David Bennett chats to teenagers about their reading habits and preferences.
First let’s dispel the myth that teenagers don’t read. Of course they read; the wide curriculum ensures there’s plenty of that, but when there’s a choice they don’t reach for the literature that National Curriculum supremos would like them to experience as part of ‘The Canon’. Here’s where potential, major conflict emerges. Frequently a reading teenager will ask me, ‘Why can’t we do such-and-such a book as a class reader?’ The answer so often boils down to the fact that the suggested title is relative candyfloss and so we would soon run out of things to say about it and assignments to write on it. We teach the ‘canonised worthies’ because they give us something to go at in the classroom, but in the process we can be giving the message that our stuff is the good stuff and their stuff is best kept under wraps. The knack is getting across the notion that both deserve equal weight but for different reasons and purposes. Pupils should never feel they need to apologise for their choice of reading material any more than we need to apologise for teaching from ‘The Canon’.
Parents and relatives often exude the same subliminal message; they buy wholesome ‘classics’ as presents. Many don’t get read so the adults become disappointed and their offspring are made to feel they’re ungrateful and letting the grown-ups down. One girl told me, ‘My mum buys me the books she read at school and now wants me to read them so I’ll end up better than her. She doesn’t seem to realise that books written for teenagers are so much better now.’
Another 14-year-old complained that her grandma was still buying her Christmas annuals every year!
To encourage reading adults would be far better off asking the kids what books they want and then insisting on an answer before marching along to the bookshop, preferably with teenager in tow. My spies tell me tokens get swapped or exchanged for cash, so that’s not always the ideal cop-out for adults wishing to foster teenage readers.
Recommendation from peers or teachers it seems is a big factor in what draws individuals to certain books. Written reviews and prize-giving panels of judges barely figure in my discussions with students; evidently word of mouth mainly leads them to books. I have advocated for a long while that one of the reading skills is choosing what to read. I bet there aren’t many of us who can say, hand on heart, that we teach this. Could it be that one of the problems youngsters face is that there’s so much to choose from they don’t know where to start and consequently give up or look for easy, undemanding options? Are they advised on how they might go about making choices? And, if so, how often is that advice reinforced? For many, using a library properly, cracking its codes and penetrating its secrets is a forbidding prospect. For would-be readers, reducing choice to a carefully selected pile or booklist is a big favour.
One extremely interesting incidence of pupil meeting book was the girl who passed through our resources centre and spotted the book Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. Now ‘The Cure’ have a release of the same name so our avid Cure fan borrowed the book, read it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Nowadays, TV and films play a big part in youngsters’ lives. You’re more likely to hear ‘I saw a film’ in schoolyard conversation than ‘I read a book’. However, the media, far from killing reading, actually encourage it. Young people read the books of the series or film. One lad read all of Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones because he’d missed a few episodes during the serialisation. Books like Mr Bean’s Secret Diary, Sean’s Book, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and Monty Python and the Holy Grail owe their popularity to goggle-box watching, just like Adrian Mole a few years ago. I seldom have trouble ‘selling’ a book recently filmed or televised and some of the most astutely critical book talk emerges when pupils have encountered both book and film. They nearly always prefer the former.
Another curious side to this comes from the girl who told me she really prefers books to films because she doesn’t like the director doing all the visualising for her with camera shots and locations, etc. ‘You can make up your own pictures of what’s happening, rather than what TV shows you is happening.’ There’s a roundabout way of television encouraging reading!
Mainly boys, I must say it, seem to have difficulty keeping up a reading interest. It’s now suggested male under-achievement begins very early and is related to boys’ poor reading skills and low levels of concentration as compared to girls. Classes I’ve spoken to about this are of the opinion that boys bend under peer-group pressure not to be seen doing anything so ‘swotty’ as enjoying a good book and definitely not to admit to it if they do like reading.
Then there are lads like Jamie, the sort of kid who wriggles all lesson. What he really needs is to be let out for a run every hour, a bit like a puppy. He explained to me that the reason why he doesn’t read is because ‘it’s a sitting-down sort of a thing and there are things happening around me that I want to be part of and join in.’ Sounds reasonable to me.
My classes also feel that the prevailing attitudes of adults is significant. They suggest girls read more than boys simply because their parents tend to allow them to roam less and so they pick up a book.
Girls can be far more reflective about their reading as a rule; they seem to know exactly why they do it and what it does for them. Escape reading figures strongly – ‘Reading a book helps you relax and go into someone else’s world, forgetting your own problems, especially when you’re upset.’
So, as recent concern about under-developed male potential suggests, whilst boys are out and about male-bonding with their bucko mates, many girls are applying themselves to study and getting their emotional charge from a good read.
