Blaming the brain is no teenage fiction
WHY do teenagers need their own fiction? After all, we managed without in my day. We happily leapt from Janet and John through Jackanory to James Joyce, not pausing to consider what might be missing. Besides, teenagers don't read, so why write books for them? What is a teenager anyway? Social construct? Marketing ploy? A burden we created for ourselves by actually beginning to listen to them?
These crabbit, amnesiac and unenlightened views must be dismantled. Adolescence is not modern. "I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty," says the shepherd in The Winter's Tale, "...for there is nothing in the between, save getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting." Nor is a teenager a man-made illusion born of marketing and manipulation: other mammals have adolescence, with monkeys and rats hanging out with friends, avoiding parents, displaying aggression and taking risks.
Adolescence is a stage of life and state of brain. It is not defined by behaviour, because not all adolescents behave stereotypically, and the different experiences, genes, and brains of individuals determine these individual behaviours. But all adolescents go through the same stage of life and at least similar brain changes. In Blame My Brain, I outline remarkable differences between adolescent brains and those of children and adults.The teenage brain is in the most dramatic state of physical change since the "terrible twos", and the most dramatic before death.
So, they are special - does that mean they need special books? Can't they manage with children's books until ready to "progress"? Of course they can, but what will they miss? They will miss the joy of reading something that actually speaks to them. And if they miss that, they may miss the main reason for reading: pleasure. If books are for pleasure, why should that only be so for adults, while we feed books to teenagers like spinach, caring little whether they enjoy them, only that they consume them for improvement?
As to the accusation that teenagers don't read anyway: granted, many don't. But every teenage author knows, from our e-mail in-boxes, that teenagers who do read do so avidly, deeply, and with an understanding that many people don't give them credit for. At an award ceremony last year, judged by 400 teenagers, all of whom were present, one girl expressed the obvious truth: "People who say teenagers don't read, haven't met us."
I believe the nature of the teenage brain helps explain their reading preferences: teenage brains react differently to risk, often needing more to satisfy its reward system, and teenage novels are often extra risky or frightening. Teenage brains can be emotionally dramatic, and their books often explore emotional extremes. Teenage brains are newly able to construct ethical judgments: their novels, therefore, may explore Big Questions, such as war, death, addiction, sex, racism, religion.
Teenage fiction is alive and kicking. In fact, other children's authors are sometimes understandably peeved at its dominance - full-length Guardian reviews predominantly cover teenage books; Booktrust runs a special teenage prize; mixed-range awards shortlists tend to contain more teenage fiction than demographics demand.
The Americans first took teenagers seriously. And, exploding the myth that "we didn't have teenage fiction in our day", they did it in the 60s. SE Hinton's The Outsiders, published in 1967 when the author was a teenager herself, is seminal; Judy Blume and Robert Cormier, from the 70s, hit heights of gritty edginess that have rarely been surpassed. Today, the UK has its own stars, with Scotland producing many successful authors known mainly for their teenage books, notably Julie Bertagna, Theresa Breslin, Catherine Forde, Keith Gray and Catherine MacPhail.
The Scottish Arts Council, Scottish Book Trust, the Cross-party Group on Scottish Writing and Publishing, as well as the new voice for Scottish children's books, BRAW, all have a mission to highlight Scottish books and put them on to the school curriculum. Why? Because Scottish books speak to Scottish readers and because being rooted in one's culture is A Good Thing. The same goes for teenage fiction. We want books that speak to us, that answer our needs.
Yet, there's a nagging voice at my shoulder: the voice of my traditional, ultra-classical education. Isn't it reading classical literature, with its discipline, its crisp accuracy, its striving after purity of meaning, that gives modern writers the tools of their craft? What will happen if young people read more modern raw fiction and fewer traditionally constructed books?
Fuelling this fear is a memory of a recent trip to Bulgaria. One evening, I found myself discussing Shakespeare, Proust, Homer, Plato and Joyce. With teenagers. Bulgarian teenagers. Actually, they were discussing - I was listening, amazed. In their international school, they read nothing later than the 1960s. In fact, they stop at Joyce. Understandably. They were brilliantly literate. Initially, I assumed they were brilliantly literate because they read those authors, but the opposite is more likely: they read those authors because they were brilliant. In fact, they admitted that their less literary friends found those authors direly irrelevant. If you are only given books that you consider direly irrelevant, you will stop reading as soon as possible.
My point is this: feed only scholarly works, and you breed a few scholars but many young adults who think reading is not for them; offer books that speak to them, that they can enjoy, and you breed a nation of readers. Many will be so inspired by the pleasure of reading that they will seek out the classics when they are ready. It is never too late to come to heavier literature. It is sometimes too early. Literature does not stand still. Earlier literature was once modern and sometimes experimental, often producing shock-horror reactions from traditionalists; each generation has had its discoveries, voices, new boundaries to break. Today's adolescents benefit from a huge range of new books written by talented and committed authors, authors who care about the brains and minds of teenagers, who listen and speak to them, and who, above all, know that reading without pleasure is like drinking spinach juice.
Nicola Morgan won the 2005 SAC Children's Book of the Year with Sleepwalking. She wrote the forthcoming Blame My Brain and The Leaving Home Survival Guide and is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 21-22 August.
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