I’m sure problems were more fun once. Did Captain Hornblower ever worry that he might be gay? Was Fu Manchu all that concerned about the way he related to his mother? There was a time when kids went on safari or deep-sea diving. Those were the days of buried treasure, secret agents and fiendish plots to take over the world or, better still, the universe. Of course, ‘young adult’ fiction hadn’t been invented then. Once we’d outgrown Willard Price and Rosemary Sutcliff, we went on to Ian Fleming and Alistair Maclean, Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier. They may not have been good for us but we enjoyed them.
If the five books cast randomly on my desk have anything in common, apart from the fact that they have all been published recently, it is their obsession with very unenjoyable problems. Only one of these books has a plot that steps well clear of the perimeters of day-to-day reality. It would seem that to find old-fashioned adventure – full-blooded and wilfully irresponsible – one must nowadays look to the cinema. Just follow the queues to Star Wars and The Temple of Doom. While the ‘movie brats’ grow rich on teenage fantasy, young adult fiction treads the wilderness of teenage angst.
Take, for example, the climax of Dicey’s Song by the American writer, Cynthia Voigt. Our heroine’s mother, confined to a mental hospital throughout the novel, dies. Dicey and her grandmother discuss the burial expenses. It turns out to be cheaper to have Momma cremated, but Dicey isn’t turned on by the selection of urns available at the undertaker’s. So she goes to a wood store and buys a nice black walnut box in which to take Momma’s ashes home. Her younger brothers bury the box under a tree and then the whole family goes off to eat pizza – except for Gram who prefers scrambled eggs.
I am simply unable to imagine why anyone of any age could possibly want to read this. Dicey’s Song is not even particularly well written. ‘Dicey yawned again. She guessed she’d better get to bed, but she guessed she knew she didn't want to...’ Any guessing why Collins chose to publish this one (with the original American text) in preference say, to a new English writer?
Equally plotless, though a hundred times more enjoyable, is Great Days at Grange Hill. It’s easy to see how Grange Hill has become the most popular secondary school in the country. It is nothing more than a Dallas for kids. Whether the characters are immediately likeable or immediately dislikeable, they are always immediately identifiable, and with skilful writers like Robert Leesing or, in this case, Jan Needle interpreting the successful BBC series, the incidents spring to immediate life.
Problems in this episode include bullying, extortion, theft, racism, the difficulty of making friends and the cost of school uniforms. It’s all good fun, certainly. None the less, if these are great days, I can’t help wondering what the mediocre ones were like.
So popular is Grange Hill that even the kids in The Squeeze look forward to it. Ron Morton is a teacher in a multi-racial primary school and he presents a reverse side of the Grange Hill coin: his book is written from a coloured point of view. And if the young, first-person narrator does sometimes speak with the voice of a teacher in a multi-racial primary school, his insights are no less valuable for that.
The Squeeze will be valuable to any young immigrant to England who will readily empathise with the experiences of its hero, Tariq, who not only faces (more) extortion and bullying but does so with the added handicaps of colour, language barriers and even an ignorance of cold weather. It will be valuable to white children who should understand something of the immigrant’s culture and circumstance. It was valuable to me. But a barrel of laughs it was not. Its credibility is both its achievement and its limitation.
The title of the fourth book in this selection somehow promises a fairly ghastly read and, sure enough, John Rowe Townsend’s Good night, Prof, Love doesn’t disappoint. This is actually a re-issue. It was first published in 1970 when young adult fiction was trying to tighten its grip on the elusive UK market. The novel, 90 percent of which is written in dialogue, must have been astoundingly popular to justify this reprint.
Sixteen-year-old Graham Hollis, who fantasizes incessantly about girls, is left alone in his parents’ home for a week. He gets a job washing up in a local cafe and eventually runs off with the eighteen-year-old waitress, a bore with a heart of gold. They get as far as Pool-on-Sea where, in a derelict house, Graham loses his virginity. Or does he? ‘I wasn’t very good,’ he laments afterwards and such is the discreet veil drawn over the proceedings that it's just possible Prof was as limp as this plot.
Surprisingly, some writers can be more generous with their plots and still accommodate reality in one form or another. This, Margaret Mahy demonstrates in her first novel for teenagers, The Changeover, described on the cover ‘as a supernatural romance’. The Changeover manages to spin an elaborate yarn of witchcraft and devil possession, but does so without losing sight of the very real framework of human relationships on which it is constructed.
The story takes place in a New Zealand suburb where the mundane and the magical rub shoulders daily. If sorcerers walk the streets, they are less to be feared than muggers and rapists. In this world, a perfectly respectable woman can hide behind the name of Mrs Fangboner, conversation can turn almost in one breath from vampiricism to the advantages of instant coffee and the question ‘Are you a virgin?’ will have more than one implication.
So although the heroine, Laura, uses latent magical powers to defeat the splendidly evil Carmody Braque, she has to rely on a far more vulnerable awareness to come to terms with the changing situation of her divorced mother, and it is perhaps this victory that is the more memorable. It is also a measure of Mahy’s achievement that even the revolting Braque (‘His teeth had become a neglected goblin’s cemetery’) can be pitied in his defeat. He is, at the end of the day, human too.
Reading teenage fiction is all too frequently a depressing experience – but perhaps, in the final analysis, I am wrong to search for the colourful irrelevance of my own teenage years. It might be argued that, in the mid 1980s, teenage problems cannot and should not be treated lightly. Surrounded by the shadows of inner city decay, impending nuclear or ecological catastrophe, racial tension and, darkest of all, massive unemployment, teenagers hardly need fantasy villains to inform their reading.
Escapism is different now. Captain Hornblower has been sunk by a single Exocet. Fu Manchu has been packed off for political re-education. And for today’s teenagers, the fairy story dragon has been reinterpreted in the more lethal idiom (of heroin consumption) of ‘chasing the dragon’.