Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

42. Teenage fiction

 

Realism, romances, contemporary problem novels

 

Julia Eccleshare

 

The demarcation of reading by age is always a tricky one, perhaps especially so when it comes to teenage fiction. What is at issue is not so much the teenage of the reader as the teenage or ‘young adulthood’ of the characters. The expectation is that teenagers should read about the things that they themselves are doing, or would enjoy doing if only they could, while making sure that they are not ‘corrupted’ by anything too adult or explicit.

Impelled by the widespread anxiety that teenagers may abandon reading in favour of entertainment from other, easier-to-access media, teenage fiction has evolved as the most narcissistic of all fictions as, in its current form at least, it seems primarily directed towards mirroring society rather than asking questions of it. The bulk of what is written for teenagers charts changing social and moral codes and in doing so offers assurance about ways of behaving or being treated. But this can be a narrowing and claustrophobic definition, and the obsession with veracity can all too often mean that teenagers are depicted as demons of destruction and revolt rather than in a more rounded way. It also takes away from the chance for teenagers to read more optimistically and to change their reading tastes so that they shift from childhood perceptions and interests to adult ones. In his recent book, The Child That Books Built (2002), Francis Spufford describes some of the changes that occur in the move from children’s to adult books in the following way.

 

Fiction recomplicates itself for you: you step up a whole level of complexity. Suddenly you are surrounded anew by difficulties and riches commensurate with your state of mind. From an exhausted territory, you have come to an unexplored one, where manners and conventions are all to find, just like the rules of your own new existence in your own new lurch-prone adolescent body.

(2002:0)

 

It is in making that shift both as people and readers that teenagers become a particular category. The immediacy of what matters to them is different from what matters to the children they have left behind or the adults they will become.

The concept of young adults as a separate group to be addressed and instructed was put forward by the educationalist Sarah Trimmer as long ago as 1802. She drew a dividing line at fourteen and suggested that ‘young adulthood’ should last until twenty-one. As far as publishing specifically for that readership was concerned no direct action was taken, but writers wrote for them naturally, seeing them as an eager audience and one that needed to be well influenced.

In the absence of a definable teenage culture there were obvious settings or situations which would appeal directly to adolescent readers. School stories like Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) and Talbot Baines Reed’s The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s (1887) were successes at the time of their publication and (particularly Tom Brown’s Schooldays) have remained classics of their genre. R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and The Black Arrow (1889) offered adventure to readers of all ages, but the strength of young male characters such as Jim in Treasure Island and David Balfour in Kidnapped made them popular with contemporary and subsequent generations of teenagers. Stevenson wrote directly for his twelve-year-old stepson, Lloyd, which may add to his success with the young. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel Huckleberry Finn (1884) are the obvious American counterparts.

The two most recent precursors of the teenage novel, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, were published for adults, but both have had a significant influence on adolescent readers. William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) shatters any illusions about childhood innocence. For this reason it appeals powerfully to readers who have begun to recognise this loss in themselves. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1954) has made an even greater impact, because the stream-of-consciousness, first-person narrative of Holden Caulfield, with its detached and critical view of the adult world, is not only in itself liberating but has also been imitated in many subsequent novels.

In France, the two novels of the first half of the twentieth century that have had most influence on teenagers were similarly published for the adult market. Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) is a novel of exceptional poignancy whose message of a first fleeting but passionately felt love is made even more affecting and unfulfilled by Alain- Fournier’s subsequent death in 1914. More than a generation later, Fran^oise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954), the story of a teenage girl’s adjustment to her stepmother (a precursor of what was to become a commonplace theme by the end of the twentieth century), spoke directly to teenagers adjusting their own lives to fit in with the increasingly common changing dynamics of their parents’ relationships.

The notion of teenagers as a separate group of readers with their own tastes and demanding a style of writing that is directed specifically at them was not adopted by publishers until the second half of the twentieth century. It was then that teenagers began to be identified as a distinct if not definite period of transition between childhood, with its implication of dependency, and the separation and independence of adulthood. But even with the clear identification of the group, whose members in the USA in particular had their own styles of music, clothes and the like, it took a long time to establish an identity for books and, perhaps most importantly of all, to find a suitable space in libraries and bookshops. Naming this invention was a further difficulty. ‘Teenager’, ‘Young Adult’ ... what was this audience to be called?

And then there was the further problem that everyone knew that readers younger than the magic age of thirteen would be reading these books. Did publishers have a responsibility not to include ‘unsuitable’ material for them, or was it enough to have overt labelling warning that this was intended for teenagers? As books for teenagers became increasingly daring in terms of explicit writing about sex in the 1970s, violence in the 1990s and drugs by the end of the century, the naming and marketing of the books was a significant issue.

