Our Reporter, David Bennett, examines the evidence of `Sir’s Library’.
Secondary teacher claims that there are lessons to be learned from schoolchildren reading books to destruction!
One of the perks of reviewing is that you get to keep the books afterwards. So, over 58 issues of Books for Keeps, I’ve kept a motley library of the good, the bad and the indifferent. A few my own children have snatched, a very few I keep to re-read and most go to free-range on a shelf in my classroom as `Sir’s Library’. The bonus is that I’ve read every one of them, had to formulate a few thoughts on each for a review and, since they belong to me, I’m not too over-burdened with scrupulous accounting.
Head of Faculty’s prerogative seems to be that he gets more than his share of the `threatening thirds’ (secondary) and so they’ve always been my principal borrowers. It suddenly struck me recently, as I received back a very hen-pecked Puffin from a squint-eyed boy with a nervous twitch, that here was one indicator of what the youngsters think of the books written for them that I review; the chewed-up-and-spat-out looking ones with drinking chocolate rings on them are the popular ones that get read over and over. Here are the novels that my readers choose most out of a wide selection of contemporary young fiction. There is something to be learned from judging a book by its cover: the tattier it looks, the more it’s being used! Eureka! So, in no particular order of mangy Lion, sullied Puffin or shabby Beaver, here are some suggestions of recent(ish) paperbacks that might be worth considering for a class library:
Goodbye Tomorrow by Gloria D Miklowitz, the story of Alex Weiss who contracts AIDS through a blood transfusion, has been read into an early grave. Boys and girls have quietly passed it around and discussed it seriously, obviously having been moved by it. I’ve had mums at parents’ evenings telling me how they read it during the day whilst their kids were at school.
Secrets Not Meant to be Kept by the same author has been similarly received, mainly by the girls and one granny, who kept it for two weeks! This is a story that looks most sensitively at the behavioural symptoms of children who are sexually exploited. Pastoral colleagues are on the waiting list to read it.
In the same area and tatty before its time is Gillyflower by Ellen Howard. Possibly for lower secondary, here the subject of parental sexual abuse is subtly and tactfully explored. In one group it went out three times in five days.
Girls are by far the most avid readers and so many of the scruffiest books reflect their tastes. Lexie by Mary Hooper, who writes for teenage magazines, sees our heroine trying to get better acquainted with her hero. Paul Zindel’s The Girl Who Wanted a Boy has been resting lately after quite a bashing. Here too the besotted girl’s considerable difficulty is attracting her man – not surprising really when she uses a tool box for a handbag! Also Known as Sadzia! The Belly Dancer by Merrill Joan Gerber has been virtually stripped to the bare essentials. Here it’s the mother who has the main problems over her daughter’s boyfriend – or lack of one. Izzy’s boy-friend wraps his car around a tree in Cynthia Voigt’s Izzy, Willy-Nilly leaving the girl wheel-chair bound. However, in my classroom she’s circulated steadily, although a few strips of sellotape are imminent to patch her up. The girls have also taken to The Big Pink by Ann Pilling. This modern school yarn of the fat girl at a private school is always being exercised, so too The Teens Book of Love Stories edited by Miriam Hodgson, but I suspect that the title attracts and the contents disappoint.
Jacqueline Wilson deserves special mention. Amber looks severely misused. It’s not a very pretty read, but my pupils have taken to it enough for it never to be on the shelf for long. As popular was Waiting for the Sky to Fall, which had severely decomposed before it passed away altogether. The Other Side is limping on, but very much the worse for wear – not unlike the mother in the story, who has a nervous breakdown! The Power of the Shade is only just fraying, so to speak, but there are enough Wilson fans to ensure its continued decay.
The boys tend to go for the short stories because they prefer immediate results. Twisted Circuits, hi-tech tales edited by Mick Gowar, has curled up like a grubby sandwich from being forced into anorak pockets. The same fate has befallen Secrets from the School Underground by Pete Johnson, which I predicted would be a now book, principally because it’s racy and only just this side of naughty. I bet my copy could tell you things!
Another Pete Johnson novel, We, The Haunted went into rapid circulation and looks destined for great grubbiness. This tale of haunting and deeply felt love suits both the romance and spooks camps so it ought to fare well. I Know What You Did Last Summer by the very popular Lois Duncan similarly attracts two sorts of reader; those who like mysteries and those who need a dash of romance. Little wonder the cover picture has all but disappeared. Cynthia D Grant’s Kumquat May, I’ll Always Love You has similar ingredients, along with a very useful portion of wisdom. This one is just beginning to look a bit loose down the spine.
The boys come into the picture with books like Centre Line, Joyce Sweeney’s ‘easy-rider’ tale of five runaway brothers, which I’m pleased to say suddenly took off and hasn’t been on the shelf very much since. The same can be said for Displaced Person, a Lee Harding novel, which I reviewed as depressing. Nevertheless, young readers seem to bring it back with smiles on their faces. Angel Face by Norma Klein, about a disintegrating American family, also has its depressing side, but that hasn’t stopped it being read and slowly but surely wrecked.
Whilst I’m on depression, Children of the Dust, one of Louise Lawrence’s challenging sci-fi fantasies, wins the scruffiness honours hands down, closely followed by another nuclear holocaust novel, Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells, each of which look like they’ve barely survived the catastrophe that is at the core of their theme. Both boys and girls have enjoyed these. They’ve all had a go at Slambash Wangs of a Compo Gormer (Robert Leeson’ s) too, but only two posers claim to have both finished and understood it!
