With the rapid increase in ‘teenage imprints’ and many publishers claiming the active involvement of young readers in the selection and packaging of titles, we decided it was time to do some road testing ourselves.
We picked two schools – one in the north, one in the south – and gave each the same selection of titles from six publishers’ series.
Pat Triggs reports on what happened.
We set out to try to discover how well these specially conceived and designed series were meeting the reading needs of the 14 and 15 year olds we offered them to, how their teachers reacted to the books, which titles might be considered for library or classroom use with GCSE in mind.
We selected our schools carefully. What they have in common is Heads of English – Val Randall in the north, Adrian Jackson in the south – who are enthusiastic and well informed about literature including ‘teenage books’. In other respects the schools are very different.
Val writes: Our valley is in North East Lancashire in the heart of beautiful Pennine countryside, not far from the North Yorkshire border and with easy access to the lakes. The school is in a small cotton town, flanked by other towns of a similar size; these, with a considerable number of rural villages and farms, make up our catchment area. People tend to be parochial and inward-looking; a trip to Manchester is a rare occasion. On the other hand for some families foreign travel is a regular occurrence.
We have about 700 pupils of whom approximately 15% are Asian, some with English as a second language. We have our share of social problems but we have a reputation as a ‘caring’ school which achieves good exam results in English and in other subjects. The children are generally well-motivated but not sophisticated or streetwise, though they are often interested in current trends in fashion and music. Parental influence still holds considerable sway and there is a deal of adherence to traditional values – change is sometimes resisted. Tastes are usually quite conservative, though we do have a small number of adventurous souls and ‘rebels’.
Adrian says: Our school is in a prosperous area of a prosperous city. The University, the posh shops (including bookshops) are within easy walking distance. The school was once a boys’ grammar school; it has long since adjusted to being co-educational but remains ‘selective’. The intake in fact is reasonably ‘comprehensive’ but none of the 1,000 children on roll has severe learning difficulties. The catchment area is the immediate vicinity – mostly Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian houses with some between-the-wars infill and, slightly farther off, a swathe of leafy inner suburbs. The children are mainly white and middle-class (few pupils are from ethnic minorities although the city is multi-racial); there is a significant proportion of single parent families living close to school in flats in converted Victorian villas.
In general our pupils are articulate, sophisticated city kids who see themselves as streetwise and are sensitive to image and group identity. They are well-motivated and exam-oriented. Their families have fairly traditional expectations for them educationally but many are prepared to accommodate unconventional attitudes and espouse liberal, even progressive, values.
WHO READ THE BOOKS? HOW DID WE FIND OUT WHAT THE READERS THOUGHT?
Val: I made the books available to two of my classes – a ‘top set’ 5th year and a ‘top set’ 4th year. They were free to choose to read them or not. They talked about the books; I suggested they might like to record their feelings on paper. Many did.
Adrian: Another teacher and I took the books into two 4th-year mixed ability GCSE classes. I explained how we had got them, mentioned the issue of ‘books for teenagers and asked for personal responses. I spread the books over some desks. The pupils were working on their own newspapers but most broke off to look at them – many were like locusts. As usual the majority were girls but some boys took books away. Over the next few weeks in both classes books were brought back, swapped and talked over, mostly informally. There were strong reactions for and against; favourites were pressed on to friends to read. I listened and talked over books with pupils. I asked for written comments where possible.
WHAT DID WE DISCOVER?
Adrian Jackson’s comment sums up neatly.
‘In retrospect there were few duds and for every negative reaction the same book nearly always gained a positive reaction from another reader. It’s clear the books we had cover a very wide spread of readers and these 14-year-olds were only a slice of the potential readership.’
Our readers reacted very much as individuals, and their comments and writing about the books revealed as much about themselves as readers as it did about the books. North or South, urban or rural, naive or street-wise: these, surprisingly, seemed not to be significant in determining response. Readers from both schools were in agreement about several titles, often making very similar comments – a similarity arising from how experienced they were as readers, rather than any other factors.
