At last, a real chance to do something about teenage reading. Steve Bowles welcomes the new Pan Horizons series.
Some things about teenage reading are all too predictable. Many kids (boys, mostly) read very little, if anything, and while many girls read a lot, they tend to stick with series like Couples, Sweet Valley High, Heartlines and Sweet Dreams. That may be an essential stage in their reading development but for far too many it remains the end of the journey. Successes tend to be isolated and intermittent. Publishers support the worthy heavies (Brother in the Land, Talking in Whispers) and occasionally an odd title arrives which promises to be useful (e.g. Biker by Jon Hardy, Puffin Plus) but the most glaring indictment of all those concerned with teenage reading (teachers, librarians, booksellers and publishers) is that My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) and That Was Then, This Is Now (1971) are still unsurpassed as class readers.
1986, however, saw by far the most positive move in teenage fiction that I can recall. In the seventies, Puffin’s editors made such a hash of reviving Peacocks that it’s been all caution ever since, particularly as far as mass market paperback series for this age range is concerned. Yet there’s always been a market for the right book; it’s not Mills and Boon grannies who’ve ensured Corgi’s Go Ask Alice a permanent slot on the shelves of my local Smiths for the last thirteen years. But now Pan – till recently worth only a passing nod in relation to kids’ books – have launched their Horizons series and at last teachers/ librarians have a real chance to do something about teenage reading, especially with GCSE Literature opportunities and some new money available. If we don’t make these books a total success, a publishing sensation, then we deserveto be replaced on the timetable by ‘Soap Opera Studies’, ‘Yet More Keyboard Skills’ and ‘Economic Awareness’.
For Horizons, Pan have found a number of very readable books, mostly good quality, and – miraculously, one might say, since it’s so rare – marketed them in an excellently designed, clearly identifiable series format. One reason for the success of series from Blyton to Sweet Dreams is the certainty they offer the customer. Kids know where they are with them. By using the cover design to link fifteen other titles with the all-time Judy Blume favourite Forever, Pan ensured kids’ instant interest in the new series. Writers like Lois Duncan and M. E. Kerr, whose previous work has been lost amongst general kiddie-lit publishing, are now being sought by kids who’ve rapidly grown to trust Pan’s choice.
And, so far, that trust hasn’t been misplaced. Pan have shown a degree of sense and an understanding of the audience which is fairly remarkable in British publishing. One obvious sign of this is that fourteen of the first sixteen titles are American and there’s absolutely no doubt that U.S. writers and editors understand teenage fiction better than anyone. Compare their sureness of touch and absence of hang-ups with Aidan Chambers’ convoluted Dance on my Grave, the one big mistake that Horizons made in their first year. Arty-farty, self-regarding stuff like this has plagued British teenage fiction for years.
Pan have done us some great favours in bringing out many books previously unpublished over here, most notably Are You In the House Alone? by Richard Peck (1976) which British publishers, even the better ones like Gollancz and Fontana Lions, have rejected in the past. My American edition has been read till it’s falling apart – that alone shows the book’s appearance here is long overdue. We can’t pretend that teenagers haven’t heard of rape and it’s hardly responsible to leave their awareness of it to be formed by the gutter press and the countless video-nasties which so many kids watch. Richard Peck’s book could be improved but it’s certainly an essential title for any English department.
Pan’s bravery also needs tough-minded, unrelenting support against those who’d prevent teenagers reading anything to do with sex. Most of them seem capable only of flicking through a book to find `dirty bits’ to exploit out of context. Recent Woman’s Hour criticism of Forever showed this, though there’s craftiness creeping in, with attacks on the ease with which Kath reaches orgasm, as opposed to the mere fact that sex is dealt with openly. Kids do want to read about sex and the morality of books like Beginner’s Love (Norma Klein) is infinitely less suspect than that of reactionary no-brows who campaign for the banning of honest, helpful, informative books like Jane Cousins’ Make It Happy (Penguin) while at the same time defending the Sun’s page-three girls as ‘harmless fun’. Beginner’s Love is starting to rival Forever in popularity and it must be defended strenuously whenever (if ever) it comes under fire. As for the books’ influence, in my school it’s the kids who don’t read them who are out there ‘doing it’.
Not that Horizons concentrate exclusively on heavy or controversial `problem’ subjects. There are several mysteries, for example. Lois Duncan (The Eyes of Karen Connors and Stranger With My Face) is beginning to become a cult figure with some of our second-year girls and my personal favourite in the whole series so far has been Rosemary Wells’ murder story When No One Was Looking. There’s humour, too, from Harry Mazer (I Love You, Stupid! and Hey Kid! Does She Love Me?) and straight love/family stories which are many steps on from Sweet Dreams, notably M. E. Kerr’s enjoyable If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? and I Stay Near You, the first part of which is amongst the best writing for teenagers that I’ve ever encountered. All the titles are worth reading and trying (though don’t go wild with your orders for Barbara Wersba, Wendy Simons and Aidan Chambers) and the series as a whole should be followed closely – 1987 promises lots more new titles. If Pan stick by the Americans (until British/Antipodean writers learn how to do it really well) and don’t let worries about their literary image stampede them into publishing the unreadable (Ivan Southall, Virginia Hamilton et al) then great things could happen. Is it too much to hope that some of the other mass market paperback firms might do something positive too?
Stranger With My Face, Lois Duncan, 0 330 29255 2, £1.95
Are You In the House Alone? Richard Peck, 0 330 29254 4, £1.75
It’s OK If You Don’t Love Me, Norma Klein, 0 330 29702 3, £1.95