We’re often told that the junior schools are doing a grand job but few English teachers at secondary level find their first-year intake consists largely of enthusiastically committed readers, whatever peculiar impressions Schools Council surveys might engender. Poor staffing and inadequate capitation play their part but excessive reliance on reading schemes and a very destructive emphasis on non-fiction can be just as pernicious. Secondary schools are frequently left to `create’ readers at an age when increasing social independence makes it less and less likely that kids will curl up in bed with a book.
Unfortunately, the books required to achieve this end have been in short supply. Most general publishers show little interest in the majority of adolescent readers – witness the Peacock fiasco, the limited appeal of Bodley Head’s New Adult list, Heinemann’s hot-cold attitude to paperback editions of Pyramids – and have made no concerted attempt to create a sizeable U.K. market for teenage fiction. The educational publishers, seeing the gap, have provided most of the books which are useful in these circumstances; Topliners (Macmillan) were followed by Getaways (Nelson) and then Knockouts (Longmans).
Till recently, though, it’s not been easy to boost many kids’ reading ability to the stage where they can whip through such books with ease, for the aim at this level must be to generate a voracious appetite for books – quantity is the important factor. But the last eighteen months have seen the arrival of two important new series which lead up to the `reluctant reader’ imprints quite neatly: Bestsellers (John Murray) and Action Library (Scholastic). Developed with American money, their impact has been enhanced by weight of numbers – thirty titles from Bestellers and around eighty from Scholastic, counting the longer, more difficult Double Action books. Moreover, they’re complementary. Use Bestellers, with their adult characters and broad canvas Adventure stories, for 11 to 12-year-olds, alongside the better British `remedial’ series – Spirals (see later), Checkers (Evans), Hipsters (Benn). The Action books are distinctly teenage in appeal, with their usefulness really beginning amongst the 12+ group.
Original stories, written to specification, these series have fewer restrictions than Hutchinson’s abridgements in Bullseyes (though famous titles help with some kids) even if they can’t achieve the individuality of traditional paperback imprints. Bestellers are more conveniently sized and, at 65p, considerably cheaper than Action books (95p) but the covers and illustrations in Scholastic’s series (mostly photos, some unfortunately a little dated) are well worth the extra. Neither series is quite as easy as the publishers suggest but they’re well within the range of all but the weakest secondary school kids and essential for any self-respecting class library system.
Spirals (Hutchinson) is easily the best British series and they’re amongst the cheapest `remedial’ books available (50p) because they’ve wisely eschewed illustrations. Even better, there’s little trace of the wholesome, often didactic tone which mars most books for slow readers. The ghost/horror/sci-fi stories by Anita Jackson are so well done that they appeal to almost everyone regardless of age or reading ability. (Try The Ear, The Austin Seven and A Game of Life or Death.) And they link well with Jan Carew’s excellent short stories in Save the Last Dance for Me and more recent novella The Cat People in Knockouts.
Lack of suitable material has unfortunately restricted Spirals’ growth (two new titles just out!) but Knockouts, with a wider brief, can’t blame their patchy standard on similar difficulties. Leaving aside their poor design, you must still say `Could do much better’ when you examine their titles. The short stories are best – Janet Green’s three Six books and Love at a Bus Stop, Joan Tate’s See You and John Griffin’s Behind the Goal (though Notts Forest’s 77/78 season seems ages ago now) plus George Layton’s read-aloud for younger kids, The Balaclava Story. Some other titles go with a bit of help (Joan Tate, Margaret Loxton, Geraldine Kaye) but it’s a case of a limited success here and there rather than the inspiration of large scale enthusiasm. Ditto for Getaways (Nelson). They might look better than Knockouts but, beyond some short story collections (possibles for class use) and the splendid little romance Jodie (Mary Hooper) which shouldn’t be missed, they don’t offer much of real use. In conjunction with Topliners, though, it’s usually possible to keep most kids ticking over.
But how do they develop the stamina and linguistic experience needed to move into the more varied, more demanding, more rewarding mainstream fiction? Well, in general, they don’t. Recently Rosemary Sandberg, Fontana Lions‘ editor, described how she was `appalled lest older children were sticking with Mr Fleming and Mr Maclean, lest lasting stories did not have a place at that moment in their lives.’ (Teenage Reading, Ward Lock, edited by Peter Kennerley.) But there are few signs of serious and accessible teenage fiction becoming available in bulk. Despite one or two excellent titles (e.g. The Doubting Kind – Alison Prince) Macmillan have bungled Topliner Redstars, and Peacocks have probably been discredited for ever with booksellers; a new identity is needed for Penguin’s popular teenage stuff. Some `bridging’ books do appear (e.g. Lions have Hinton, Zindel and Dhondy) and we could make more use of things from the adult lists – obvious examples are the Pan/Fontana Horror Stories, Arrow’s Scully (Bleasdale) and For the Love of Ann (Copeland and Hodges), Corgi’s anonymous Go Ask Alice plus, culled from teenage hardbacks, Judy Blume’s Forever … and Lynne Reid Banks’ My Darling Villain, both Star; we’d inevitably find more if we read widely enough. (Chris Kloet’s A – Z in Teenage Reading is a big help; ask the library for it.) Even lists like Piccolo (Judy Blume), Magnet (Anne Fine), Hippo (Betsy Byars) and Puffin (Beverly Cleary’s evergreen Fifteen, Joan Lingard and Lucy Rees) can offer the odd life-belt. But as yet this represents only a fraction of the hardback publishers’ generally dreary output. Unless there’s a revolution in those cobwebbed bastions of Tradition, it looks like we’ll have to wait till the Americans move in to save us yet again.