‘Believable’ was the word most frequently called on to commend story and characters. A shared reference or point of view was valued. ‘I could easily identify, with some characters because I had been in the situation they were in,’ wrote one girl of the short story collection A Girl’s Best Friend. She added: ‘l also realised situations that people of different cultures are faced with’ – an additional perspective that not all were ready to take on.
‘As soon as anybody sees the book being linked with History they immediately put it down,’ wrote one of Val’s pupils of Masque for a Queen, echoing a sadly stereotyped reaction to historical fiction. A Breath of Fresh Air, Geraldine Kaye’s time-ship fantasy about the slave trade, evoked a powerful response in only one reader, an Asian girl: ‘There is a strong feeling at the end when the main character discovers her roots and learns to accept and respect the fact that she is half African, thus proving to the reader that she has become a stronger individual.’ Adrian ‘couldn’t get anyone to take it on for themselves’ in spite of its local connections. Readers prepared to take on challenging themes reacted differently to style and treatment. Rhodri Jones’ study of the nature of love, including homosexual love, was for one reader ‘thought-provoking, but not a good story – tedious to read in some places’ and for another ‘a sensitive topic explained in a very tactful way… easy to understand’.
Another recurring criticism was of lack of depth and lack of detail in dealing with situations, characters and their motivation. Depending on the reader this seems to arise either from a need for more spelling out – ‘there wasn’t enough description so you didn’t get a clear picture of the story’ (Zak); ‘the emotions of the characters are not conveyed clearly enough’ (A Girl’s Best Friend) – or from a desire for more complexity or subtlety – ‘I didn’t think the issues were explained fully enough, or why things happened’ (Nick’s October).
The problems presented to some inexperienced readers were clear: ‘Too many characters which was very confusing’ (Masque for a Queen); ‘there were hundreds of names pushed at you’ (Zak); ‘the story drifted on’ (Masque for a Queen); ‘there was not much action’ (Star Lord). Worth remarking though is the ability of readers to ignore stylistic obstacles where other things are accessible. A girl who in some ways found Zak a problem pronounced it ‘really good. The characters were really believable in the way they said things and by the way they reacted.’ Others, as the comments on The Grasshopper and Time Rope 1 reveal, are willing to take on challenging narrative forms. Frequently their ‘readings’ point to genuine flaws and weaknesses in the writing.
Val reported: About two thirds would welcome lively covers and a logo which would help to identify a book likely to appeal to them. One third were strongly opposed. Publishers they felt were uninformed about their needs and preferences and so a ‘teen’ label would mean that the books were condescending.
Of the individual series Corgi Freeway appeared most internally consistent – ‘all were read quickly and mostly enjoyed.’ The Ghosts of Now got very positively reviewed by both schools. The Freeway logo seems like a reliable guide to a quick enjoyable read. And perhaps, in Time Rope I and The Fat Girl, something to grow on. ‘The Fat Girl had its moments,’ commented Adrian. ‘I would like to see what boys make of it.’
Methuen Teens were for Adrian, ‘a strange grouping’. ‘The Changeover, a very good book, was an obvious success. One boy and one girl who tried Fire and Hemlock found it hard going and gave it up. It’s difficult because it starts as a young person’s fantasy and increases in complexity as Polly grows up. I really enjoyed it. I think it might be a very, very good book but I’m still perplexed by the ending. The photographic cover on Nick’s October sent all the wrong messages to our 4th-years. He wasn’t anyone they wanted to be associated with! Quite the wrong “style”. No-one in my group would touch it – though it did get read eventually. The Teenagers’ Handbook was one of those books which the readers saw through in that refreshing way they have. Badger was firmly relegated to 9-12s.’ So Methuen didn’t score well on series consistency – but perhaps that’s not what they are aiming to create?
Bodley Head, Deutsch, Women’s Press and Virago were perceived, by the teachers, as attempting something different. ‘The Adlib series caught the voice of an older age-group than Freeways or Teens and there is somehow a sense of the writers wanting to make you believe something.’
Livewire and Virago titles provoked interesting responses. One of Val’s pupils gave up on Caught! – the story of a ten-year-old girl and a 38-year-old man united in a passion for pigeon racing – for her it was ‘a bit stupid, more suitable for younger teenagers’. Val, by contrast, chose it as one of her favourites: ‘I really liked it.’