Not surprisingly the same two are leading the `I Can’t Standing Losing by Gene Kemp and Geoffrey’s First by Jon Blake’ fan club. I can only imagine they consider themselves the original prototypes for the heroes. Streetwise by Anthony Masters has a similar following amongst those who enjoy the racy/aggressive read. Lower down the evolutionary scale the Peter Pan Club, who chew biro tops incessantly and would nibble away an exercise book per week if I let them, are all into Hanky Panky by Roger Collinson. To them the risque humour is infectious (and so, I suspect, are the dubious spots on the back cover). I reckon they’re the ones who made MacGyver on Ice by Mark Daniels come to a sticky end. They also warmed to Jim Eldridge’s Monsterman, beguiled by its outrageous humour and sideswipes at the supernatural, which appeals to their truly bizarre sense of humour.
It would be pretentious to claim that any hard and fast conclusions can be drawn from this catalogue of reading destruction, happy vandalism, but I do offer a few observations: first it’s pretty obvious who has the lion’s share of popular teenage titles at present and how evenly the popular authors are spread across both the British and American markets. There’s also a bit of everything – Sci-Fi, Romance, Mystery, Thrillers, Humour, Adventure – but the social realism novel does have a firm footing and there’s not nearly as much horror as I’d expected. It’s also striking how many of the names of the regular award-winning authors for teenagers seem to be missing, with a very few exceptions. Left to their own devices kids don’t necessarily agree with adult judges.
Lastly, there really are books available to attract boys into reading. Over half of those in this list are read most frequently by boys. The pity is that realistically we can expect so few books to span the interests and attention of both boys and girls at the same time. I’m always amazed how tolerant girls are that class-readers are generally so male-orientated, because youths are the ones who need to have their interests captured, more than the compliant girls, who quietly go and seek the material they’re really interested in, often chosen from `Sir’s Library’, and read it outside the classroom.
I must just end with a short obituary – the ones that may have finally been read to death, but more likely were so cherished upon reading that they’ve never returned to the shelves, and probably enjoy the luxury of some little sneak’s private collection even as I write. R.I.P. Skiver’s Guide by Diana Wynne Jones Breaking Glass by Brian Morse
Gone, but not forgot!
David Bennett is Senior Teacher of the Languages Faculty at George Spencer Comprehensive in Nottinghamshire and is a regular Books for Keeps reviewer.
The 32 books mentioned in the article are listed with information on current availability in paperback. However, as some may have been reissued since they were reviewed in BfK (date given in brackets), there may be some inconsistency in details of series or ISBN.
Goodbye Tomorrow, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672913 4, £2.25 (Mar 88)
Secrets Not Meant to be Kept, Lions Tracks, 0 00 673223 2, £2.50 (Mar 90)
Gillyflower, Lions, 0 00 673376 X, £2.25 (Sept 89)
Lexie, Methuen Teens, 0 416 10352 9, £1.99 (Sept 89)
Also Known as Sadzia! The Belly Dancer, Pan Horizons, 0 330 30377 5, £2.25 (Sept 88)
Izzy, Willy-Nilly, Lions Tracks, 0 00 673377 8, £2.50 (Jul 89)
The Big Pink, Puffin, 014 03.2319 8, £1.99 (Jan 89)
The Teens Book of Love Stories, Methuen Teens, 0 416 11962 X, £1.95 (Nov 88)
Amber, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672767 0, £1.95 (Sept 88)
Waiting for the Sky to Fall, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672438 8, £2.25 (Jan 86)
The Other Side, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672596 1, £2,25 (Mar 87)
The Power of the Shade, Lions Tracks, 0 00 67270 3 £2.50 (May 89)
Secrets from the School Underground, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672737 9, £1.95 (Jan 88)
We, The Haunted, Lions Tracks, 0 00 673160 0, £2.25 (Mar 90)
I Know What You Did Last Summer, Pan Horizons, 0 330 293613, £2.99 (May 87)
Kumquat May, I’ll Always Love You, Lions Tracks, 0 00 673237 2, £2.50 (May 89)
Centre Line, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672413 2, £2.50 (Jan 86)
Displaced Person, Penguin Plus, 014 03.2796 7, £2.25 (Nov 86)
Children of the Dust, Lions Tracks, 0 00 6726216, £2.50 (Nov 86)
Brother in the Land, Penguin Plus, 014 03.2670 7, £1.99
Slambash Wangs of a Compo Gormer, Lions Tracks, 0 00 672793 X, £2.50 (Mar 89)
I Can’t Stand Losing, Penguin Plus, 014 03.2677 4, £1.99 (Nov 89)
Geoffrey’s First, Walker Teens, 0 7445 1335 9, £1.99 (Jan 90) Streetwise, Methuen Teens, 0 416 10152 6, £1.99 (Mar 89)
Streetwise, Methuen Teens, 0 416 10152 6, £1.99 (Mar 89)
Hanky Panky, Puffin, 014 03.2659 6, £1.99 (Jul 89)
Monsterman, Methuen Teens, 0 416 09242 X, £1.95 (Nov 88)
Breaking Glass, Penguin Plus, 014 03.2359 7, £1.95 (Jul 88)
The following titles are currently out of print:
The Girl Who Wanted a Boy, Puffin, 014 03.2496 8 (May 88)
Twisted Circuits, Beaver, 0 09 943400 8 (Jul 87)
Angel Face, Pan Horizons, 0 330 29982 4 (Nov 87)
MacGyver on Ice, Armada, 0 00 672733 5 (Nov 87)
The Skiver’s Guide, Knight, 0 340 33985 3