Raw, revealing and bang on the pulse of youth
Teenage angst is something Jo Klaces experiences almost every day. As an English teacher in an inner-city sixth-form college, she regularly has to confront young people's anxieties, preoccupations, loves and hates about the ups and downs of daily life. But whereas most sane people would be glad to retreat into adult comforts - feet up with a glass of wine and The Archers - at the end of the day, Ms Klaces goes home to another immersion in teenage culture.
As the one teacher among five judges for the first book award for teenage fiction, launched by the Booktrust this summer, she finds herself ploughing through boxes of fiction for young people, some of it fantasy, but much of it covering oh-so-familiar topics such as anxiety, exam stress, pregnancy, being a member of a minority, the ins and outs of family life and what a family means in Britain today.
By the time the shortlist is announced on July 1, she will have made her way through about 50 works of fiction in between cooking tea, marking and bedtime. "I've been reading like a loony in between marking A-level coursework, and trying not to confuse the two," she says. "So many of the books hover around exam angst that my tenuous take on reality is deeply endangered."
A seaside break in Croatia with her family last half-term found her nose to page for much of the time - swimsuit and suncreams squeezed between dozens of tomes. "My wheelie suitcase was full of books, it's a wonder they let me on the plane. We had a balcony overlooking the sea and I spent my time between gazing over the water and returning to worlds of the inner city."
Nevertheless Ms Klaces has found the task rewarding and her eyes have been opened to a wealth of contemporary young people's fiction. "When I was growing up you seemed to jump between The Faraway Tree (Enid Blyton) and Vanity Fair (Thackeray) and there was nothing much in between. Now there is so much for young people to choose from."
Indeed, teenage fiction has hit the headlines recently with the publication of Melvin Burgess's Doing It, a raw, frank exploration of young male sexuality, prompting a fierce debate around the nature of this growing genre. But Ms Klaces finds much in the genre that is affirming of young people's approach to life. "Some of these books are about people having magical powers, but many of the heroes are ordinary and the books are about being ordinary and coping with life's events. I find a great deal of optimism in this genre and faith in young people's abilities to deal with fractured families or feckless parents. Many of these stories are about young people dealing with parents not being there for them in the traditional way.
"For me, working in an inner-city college, so many of these narratives ring true. There is a blistering honesty, but they are also affirming, a counter-balance to the media portrayal that tends to demonise teenagers."
Ms Klaces is a latecomer to teaching, having taken her PGCE 12 years ago aged 40. Before that, she had been involved in community arts in Birmingham, running a community photography project and then becoming director of the Birmingham Women's Festival. She was also a founder member of Birmingham Education Arts Forum, the aim of which was to foster education and arts partnerships. Increasingly attracted by the education aspect of her work, she eventually plumped for teaching and a post in the English department at St Philip's sixth-form centre, part of South Birmingham College. She has not regretted the decision, though she is sometimes frustrated by being bound by a canon of literature dictated by exam syllabuses.
While reading for the prize she has taken the opportunity to introduce extracts from some of the submitted books to her students. "They've enjoyed the change and keep saying, 'Why can't we read more like this?' I say to them that they can and should, in their own time. For some, it would be a good way into literature in general. I think some of the books in the canon such as Jane Austen are very difficult for young people to get a handle on.
"It's worth the effort in the end, but contemporary fiction deals with a world they can easily grasp and could be a way in as well as being good in its own right. There is real affirmation of spirit in much of the teenage genre; it's about essential goodness winning against the odds."
Ms Klaces was invited on to the Booktrust judging panel thanks to her reputation for taking classes along to library projects. She says: "Because of my previous work in community arts I have lots of contacts and could be relied upon to provide crowds of youngsters for community events. The judging is a good thing to have done, very revealing of a young person's world."
For updates on the award and the chance to debate the shortlist, see www.bookheads.org.uk, to be launched in July