Stephanie Nettell takes her pick of recent Teenage Fiction
A renewed bleat has arisen that girls are getting a raw deal in subject matter and role models, but surely, if anything, it’s boys who are being left out. Three of my titles are uninhibitedly ‘girl’s reading’; they share age-old ‘girl’ themes – mother-daughter relationships, first love, and rebellion-hut in the toughly honest, physically raw manner of today, and two extend their compassion to a stage in a woman’s life rarely explored in earlier death.
Fiction can help readers cope with their own troubles, or better understand other people’s. Rosemary Harris’s Ticket to Freedom (Faber, 0 571 116313 0. £8.99) is in the latter class – her Lallie, on probation and in therapy for compulsive stealing, loathed by her Dad’s new woman and beaten by both, is a dreamer of dreams and as bright as a button, but she is unlikely to read as dense a story, quick-cutting and savagely characterised, as the one she herself tells. Life has been unkind to Lallie. who hungers for love, and she reckons it’s time to look out for number one, but the affectionate concern that grows from her duty-visits to an old lady signals her budding awareness that freedom from responsibility might prove a lonely prison. Despite its gritty detail, this larger-than-life book is too bountiful in sub-plots, symbolic characters and events to be entirely believable-but it’s wonderfully cockle-warming and alive.
The Dream Palace (Oxford, 0 19 271677 8, £8.95) scores in both categories. Curiously enough, Jacqueline Wilson’s young narrator is called Lolly: she has a humbling stepfather she despises; and she too discovers an unexpected tenderness overtaking the revulsion that had engulfed her when the YTS substituted an old people’s home for the promised nursery. Again, like Lallie, site yearns to escape from herself, moulding an unexpected hippy boyfriend and the dim memory of her Dad to fit her dreams. Here is an engrossingly convincing view of everyday sordidness, brilliantly conveyed through the naivety and simple reporting (mostly in uncannily accurate dialogue) of an ingenuous school-leaver to whom life is about to give a nasty surprise.
Like most teenage novels, it’s about discovering maturity, but more – it’s a book about love: how it can be warped, lost, imagined or not recognised, how it can blossom in strange places, how it’s the only thing that matters. Love between Lolly’s hurt, exasperated mother and her pot-bellied husband; between Lolly and the helpless, fat old woman whose body had once so repelled her; and most of all, that intense love between girls, which, against all odds, endures between Lolly and her best friend.
The young reader sees there’s a mutual emotional need between Lolly and her rebel drop-out boyfriend but no love, while, beneath all the rage and rejection, there remains a bond of love with her mother.
Whether describing Lolly’s boring little seaside town or a runaways’ squat in London’s seedy underside, Jacqueline Wilson unerringly hits her target readership with energy., compassion and humour. Self-effacing-we picture only Lolly, never Wilson – her story shocks, entertains, moves and instructs: teenage reading at its most skilful.
The mother v daughter battle is put under a magnifying glass by Yvonne Coppard, helped by Ros Asquith’s sharp but affectionate cartoons, in a book whose title (a speech bubble) says it all: Not dressed like that, you don’t! (Piccadilly, 185340 156 0, £8.95; 1 85340 186 2, £4.95 pbk). Like all the best ideas, it is utterly straightforward – a year from the diaries of a 15-year-old and her mother. Astute and unpretentious, its tongue-in-cheek contrasts make palatable its helpful little message: mums have worries of their own, mums can remember what it’s like, and mums do care.
Two challenging novels demand as much as they reward-stimulating and provocative for the right readership, frustratingly off-putting for the wrong. The central characters of Johnny, My Friend, a Swedish prizewinner set in the Stockholm of the fifties, by Peter Pohl, translated by Laurie Thompson (Turton & Chambers, 1872148 70 0, £8.95). are around twelve, but the hook is discursively long and tantalising mysterious-who is young Johnny, adored that summer to the point of idolatry by the now-older narrator, and what has happened to him? At first I felt bogged down, skipping to get on with it, and irritatedly puzzled, but its haunting tragedy propelled me into a second reading that captured my heart and lingered in my mind.
A novel to ponder on is another Parcel of Patterns tour-de-force from Jill Paton Walsh – this time, Grace Darling giving her own account of that famous rescue and the bitter aftermath among the community of North Sunderland: Grace (Viking, 0 670 83820 9, £8.99). Its calm flow and spiritual gentleness make it hard to resist the temptation to describe it as full of grace; certainly, its total empathy provides a fine piece of social history. But the eerily perfect 1830s style, quiet pace (reining in a turmoil of emotions as great as any storm) and long passages of unbroken narrative may well demand an older. more experienced readership, one willing to stop and savour.
For the youngest teens, two subtly delicate novels that still offer rattling good stories: Along a Lonely Road, by Catherine Sefton (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13136 7, £8.99), is a short thriller, told with beautiful simplicity through the eyes of the eldest girl, about the emotions of a remote rural family held hostage by criminals, while Ann Phillips provides gentle frisson in A Haunted Year (Oxford, 0 19 271650 6, £8.95), exploring themes of friendship and family life in a 1910 story about a maliciously tenacious ghost.