Rethinking Literacy

Originally published in the TES.

Do you remember the youth culture? Many of its practitioners are too old to be called youths any more and the whole thing has passed into the mainstream. It’s difficult to pin down, but you know the sort of thing – futuristic films, loud music, graphic mags, computer games, lazy days, love, dance, drugs and books.

Books? Who said that? Of course books are part of that culture – but not if you’re at school. Children are far too young for youth culture, which is really only suitable for adults. Why is it, when you look at the small but growing body of novels that are being written for teenagers, that so few of them borrow the images and themes from that hugely popular world? Where is the crossover between books and other media?

Teenagers as a group consume entertainment – often narrative entertainment – by the barrel load, and the kind of thing they choose for themselves in film, magazines, gaming, music and TV, come largely from that cultural area. Who can blame them? It’s so rich – sexy, loud, violent, ironic and cruel, but also beautiful, dreamy and intense. Schools have an obvious problem with this kind of thing. Things are worse than ever right now, with government treating books as a mere aid to acquiring reading skills rather than something in their own right, but the fact that schools are educational institutions does give them a certain bias in their buying power – one reason why books for teenagers have been so slow to take on the experience of other media. Without the support of schools it’s quite possible that children’s books would decline into one of those arts which can’t survive without grants, like modern dance and poetry.

Fortunately, books are such a great teaching aid that we’re likely to carry on for a good while with their support, but in the end, the survival of novels for young people lies with readers wanting to read. That means kids buying books because they want to, and the fact is, the actual free market among children for books is horribly small. Count the children in the bookshop. Almost no one writes for them for money – most do it either out of love or because we do what we do, like your mad aunt who wears her fur coat all the time, even on a hot day in the kitchen frying sausages. We can’t help it.

My own books cover a wide age range, but a lot of my work is for teenagers, and there you have to be maddest of all. I get a lot of support from schools, but I do feel that each time I try something which uses “youth” imagery, I loose a few friends. Junk, my book on drug culture, was OK: young readers liked the feel of the book, the authentic voice and the straight talking; educators felt they could use it as a resource. It had a purpose. But my latest book, Bloodtide, which deliberately uses the imagery and themes of other media that seem to be attractive to young people, has been a lot more problematical.

Bloodtide has produced both the best and worst reviews I’ve ever had – partly depending, I suspect, on the age of the reviewer. Many schools are very nervous of it. People have told me they don’t see the point. I have been warned.

I have some sympathy on this issue. Nine times out of ten, people aren’t worried about kids but about parents. Someone might complain. In fact, someone almost certainly will complain. The book is violent, sexy, bloodthirsty, futuristic and dramatic – tailor made for the age group, despite a clamor of voices claiming that these very things make it an “adult” book. But the feedback I get from young readers is excellent. Those who like it really do love it.

The tension is between books that schools feel they can justify and – well, and what? There are almost no books written for teenagers that they can take home in the happy knowledge that their parents will both let them read them and feel uncomfortable about it. We can’t afford to turn our backs on the lessons of other media and I honestly believe that the market for books for people of this age is so small because of the limited range written for them. Like most authors, I will not be able to carry on writing unless schools support my books.

Writing books that schools feel happy with is the sensible option – at least I know the market is there. Writing books that borrow style and imagery from other media isn’t going to make my life any easier, no mater how literary the work is. But, being mad, I expect I’ll do it anyway.

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