Before the concretisation of teenage fiction into named series, acknowledgement that teenagers wanted books about their own experiences had come gradually and had started (not surprisingly because ‘teenagers’ themselves were first recognised there) in the USA. Post-war teenagers were a far more vociferous and independent group than their predecessors and they were no longer satisfied with the ‘rites of passage’ novels which had previously been considered as suitable teenage fare. These included classic novels such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as well as twentieth-century classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960), all of which, in different ways, showed children moving from innocence to experience through their new understanding of the adult world. Post-war teenagers demanded that their own specific experiences be explored in fiction. ‘Teenage’ became a separate fashionable entity, and so did its fiction. From the mid- 1950s on, and increasingly with the social liberation of the 1960s and 1970s, books for ‘young adults’ were making their mark, attracting serious writers who recognised the potential market of intelligent, sophisticated readers who needed books that would acknowledge their growing awareness of the complex emotions and events they were experiencing. Writers needed to understand the dilemmas that were posed to this generation by their new freedoms and to offer sensible discussion of choices without too much moral instruction.

Initially, the prime thrust of books for the new teenage market was romance, the range of books reflecting contemporary mores as well as eternal truths. Fifteen by Beverley Cleary, one of the first novels directed wholly at teenagers, was published in 1956 in the USA but not until 1962 by Penguin in Britain - and then as the second title in their newly launched series for teenagers, Peacocks. It is an unpretentious, straightforward romance, which is unashamedly about a girl’s desire for a boyfriend, the arrival of said boyfriend and their ensuing, developing relationship during the year. Cleary treads a delicate path between the mundane and the romantic, and the book’s very ‘decency’ made it possible for it to fit on to the Peacock list of the time.

The reserve and modesty of books such as Fifteen was followed by a wave of books which were considerably more sophisticated and complex. While many still dealt with the very first steps in a relationship, others were tackling the more serious problems like teenage pregnancy, always a possible result of too much teenage romance. K. M. Peyton is a romantic writer to her fingertips but she is also a realist. Her stories about the delinquent Pennington who has a rare talent for playing the piano started in Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer (1970) with not much more than background romance. But they progressed through The Beethoven Medal (1971), in which Pennington continues on his wayward and brilliant career, to Pennington’s Heir (1974), in which girlfriend, now very young wife, Ruth struggles with a baby and nappies under the shadow of the grand piano, against a background of crashing minor chords. Realistic possibly, but certainly Ruth was a very un-liberated heroine by the standards of the next two decades, while the notion of the two young people actually getting married seems impossibly old-fashioned to a contemporary audience.

Teenage fiction emerged almost simultaneously with the first soundings of the women’s liberation movement but it remained unaffected by it for a long time, even though the majority of novels written at the time were by women and directed predominantly at girls.

Honor Arundel’s approach of using the popular romance with some elements of reality thrown in was similar to K. M. Peyton’s. The books of both were an important bridge between magazine romance and literary love stories such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Emma, her best-known heroine, first appeared in an uncomplicated adventure Emma’s Island (1968). As an orphan on a remote Scottish island, she has all the qualities necessary for romance and, of course, as she grows up she falls in love. In Emma in Love (1970) Arundel describes the stages of first joy and then disillusionment that Emma goes through until she finally recognises that there will be other boys. But Arundel was well aware that love has its price and she was not afraid of confronting the issues of sex and even single parenthood, as in The Longest Weekend (1969) in which Eileen struggles to cope with her three-year-old daughter and her suffocatingly ‘understanding’ parents.

Good teenage romances have persisted, looking at every possible angle of love and relationships. But fiction was several years behind the enormous fashion and popular-music upheavals of the mid-1960s. Reading retained its ‘middle-class’ conservative image and was in danger of offering very little to anyone other than the committed reader.

The mid-1970s brought a wave of more hard-hitting novels to Britain. Imports from liberated Scandinavia, such as Gunnel Beckman’s Mia (1974) and its sequels, talked openly about sex between teenagers. Bodley Head’s New Adult list on which they appeared was incredibly controversial at the time and did much to shape the identity of subsequent teenage fiction. ‘Nice’ stories lost out to novels which gave a less romantic picture of the realities of contemporary teenage life.

Lynne Reid Banks used her romance My Darling Villain (1977) to tackle parental control and particularly parents’ views about class head on. Fifteen-year-old Kate, nice and very middle class, is allowed to give her first adult party, which is gate-crashed by some less-than-middle-class lads. After the ensuing chaos one of them, Mark, stays behind to tidy up, and they start going out together: but Mark’s working-class background is deplored by Kate’s parents. The way in which attitudes about both class and race are discussed by Lynne Reid Banks makes My Darling Villain - the title itself gives it away - a notably dated book, but the theme of loving against parental wishes is perennially popular.

Perhaps the most controversial, at the time of publication at least, was Judy Blume’s Forever (1975). The joys and disappointments of first love are shown through the story of Michael and Katherine; more importantly, the joys and disappointments of their first sexual encounter are described explicitly and easily, making Forever readily accessible to pre-teens, too. For such frankness Judy Blume has been heavily censored in the USA, but Forever has an important place in the canon of teenage fiction and Blume’s boldness of purpose and her directness of style were recognised and applauded in many circles at the time.

