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Teen: Adèle Geras

Teenagers read everything. Some will be into Dostoevsky, others are fans of Point Horror. They can be enjoying Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh on a Monday and Agatha Christie on a Tuesday. They will veer between the good and the ghastly; the intellectually challenging and the frankly silly. Other categories in this volume, especially Supernatural, Humour, Crime, and Science Fiction, list books that young people will admire and enjoy. Publishers put books on the Young Adult list for many reasons. The text may be full of four-letter words. The subject may be controversial (drugs, abortion, homelessness, etc.) The language may be very literary and difficult for young children even though the story is not too shattering on its own. Every librarian and parent knows that it is mainly children of about 9 or 10 who read the books on the teenage lists. They are reading for information. They want to know what life will be like when they are older. What are they supposed to do about sex, clothes, schoolfriends, and so on? Of course, they could ask their parents, or elder siblings, but those relationships are often hedged around with embarrassment, and it's easier to discover such things as which bits go where (see Judy Blume, below) from a book. Teenagers are no different from anyone else. We all read to learn the truth about ourselves, and we read to escape from the world we know into someone else's universe. Sometimes we feel like one kind of book and sometimes another. I've chosen books by writers whose work as a whole I admire, and in every case, the recommendation of a title is intended to steer the reader to other books by the same author.

A novel for adults, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger, is the Daddy of all confessional-style teenage novels, and it has never been bettered. The Americans have in the main been more successful in the way they have followed Salinger than their British counterparts, and writers like Paul Zindel have adopted this style to great effect. They're written in the first person, and this has advantages and disadvantages. If you like the narrator and don't find one voice throughout the novel irritating, then it's easy to get into this kind of book. Young people like them, because they are chatty and direct, and it's easy to imagine that the writer is talking straight to you, as if you were being taken into the narrator's confidence.

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1949) was also published on the adult list but is a wonderful meaty family story, full of the kinds of things that teenage girls like reading about: love-affairs, ambitions, friendships. The setting in this work is important, and the house is almost a character in the book.

Judy Blume, who receives thousands of letters from young people to testify how well she understands their problems, has perfected the self-help manual kind of story, and her work tells pre-teens all about the traumas of growing up. She has covered everything from getting your first period to being too fat; from being bullied to being adopted; but Forever (1975) broke new ground by being the first young adult book not only to mention a penis, but to give it a name (Ralph). It describes first sex in clinical detail, and still sells very well.

A rather more literary account of young love, Ursula Le Guin's A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else (1976) is a tender, moving and beautifully written story, about two young classical musicians. Le Guin is better known as a science fiction writer, but in this short book she proved how well she understands modern young people.

S. E. Hinton was only 17 when her first novel The Outsiders (1970) was published. It tells the story of two rival gangs in a small Texas town and raises questions about loyalty, and love. The film adaptation starred Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon. It's a book with which teenagers identify. They also feel, because of the author's youth, that it must be an actuality report from a sort of teenage frontline.

Jane Gardam writes well about young people in her adult novels, as well as in her many children's books, and Bilgewater (1978) tells the story of a girl growing up as the daughter of a master at a boys' school. Gardam writes with a poet's intensity, and is very good at bringing landscape and place alive for the reader. This novel started life on the children's list and is now an adult paperback.

Pennington's Seventeenth Summer by K. M. Peyton (1970) is a romantic story about a moody young man: a musical genius who is rebellious, defiant, handsome: every girl's dream. Pennington falls into the Heathcliff category of hero. Every teenage girl imagines that she might be the one to reform such a character.

From the books I've mentioned so far, it might be thought that only girls read teenage books. It is true that boys at the same age are generally lost in the mists of Terry Pratchett or Stephen King, but they should not feel excluded from this list. Robert Cormier is a hard-hitting writer of plainly written but enormously exciting books which always deal honestly with sometimes very difficult issues. Cormier has written about rape, bullying, and violence of all kinds. From a very long bibliography, try I am the Cheese (1977) which is tense and intelligent. It tells the story of a boy in some kind of hospital recounting his story to an unseen interrogator. Why is he there? What has he done? The answers are not what one would expect.

Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife (1997) is the second part of a trilogy—His Dark Materials—which is more than just a rip-roaring adventure, but which has enough thrills per chapter to satisfy lovers of action and conflict. It is a recasting of the story of Paradise Lost, and takes place in a universe that is and is not like our own.

The Haunting (1982) by the amazing Margaret Mahy shows what a really good writer can do with a supernatural story. This is light years away from the anodyne horrors children find in series books. In most novels of this kind, we know that the spooky stuff couldn't be true. In Mahy's work, however, there is a distinct possibility that some of what we are reading about could actually happen, and this makes her work more than a little unsettling.

They do Things Differently There (1994) by Jan Mark is funny, surreal, and clever. Two girls living in a dull town ('like living inside a Fairisle jumper') invent an imaginary place which exists in the same locations but on a different level. They people it with weird characters and imagine strange happenings, and the way one level of reality overlaps the other makes for a hugely entertaining novel.

Young people are very preoccupied with their friends, and in The Tulip Touch (1996) Anne Fine deals with the relationship between two young girls. Each child would probably be perfectly normal on her own, but the book looks at what happens when they come together in a folie à deux. Fine was inspired by the James Bulger case to examine how far it is possible for a child actually to be evil. Her books are generally very funny and sharp about family life and its vicissitudes, but this one is all the stronger for being understatedly bleak. For example, Fine hints discreetly that there is a home-life of abuse in the background of one of the children, without ever stating it overtly.

Jean Ure, in Play Nimrod for Him (1989) tackles the difficult subject of friendship between young men. Is what they feel for one another legitimate? Could they be gay? Does it matter if they are? The novel tells of the close ties between two boys who feel themselves to be different from all their friends, and who form a sort of secret society with its own rules and invented games which puts an even greater distance between them and the rest of the world. They come from different backgrounds, and their intense relationship has effects not only on them, but on those around them. The ending is not the traditionally happy one, and leaves the young reader with something to think about and discuss.

If there is anything that links these books, any common denominator which makes them suitable for young adults, it is the emotional content of the works. They are all of them concerned with feelings and relationships; with how you fit in with other people in your world, and how you deal with rejection, disappointment, sorrow, loss, and pain. It doesn't matter if the setting is outer space or North Yorkshire. It doesn't matter if you're a girl or a boy, what these books are about is our common humanity; how we behave towards one another in all kinds of societies.


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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction