I just finished reading the frankly awesome ‘Putting Makeup on Dead People’ by Jen Violi. It’s aimed at teen readers. So the protagonist (Donna) is just out of high school, there’s some sex, and there’s some ‘family issues’. But you know what, I identified with all of Donna’s issues. And in actual fact I was kind of envious that she had the revelation she did during the novel, because it sure as hell took me longer to figure out my place in the world.
So part of me wants to meet Donna, part of me wishes I was Donna (only about 21 years ago), and part of me just envies Donna.
But even now, too many years later to make a real difference, reading books about how I ought to have behaved when I was a ‘young adult’ make me realise (a) how lucky I am to have stayed sane and (b) that I amn’t alone in that I spent most of my teen years feeling slightly bizarre.
See when I was a teenager, the only ‘young adult’ books published were Sweet Valley High or some such faux reality nonsense, or, and I betray my upbringing here, slightly preachy religious tomes about how kids from broken families reacted and turned to God. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ was a moment of sanity in my early teen reading, and still makes me sad today. Basically, not actual making me feel like these characters related to me stuff.
So I moved on to ‘easy reading’. Which basically meant Stephen King, Jackie Collins and other trashy fiction. None of which I regret reading, but equally none of which helped me form realistic pictures of life. AT ALL.
Even when I read truly out-there teen fiction (ie stuff that isn’t just about real stuff but sometimes has people who can stay alive when they only have a head that lives in a bowling bag) it still makes me think more about how I interacted with kids I was at school with (and indeed how I interact now) than any of the daft books that were available to me when I was a teenager. (Virginia Andrews, I mean you).
Not that so called ‘adult’ fiction doesn’t make me think also. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road literally changed my life (ha ha literature that did something literal). But what teen fiction tends to do is tap into something we’ve all felt, whereas literary fiction tends to appeal based on who and where you are.
So why isn’t teen fiction more highly praised?
I’m going to go right ahead and make a genre leap now…
Crime fiction – I would bet most of us watch movies based on a crime, or are addicted to a crime TV show or two. And actually, in Scotland, there is a certain admittance that crime fiction is readable and cool. (Back in my bookshop days I was given a tiny crime section and soon realised it was bringing in as much money as the three times as much shelf space regular fiction.)
So, why is crime fiction sort of second rate? Some of it is highly literary (not all, but then not all fiction is literary – yes Marian Keyes, Chris Cleave, Dan Brown – I mean you). And some of it is escapist nonsense (Dan Brown again, and a smidgen of Pat Cornwell, with a soupcon of Karin Slaughter). But what all of it does (again, except Dan Brown – why did I mention him?) is to make us feel secure in the world, the crazy world we live in. Because inevitably at the end of a crime novel, not only has the perpetrator been brought to justice, but the reader has an insight into why they committed the crime. Which is the major part of real life crime that is always missing.
Which brings me back to teen fiction. What both these ‘genres’ do is allow us an insight into another world.
Sometimes it’s a world we recognise, a world we empathise with, a word we wish we could have escaped, a world we wish we could have had as much wisdom in, a world we want to escape now, a world we wish we weren’t living in, a world we just don’t understand.
And what all reading does for me is make me a stronger, more aware, more cognisant person. And whilst all reading achieves this, I hold a special place in my heart (and head) for fiction that actually takes me there without pretension or judgement, and makes me feel better about the world by the last page.
Thanks therefore to Jen Violi, Lish McBride, Meg Cabot, Kate DiCamillo, Henning Mankell, Karin Slaughter, Peter May… and numerous others.