Admitting that sex among teenagers does take place was an important breakthrough for both writers and readers. For the first time, writers were beginning to acknowledge fully the reality of teenage relationships and to recognise the pressures that teenagers are under and the choices they have to make. As with their romantic predecessors, experiences were predominantly retold from the girl’s point of view. Boys’ feelings about sex and relationships were rarely explored except as a shadowy foil to whatever the girl at the centre of the story was thinking. The knowledge that girls are the prime readers of romances and the expectation that therefore the stories should be told from their point of view survives today, and most teenage romances are still told from the girl’s angle.

Alan Garner fared better than most in Red Shift (1973). He was absolutely up-to-date in making Tom and Jan’s failure to have a satisfactory sexual relationship the focal point of his story. Because of his parallel and mirroring historical narratives - one set in Celtic Britain and one in the English Civil War - the pertinence of the central story was easily missed and that, combined with Garner’s elusive and cryptic style, meant the book had less impact than it should have. Garner’s male perspective was refreshing, as was his superior writing in an area not always noted for this quality.

For both of these reasons Aidan Chambers, too, was an important contributor to the teenage books of the time. A boy’s sensitivities were described by him in Breaktime (1978). Like Garner, Chambers is a demanding writer. His account of Ditto’s sexual initiation and the subsequent reassessment of his life, and especially of his relationship with his father, is retold in a complex but thrilling narrative which offers insight into ways of reading literature as well as speaking openly about sex. Melvin Burgess is not trying to be sensitive in the literary sense in Doing It (2003). Instead he aims to talk about sex as teenagers do themselves. A group of friends discuss their success - or otherwise - in sexual relationships. The boys are crude in conversation but can be seen to be quite caring as well. They want sex but they also want a relationship. Burgess was praised and criticised in about equal measure for his near-pornographic book.

Heterosexual sex between teenagers has long been widely accepted, even if the writing about it has been coy, but gay sex has largely been kept well hidden. In Dance on My Grave (1982) Chambers set out to change this with a book that is far bolder in both subject matter and style than anything that had gone before. Hal has known for some time that he is gay but he has not acknowledged it openly. When Barry appears, the two recognise their need for one another, but also acknowledge that they may not be faithful for ever.

The telling of Dance on My Grave is introverted and complex. Jean Ure’s The Other Side of the Fence (1986) is more accessible, but the point of the story - that Richard’s girlfriend Jan turns out to be a Polish boy - is not revealed until the very end, making the story didactic rather than instructive. Both books mark a brief window during which it looked liberated to acknowledge gay sex before a better understanding of the very real risks of AIDS made such fictions harder to tackle. In a new climate which realistically advocated protection rather than abstinence, Chambers returned to it in Postcards from No Man’s Land (1999). A young sexual encounter is set, in present-day Holland, against a background of accepted gay relationships as well as a finely observed historical narrative during which the pressure of time changes the sexual mores, and a concurrent present-day story exploring the arguments on euthanasia. A finely wrought and thoroughly literary novel, Postcards from No Man’s Land won the UK’s prestigious Carnegie Medal. Dutch author Ted van Lieshout’s Brothers (2001) is a deeply moving story about grief and the different ways it can be managed if not contained. After the death of his brother Luke, Maus passes through rage, guilt and isolation as he grieves for the loss of what might have been. But, in finding out more about his brother, Maus discovers that they were joined by the most intimate of secrets - both were gay. Like Chambers’s, van Lieshout’s story is both less discreet and far more subtle than the first generation of gay novels had been.

Strangely, though close friendship between girls lies at the heart of so many novels, exploration of gay female relationships has been less often explored. When it has, as in Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface (1979), it has been less discreet. Hautzig writes far more plainly about Val’s developing feelings for Chloe. Written in the first person by Val, Hey, Dollface describes how the friendship becomes romantic and physical though, after discussion, the girls decide not to become lovers.

Such openness about relationships marked an important change in the way teenagers and the kind of books they might want to read were perceived. But the upsurge of writing about teenage sex and the conviction that physical attraction was the impetus for all teenage relationships began to distort the realities of society. Ursula Le Guin’s A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else (1976) was an excellent antidote, providing a welcome respite for teenagers who were quite happy having strong but wholly platonic friendships. Owen and Natalie are both intelligent, strongly motivated people set on different paths for further study. Their relationship is stimulating and enriching, each helping the other to discover what it is that they really believe in. Both find it hard to cope with the sexual expectations pushed on them by the media, their peers and even their parents. Paul Zindel, too, has recognised that a common purpose may lead to powerful friendships which have nothing to do with sex. In My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) he makes his point about teenage relationships in a story which revolves around two couples who are treating being ‘a couple’ in quite different ways. He harks back to the theme in A Begonia for Miss Applebaum (1989), in which Henry and Zelda tell the story of their befriending of Miss Applebaum in alternate chapters, revealing much of their thoughts about each other and their developing emotions as they find out about the life of their amazing teacher and come to terms with her death.

Margaret Mahy has an exceptional understanding of just how emotionally charged teenagers are. She sees this as relating to many things, including the supernatural, as much as necessarily being bound up with preoccupations about sex. In The Catalogue of the Universe (1985) she captures the importance of Tycho and Angela’s friendship. Their need for one another is based on understanding and intellectual harmony rather than anything overtly physical.

