Last July we looked at current teenage romance series.
Here Keith Barker takes up the topic and invites us to consider
TABOO AND SHIBBOLETH
All of a sudden Fran couldn’t think. Her lips just automatically, went to Paul’s, and her arms went around him. His kiss coursed through her like hot fudge running through her veins – slow and warm and sweet and good.
(Thinking of You, Sweet Dreams)
Pat Triggs’s timely dissection of the recent romance series for teenagers in the July Books for Keeps is a reminder of the vagaries of publishing for young adults. It seems only yesterday that publishers were busy congratulating themselves on presenting every possible taboo in teenage fiction while teachers and librarians were eager to show they were stocking this material, admittedly in limited quantities and with a timid eye on the ogre-like personage of the parent. Today, however, with the conservative backlash in America and the proliferation of groups like the Moral Majority, as the sanitised version of the teenage novel becomes more popular, it is claimed that the wheel has turned full circle. But has it: how far, in fact, did that wheel actually go round?
Probably the best way to answer that question is to consider a situation in which you, as a teacher or a librarian, were asked to recommend a dozen books, with a totally sexual relationship involving either a heterosexual or homosexual young couple, which treat this relationship in a frank and honest way, as much adult fiction does. I know that I would find it difficult to find even half a dozen books which perform this function, at least of those books published in Britain. And yet, and yet . . . of the twenty thousand letters received by the Woman’s Own agony aunt each year, a quarter are from teenagers. Where can these young people read about their problems reflected in fiction? Certainly not in the Sweet Dreams type series with their ‘hot fudge’ mentality.
So who is to blame for this situation? Some publishers have an exemplary track record in publishing taboo-breaking teenage material: many others do not. It is an interesting situation, for instance, when an author changes publishers for books of this type. K.M. Peyton’s Dear Fred is published by Bodley Head and not by Oxford University Press (and is also published as an adult novel when it appears in paperback). Dobson publishes David Rees’ In the Tent (its only indication of a physical homosexual relationship being the sentence ‘his body on top of him’) but not The Milkman’s On His Way which Rees wrote because, he claims, he is
not so old that I have forgotten my own confused, frightened, unhappy, homosexual adolescence. The development of oneself as a sexual being, emotionally and physically, is a major preoccupation – probably THE major preoccupation – of the teenage years. Novels which pretend that this is not so are an insult to everybody.
And when publishers do produce controversial material, there seem to be double standards at work. You can write about a taboo subject but never, never include anything as sordid as details. There are techniques of avoiding details, techniques which were abandoned by adult fiction as long ago as Peyton Place. There is the technique of the sex act taking place before the novel opens or between chapters (e.g. Mia) or the famous Barbara Cartland technique of three dots (Goodnight, Prof. Love). If you must describe the act, do it in as oblique a way as possible, as, for instance, Zindel does in The Girl Who Wanted A Boy:
As his lips touched hers, she knew why she had been born. The last picture in her mind before she fell so totally into his body was that of a great proud lion, a shouting ringmaster. And then came the prancing white horses as the circus came to town.
If you do describe the act, you must ensure that you show the consequences, preferably as dire as possible: for example, abortion either by a professional (Zindel again, in My Darling, My Hamburger) or with gin and a hot bath (It’s My Life). Thus is didacticism still present. When will the teenage book be produced which shows a young couple having a happy satisfying sexual relationship, without the threat of catastrophe?
And if such an object were ever produced, who would buy it? Teachers certainly do not have a good record of recommending material likely to break any barriers. In a recent book, Pat Wynnejones gleefully recounts what happened to Julius Lester’s Basketball Game (a book she describes as ‘malicious’ and ‘salacious’):
This was recently considered as a CSE text by a London school, but dropped by consensus of staff opinion, though it remains in stock available for the youngsters to read.
I have a suspicion that a proportion of teachers are, in fact, delighted that the Sweet Dreams-type book is back in favour. Certainly books like Fifteen and A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else have always been highly regarded and recommended by teachers, far more, in fact, than they have deserved.
These two books have also found favour with librarians. American surveys, such as those by Marjorie Fiske and by Woods and Perry-Holmes, have shown that librarians are not innocent parties in rejecting controversial material. There is no reason why British children’s librarians should be any different from their American counterparts. Search the public library shelves for copies of Judy Blume’s Forever or Aidan Chambers’ Dance On My Grave: can you find any? Bobby Pickering, a gay teacher in London has said
most school libraries have yet to confront the fact that all reference to the existence of the gay community is being rigorously suppressed.
So where are youngsters turning to gain this information? Perhaps as Anne Simpson suggests (July, Books for Keeps), to pornography, (particularly boys) or even to video nasties. The result of this is an undernourishment of teenage books, a reliance on the safe, cosy subject which is likely to sell. Young adults will see books as more and more remote from their lives. Do we really want only those books in which the most dramatic event in a young girl’s life is being invited to the school prom and the most sensual event is ‘like hot fudge’?
We will be returning to this topic in Books for Keeps later this year. Write and tell us what you think.
Better Love Stories
What to offer as an alternative to romantic pulp -fiction? You sent us your suggestions; we did some research ourselves. Susannah Hill is putting it all together in a list which will be available soon. Meanwhile here is a short selection to be going on with.
My Darling Villain
Lynne Reid Banks, Bodley Head (1977) 0 370 11034 X, £3.50. Star (pbk) (1978) 0 352 30269 0, £1.35
Well recommended for its wide appeal (in spite of being strongly middle-class and involving specifically Jewish feelings). Relationships – desirable and otherwise – feelings about love and sex, as well as considerations of other teenage pressures are all realistically described in a complex and sensitive way.