Similarly, a girl at Adrian’s school failed to get into Over the Water. But he will ‘try to find someone to persevere with it. It’s worth it.’ Skirmish – a science fiction adventure with a female ace space-pilot – made a big impact on Darren (not known for his enthusiasm for reading). He produced a long, carefully typed review which concluded: ‘This story is a must … it is superbly written and is entertaining not confusing … If Melissa Michaels keeps writing stories of this degree she’ll go a long way. KEEP IT UP MELISSA!’
GAPS AND BRIDGES
Val reported her pupils as wanting ‘less romance but more sensitive exploration of the problems raised by sex and the differing attitudes to it of girls and boys; more genuinely witty writing – a strong feeling here that they felt insulted by “silly” humour; fiction about war; fiction dealing with modern issues (this from a minority).’
Adrian suggested: ‘These books between them satisfy the appetites of a very wide range of readers, providing bridges for many of them between earlier, comfortable reads and between themselves and the world around.’
There is clearly a place in the years running up to GCSE for books which provide opportunities for growth, allow and encourage readers to make emotional leaps and reading leaps. Much of the current wave of publishing for teenagers has a role here. Can the publishers feed it well’? Are there enough readers to make it worthwhile? As always, getting books and readers together is the challenge.
Adrian plans to continue with varied collections like these as an informal feature of English lessons – the insight into pupils as developing readers has been invaluable. Also it seems that the reluctant male reader may be not such an intractable figure as we had thought. Is there a place too for titles like some of these as GCSE texts’? With support from teachers and other pupils, readers could well have coped better with some of the more challenging titles here. Writing about the play collection Dead Proud, one wrote of her inability to get to grips with them ‘straight from the book’. ‘I think if the plays were read into a lot more…’ she goes on, suggesting a helpful process for novels as well as plays.
Both Adrian and Val are enthusiastic about GCSE syllabuses that allow for wider reading. But for them (and others) it’s problematic. Is there such a thing as an 0 Level text? What sort of ‘teenage book’ would count’? And there’s no money to buy books. ‘Anything over £3 is out of the question. New Windmill reprints in hardback will inevitably get preference over Bodley Head Originals at £4.50 however good they are.’ Teachers who incline towards class sets ‘are bound to fall back on the old chestnuts in the store cupboard’.
Wider reading also means teachers have to improve their knowledge of current literature – teenage and adult. ‘Otherwise they have no idea what to demand, or order if money should come their way.’ Many will ‘take refuge in the relative safety of Syllabus A or dabble in literature through the requirements of the new English course.’
Wider reading has much to offer to the developing reader – especially one who has been developing steadily on a variety of texts since pre-school days. Well managed, teenage books like those investigated here have a useful part to play in a complex and fascinating process.
CORGI FREEWAY (£1.95 each)
The Ghosts of Now, Joan Lowery Nixon, 0 552 52371 2
Time Rope 1, Robert Leeson, 0 552 52344 5
Zak, Frances Thomas, 0 552 52362 3
The Fat Girl, Marilyn Sachs, 0 552 52406 9
METHUEN TEENS (£1.95 each)
I’m Not Your Other Half, Caroline B Cooney, 0 416 06242 3
Nick’s October, Alison Prince, 0 416 06252 0
Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones, 0 416 04022 5
Badger, Anthony Masters, 0 416 06262 8
Haunted, Judith St George, 0 416 06232 6
The Teenagers’ Handbook (A Guide to Good Times), Peter Murphy and Kitty Grime, 0 416 08082 0
The Changeover, Margaret Mahy, 0 416 08822 8
Masque for a Queen, Moira Miller, 0 416 07292 5
The Grasshopper, John Gordon, 0 370 31159 0, £4.95
Star Lord, Louise Lawrence, 0 370 31153 I , £4.50
The Amazing and Death-Defying Diary of Eugene Dingman, Paul Zindel, 0 370 31128 0, £4.50
Fat: A Love Story, Barbara Wersba, 0 370 31103 5, £4.50
DEUTSCH ADLIB (£3.50 each)
Fanfare for a Teenage Warrior in Love, Terry Edge, 0 233 98080 6
Accidents Will Happen, Andy Tricker, 0 233 98095 4
Catch You on the Flip Side, Pete Johnson, 0 233 98074 1
Different Friends, Rhodri Jones, 0 233 98096 2
A Breath of Fresh Air, Geraldine Kaye, 0 233 98163 2
WOMEN’S PRESS LIVEWIRE
Dead Proud, ed. Ann Considine and Robyn Slovo, 0 7043 4908 6, £2.95
Skirmish, Melissa Michaels, 0 7043 4906 X, £3.50
A Girl’s Best Friend, ed. Christina Dunhill, 0 7043 4907 8, £2.95
Over the Water, Maude Casey, 0 7043 4905 1, £2.95
Caught!, Jane Schwartz, 0 86068 949 2, £3.50
WHAT THE TEENAGE READERS THOUGHT
BODLEY HEAD ORIGINALS
Star Lord by Louise Lawrence
I didn’t finish the book because I found it boring. The build-up is too long and the storyline is very basic and pretty slow.