Once the sexual side of relationships had became a recognised and accepted part of teenage writing, the complexities of such relationships rather than their shock qualities could be discussed in an interesting way. Berlie Doherty’s Dear Nobody (1992) takes a hard look at a girl’s choices when she discovers that she is pregnant. Helen decides to keep the baby and the anguish that causes is resolved only at the end, but her steadfast belief in the rightness of her decision is painfully explored in her diary entries. Chris’s responses are understandably different - he is mostly concerned with not losing Helen - but at least he is credited with a viewpoint and, even if he is clearly not as mature as Helen, he is at least concerned and caring. Dear Nobody has remained the best book on teenage pregnancy despite the recurrence of the theme in titles since. Society’s attitudes to teenage pregnancies remain understandably negative given the limitations that they set on the lives of the young women especially. As a result, they give little fictional scope. What has changed is that there is no disapproval or surprise at the fact of sex, only dismay at the careless consequences at a time when they could easily be avoided.

Changing attitudes to sexual freedom, especially the advent of vociferous feminism, have caused a slowing down in the number of books where women are the underdogs - either emotionally or in terms of getting pregnant. Although the need for love or sex and the importance of relationships is still central to much of teenage fiction, the balance between the sexes has changed radically. During the 1990s what became tagged as ‘girl power’ swept from the worlds of pop music and fashion into fiction, with the result that teenage fiction became even more dominated by writing for girls. Of course, girls are still seeking relationships, but the expectation is that these will be on their own terms. The traditional roles of girls as weak and boys as strong, which lasted an unnaturally long time in fiction (far longer than in society as a whole), are replaced. Girls are now strong in relationships as well as in many other aspects of life. The advent of the teenage diary, begun famously with Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133A (1989), in which Adrian airs his angst about parents, the failures in his life and, above all, his girlfriend Pandora, has been followed up by any number of teenage diaries. The diary format allows anxieties to be aired without preaching and gives an apparent authenticity to the teenage voice. Authenticity is essential to the success of such books and is hard to achieve. Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (2000) strikes exactly the right note. Georgia Nicolson’s intimate thoughts on her family, boys and the family cat much more quickly found a committed audience, and Rennison followed up the first with a string of sequels, all of which catch the heightened emotions of adolescence and extreme self-absorption - one of its key characteristics.

While the idea of teenage sex became acceptable, the admittance of the widespread use of drugs by teenagers continued to be kept out of teenage books. Its illegality remains a restriction on how it can be written about but, in the interests of authenticity, the use of drugs by disaffected teenagers is sometimes at least accepted in fiction. Melvin Burgess broke the ground dramatically with Junk (1996), a harrowing story of a group of young people ‘squatting’ in a house in Bristol. Told through the voices of different characters, and especially Tar and Gemma, Junk manages to retain an open-minded and non-judgemental stance on the way of life of the young addicts and their various, largely unsuccessful, attempts to break out of the cycle of drug use. Junk won the CILIP Carnegie Medal but it also caused a storm of protest on publication and for many years afterwards.

Surprisingly, few followed where Burgess had so obviously led and drugs have remained notably excluded from teenage novels. Only a handful of younger writers, such as Chris Wooding, who wrote Kerosene (2001), the story of Cal’s tragic passion for lighting fires, when he was only twenty-one, include dope-smoking as one of the time-wasting and mood-changing activities of his young characters.

Beyond the limitations of peer relationships in the hot teenage areas of sex and drugs, books for teenagers are an excellent vehicle for exploring all kinds of relationships with other members of the family or other age groups. Recognition of the developing intellectual and emotional powers of adolescent readers, as they move out of a relatively safe world in which decisions are made for them, and into one of infinite variety and choice, has encouraged thoughtful and wide-ranging analysis. Closest in terms of subject matter to relationship with their peers are the numerous books which reflect relationships within families and, especially, the breakdown of traditional, close-knit families. To acknowledge parental failing is an extraordinarily difficult thing and many stories have served as valuable conduits for analysing the pain and trauma that can be caused.

The extent to which unhappiness and self-examination became a predominant theme reached an all time high in the late 1970s and was in danger of belittling teenage readers in a misguided attempt at social realism. Too many books were devoted to the fragility of traditional family values. Teenage readers were in grave danger of being sold very short by the dearth of high-quality writing and thinking in what was being offered to them. It needed writers of distinction to add an extra dimension to the genre. Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows (1981) painfully traces thirteen-year-old Simon’s traumatic emotional ride as he rejects his stepfather and conjures up spirits from the past whose powers threaten to overwhelm him. Westall borders on the emotionally savage in his version of how a teenager reacts to the replacement of his father by another man. Such emotional force combined with powerful imagery turns subject matter which, in fiction at any rate, was becoming depressingly routine, into a book of enormous power and importance.

