Teen readers need to grapple with the dark

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Meg Rosoff is an author and winner of the Carnegie medal for children's literature

I don't pretend to be an oracle on the teen psyche, but I've published two novels with teenage protagonists, and in some circles might be considered an expert. This is the sort of accidental attribution of wisdom that happens when you write books.

The label has some justification. In How I Live Now, Just in Case and the soon-to-be-published What I Was, I've explored various subjects in relation to adolescents: death, fate, sex, mental illness, love, virginity, faith, incest, war, depression, friendship, anorexia, gender and homosexuality.

Parents and teachers often ask whether I think teens should be reading this stuff, and sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't all be happier if Enid Blyton was still calling the shots.

But the truth is, Enid Blyton never did call the shots. Even when the Famous Five were at the height of their popularity, you could find The Outsiders, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Lolita on the bestseller lists. Adults read them, and so do children. And while the Five languish in a quaint past, Lord of the Flies still sells. What we all seem to require is stories that grapple with the "big questions".

Children begin questioning as soon as they can speak, and even the youngest wants to know: "Who am I?" "Why was I born?" "What happens after I die?"

"Does God exist?" And the ever-popular, "Am I normal?" Kids spend far more time thinking about questions that relate to love, life, death and sex than those of us with mortgages, jobs and other petty distractions.

There's a darkness associated with the big questions, which explains the number of Goths and Emos at the average secondary school. To confront this darkness, they read books, watch films, spend hours on the internet, listen to music, push boundaries, try things out, shout at their parents, cry a lot. They break rules to find out how serious the rules are. They embrace chaos because speeding (physically and emotionally) feels good - and because it makes their parents and teachers crazy. But above all, they want answers. They want to know what happens in life and why.

The human condition has always included feelings of terror and isolation.

But facing such fears vicariously, through literature, is surely one of the healthiest ways to process anxiety. Who then, more than teenagers, is likely to benefit from exploration at the edges of reality? Who most requires reassurance that life is frequently confusing, that love is rarely straightforward? That for all the brutality of our times, life can be beautiful too?

The very least we can do for them is provide food for thought.

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