Read it and weep: how teenagers relate to the books written for them

Young adult fiction is the largest growing genre in contemporary fiction

 

Some of the best-known figures of the literary world will gather this weekend at Smock Alley Theatre, in Dublin, for DeptCon1, a conference that celebrates and interrogates young adult (YA) fiction.

YA fiction is the largest-growing genre in contemporary fiction, accounting for almost 30 per cent of the children’s book market, according to Eason, which is organising DeptCon1. However, despite the variety of novels directed at their age group, it can be difficult to get teenagers to turn off their smartphones and pick up a book.

Elaina Ryan, director of Children’s Books Ireland, says the biggest challenge facing parents, teachers and librarians trying to encourage teenagers to read is “competition for time. When [young readers] are making the transition from primary to secondary school, all of a sudden they have much greater access to sports and clubs, the internet and screen time, and this means there are a lot more activities for them to choose from in their leisure time.

“Teenagers tend to be quite socially driven, and reading is a solitary activity, so it isn’t as attractive an option.”

As well as engaging them with alternative worlds, Ryan says, the recent trend towards realistic fiction is enabling teenagers to “reflect upon their own lives”. She lists recent books by Louise O’Neill – whose latest novel is reviewed by two teenagers here – and the work of John Green, as key writers driving this new wave of issue-centred books.

“They are exploring themes such as suicide, rape, body image, violence, terminal illness, social media and so on, and these are problems that teenagers often encounter throughout [adolescence].”

Having an opportunity to reflect upon such challenges, she says, can be an important part of a teenager’s developing moral conscience and can also help them to come to terms with their own difficulties.

Some of the issues explored in YA books may give parents pause for thought about their suitability for teenagers. Ryan’s advice is simple: “If you are concerned, read it yourself. It could offer a good way to broach a difficult subject with your teenager.” Teenagers, she says, “are very good at self-censorship” when it comes to reading. “If it is too much for them, they will put it down.”

See easons.com/deptcon1; childrensbooksireland.ie

 

‘We find ourselves in the position of her attacker’

Louise O’Neill’s controversial new book, ‘Asking for It’, deals with the issue of sexual consent among teenagers. Two teenagers give their perspectives Sophia Rosney: ‘It is interesting that Emma is entirely unlikeable’ Louise O’Neill’s bleak, insightful novel tackles the complex, knotted subject of consent. It reflects a real problem and forces you to explore your own morals.

It is interesting that Emma is entirely unlikeable; we know in advance that she will be the victim of the horror that takes place later in the book, yet O’Neill does not invite us to pity her, nor does she airbrush her character.

Emma fully embodies the damaging culture alive in the town, which later will not empathise with nor offer support for her life-destroying event. Emma is so concerned with maintaining the social balance and her status that she even tells a friend who has been raped that it would be best to keep it quiet: complaining will only cause trouble.

This turns out to be a harbinger of the worst kind: Emma herself is brutally raped while unconscious; the whole thing captured on camera.

By laying bare all the negative parts of Emma’s personality, creating so little sympathy in us, we find ourselves unwittingly in the position of her attackers and townsfolk, who whisper “slut” under their breath at the thought of her.

In the end, we feel something which is almost guilt for thinking like those who abandoned a teenage girl in desperate need of care and sympathy. The author skilfully drives her message home, sometimes to an extent that is overwhelming. Sophia Rosney is 19 and a first-year engineering student at Trinity College. Louis Flanagan: ‘We must put our bias aside and ask ourselves: Who really is to blame?’ One sexually intense, booze-fuelled Saturday night. One girl. Four boys. And the result? Harrowing video footage that will shatter their lives forever.

This is the plot of Louise O’Neill’s chilling and poignant new novel, Asking For It, which explores the controversial topic of rape culture in Ireland and the increasingly tight grip that technology and social media has on our lives.

Emma O’Donovan is popular, attractive, intelligent and feisty. When photos and video footage of four local boys sexually assaulting her are dissplayed across social media, her “perfect” life begins to decay rapidly. What happens next is an endless battle of victim-blaming and body-shaming.

No one will believe her side of the story and we are helpless witnesses as Emma’s sanity deteriorates, her family are thrown into turmoil and her community turns against her.