Anne Fine has tackled family break-ups head on in both Madame Doubtfire (1989) and Goggle-Eyes (1992). Her wit, insight and subtlety set her books apart from the rest and do much to redress the balance and show just how well this hoary chestnut of a theme can be handled. In Madam Doubtfire she carries off the preposterous notion that the estranged father, desperate to spend more time with his children, can come back disguised as a housekeeper who takes charge of the children while the mother is working. The implausi- bility of the deception is deftly handled, with the children acknowledging and distancing themselves from the intrigue in almost equal, and perfectly convincing, measure. In Goggle-Eyes, Kitty Killin tells Helly Johnson everything she needs to know about mothers having new and unwanted boyfriends who, as both girls know, may all too easily become unwanted stepfathers. Huddled in the school lost-property cupboard, the two girls share their grief at the loss of the parents they first loved. Helly’s story remains untold as the forceful Kitty unravels her own story about the horrors of Goggle-Eyes and her eventual conversion to him and to his mother’s relationship with him.

Paula Danziger’s books are read by many who are not yet into adolescence, but much of what she writes about concerns how teenagers come to terms with parental failure and especially with the breaking up of marriage. Like Anne Fine, Paula Danziger’s ability to write humorously about traumatic feelings and events enables her to inform her readers about important emotional developments without ever preaching to them. In both Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? (New York 1979; London 1986) and The Divorce Express (New York 1982; London 1986) the titles alone indicate Danziger’s lightness of touch on what can all too easily become a portentous and didactic subject area.

Cynthia Voight, in Homecoming (New York 1981; London 1983) takes a completely different approach to what became a primary theme in the 1970s and 1980s of family breakdown and abandonment. Warmth rather than humour is threaded through this long and profoundly moving story about four children who are abandoned in a car park by their mother when she can no longer cope with the problems of being a single parent without adequate support. Dicey, the oldest, leads the others on a journey to find their grandmother. Their trek takes them many miles to Maryland and their experiences on the way are a convincing mixture of meetings with people, some good and some bad. Most importantly, the journey is an opportunity for the characters of the children and their interaction with one another to be developed. From the starting point of the break-up of the traditional family, Cynthia Voight has written a story that is full of hope about sibling support and their ability to redefine a family in the absence of parents. Remarkably, too, she is uncondemning in her view of the parents’ behaviour, ascribing it to circumstances rather than apportioning blame.

Homecoming is the first in a series of interconnected novels through which Cynthia Voight allows each of the four Tillerman children further room for development. The personal growth of her characters, and particularly of the two boys when they go in search of the father they know they need in Sons from Afar (1989), makes them fascinating models for all adolescents, not just those who are needing fictional role models to help them resolve their own problems.

Jan Mark’s understanding of teenage confusions is equally acute and, like Voight, she writes about characters developing in all kinds of ways rather than merely as survivors of situations. Mark is particularly sharp in her observations about friendships and their importance to adolescents both at school and at home. Thunder and Lightnings (1976), her first book, revolves around the friendship between the bright newcomer Andrew and Victor, considered locally to be stupid. Their exchanges are spare and reflect both the initial unease and the subsequent comfortableness that the two feel with one another. In Man in Motion (1989) Lloyd, like Andrew, is newly arrived in a new home with a new school and no friends. At first he is at a complete loss to know how to make friends and is puzzled that his sister seems to find the whole thing so easy. But gradually things change and Lloyd finds himself with friends for a whole range of activities and not enough time to devote to his own passion - American football. Lloyd learns how to juggle his loyalties so that he can keep faith with all his friends and have time to do what he really wants.

Exploring the complexities of something as comparatively simple as friendships is every bit as important as delving into the more obviously traumatic areas of the problem novels mentioned above. Robert Cormier’s picture of teenage interaction is far bleaker than anything Jan Mark describes. In The Chocolate War (1975) Cormier writes of the merciless persecution of one boy by the powerful secret society in an American Catholic high school in which corruption is rife. Cormier’s novel is almost unremittingly bleak in both style and content. It offers the reader little comfort, though some insights into the cruelties which teenagers can inflict upon one another. Later, in Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), Cormier modifies the bleakness of his message, though the style remains as taut and telling. In it Jerry Renault, victim in The Chocolate War, is semi-recovered from his ordeal and returns to school to face up to his tormentor, revealed as a demonic character who reaches a nasty end.

Cormier is never frightened of showing how evil teenagers can be and he expands on this in We All Fall Down (1992). Four teenagers ‘trash’ a house in an act of mindless violence. The damage to the property is bad enough, but worse is that they push fourteen- year-old Karen down the cellar steps leaving her smashed and helpless. The repercussions on all involved - the trashers, Karen and her family, and the mysterious ‘avenger’ who watches it all - are skilfully and carefully unravelled, revealing much about the different characters’ motives and allowing the reader to act as judge of each for themselves. We All Fall Down is a book of tremendous force and the lurid description of the trashing is haunting, but somehow Cormier weaves in a morality which, combined with the sheer quality of his writing, prevents his books from making gratuitous use of violence.