David and Dorothea
Ingeborg Bayer and Hans Georg Noack, Macmillan Topliners (1979), 0 333 26177 1, 85p
One night spent at an international airport while Dorothea waits for her flight and David tries to decide whether to run away or not, is the total length of time that this relationship between two strangers has to develop. Love, feelings about contemporaries and sex, as well as the usual adolescent problems with parents, home and what to do with life are all explored as the couple get to know each other.
The reader needs to be able to cope with action carried mainly in dialogue.
Judy Blume, Gollancz (1976), 0 575 02144 6, £4.95. Star (pbk) (1978), 0 352 30271 2, £1.25
A realistic description of a teenage love affair that involves explicit descriptions of love-making. Falling in love leads to falling out of love as Michael and Kath grow up a little and change. The criticisms frequently levelled at Judy Blume’s style apply here; but this is the most accessible of the few books that deal with sexual relationships in an open way and it is much read and discussed, where it is available.
Aidan Chambers, Bodley Head (1978), 0 370 30122 6, £4.25
A compelling story written as by an adolescent boy exploring ideas about love, sex, family, self and art. It includes a realistic, original and touching description of a first love-making. Sadly the demands the writer makes on the reader mean that it will probably appeal only to the more able. For them it is a book with much to offer.
Dance on My Grave
Aidan Chambers, Bodley Head (1982), 0 370 30366 0, £4.25
A sensitive account of a homosexual relationship. The emotions as well as the physical involvement are delicately handled and problems with the heterosexual world and feelings about death are also explored. A shame, but once again only accessible to the more able reader.
Summer of My German Soldier
Bette Greene, Puffin (1977), 0 14 03.0985 3, £1.50
The love unwanted Patsy feels for an escaped German prisoner is strong enough for her to risk great danger and unhappiness to hide him till he can escape. A tender story which deals with war, prejudice, parental affection – or the lack of it – as well as depicting a poignant relationship between a young girl and a much older man.
What About It, Sharon?
John Harvey, Puffin Plus (1982), 0 14 03.1375 3, £1.10
Sharon’s parents don’t seem to understand their daughter. She feels rejected at home and at school and is particularly vulnerable after being dropped by Mick who prefers the bitchy Debbie. More an after-the-love-affair story than a tale of developing affections. Well worth reading.
M. E. Kerr, Heinemann Ed. (1982), 0 0435 12266 5, £1.75
Buddy is socially out of his depth but is enjoying his relationship with the sophisticate, Skye. The fact that his grandfather is being investigated for his part in wartime atrocities with the SS adds a dimension to the story that lifts the adolescent with all his obsessions, complexes and worries into another, more adult, way of seeing things.
It’s My Life
Robert Leeson, Collins (1980), 0 00 184248 X, Fontana Lions (1981), 0 00 671783 7, £1
When mum leaves without warning it falls to Jan to run the home, look after her younger brother as well as do her exams and try to enjoy some aspects of life. There are no fantasies in this book. Pete puts in an appearance as a boyfriend as long as he can choose how things go, and once he’s had his way he’s off, leaving Jan to cope with a possible pregnancy. The ending offers no easy solutions. Jan with her developing strength and understanding is a welcome change from pulp heroines and the book is extremely popular for its realism.
Julius Lester, Puffin Plus (1983), 0 14 03.1421 0, 85p
A short poignant tale of a friendship between a young, black American boy and his white neighbour, stopped by local prejudice before it can even be called love. Sensitive and subtle explorations of friendship, sex and love written from the point of view of a youngster who doesn’t yet know what `it’ is.
A Proper Little Nooreyeff
Jean Ure, Bodley Head (1982), 0 370 30470 5, £3.50, Puffin Plus (1983), 0 14 03.1614 0,£1.10
Young man accidentally discovers a talent for ballet and is dragooned into using it and strikes up a relationship with a richer girl from a totally different background to his own. Appeal across a limited range: but some excellent touches of humour ready to be enjoyed.
Jacqueline Wilson, Oxford (1982), 0 19 271463 5, £5.95, Fontana Lions (1983), 0 00 672159 1, £1.25
Every girl should go out with a boy who is older, wiser and good-looking. Sandra, however meets a younger, poorer and definitely unhandsome male, and finds a friend. The relationship proves to be more rewarding than that with any other blind date. Will she succumb to teenage pressures or will she appreciate him for himself?
Frank Willmott, Collins (1983), 0 00 184144 4, £5.95, Fontana Lions (1983), 0 00 672107 9, £1.25
A 15 year old Australian boy records in diary form the year his parents’ marriage breaks up. It deserves a place here for its description of the other side of love. The family – liberal school-teacher, child-centred, `open’ relationships – offers a view of another life style for appraisal by the reader.
Nigel Williams, Puffin Plus (1983), 0 14 03.1650 7, £1.50
This bleak, chaotic world of unemployed school leavers is far from the fantasies of most teenagers. In it is a realistic triangle that is all kinds of love and no love at all. The relationships between Johnny, Alan and Stella, through sex, pregnancy and young parenthood are compellingly described. The storyline also includes a corrupt policeman, underworld crime and pop music. This is a description of the land of no hopers and the end is uncompromisingly down beat. 240 pages call for a fair bit of reading stamina: but the TV experience may help.•