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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Youth’ Category

At least she’s reading

One of life’s great pleasures is to read or recommend a book you’ve loved to your child. In the early years, when they can’t read to themselves, you hold all the cards – credit and library.

You can indulge yourself completely with those beautifully illustrated children’s books, especially the soppy ones that bring tears to your eyes with their tales about how much the mommy rabbit loves the baby rabbit.

This doesn’t last long, because at about two, your child develops a will of her own and, often, an obsessive streak. She will decide that there is but one book that she likes, and that you will read it 45 times a day. This is the main reason most women go back to full-time employment. If you’re lucky, your two-year-old will at least pick something halfway bearable. If not, you might be reading Fascinating Facts about Camels for three months. No matter, you’ll dread them all equally after a bit.

That phase passes, and reading to your child becomes a pleasure again. A few years on, they start to learn to read. Dan and Spot and Pip will be your new friends, as they hop and jump and skip. Dr Seuss is one of the few who can make all this monosyllabic activity entertaining.

Thereafter, your reading paths diverge. In primary school, children turn to magic kittens and unicorns and princesses. Or soccer stories and boy detectives and fart jokes. As they get a bit older, there will be mean girls and bullies, divorced parents.

There will be lots of tales of kids relocating to new towns where they are outsiders and no one likes them. There will be vampires and wizards and confusing plots involving parallel universes. Not to say some of these books aren’t excellent, but they tend to leave parents rather cold. And no, nobody will be interested in reading The Secret Garden, or whatever your own childhood favourite was, so don’t even try. You will find yourself saying, “At least she’s reading …” quite often. If you’re lucky.

Then, joy of joys, your reading paths converge again. If you are fortunate, and your child hasn’t had her brain reprogrammed by the BlackBerry, at about 14 she will start reading adult books. This has happened recently in my family. I gave my 14-year-old daughter The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

She loved the memoir of life with two non-conformist, creative and charismatic but deeply dysfunctional parents. Walls’s parents’ inability or unwillingness to play by the rules (as well as a worsening alcoholism) left their four children neglected and deprived, living in cars and shacks.

The author grew up smart and resourceful, though, and escaped her upbringing to carve a career as a journalist in New York. The book has many lessons for a young person, and has the additional benefit of making your own parenting look positively saintly by comparison.

Another winning recommendation was The Catcher in the Rye. It may not be the startlingly radical and controversial book it was in the 1950s, but Salinger’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, remains a powerful portrait of adolescent angst.

And reading the book myself, as the mother of a teen, there was an added poignancy to Holden’s loneliness and depression and his vulnerability in a harsh world. That it touched us both, 60 years after its publication, is testament to its power.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Read to explore, read to rebel

A question struck me recently: what is young adult fiction, exactly?

I dimly remember being an older teen/young adult, and as far as I recall there was no such category. It now has an abbreviation, YA, and its own section in the bigger book stores. It is, apparently, a growth area in fiction, which is good news for those of us who feared that the concept of reading books for pleasure might be on its way out among the youff.

According to various sources, the YA sector caters for teens to 20-year-olds. I seem to recall that as older teenagers we read widely (you must understand, these were the dark days before cellphones and reality TV – your choices were read, do the washing up or fight with your sister).

My teenage reading list included historical fiction, Jane Austen, earnest social commentary, To Kill a Mockingbird, and of course anything we could get our hands on that was deemed inappropriate. The reading was broad, to the extent of being bizarre. Not long after devouring Jilly Cooper’s series of romantic fiction titled with names such as Imogen and Octavia, I entered a Simone de Beauvoir phase, reading her autobiographical works and resolving to move to Paris at the first possible opportunity to become an intellectual (still waiting…).

It was also traditional to indulge in plenty of bleak, emotional fare. All teens/young adults should read books like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It’s cheering for them. Think about it. You’re drooping about filled with teenage angst and misery and worrying about that zit on your nose and you read something deliciously bleak and you realise “it’s not just hormones, it’s not just me, the world really is a dark and terrible place”. What a joyous relief that is! (Facebook, by contrast, is horribly depressing, because everyone is having such a GR8, kwl time except you). And you are so susceptible in your teens, you feel things so deeply. I have never completely gotten over my youthful reading of Lord of the Flies; just typing its name makes my heart race alarmingly.

Patrick Ness, author of The Ask and the Answer (pronounced “brilliant” by all teens of my acquaintance) wrote a lovely piece in the Guardian a while back, listing “unsuitable” books best read by teenagers. As he puts it: “Some because they’re entertaining contraband, some because it can never be too early to read something so wonderful, and some because, if you wait, you might have missed your chance forever.” And what a selection, from Stephen King to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, to Tom Robbins.

It’s great that authors are writing for teen/young adult readers, but I’m not sure that having a bunch of books neatly corralled into a genre has quite the same effect as stumbling around unsupervised through books of widely varying quality and suitability. Being a teenager is about exploring and experimenting and stretching and seeing what’s out there and what’s inside you.

Reading widely at that age opens your eyes to the many possible ways of thinking, being, behaving and living. And it creates defining moments in your search for selfhood when you come to the decision that no, you are not a Georgette Heyer person. You’re more of a De Beauvoir kind of gal. And a fine discovery that is, even if growing up into a Paris intellectual is taking a little longer than you’d hoped.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times books columnist; this originally appeared in the Sunday Times

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