*** DEBUG END ***

The good (teenage) book guide

23 August 2013

Deborah Fielding picks out four novels, written for teenagers, which will appeal to all ages, and explore matters of life and death


BOOKS, stories, illustrations, and films that are meant for children have long been beloved by adults, as well as their intended audience. The "adult" covers of the Harry Potter novels demonstrate that everyone wanted a bit of Potter. This is not simply because they are accessible, but because they sometimes dive into universal concerns more deeply, and thoroughly, than fiction written for adults.

And, in the years since Point Horror (a 1990s teen-horror explosion), teenage fiction has become not only hugely popular, but some of it has also been very good.

The Twilight Saga - a high-school soap opera with vampires -is an obvious example of pop fiction for teenagers (Comment, 16 November 2012). It is exactly what its title suggests: a "saga" that goes on and on - as does teenage life: there is a great deal of back and forth, love triangles, biology lessons, and not a small amount of hunting for flesh. But there is also depth and breadth among the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Teenage life is not easy, but it is interesting (especially if you are an adult looking back from a distance). Opinions are not fully formed, appearance is ripe for change, be-liefs are not decided. Yes, being a teenager is a horrible place, in many ways, but it is a place of discovery. And it is something that we all have in common.

In his epigraph to A Monster Calls, a book about a boy helped by a monster to cope with the death of his mother from cancer, Patrick Ness quotes Hilary Mantel: "You're only young once, they say, but doesn't it go on for a long time? More years than you can bear."

The teenage-fiction section in the library can help "grown-ups" to remember how hard it feels to be a teenager. At its best, this genre can help us to ask questions, and bravely look life, faith, and death in the face.

Standards vary, of course. The Twilight books are not quite at the pinnacle. Neither is the science-fiction novel The Hunger Games (now a series of blockbuster films series), although it is a beautifully written dystopian study of war, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a teen love-triangle.

John Green, an author of teenage novels, wrote: "Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book."

THIS is true, I believe, of the four titles I want to focus on: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness (recently dramatised on BBC Radio 4); The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (now a stage play); Before We Say Goodbye, by Gabriella Ambrosio; and The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (in film production this summer).

In A Monster Calls, Conor, who is 13, is forced by a monster - the yew tree in his garden - to listen to three stories, and to tell his own. He has to speak the truth while he watches and takes care of his mother, as she endures chemotherapy, her "bare scalp . . . too soft, too fragile . . . like a baby's".

The monster says "stories are the wildest things of all. . . Stories chase and bite and hunt." Relating his tales, Conor has to come to terms with many truths, not least - as the monster says to him, in all his towering, dark, wild glory - that "there is not always a good guy. Nor a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between. . . It's a true story.

 "Many things that are true feel like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers' daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Quite often, actually. You'd be surprised."

THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak, is another novel where punches are not pulled with regard to life and death. The novel opens like this: "HERE IS A SMALL FACT. You are going to die." Some readers, who made up their minds about what fiction they like many years ago, do not read books where "nothing happens" - no vampires, no fights, no so-called resolution. Zusak is writing about Himmel Street, Molching, Germany, in 1939. There is no need for vampires, and no need for mystery.

He continues: "I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound me."

It is the "machinations" that are the true story: the parts we can all relate to - no matter how much they feel like a cheat. The Book Thief, like A Monster Calls, looks issues such as duty, love, death, and hope in the eye. And it looks at a place beyond hope, after witnessing what many experienced in the Second World War, when a girl called Liesel starts writing a book.

She tells a wild story where love comes in the shape of a swearing, ugly, punishing, wardrobe-like foster mother, a foster father defined by "thereness", by "Not-leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children."

After the death of her birth-mother and brother, the "leftover human", nine-year-old Liesel, is fostered with a family on Himmel ("Heaven") Street. She arrives just as stars of David are being painted on shops, and pinned to clothes, and children are being sent to the Hitler Youth.