It seemed to jump around from one topic to another. There was not much action; it was mostly talking. It was quite convincing and the characters are believable. Louise Lawrence could have improved the character of Erlich (the alien) – made him a bit more realistic.
The Grasshopper by John Gordon
It has six parts; each part has a different main feature, as if they had been stories on their own. It was difficult to piece together a simple plot. The first time I read it it was more than a little confusing but the second time I understood a few more twists and turns. Overall I enjoyed it.
Every few pages it jumped about to somewhere else the book never gets exciting so it doesn’t make you that you do not want to put it down. The characters are not explained-who they are – you see them on the surface and never get to know them underneath – some characters never had anything particularly to do. The book doesn’t appeal to me at all because it never gets going; there is no real plot to it and it ends as though there should be more.
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy
I really enjoyed this book and I think many other teenagers would too. It is a really good story and certainly different from any other book I’ve read.
I like this book. I thought it was really good. I’ve never been a great one for supernatural stories but I really enjoyed this. It had part of a love story but that just seemed like a background; it wasn’t too soppy or like the typical American Sweet Dreams thing. When I read the first few pages it looked as if it was going to be the usual teenage book about divorced parents etc! It got steadily better and turned out to be a totally original idea. I’ve never read anything like it before.
Badger by Anthony Masters
To read this book you have to be a determined reader and one not heavily into teenage love stories. It’s ‘animals’ rights’ which is a good thing; you have to appreciate that it is meant to be true to life, so there’s not much action it’s pretty corny in places as well. I’d recommend it for 9-12 year olds – after about that age you don’t really read books like this any more.
It has a very simple plot; you didn’t feel as if you were part of the story; there were no strong points even when the badgers were being killed. This book won’t appeal to teenagers – unless you are a badger lover. I was distracted very easily when reading it.
This is a book for animal lovers. I didn’t feel involved with the story and it didn’t promote any feelings. The book was written so the reader would feel on the badgers’ side – but I didn’t so I couldn’t really enjoy the book.
The Teenagers’ Handbook by Peter Murphy and Kitty Grime
If I had seen this book on a shop’s shelf I wouldn’t have bought it, and now I’ve read it I wouldn’t read it again.
The blurb makes the book sound brighter than it actually is.
The most interesting section was the one about bedrooms and how to make it ‘you’ – but how many parents would let their children repaint their bedroom in rainbow stripes’?
They try to use all these young trendy words and they fail miserably. In one part they tell you how to decorate your bedroom; your parents would have to be mad to let you totally destroy your bedroom into the things they suggest.
Knowing Peter Murphy I thought he could produce something worthwhile and interesting but no! I don’t see how a middle-aged man can possibly have the gall to think he has the insight of a teenager. Patronising. No more books like this please.
I’m Not Your Other Half by Caroline B Cooney
I liked Fraser – she seemed very friendly. The ending was really predictable… it was too ‘Mills and Boon… it lacked imagination and originality.
I didn’t really enjoy this book… there wasn’t really much storyline – unless you like romances this book really isn’t for you.