In fact, although it was not so much acknowledged when Cormier began writing, violence does surround teenagers and, as well as being instrumental in causing it, they are also often the victims of it. In the changing patterns of society they have some adult attributes - not enough to make them financially or physically independent but enough to make them obviously well beyond the need for the parental protection that younger children would automatically receive. Teenage lives at the margins of society increasingly began to be explored in fiction, a reflection of the way in which some young people were forced into independence. Keith Grey’s Warehouse (2002) is a compassionate and ultimately hopeful story about a group of teenagers who live together in a disused warehouse. There are particular reasons why each is there but all are, in some way, victims of a breakdown of traditional support.

Fiction about these dispossessed teenagers has led almost seamlessly into the opening up of fiction to include a yet wider cast of characters. These range from teenagers who are in trouble, largely because they have been abused or damaged by an adult earlier in their lives, to those with physical or mental handicaps who have previously been all but invisible in teenage fiction. Tom Bowler’s Midget (1994) gets inside the mind of fifteen-year-old Midget, so called because he is only three feet tall. In addition to being so much too small, Midget has difficulty speaking and suffers from fits. But Midget is a tough boy who is determined to prove himself and to reveal the secret savagery of his older brother. Bowler’s skill is in writing convincingly from within Midget rather than merely describing him. Malachy Doyle achieves something similar in Georgie (2001), the story of a boy whose history of destructive behaviour has brought him into being schooled in a closed institution. Only a caring fellow-pupil can unlock Georgie’s problems and enable the teacher finally to reach him and to begin to turn his life around.

Though interesting stories in themselves, in both of these there are moments when it is hard not to feel manipulated by the author. But writing about ‘outsiders’ does not have to be like that. Benjamin Lebert wrote Crazy (2001), the story of his own life, when he was just sixteen. Benjamin is paralysed down one side and hopeless at maths. An outcast at all of his previous schools, Benjamin is finally sent to Castle Neuseelen in a last-ditch attempt by his parents to get him properly educated. Benjamin hates the thought of boarding school but at last he finds he is accepted for himself and begins to fit in despite his disabilities. Though not autobiographical, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) is equally remarkable in its ability to get inside the outsider teenager. Fifteen-year-old Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is a brilliant mathematician but has little comprehension of ordinary emotions. When he finds a dead dog in the neighbour’s front garden he begins a trail of questions which ends in him discovering why his mother left home. Haddon’s telling of Christopher’s story is both eye-opening and haunting for what it tells us about seeing the world from such a different point of view.

Describing how life is for teenagers who are physically disabled is in many ways harder. Traditionally, disabled characters are tamed by learning to live with their disabilities or reformed by overcoming them. Either way is unconvincing in our scientific society and both run the risk of creating characters who descend into self-pity while screaming ‘unfair’. Morris Gleitzman stands such books on their heads by taking a refreshingly humorous look at disability in his ironically titled Blabbermouth (1992) and its sequel Stickybeak (1993). Rowena Batts has something wrong with her vocal chords so, although she’s a brilliant communicator, she cannot actually speak. Despite this, the books are told in the first person and Rowena’s character comes through powerfully. There is no sense of self-pity, almost the reverse, as Rowena uses her inability to speak to her own advantage as often and as outrageously as she can. Lois Keith apparently occupies more traditional territory in In a Different Life (1997) as fifteen-year-old-Libby is forced into a wheelchair after a mysterious illness. Libby is first angry and despairing and finally optimistic as she tries to make the point that she is still an ordinary teenager with all the familiar hang-ups about boys, school, friends and parents. Keith’s skill is in keeping a straight path between honesty and sentimentality. Hannes Keller, the hero of Reinhardt Jung’s Dreaming in Black and White (1996) is born disabled and lives in the knowledge that his father finds his ‘difference’ hard to bear. In his dreams, Hannes slips back from his life in present-day Germany to the Nazi era. Here, it’s clear that he would not be tolerated: like the Jews, he would be readily disposed of. But the present day does not always seem so safe either. Hannes wonders whether the screening of unborn babies will make disability as unacceptable today as it was for the Nazis. Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dreaming in Black and White moves beyond the nearer horizon of teenagers and has the subtlety to change attitudes.

The nature of relationships and how they work for teenagers of all kinds is obviously of vital importance during the physical and emotional changes during the teenage years but that does not mean that they are all that teenagers care about. Although often accused of being less politically or socially active than their 1960s counterparts, teenagers at any time are interested in world issues.

The incredible response among teenagers to issues concerning the environment and the needs of those in developing countries, as was revealed in the success of first Live Aid and then Band Aid, also needed to be reflected in fiction. Different issues dominate at different times and books which deal with them can be important stories of the moment rather than becoming classics. Robert Swindells’s Brother in the Land (1984) was just one of a number of books published within a five-year span which dealt with what, at the time, seemed a perfectly likely event - the dropping of a nuclear bomb. The prospect of the destruction of the world and speculation as to what might survive, and how, led to some undisciplined and morbid writing. Many seemed to assume that the sheer gravity of the subject matter was enough to make a book on the subject good, although this was clearly not so. Brother in the Land is an exception, and the fact that it is as readable and poignant today proves the point. In the aftermath of the nuclear destruction moral order breaks down, survival depends on selfishness. Or so Danny thinks, until he finds a crumb of reassurance in the behaviour of a handful of the other survivors. Robert Swindells wrote a book reflecting the mood of the moment but his understanding of how people behave in extremis has made it a book to last.

