A few weeks ago, I was teaching a lesson in the school library when one of my students asked me to help her choose a book. As I never need an excuse to foist my reading taste onto others, I was delighted and began pulling my own childhood favourites off the shelf. In glee I presented my choices; Goodnight Mister Tom (such a tearjerker!), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (an emotional rollercoaster!) and Anne of Green Gables (how could you not love her?!). The response was a wrinkled nose of disdain. ‘Miss, I wanted something a bit…you know…exciting?’ At the word exciting, my heart sank. At their age, these books were exciting to me. Harry Potter hadn’t been invented yet. The vast array of young adult books on mature themes that they take for granted now simply didn’t exist beyond the realms of Jacqueline Wilson, who was pretty revolutionary when I was 11. Increasingly I have come to realise that despite only being ten or so years older than most of the children I teach, so much of the culture that I grew up with does not overlap theirs at all. The other day I had to explain to a student what an encyclopaedia was; when I told her that I used it to complete school work before I got the internet at home, she nearly fell off her chair. ‘You had to look it up? In a book? How old are you?’ she cried. It’s a good thing I can still pass for a sixth former, otherwise I’d start to get a complex.
So, as I handed my student over to the school librarian, I resolved that I would bridge the gap between my childhood and my students’ and read more current young adult fiction. I don’t want to be one of those teachers who only recommends the canon and turns my nose up at popular fiction. Kids these days have so many avenues for entertainment that reading will undoubtedly fall to the bottom of the list unless teachers and parents have an awareness of what is exciting, fresh and appealing in the world of young adult literature today. As much as I dream of having my class sitting in a circle on the floor, enthralled by my dramatic reading of The Secret Garden, it just isn’t going to happen. So, in order to help my students find books that are going to show them that reading can actually be a pleasurable experience, I need to read the kind of books they want to read, rather than the books I want them to read. The more I know about these books, the more I’ll be able to incorporate them into lessons, and the more my students will associate English with pleasure rather than dread.
So, with trepidation, I have begun dipping my toe into the water. In the last few weeks, I have read very little that hasn’t been young adult fiction. My first was Between Shades of Gray, which has probably suffered a little from its title since publication! It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and despite lacking in narrative complexity, it’s a remarkably good book. It tells the story of Lina, a young Lithuanian girl who is deported to Siberia with her family due to her father being an outspoken opponent of the Stalinist regime. They suffer horrifically alongside their fellow prisoners as they are forced to endure weeks confined to a freight train carriage, with barely anything to eat and no opportunity to wash or exercise, and when they finally arrive at their frozen destination, they find nothing but a wasteland waiting for them. It soon dawns on them that this is just a way for the Russians to kill them off, but their spirits are stronger than their captors bargain for, and together Lina and her fellow prisoners fight against the regime purely by refusing to give up. It’s an emotional and gripping story, made even the more so by knowing this actually happened to hundreds of thousands of Baltic people who Stalin wanted to wipe out, and I genuinely couldn’t put it down.
After Between Shades of Gray, I picked up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, which tells the story of Isabel, a slave girl living in 18th century New York at the time of the War of Independence. As America struggles for its freedom, so must she seek hers, and this is a fascinating, emotive and gripping story of bravery in the most impossible of circumstances. Again, I couldn’t put it down, and I found myself wanting to learn more about slavery and the Independence movement in America. Only two young adult books in, and I was already wiser about so many things I had no idea about before. Could my third provide me with the same experience? As it turned out, yes it could! A Gathering Light won the Carnegie Medal a few years ago (and was published as A Northern Light in the US). It is set in the Adirondacks in 1906, and tells the story of Mattie Gokey, a farmer’s daughter struggling to cope with the burden of supporting her father and younger siblings after her mother’s death. To help pay the bills, she gets a summer job in one of the big lakeside hotels, where she finds herself entrusted with the secret letters of Grace Brown, a young woman staying at the hotel who is found drowned in the lake the following day.
Unlike Mattie, Grace Brown was real (you can read the story of her murder here), but Mattie feels far more real than the excerpts of Grace Brown’s actual letters. Desperate to get out of her poverty stricken small town, but torn between the call of going to college, helped by her inspirational teacher, and of love, after she begins dating a handsome neighbour, Mattie is a vital and sympathetic young narrator whose dilemmas raise a number of important questions for teenage girls. Juxtaposing her story with that of another girl who never had a chance to live her own life makes Mattie’s decisions even more compelling, and I felt very affectionate towards her by the end. It’s a lovely, thoughtful novel that treads a fine line between young adult and adult fiction, and is well worth a read.
My adventures in Young Adult fiction so far have taught me there are many well written and involving books out there that offer much more emotional depth and narrative complexity than most adult novels currently decorating the shelves of Tescos. Teenagers can read these novels and be swept into different worlds with characters who are just like them as their guides. They can be educated about historical events, or even just what it is like to live in completely different circumstances, drawing on their own lives and experiences to help them empathise with the protagonists. There is nothing inferior about modern Young Adult fiction; it is, in fact, a thriving, inventive and innovative genre that is continually pushing the boundaries of what is deemed appropriate for young readers. These books speak to teenagers far more than ‘classics’ do, and offer just the same amount of exposure to beautiful writing and a range of narrative techniques. Rather than dreading teaching modern novels to my classes, I am now relishing the prospect. I am going to spend my summer reading a lovely big pile of options for my new Year 7 class before deciding which will be the best to teach. I suspect I’ll have a very hard decision to make!