ROLE MODELS:When author Sarah Webb started getting letters from readers about personal problems, she wondered what to do – now Webb and writers Judi Curtin and Sophia Bennett are touring the country to connect with their young readers, writes ANNA CAREY
IF YOU’RE MORE than 30 years of age, it’s hard to imagine what your teenage years would have been like if you’d had access to mobile phones and online social networks. So much of the fabric of teenage life seems to have changed, thanks to the internet, mobiles, celebrity culture, the boom years and the increased pressure on young girls to be ridiculously slim, toned and perfectly groomed.
So, are today’s young girls living in a totally brave new world? “They are and they aren’t,” says author Sarah Webb, whose novels about teenager Amy Green, aimed at girls aged 10 and older, are hugely popular in both Ireland and the UK. “Though technology has moved on in leaps and bounds, young people’s feelings are still the same.
We didn’t have to deal with being bullied on mobiles or through Facebook or Bebo, but when I was in school someone wrote horrible things about me on a park bench in indelible marker and my mother had to go down with white spirits and rub it off. Now people do the same thing on the internet – the emotions are still the same but the method is different.”
Understanding girls is part of the job if you write for young teenagers, so being able to remember what it was like to be that age is important. “I have really, really strong memories of the time when I was aged 12 to 15,” says Webb. “I don’t have such strong memories of being older or younger, so it was obviously a really pivotal time for me.” Webb still has her teenage diaries, which can be useful. “I read them less for story lines and more for mood, emotion and atmosphere. They help me remember just how heady and full on and exciting and at times horrible it was to be a teen.”
But memories aren’t enough. This month Webb and fellow authors Judi Curtin and Sophia Bennett are going around the country on the Your Wildest Dreamstour, where they’ll be talking to young girls about writing, reading and the importance of following your own path. Webb and Curtin have teenage children, and Bennett has two teenage stepdaughters, which provides them with resident research subjects. Just as importantly, all three authors regularly communicate with their readers, through events at schools and libraries as well as emails and letters.
Webb gets about 20 letters a week, and her readers don’t just share their thoughts on the books – they share their thoughts on the world, and frequently ask for advice on their personal problems.
When this began to happen, Webb asked the bestselling UK author and former teen agony aunt Cathy Cassidy what she should do. “She said she thought the worst thing you can do if someone asks for help is to ignore their question,” says Webb. “Even if you’re not sure that you’re giving the right advice, at least you’re listening and trying to help. So I step back and think, if this was my daughter what would I want someone to say to her? If they have a really serious problem, I tell them to talk to a teacher or trusted adult.
I’m always honest with them, and I think they appreciate that. I sometimes say being 13 is really hard, life is hard, but you have to get through it and it will get better if you hang in there. I’m very privileged that they want to tell me things about their lives.”
Sophia Bennett, whose books about teenage fashion designers also look at the ethical problems of the fashion business, finds that her readers are really interested in issues such as sweatshops and the problems of young refugees. “I was thrilled to see that girls are fascinated by this other world and they really want to do something about it,” she says. “I’ve had girls email me about cake sales or runs they’ve organised in aid of Save the Children. And others have told me the books have inspired them to be creative and make things with their mums, which is lovely.”
Talking to some young readers, it’s clear that books are very important to them. “I really like books about ordinary girls who go through the same sort of things as me,” says 12-year-old Blathnaid Byrne, who is in sixth class. Relatable characters with realistic lives and problems are crucial.
The girls I spoke to said they particularly like reading books set in Ireland – something that wasn’t really an option over 20 years ago. “It’s easier to relate to books, it’s more familiar,” says Byrne. And they don’t want non-stop doom and gloom. Amyrose Forder, who is nearly 13 and in her first year of secondary school, says that her ideal book would be “about a normal life, but funny”.
So there’s more to today’s young girls’ libraries than a certain mega-selling vampire romance. “I did like Twilight, but Bella defends Edward all the time and doesn’t stand up for herself,” says 15-year-old Dubliner Kate Gordon. “I don’t think romance should be such a big factor in books . I think young readers need a role model who’s stronger and not afraid to speak her mind.”
In fact, for many young teens and pre-teens, friendships are a much bigger concern than boys. “Friendship is really important,” says novelist Judi Curtin. “Everything feeds off it, from how they dress, where they go, whether they go to discos, whether they play sport. Friendship is at the heart of the whole thing. Up to age seven or eight parents are huge influences but from the age of nine to 13, friends are taking over as the ones who influence how they live.”
Of course, when writing for girls who are just hitting adolescence you have to be careful how you approach various issues. Webb’s books were, bizarrely, banned in one school by a particular nun because they mentioned bra shopping (the ban was later rescinded). “I loved Judy Bloom when I was young and I loved reading about all the landmarks of – getting your first period, your first bra, fighting with friends,” says Webb. “A lot of mothers have thanked me for writing about that in an Irish context.”
The girls said they thought the biggest issues facing today’s young readers were worries about starting secondary school, being well-liked, friendships and bullying. “When you get older you do worry more about what people think,” says Amyrose Forder. “The biggest thing people should be looking at is bullying people about weight and how they look,” says Blathnaid Byrne. Which all, for better or worse, doesn’t sound that different to what most adults worried about when we were that age. Sarah Webb agrees. “Fitting in is still the number-one worry,” she says. “Am I normal, can I be myself, will people laugh at me, is it okay to be shy? Being a teenager is really about finding your place in the world – and that hasn’t changed.”
The Your Wildest Dreamstour begins next Wednesday at Belltable Studio, Limerick (10.30am) and goes to the Briery Gap Theatre, Macroom, Cork on Thursday (10.30am); the Mermaid Theatre, Bray, Co Wicklow on Friday (11am). There will also be book signings with all three author at Easons, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin on Friday (4pm) and the BT2 store on Grafton Street, Dublin 2, on Saturday (1pm). www.childrensbooksireland.ie