on Germany. His thesis, renamed Why England Slept in reference to Winston Churchill’s 1938 book While England Slept, argues for the British government’s pre-World War II policy of appeasement. The thesis was published as a book in 1940 and became a best seller.
Once:National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker wrote her first bookOnce, a collection of poems inspired by her travels in East Africa, during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College. The collection was published in 1968, three years after she graduated. Walker’s prose includes descriptions of her first trip to the African continent, as well as reflections of the burgeoning U.S. civil rights movement.
- Lauren F. Winner wrote her memoir Girl Meets God, which describes her conversion to Christianity, while she was a graduate student at Columbia University (OK, so we have one grad student author in the mix. We told you this was a hard list to compile!). In her memoir, Winner, who identified herself as an Orthodox Jew before her conversion, describes her effort to reconcile the religious practices of her past with her newly found faith. Winner has since written four more critically acclaimed books that address 21st century spirituality, the history of religious practices, and the never-ending mystery of faith.
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