“I want an Alaska Young bookshelf,” I heard, as I was looking for inspiration in the young-adult section of a high-street bookstore. My English-teacher ears pricked up and I looked around to see two early-teens chatting as they browsed the understated spines of the classics section.
Alaska Young is the eponymous mystery girl in John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska and her “bookshelves that overflowed into waist-high stacks” are intimidatingly literary, spanning Melville to Márquez. I wouldn’t exactly advocate Alaska as a role model, given the tragic part she plays in the book, but she’s probably achieved more than I ever have in encouraging kids to be ambitious and aspirational in their reading.
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Embracing young-adult fiction
However, UK sales of young-adult fiction are at an 11-year low, despite what has arguably been a youth-lit renaissance, with a new generation of writers, like Green, creating challenging and thoughtful narratives that resonate with teenagers without slipping into condescension or ever lacking authenticity. We English teachers have never had such a powerful and varied arsenal to bring to bear against indifference and apathy, but I’m increasingly wondering whether it’s student indifference and apathy that are the problem.
We’re now years into the life of the 9-1 English language GCSE specification, yet centres are still failing to exploit its complete freedom. Many schools opt to duplicate the same kinds of texts, if not the exact same texts, as in the literature GCSE. Some colleges still haven’t found the confidence to deviate far from the texts provided in the original sample assessment materials or the textbooks they bought in panic four years ago.
Some of it is a lack of understanding of our audience. In a school a while back, I saw a lesson on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the first section of which should be one of the most thrilling encounters young learners can have with 19th-century fiction. But the introductory Powerpoint was full of black and white photos of silent-movie-era vampires. For what possible reason? They weren’t contemporaneous with the novel and all they did was reinforce the students’ preconception that they were about to be subjected to a drab relic.
GCSE English: inspirational books
Then some of it is a snobbishness that forgets that we didn’t all emerge from the womb ready to tackle Joyce and that the most important step in learning to read is learning to enjoy reading. This unfortunate attitude is echoed in Ian McEwan’s recent attempt to distance his latest novel, an alternative history about the rise of artificial intelligence, from the label “science fiction”. Heaven forbid anyone take any joy in reading it.
I haven’t read McEwan’s latest yet, but, given his track record of failing to expand great short-story ideas to the required length of the novel he’s received an advance for, I’d recommend he spend some time reading genre writers and young-adult writers in particular. Their audiences do not have the patience to put up with weak structure and uncompelling prose just to be able to drop the author’s name into conversation at brunch. And, good lord, they do far more to engage with important themes.
While literary writers revel in their trivial macro narratives, with a hundred melancholic pages spent on an elegiac description of a removals van, young-adult authors write about stuff that matters.
I’ve been using an extract from David Levithan’s novel Every Day in the lead-up to a creative-writing exercise this week, and the premise unfailingly arouses students’ interest: it’s a love story where the teen narrator wakes in a different teenager’s body every day, immediately raising questions about the relationship between love and physical appearance, the responsibility we take for our actions, and how we identify gender. That last seems to blow the minds of some, especially those whose views remain somewhat black and white. “She’s a guy?” I heard repeatedly. I particularly liked one level-2 health and social-care student’s impatient answer: “They’re a soul. They don’t choose the body.”
'Nuanced and challenging'
Another young-adult novel extract that my students enjoyed this year was from The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. The narrator, Sutter, is nuanced and challenging. He is charismatic and caring, but then treats people badly in a heartbeat. I personally connected with the text when I recognised that flawed and mercurial teenager like I was looking into a mirror half a lifetime ago.
Sutter’s also great fun, but thankfully not a single student in any of my classes thought it particularly admirable when we first meet him, drink-driving at 10 in the morning on a school day. The love interest, Aimee, is the predictable sensible-and-studious counterpoint. Yet, asking students to rewrite a section of Sutter’s first-person narrative from Aimee’s point of view prompted great engagement with these fictional lives: “It’s 10am and I’m in maths. I know I need to focus to get the grade I need, but all I’m doing is staring at Sutter’s empty chair, wishing I was brave enough to just do whatever. But I’m scared of whatever.”
There might be superhero English teachers out there who can teach a passage from Gaskell and make 19th-century industrialism so hair-raisingly electrifying that it inspires a whole roomful of teenagers who haven’t voluntarily picked up a book for a decade to suddenly flood the school or college library. I don’t have that skill. Instead, I will use anything and everything to get kids engaged with reading, because what’s on their bookshelf matters less than them choosing to have a bookshelf in the first place.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE