Ordinary kids deserve stories all of their own

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

Teenagers today, eh? All out on the streets, looting and waving their knives about or being goth-like and inscrutable. Those at independent school are even worse. They expect everything to be handed to them on a plate. Lazy layabouts with under-developed brains and no work ethic. Right?

I'm not convinced. For a start, I didn't know any teenagers like the above at my school (I was in one of the first years to take GCSEs). I had heard about teenagers who had got pregnant or arrested for shoplifting, but I didn't actually know any.

When I spent five years as an English teacher, and two as a learning support assistant, I met and worked with lots of young people who, like my friends, just wanted to do well in life. They had plans; they had ideas; they had a lot to give. They were also horrified that they had been tarred with the same brush as the kids who broke the rules: "We're not all like that!"

They are the kids who hand their homework in on time and don't answer back. They are the bedrock of society - they will grow into the adults who take on jobs, from doctors to civil servants, bus drivers to estate agents. And there are more of them than the drop-outs and the gang members.

When I started writing, I was fascinated by the tough "issues" that face current teenagers - the rising cases of self-harm, underage pregnancy, terrorism, racism, economic collapse. But as I wrote, I also began to wonder whether I was missing out a whole level of society here - the Basically Good Kids. Where were they in my books? Where were the teenagers who weren't sleeping around, being violent? They made up the majority of teens, I was sure. So why was I focusing on the Ones With Issues?

When you read a book, it can raise your enjoyment level massively if you identify with the characters, if you can smile and say "I do that!" or "That's how I feel!" But often in literature, the focus is on the kids who aren't ordinary. They are the misfits, and society has always been fascinated with the ones who don't toe the line. Which is all well and good in its way, but what if you're Joe (or Joanna) Average? The kids who read, the ones who are interested in learning - they deserve books about themselves, about Basically Good Kids.

The books I write now are about Basically Good Kids. They have their worries, their pressures, but they have been taught to respect authority. They are just trying to find their own way in the world. They are passionate as only young people can be - about dancing, acting, writing, their friends. The girls dream about the boy on the bus who has never spoken to them but perhaps one day will. They don't stay out all night partying. They care, about themselves and the people around them.

Without breaking into song, they are The Future. And that makes them very important indeed. I am proud to be writing for them.

Jo Cotterill is a former teacher and actress, now author of the Sweet Hearts series, published by Random House.

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