The cover made it look as if it was going to be an easy read – like a Sweet Dreams romance, or the kind of book you read when you are ill. It started really well but then it went on the same for a long time with Fraser vacillating -‘Shall I keep him, or dump him?’ I suppose if a character in a book can get on my nerves that much it must mean the writer has brought her to life well. It was disappointing. Not as corny as the cover suggested – but not much of anything else either.
The Fat Girl by Marilyn Sachs
I found it very compulsive and managed to read it in a day. I had a good time reading it. It’s an original book with good ideas. I thought the characters could have been deeper.
It was a bit too obvious that Ellen wasn’t going to wear the gold caftan – so obvious that the effect on Jeff was lost. If it had been subtler I could have experienced the same shock and repulsion he had. As it was it was a bit undramatic.
The only bad thing about the book is the way that Jeff assumed that Ellen should be his all the time. I think that the point of men wanting to dominate women is very realistic. An enjoyable read.
The Ghosts of Now by Joan Lowery Nixon
I enjoyed reading this because of the suspense and the element of mystery. It also helps the readers to be more aware of the difficulties young people feel when they have to move homes and start life from a fresh point. It covers many aspects of teenage life in today’s world. However it’s fairly easy to guess the climax.
A superb book – a mixture of ghosts, romance, school and family. It’s written through the eyes of a teenage girl in a position that’s adventurous but frightening; it’s easy to understand how she feels. It’s rather like a detective story – not until the end do all the pieces fit together. The ending was certainly not like I expected and it had a moral about families. Like all good books it had a happy ending.
The title is rubbish because it makes you think it’s going to be scary but it’s not. Although the beginning is a bit slow, once it gets going it’s quite good.
It made me want to read on and on. On one night I read 123 pages and the only thing that stopped me was I was so sleepy. It’s got an awful cover.
Time Rope 1 by Robert Leeson
I never knew exactly what was going on; it was as if I had started reading the book in the middle – without knowing any of the characters – who they were and what they were doing there. I didn’t really understand the experiment and it seemed as if the author had rushed explaining it, to keep the book short. I think that is a shame as it spoilt what might have been a brilliant book. I thought the events when people went back in time were the best part of the book. They were really stories in their own right and I would love to know what happens next in them. I hope the books in the rest of the series make the whole thing a bit clearer and combine with the stories of the past.
The characters in this book are built up very well to give them all varied and individual personalities. The book seemed to cover three different stories that were only made into one at the beginning and the end of the book. Fortunately though the stories were very good and I enjoyed them. It’s an interesting book without having lots of outrageous violence, sex and obscenities covering every page.
Different Friends by Rhodri Jones
Well written, good ideas, thought-provoking. But not a good story – tedious to read in some places. I found reading it was an effort not a pleasure.
The best thing about the book was the way all the characters were shown and how they changed. Chris’s (he tells the story) analysis of love was done really well. I think all the characters and the situation are convincing. The book has a homosexual, a violent father, a criminal, racism and a weak mother. It sounds too much to go into one book but the author managed wonderfully to combine all these. After reading this book I realised the difficulties of being a homosexual. The things that they have to fight against. I wanted to know a bit more about Azhar’s family. Why was his father so violent? Why was it his mother that came out worst in his tempers? I enjoyed the book mainly because the author tried to grasp a very sensitive topic like homosexuality, and love, and explained it in a very tactful way. His style of writing was easy to understand.
Accidents Will Happen by Andy Tricker
The book helps you to appreciate what a good job the doctors and nurses do and how hard it must be for someone in Andy’s place. All in all it was a very good book which I have no criticisms of. I thought this book was excellent. The author made this interesting reading because he put all his emotions down.
Catch You on the Flip Side by Pete Johnson
I liked this one because it’s funny. It has a good beginning and ending and it kept up the excitement – although he was a bit of a poser.
I very much liked the style – it was as if he was talking to You. I like the way, although it was an account of what had happened to him, it started and finished with what was happening. Although I felt parts of it were a hit unrealistic (too many parties), I enjoyed reading it.
An enjoyable book about a boy who is a real poser. I found the story amusing and did not want to put it down because it was very realistic and the characters were good. It’s funny in a true-to-life manner.