Nicola Morgan's Review of Teen Fiction
Before that, I need to talk about teenagers. First, they are, like anyone, dominated by their brains, which are moulded by nature and nurture. And teenage brains are special, as scientists have so recently discovered. As I explain in Blame My Brain, adolescent brains behave observably differently when processing emotion, preparing to sleep, predicting consequences, choosing risks, controlling inhibition, accessing reason and making moral judgements. This may explain why teenagers more frequently experience uncontrollable emotions, take risks, and are inspired by ethical issues. In addition, they stand on the doorstep of independence, evolutionarily programmed to want it, yet understandably fearing its uncertainties. I believe all this helps explain why many enjoy books that are extra risky, emotional, thrilling, questioning. I believe, too, that books are a safe way to explore the turmoil of both their internal and newly-discovered external worlds. The only thing they subvert is parents' natural (but doomed and flawed) desire to preserve earlier innocence. Let teenagers take their risks between the pages of a book, I say.
Second, there are two relevant age-ranges. Biologically, adolescence usually begins around the age of 10/11. But by 13/14, neurological restructuring normally coincides not only with the greatest emotional upheaval but also the start of an adult ability to reason and explore ethical issues constructively. Books for 10-12 year-olds tend towards unthreatening excitement, whereas books for 12+ may be edgier in nature and topic, or raise 'big questions', perhaps taking the reader deeper into difficult emotions or situations. It is this 12+ range which we usually mean when we talk about teenage books. However, I also believe, absolutely, that all readers should read what they want, when they want. Age categories should always be seen as both vague and positive, not rigid or exclusive.
So what about Scottish teenage books? Children's authors in Scotland, whether native or adoptive, form a wide and supportive group, working tirelessly to broadcast our message through the schools and libraries that welcome us so willingly - that reading is for everyone, and that we aim to write books that speak dramatically and passionately to you, whoever you are. The variety in our teenage stable is enormous and these authors have appeared on every UK shortlist and won many of the prizes - too many to list here.
Keith Gray's books are fast, uncompromising, edgy and action-packed. Warehouse remains a favourite, with its innovative structure, and variously vulnerable characters. Malarkey is another unstoppable read, showing the seams of nastiness running through a school's underbelly. The Fearful adds a mystery element to Gray's repertoire, cleverly portraying the way in which fear can overcome reason.
Catherine Forde vividly paints a brutal side of life - take the angry pain of Danny in Skarrs or the self-destructive behaviour of Nicky and 'friends' in The Drowning Pond, portrayed with a voice which is very Scottish, very teenage, often with the biting irony of real adolescents. Her new novel, Firestarter, is somehow quieter and warmer, though equally intense.
Catherine MacPhail rolls out unfailingly believable stories with great frequency. Any of her characters could live around the corner from you. Roxy's Baby is her recent offering, a chilling and original take on teenage pregnancy. Underworld is another typically cracking read and her many fans will look forward to an exciting new series of crime thrillers later in 2006, starting with Nemesis: Into the Shadows.
For lyrical and sophisticated language, something which teenagers respond to much more than many adults realise, try Julie Bertagna, whose books delve powerfully into human behaviour and emotion. The future portrayed in Exodus feels as real and frightening as her depiction of under-age pregnancy in The Opposite of Chocolate. Exodus fans will eagerly await the sequel, Zenith, out later this year.
For exciting and well-researched stories of young people in strife-torn regions, try Joan Lingard's much-praised novels Tug of War (WW2), Across the Barricades (Northern Ireland), and Tell the Moon to Come Out (Spanish Civil War). The research is deep but Lingard's story-telling skill means you are never allowed to think you are in a history lesson. Theresa Breslin also writes with passion and intelligence in Remembrance (WW1) and Divided City (sectarian divisions in Glasgow). These are, like all good fiction, mind-opening stories that will not let you simply walk on by.
Alison Prince, like both Lingard and Breslin, is known for her influential contribution to children's literature over many years: she was recently awarded an honorary doctorate for her work. For an intelligent and meaningful read, try The Summerhouse or The Fortune Teller, or, later this year, Jakoby's Game, which promises to be just the sort of book that deep-thinking teenagers love.
What about reluctant teenage readers? There's a book for everyone, if you know where to look. Look no further than Scottish publisher Barrington Stoke, producing books by top UK authors especially for this hard-to-reach readership. Always cracking solid stories in their own right, they're subtly pitched to enthuse readers who find books dull or difficult. As well as virtually every author I have mentioned, look for the multi-talented and prolific Vivian French (Baby Baby or Falling Awake, extraordinarily powerful stories for any reader); the versatile Isla Dewar (Walking With Rainbows); or the hilarious, (well, as a stand-up he was nominated for the Perrier) Jonathan Meres, Clone Zone and the forthcoming Fame Thing. Jonathan also wrote the successful series, Yo! Diary!, as seen on TV.
What about those younger teenagers, the 10+ market? For sheer, glorious adventure, try Stephen Potts' gripping sea trilogy, The Ship Thief, Compass Murphy, and Hunting Gumnor. For stories where real lives blend with sinister other-worlds, try Gill Arbuthnott's Chaos Clock books or Winterbringers. Or Tom Pow's The Pack, portraying a dark world which readers will be glad to imagine but never experience. By using history or fantasy, thus detaching the setting from actual lives, these authors tap into young readers' vivid imaginations, while never taking them further towards real fears than they'd wish. For something more this-worldly, there's the wonderful Cathy Cassidy, who has attracted a large fanbase with her warm novels, Dizzy, Indigo Blue and Driftwood, all much deeper than the glitzy covers suggest. Elizabeth Laird spends far too much time on the wrong side of the border, but we like to keep her as Scottish. All her stories are skilfully told, thrilling stories, and equally suitable for the younger and older age range - try Secrets of the Fearless, The Garbage King or A Little Piece of Ground to see the variety she offers.
Adults should try reading the best in teenage fiction. One thing teenage authors know is that our readers want, more than anything, a really gripping book. But what people forget is that actually that's what everyone wants. Nothing beats a good story and no-one tells good stories better than we do in Scotland. Robert Louis Stevenson must be smiling.
About Nicola Morgan
Nicola Morgan's teenage novels include Mondays are Red, Fleshmarket, Sleepwalking (SAC Children's Book of the Year) and The Passionflower Massacre, all for Hodder. Her younger novel Chicken Friend, and the non-fiction titles Blame My Brain and The Leaving Home Survival Guide, are published by Walker Books. She runs The Child Literacy Centre and is currently writing several books. She lives in Edinburgh.