Don't Tell Mum the Teenage Fiction is Good

Issue section: 

Moira Nolan surveys recent teenage fiction

'It's not like it was in our day' is a phrase you can thankfully apply to much of the exciting, controversial and gripping fiction produced for teenagers in Britain today. Gone are the pompous, moralistic tomes full of Victorian values and happy endings. No more do our teens have to read novels whose main aim is to provide them with a model of how they should live - conventional, obedient, saintlike and quite frankly dull existences.

Bookshops are full of teen fiction characterised by truly compelling and complex narratives. The range of genres and diversity of experiences they draw on is refreshing. From Darren Shan to Philip Pullman, from Michael Morpurgo to Jacqueline Wilson, from Louis Sacher to Louise Rennison, writers for teens and young adults are exploring the teen experience in ways that tap into the imaginative, creative and expressive potential that young people have.

Some educational research into the effects of the proscriptive, grammar-led National Literacy Strategy in primary schools suggests that its emphasis on reading texts for their use of subordinate clauses rather than pleasure is turning boys in particular off from reading. Thankfully, Robert Swindells, David Belbin, Alan Gibbons and many others offer a way to stop the rot.

Of course, this development over the last ten years or so is one that makes some quite nervous - not everyone in British society is happy to see teen fiction that deals openly with sex, drugs, happy one-parent families or, in the case of Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy, a desire to confront injustice.

One writer for teens who has caused much controversy over the last few years is Melvyn Burgess. His most recent novel, Doing It, came under much fire for its frank portrayal of teenage boys' attitudes to sexuality. Anne Fine, the incredibly popular and much respected author of Mrs Doubtfire and Flour Babies, even suggested that Burgess's publishers should not produce the book.

In my view, her criticism of the grossly sexist attitudes of the 16 and 17 year olds in the book misses the point - in capturing the brutality of the boys' behaviour and language as well as their insecurities and mixed emotions, Burgess is trying to engage his audience with the world of relationships by reflecting on the dilemmas his characters face. His other novels, including Bloodtide and Junk, are equally revealing about violence, feuding gangs, heroin and female sexuality - issues that tap into the lives of many of Burgess's intended audience.

Another area where there has been disquiet about the content of teen fiction is that of novels which engage with the realities of the world we live in today. Sections of the publishing establishment share the patronising attitudes of those in education and the media who tried to portray the magnificent leaders of the school students' strikes as the innocent prey of sinister anti-war activists - rather than as a reflection of a new generation defying the apathetic label placed on young people. Thus Elizabeth Laird's marvellous novel A Little Piece of Ground, about teen boys in Ramallah, was subjected to fierce criticism for its 'partisan' approach to the Middle East and didn't get published in the US - despite her long and revered career as a children's writer.

Some have even suggested that Mark Haddon's superbly empathetic novel of a teen with Asperger's Syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, has far too many expletives for delicate teen ears - presumably, such critics haven't spent much time hanging around outside their local McDonald's or school playground!

The quality of writing in much of this rapidly expanding sector is what impresses me most. Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses convincingly takes you into a world where blacks rule and whites are an oppressed minority, and constantly challenges your relationship with your own views of the world as well as the morality of the book's characters. Alan Gibbons's The Lost Boys Appreciation Society draws us into death and grief in a delicate and lyrical manner. It doesn't surprise me that some of this writing is making its way onto the adult top ten fiction list - I just hope seeing their parents reading it doesn't put too many teenagers off.