O’Neill’s novel is stomach- churning. With her use of razor sharp, pithy sentences, she has the ability to keep us engrossed from start to finish. In a time when there is a frightening debate over nonconsensual sex, we must put all our bias aside and ask ourselves: Who really is to blame? And how do we end this? As O’Neill puts it: “We need to talk and talk and talk until the Emmas of the world feel supported and understood. Until they feel like they’re believed.”

Louis Flanagan is 17 and a fifth-year student at St Joseph’s secondary school, Drogheda, Co Louth.

 

‘Reading is something that encourages you to be self-contained’

Somhairle Brennan (18): ‘I’ll read anything. There is a bit of slagging about being a nerd’

Joe Brennan is a storyteller by profession. It is no surprise, then, that he describes his two sons, 18-year-old Somhairle and 14-year-old Tadhg, as “ferocious readers”.

For the Brennan boys, Joe says, “reading is part of the house. They see us reading all the time and they model that behaviour.”

As a parent, he believes the key to encouraging reading is “You can’t start early enough.”

Brennan sees the benefit of reading for his sons in a variety of areas of their lives.

“Academically, school is based entirely around reading, and being a varied reader outside school means they have a wide vocabulary and grasp of language that is certainly an advantage when you are writing. [Reading] also helps develop an ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time.”

In the broader context of self-development, “reading is something that encourages you to be self-contained, and they are able to sit by themselves. Listening to stories [told aloud or on CD] also helps you develop the ability to listen, and that translates as a social skill as well as an academic one.”

When the boys entered their teenage years, Brennan says if anything their pattern of reading increased. Somhairle happily says he will read anything. He often shares books with his parents and also looks for recommendations through Amazon, Facebook or other internet forums.

There is “a bit of slagging about being a nerd” among his peer group, but half of them are readers and they lend each other the latest titles in the absence of a decent library where he lives, in Ramelton, Co Donegal: “The selection is truly shocking.” However, his greatest gripe is “the price of books; €11 for a paperback is too much”.

 

Ann Mulrooney: ‘Reading as a teenager makes you a better informed, more literate adultAmy Corrado will be 14 in November, and her mother, Ann Mulrooney, describes her as a “reluctant reader, although I think she always was”.

“She liked having stories read to her as a child, but she didn’t develop the habit of independent reading.”

Mulrooney herself was a “voracious reader” as a child and teenager, and is keen that Amy will love books in the same way. Reading allows you to “make your own world”, she says.

“It gives you a private space where you can explore ideas and learn about other types of experiences. And, of course, reading makes for better informed, more literate adults.”

She has given her daughter “all the books that I loved”, as a means of encouragement, but Amy has not got excited about them.

Mulrooney says her daughter reads even less now that she is a teenager.

“There are so many things competing for her time."

However, she also thinks it is “a personality thing”. Amy is “very particular about the type of book she will read. Something like the typeface might even be enough to put her off.”

Amy says the reason she doesn’t read more is that it is difficult to find books she likes.

“But then when I like a book, I will read it three times.” This was what she did with the last book she enjoyed, Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.

“I liked the way he explained about psychopaths and how he related it to different people.”

Her mother gave her the Ronson book “because I enjoyed his last one too, but then she gave me another [by Edmund de Bono] and it was too factual. I don’t really like fiction but I like [books] to be somewhere in the middle.”

Mulrooney says she “was really surprised that Amy liked nonfiction. It wasn’t something I ever really would have thought of offering to her to read.”

Now she has that small window, she says, she “is scanning the bookshelves hoping there is something there that I can share with her that she will enjoy”.

 

Choice, habit, simplicity, research: how to encourage your teenager to read

Allow them to choose a book themselves. “Pushing something they are not interested in tends to be counter productive,” says Elaina Ryan of Children’s Books Ireland.

Let them read what they want, even if it is something “insubstantial”. The most important thing is not what they read but that they develop the habit.

If reading or learning difficulties are the problem, check out publishers such as Barrington Stoke, whose books use simple language and unfussy presentation. A heavily illustrated or busy book can be difficult for some readers to process.

Do some research. The Inis Reading Guide, published by Children’s Books Ireland, is available to download from childrensbooksireland.ie, and features a good cross-section of contemporary work for teens as well as informative reviews.

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