From my discussions it’s obvious girls are able to internalise their emotional reactions to texts and willingly appreciate that a book can allow the reader to witness other people’s experiences second-hand. The Diary of Anne Frank nearly always gets referred to here. Pete Johnson’s novels also seem to be appreciated for the way the reader is drawn to empathise with the characters. We, the Haunted is one title that enjoys plenty of recommendations. Then Jane Eyre often comes into the frame – ‘The loneliness at the begining made me so upset I had to read on.’
Losing David by Elida Young in the ‘Sweet Goodbyes’ series ‘made me cry out of sympathy and because I know someone who has cancer’, and Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty ‘made me think hard about what having a baby means’.
More than once I’ve been told that a certain book has enabled someone to understand how friends are feeling and then to set about helping them. It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume was singled out recently. This writer nearly always gets the highest accolades – ‘It’s like another teenager telling you. Her books help you with problems’, and ‘Blubber made me realise that personalities are more important than looks’.
Yet, Forever doesn’t get total approval. ‘The gorey sex bits put me off the book. I don’t want to read what everyone else is up to.’
In the same group of Year 10 pupils, one lass had recently finished Polo by Jilly Cooper and was waiting for her mother to finish and pass on another by the same author!
Where teenagers are concerned, you definitely can’t always rely on serial reading to keep the pages turning. After the first flush of enthusiasm and roughly three or four titles, the novelty generally wears off in favour of alternatives. Teenagers like having series exclusively for their own use, but do not seem to be conscientiously faithful to them.
Sex and romance often get a lukewarm response nowadays. My young ladies equate it with the Catherine Cookson their grannies read and attempt to pass on. It’s read by early teens maybe but the older ones rate it as ‘sloppy and boring’. At the grand old age of 15 my girls gave ‘Sweet Valley High’ a resounding thumbs-down. Is it because the media has broken down virtually all the previous taboos about sex by its incessant coverage and so youngsters see it as tediously everyday when introduced into teenage novels?
Horror, however, is in the ascendant with both sexes. ‘Horror’s good because you know it can’t come true and everything is unbelievable, but it lets your imagination flow’ and ‘You can escape into horror because you know it’s not really real’. Second-hand scariness is much appreciated in books like the ‘Point Horror’ titles, ‘because they show bad situations that you could get yourself into. Sometimes they’re better if someone gets killed. Then it’s more believable.’ The Window by Diane Hoh and The Snowman by R L Stine are particularly recommended.
Predictably, James Herbert is frequently cited for good horror reading. Pet Cemetery, The Magic Cottage and Carrie are widely read. One boy made a very revealing comment about The Rats. He told me that when he read about the death of the baby he felt awful for weeks – awful for having read it, not about it! Who says lads have no sensitivity to what they read?
It was a boy who gave some clear insight into his reading of fantasy, which is often more of a male domain. He’d read Lord of the Rings and thereafter felt depressed for six months because he’d ‘lost that world’. The same lad admired the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, ‘not because they’re scarey but because you want to know what happens. It’s an interesting, other fantasy world where you meet lots of other creatures and it’s different.’
Hobbies and pastimes spawn much teenage reading. One pupil told me his sole reading material ever is Yachts and Yachting, but later confessed to the sports pages of the local paper. Newspapers are usually read for their sports sections, horoscopes, problem pages and music reviews.
A boom area lately for boys seems to be computer mags. I suppose here is where books meet the technological revolution and there might appear to be conflict. But when you talk to young people about what they want these mags for, it’s not the all-things-bright-and-technical-new-gadgetry they’re after, it’s acquiring details of the latest fantasy games – in effect the creative, imaginative application of the technology. Let’s hope there’s a natural progression to CD-Rom fiction books.
I’ve noticed pupils seem to be considering more picture books and poetry lately. One bright girl told me she felt she has a better appreciation of books like Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp now she’s older, especially the details in the illustrations. Meg and Mog, Mister Men, Beatrix Potter are enjoyed more now, although for reasons of street-cred this is not widely known.
Naturally, anything by Dahl comes into the same category. ‘I go back to Roald Dahls when I’m bored. I reckon I see more in them now I’m older and they always make me smile.’
As for poetry there’s something to be said for dipping in a toe and then leaving the water. You can do that with poetry; it’s not easy to do with novels without feeling you’ve left something incomplete. Even non-reading boys are willing to have a quick poetry browse provided they’re given the right encouragement, which generally means comic and humorous material.
And that brings me to Mike Rosen. His collections always seem to jiggle a funny bone and if they don’t work with youngsters then nothing will. Even my Yachts and Yachting man warmed to him.
This article is based in part on a Treasure Islands programme which was transmitted on BBC Radio 4 on 27th April 1994.
David Bennett is a regular reviewer for BfK. He is Senior Teacher responsible for the English Faculty and resources management in a Nottinghamshire grant-maintained school.