The picture-book format of Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1982) might not make it immediately look like a book for teenagers but the comic-strip layout of text and pictures does little to soften the intensity of the tragedy that unfolds through the story. Jim and Hilda, a retired couple, try hard to follow the government’s instructions about what to do in the event of a nuclear war. Briggs’s point was that such guidance was fatuous and would do nothing to help people if a bomb really was dropped. Jim and Hilda are not directly hit by a bomb but they are affected by radiation sickness. Watching them slavishly trying to do as they have been told while all the time turning greener, weaker and balder is almost too painful to bear, but it is a frighteningly powerful way of conveying the impact of the atomic bomb while also serving as a hard-hitting attack on government policy in supporting a nuclear programme.

Other books of the same period such as Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985) reflected just how pessimistic current thinking then was. Set after the dropping of the bomb, Children of the Dust describes a horribly mutated race as the sole survivors in a bleak new world.

But though the ultimate threat of the twentieth century, nuclear war was not the only one. As world-powers moved towards cooperation rather than confrontation, destruction of other kinds began to be more alarming. The effect of twentieth-century living on the environment became an issue for all by the end of the century. For young people it is of particular significance: one generation has messed up, can the present one put things right? Replacing the post-holocaust novels, the post-global warming or post-genetically modified crops novels are pessimistic about how the world will look. A world covered mostly by water in which people are reduced to poverty and despair is an all too common theme. Marcus Sedgwick’s Floodland (2001) and Julie Bertagna’s Exodus (2002) both describe the survival of a handful of individuals in situations reminiscent of some far-off historical period. Carl Hiassen sees the destruction of what we know coming from another source in Hoot (2002). Roy has recently moved to Hollywood and is horrified by the way the natural environment is being taken over by the big developers. Soon Roy is caught up in the fight for the surviving wildlife in this excellent eco-thriller. In Ann Hallam’s Dr Franklin’s Island (2001), the wildlife is not threatened by buildings but by genetic modification. Semi, Miranda and Arnie are stranded on a beautiful tropical island after an air crash. But the beauty of the place disguises the horror of the secret lab that they discover. Here all kinds of mutations are taking place as Dr Franklin and his team create pigs with human hands and monkeys with octopus legs. Semi, Miranda and Arnie are transformed themselves and need all their courage and intelligence to survive.

Books of this kind pick up on teenagers’ commitment to issues that do not affect them directly but which they know about superficially from newspaper and television reporting.

The changing political and social structures of the world are also reflected in fiction. Books for children, including teenagers, have always played a vital role in promoting tolerance and understanding, often and increasingly as an essential antidote to the hysterical and prejudiced outpourings of the press. Contemporary domestic issues have been treated seriously for teenagers as in Ian Strachan’s Throwaways (1992), which describes the pathetic existence eked out by children who have been abandoned by their parents because they can no longer afford to feed them. Sky, Chip and Dig soon learn (as did Danny in Brother in the Land) that integrity can and must survive against all odds if they are themselves to survive as people rather than merely exist. Robert Swindells’s Stone Cold (1993), with its central theme of homelessness and its chilling account of the terrible dangers that the young who live rough may encounter, gives insights into a world which it is all too easy to keep at arm’s length.

More radically, taking sides in civil conflicts at home and abroad is a reality for many. In the UK, the political unrest in Northern Ireland offers the closest-to-home look at a divided society. When Joan Lingard wrote the first of what was to become a quintet of books about Protestant Sadie and Catholic Kevin, the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland had only just begun. In The Twelfth Day of July (1970) the two teenagers meet against the background of the annual Orange Day celebration in Belfast. They rapidly become a modern version of ‘star-crossed lovers’ in Across the Barricades (1972), facing increasing hostility from friends and family - with the exception of Kevin’s sister. Realistically, Joan Lingard moves the couple from Belfast in Into Exile (1973) and from then on the political situation in Northern Ireland recedes into the background as the story of the young couple’s early married life unfolds. Sectarian hostilities happen the world over and, even if the Northern Ireland situation is resolved, the Kevin and Sadie books offer shrewd insight into a long episode in the history of the country as well as describe what it might feel like growing up anywhere where there is civil war.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, tension within communities within the UK became increasingly evident as the newly shaping multi-cultural society began to emerge. Given their enthusiasm for contemporary themes, books for teenagers were surprisingly slow to reflect the realities of multi-cultural Britain. Jean MacGibbon’s Hal (1975), the story of the developing friendship of a young girl recently arrived from Jamaica, won the Other Award for its portrayal of a black heroine - amazingly enough it was almost unknown in UK children’s fiction at the time. A small trickle of titles followed, though mostly they were not for teenagers. Jamila Gavin’s trilogy of titles begins with The Wheel of Surya (1992). The trilogy starts in India in 1947, just before Partition, and then traces how Marvinder and Jaspal make their way to England having been separated from their mother after Muslims attack their village. The trilogy continues with The Eye of the Horse (1994) which describes an uneasy way of life for Asian peoples in the immediate post-war period and concludes with The Track of the Wind (1996) which is set back in India with Jaspal caught up in the fight for Independence. Gavin’s trilogy could help teenagers understand something of the culture of the British Asians as well as why they had come to live in Britain. In (Un)arranged Marriage (1999) Bali Rai writes about the problems of Pakistani children who are born in Britain but whose parents still cling to their old traditions. Manny is absolutely determined not to accept the marriage that his parents have arranged for him, but the lengths to which he has to go to avoid it surprise even him. Rai captures the confusion for many families trying to adapt to a new country and its startlingly different morality.

