Which books can I use to lure my unwilling teen back to loving reading?
We all know the benefits of reading, and primary schools do a great job of encouraging our children to love books. But often when they make the switch to secondary school, pre-teens and teens lose that love and parents start to despair.
When I tell friends and acquaintances that I’m an author and two of my novels are for ‘young adults’ (YA), they prick up their ears and ask me all about the books. That’s wonderful and many people I’ve met have bought a copy of The Islanders and Enjoy the Silence for their teens, who’ve loved them. But what I also tell them is this: that good writers must also be avid readers, and what we read informs our writing, and that I spent two years of my adult life reading only YA books.
What those two years taught me is that YA books these days are so different from the books that were available when I was a teenager (in the 80s and and 90s) and that the choice nowadays is enormous and excellent. Back then, I can truly only remember one series designed for young adults, Sweet Valley High, and I raced through a few of those books before abandoning them for the much more satisfying classics. My teens were spent reading Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Wuthering Heights (as well as Tintin, anything by Jilly Cooper and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole).
Nowadays there are YA books that are brilliantly written and cover a range of themes that are perfect for challenging the minds and catching the imaginations of today’s teenagers. Children might start off with Harry Potter and then graduate to The Hunger Games, and they’re great for a bit of escapism, but after that you can find a whole host of books that will blow their teenage minds.
Notable successes in my house have been Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which is set in a depressing and dangerous world where everyone prefers to live in a virtual reality; and Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, where the world is run by the Crosses, who are black, and white people are referred to as Noughts and are discriminated against. The world in Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is rotating more slowly every day than the last one, with devastating effects on wildlife, crops, and a teenager called Julia living in a Californian suburb. All of these books have science fiction settings; but they nevertheless deal with normal, personal stuff like friendships, first loves, grief, vulnerability and courage.
Real-world problems like racism and sexual abuse are covered in books like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Jenny Downham’s You Against Me, in which the main characters are the sister of a rapist and the brother of the girl he raped. Sexual abuse is also a theme in Fredrik Backman’s excellent Beartown, and transsexuality is sensitively and beautifully addressed in Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal. If any parents shy away from giving these sorts of books to their children, then perhaps they might consider whether it is better to learn about these tricky topics in real life or in the safety of the pages of a book.
Fiction can transport children and young adults across worlds where they haven’t (yet) travelled and help them experience times that they will never see. Historical fiction and stories set in third world countries will carry teenagers beyond their own comfortable, safe lives and expand their horizons, without them even knowing. The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari’s heroine is a young woman living in Afghanistan; Trash by Andy Mulligan is a story set in an unnamed third world country about a gang of boys who pick through giant rubbish sites to make a meagre living; and Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls is about three teenage girls who fight for the female vote in pre-first world war London. They are all astounding and are the sorts of stories that will remain with your teenagers for a long, long time.
The list is endless but what I love about YA fiction is that nothing is taboo, which certainly never used to be the case. There’s more swearing, more sex, more brutality, more bullying, more crime and more death in modern YA books than ever before. Editors and publishers have let their authors have free rein and the results are fabulous (literally). Some of this will have your teenagers nodding sagely and saying, Yep, I’ve seen that happen, and some of it will make them flinch, or cry; but either way, what happens in these books will make them think about the complex rights and wrongs involved, and help them decide what kind of people they want to grow up to be. So it’s a win-win, right?
All of these YA books could be read and enjoyed by both girls and boys. I don’t believe in targeting a book at one gender only; I think boys can benefit enormously from reading a book written from a female perspective, and vice versa. Imagine having a best friend of the opposite sex, who tells you exactly and in minute detail how it feels to be him: to speak to the girl he fancies, to have his first magical kiss or first embarrassing sex, to be confused about his sexuality, to live in constant fear of not being cool enough. All the good, bad and ugly things about being a teenager - a handy self-help manual wrapped up in a story.
On those days when parents struggle to connect with their teens, and when they mock you and you can’t get them to open up, it’s always worth trying to talk to them about the book they’re reading. If you’ve read it too, either just before or just after them (or borrow two copies from the library and read it simultaneously), you can ask them which bit they’re at, and if they like this character, and did they see that twist coming because you certainly didn’t. And when you’ve both finished the book, you can download the film of it and tut together at all the unnecessary changes to the plot and character names. Fun for all the family!
FJ Campbell was born in the twentieth century in a seaside town and has moved around a lot, in Britain and Europe.