Writing for real teens, by an inner-city teacher

Writing for real teens, by an inner-city teacher

Writing for Young Adults is not what it was in the days of End Blyton. In those days there were no young adults. There were children (who should be seen but not heard); and then there were ‘teenagers’, a strange hybrid of "no, you can't stay out past midnight" and "yes, you are old enough to join the army"; and then there were adults ("go out and get a job/mortgage/have kids and savesavesave"). 

And likewise, writing for young adults did not exist either. It was a choice between sanitised stories with fantasy often as a main genre, or The Lord of the Flies, which was the nearest adult novel to childhood – perhaps because it had children in it. And in some ways in our schools today this state of affairs has persisted. 
 
My experience of being a teacher and a writer in inner-city London is a bit like being schizophrenic. The writers I know (including me) can’t understand why the teachers still pump Shakespeare into 13-year-olds and never seem to order in new books – or, worse still, teach children that writing should have lots of long, Latinate words with adjectives and pompous prose for "it’s still only an E grade – because you can’t get a C until you can use complex sentences". And then, of course, there's the ubiquitous spelling issue – as if reading and writing were only about getting it spelt right. 
 
The teachers (I teach English in a London secondary school) haven’t really heard of any young adult writers other than a few big names  - and certainly don’t approve of Twilight. They have to select texts from the ones already purchased yonks ago by the department: Skellig, Holes, Goodnight Mr Tom, To Kill a Mockingbird – all brilliant books, but rather over-used. Books which were perhaps initially selected not on the basis of whether young adults would like them, but because they had to tick all kinds of 'worthiness boxes' before they could pass the test (also bearing in mind whether or not they are short enough to cover in a half term and there's a DVD adaptation).
 
Is it any wonder then, that in this myriad of gatekeeping some children lose the will to live when it comes to reading? Well, the truth is some do, although everything is not completely awful. Free will and choice in literature is still alive and well. There are some beacons of light on the YA horizon, and those take the shape of librarians and school libraries. A good school library is a safe haven for even the most reluctant, disillusioned reader, if they - often with the help of a good friend or a lovely librarian - can find their way to the fiction shelves. 
 
There they can find everything, if they search. Books on dystopian futures (mum doesn’t have to know The Hunger Games is violent) and dysfunctional families (since Jacqueline Wilson opened the doors there are loads of great books out there with characters just like your family) and sex (who knows, maybe there is even a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey) and romance (you don’t have to feel a freak if you fall in love with the wrong person these days – in books you can marry vampires and sleep with werewolves).
 
In writing for young adults, and knowing young adults, there are three things that I want to do. I want to represent the world faithfully to them – their world – the world they live in and want to read about. I want to write about the issues they are interested in or are grappling with. And I want to represent young people fairly to the world, too - not all teenagers are out to mug you.
 
But the world is such a complex place. How can a writer hope to represent it faithfully? And today’s urban teenagers have so much to cope with since the days when the Famous Five set out for Smugglers Top. There is not only the overarching job of successfully making that journey through school into early adult life, the problems of family (whether we love them or not there are always problems), and the job of negotiating the rapids of first love in the great quest to find a soul mate – but there are also the problems of postcode wars, of street crime, drugs, bad cred and the pressure from the corporate magnates to consume, consume, and then consume some more. But when we writers get it right it really makes a difference. 
 
In my classroom I have a book box for un-engaged readers. One of the books I put in there was When I Was Joe, a YA novel about a youngster who needs a change of identity because he witnessed a crime. I had a girl in class - bright, troubled, liked the ‘tough’ image - who thought reading was for pansies. I handed her When I Was Joe and said if she read the first 40 pages and hated it I’d give her a break from silent reading. Not only did she read the first 40 pages, she read the next hundred and refused to take part in the rest of the lesson (an important one on the use of relative clauses). Needless to say, the writer in me was won over and I gave her a break on the grammar stuff. But that wasn't all. At our next session of silent reading she said: "I’ve read that, yeah, so I want the sequel. And I told my brother if he didn’t read stuff he was a wasteman." Later on she stopped me in the corridor and said: "Well, miss, is it alright or not to snake up your mate if what they done was bad?" A deep philosophical question, almost a complex as "to be or not to be", that caught me by surprise. 
 
I think I’ve made my point. If you can write a story set in the world a reader knows, which raises the issues a reader is struggling to give a framework to, you have done something really important. And perhaps the most important thing for a writer to do is to represent youngsters fairly to the world too. So just as fans back in the day read about George of the Famous Five, who needed permission to be a ‘tomboy’ and possibly questioned her gender or sexuality, today’s young adults need stories to ask other questions, like is it ok to snake up someone to the police like in When I Was Joe? Or is it ok to fall for the wrong person like Serafina in Angel Dust and find yourself in love with a gangsta?
 
Well, "that is the question", isn't it?

 

Sarah Mussi is the author of Angel Dust, out now, published by Hot Key Books.