How British families see the new multi-cultural society is also a new area for fiction. Frankie finds himself on the opposite side to his mother when she starts a campaign against the newly arrived Romanians in Gaye Hincyilmaz’s Girl in Red (2000). He is immediately attracted to one of the girls and so sees the newcomers as individuals rather than as a collective and intrusive group; his mother sees them only as ‘incomers’ who will take up work and space. In what was very much a book of the moment, Hincyilmaz picked up on the then topical issue of the refugees arriving in the UK from all over Europe. Inspired by the reality of race riots in some of the major British cities, Alan Gibbons boldly confronts the issue of racial tension in whole communities. In Caught in the Crossfire (2003) Gibbons has important political points to make, but he also tells a convincing and dramatic story in which both the Kelly and the Khan families are pulled apart by the simmering racial hatred that is whipped up into a frenzy by the arrival in Oakfield of the leader of the Nazi-styled Patriotic League. Gibbons provokes thought about how easily societies can be pulled apart once prejudice is allowed free rein.

For UK writers, describing social and racial tension abroad seems to be easier. In the 1970s and 1980s apartheid, like the threat of a nuclear holocaust, was a live issue for many teenagers and traces of it will remain for many years to come. Toekey Jones’s Skindeep (1985) still deserves reading as it exposes not only the well-documented gulfs within South African society but also the hypocrisy and false thinking on which apartheid operated, since the friendship that develops between the two teenagers is ‘allowed’ because Dave is a ‘pass White’. In Python Dance (1992) Norman Silver explores how Ruth, living as a privileged White in 1960s Johannesburg, begins to question the assumptions of her background. Stepping outside her own world she learns the grim truth of how the Blacks, whom she has been brought up to despise, live.

As with apartheid, the extremism of General Pinochet’s regime in Chile exists no longer but James Watson’s Talking in Whispers (1983), a fast-paced adventure story in which Andres witnesses the ultimate in censorship - the burning of books - and plays an important part in exposing the secret service’s shooting of an eminent opponent of the junta, remains as a powerful reminder of an episode in Chile’s history and also as a picture of any repressive regime at any time.

The wars that have most recently affected Britain directly have been used as source material by Jan Needle and Robert Westall. Both exploit the particular to describe something much greater: the realities of conflict as set against the propaganda that is generated about them. Jan Needle set A Game of Soldiers (1985) in the Falklands War. Sarah, Thomas and Michael come face to face with a wounded soldier and soon discover the realities of the pain, fear and suffering of war, which contrasts sharply with the jingoistic patriotism that was being written about it at the time. Robert Westall did much the same for the Gulf War, though with a quite different kind of story, in Gulf (1992), in which an English boy ‘turns into’ an Iraqi boy soldier.

Like readers of all ages, teenagers need a mixture of fictions to sustain their literary interests. Self-knowledge is a spur to growth, but so too is a wider understanding of all aspects of society, present, past and in the future. While the impetus for teenage fiction may have come from the need to provide a vociferous band of readers with amusing stories about themselves, it is now a vehicle for telling the same readers about the world as it really is. Indeed, as novels become increasingly bleak, partly because of the bleakness of social issues such as homelessness, unemployment and the rest, there are serious concerns about what may and may not be suitable fictional fare.

Whatever the direct subject matter of teenage fiction, what remains important is the steady flow of good-quality writing for an eager but easily distracted age group.

 

Reference

Spufford, F. (2002) The Child That Books Built, London: Faber and Faber.

 

Further reading

Chambers, A. (1985) Booktalk, London: Bodley Head.

Eccleshare, J. (1984/1993) Children’s Books of the Year, London: Andersen Press.

Landsberg, M. (1988) The World of Children’s Books, London: Simon and Schuster.

Moss, E. (1970/1980) Children’s Books of the Year, London: Hamish Hamilton.

- (1986) Part of the Pattern, London: Bodley Head.

Reynolds, K., Brennan, G. and McCarron, K. (2001) Frightening Fictions, London and New York: Continuum.

Tucker, N. and Eccleshare, J. (2003) The Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers, London: Rough Guides.

Tucker, N. and Gamble, N. (2001) Family Fictions, London and New York: Continuum.

Yates, J. (1986) Teenager to Young Adult, London: School Library Association.