The Book Thief is about death and about life - about surviving. "How could she walk? How could she move? That's the sort of thing I'll never know, or comprehend - what humans are capable of." It is a story that chases and bites. It is lovingly narrated by a gentle character, Death. And it is very good indeed.

ANOTHER novel nestled in a place of death is Before We Say Goodbye, by Gabriella Ambrosio. Set on 29 March 2002, in Palestine and Israel, the book follows two 18-year-olds - a Palestinian, Dima, from Bethlehem, and Jewish Myriam, from Jerusalem - between the hours of 7 a.m. and 2.05 p.m. The two girls are "the same age, same height, same complexion, same features - like sisters. . . They both had beautiful black eyes. They both had deep eyes. They both had lost eyes."

It is inspired by the true story of Ayat al-Akhras, a teenage suicide-bomber, and Rachel Levy, one of her victims. Amnesty International says that Before We Say Goodbye is a book that "does not blame or judge. . . . it is brutally honest. And that is where the magic lies."

There is little hope in this novel. There are machinations; there are thoughts; there is a story that helps to ask questions without trying to answer them.

As The Book Thief brings recent history to life; so Before We Say Goodbyeputs real-life breath into endless news stories, and bomb sites, and religious speculation, and horror, death, and namelessness. It is a story about teenagers as people.

THE Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, is published in paperback this year, and due to be made into a film this summer. It is contemporary writing at its best. It is for teenagers, but also for everybody.

The Fault in Our Stars, set in the United States, is not for the fainthearted, but it is extraordinary. Tears will run down your cheeks, and there may be a sleepless night, but it is worth it, to get a slight sense of what it is like to live and die.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel - despite a treatment that has shrunk her tumour - is dying. She is loved (incidentally, there is great and good love in each of these books), and, at her parents' insistence, she has joined a support group. She does so "for the same reason that I'd once allowed nurses with a mere 18 months of graduate education to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy."

Hazel goes on: "There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you're 16, and that's having a kid who bites it from cancer."

The "support group features a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumour-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying." It meets "in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been."

The leader, Patrick, "talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting". There, "literally in the heart of Jesus", Hazel meets Augustus Waters, "long and leanly muscular . . . mahogany hair . . . posture aggressively poor, one hand half in a pocket of dark jeans".

He is a 17-year-old, with a prosthetic leg: "Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest." What ensues is a wild love story that, as the Monster in A Monster Callspromised, "chases and hunts you".

In the face of death, Augustus knows love. Hazel says to him: "Some people don't understand the promises they're making when they make them." To this he replies: "Right, of course. But you keep the promise anyway. That's what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway."

This is something that the Monster, Conor, and his harrumphing Grandma come to terms with when they realise that the one thing they have in common is his mother, and how much they love her.

It is also what Leisel finds in her Himmel Street foster-parents. It is why Dima decides to die. To Hazel's astonishment, "not-dumb" Augustus also believes in an afterlife: "Not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds. But yes. I believe in Something with a capital S. Always have."

His parents' house is "festooned" with "Encouragements": "'True Love Is Born from Hard Times,' promised a needlepointed pillow. . . a drawing of an angel with the caption, 'Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy?'" Augustus admits that he likes "the freaking Encouragements. . . I just can't admit it because I'm a teenager."

In the face of his daughter's impending death, Hazel's father - who usually only hugs and cries at the prospect - says: "I don't know what I believe, Hazel. I thought being an adult meant knowing what you believe, but that has not been my experience."

These books do not sneer, they are kind, honest, full of flux and questions, and they are very good indeed.

Deborah Fielding writes short fiction, and is working on her first novel. She is a speaker at this weekend's Greenbelt Festival, for which she wrote One Festival One Story.



Church Times Bookshop link (use code CT559 )

1 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Definitions £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.19) - now a stage play, by Steppenwolf; a film version out in January 2014).

2 The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Penguin 7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.19) - the book is being filmed this summer.

3 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd), Walker Books, illus­­trated version £12.99 (CT Book­shop £11.69), non-illustrated £6.99 (CT Bookshop price £6.29) - recently dramatised on BBC  Radio 4.

4 Before We Say Goodbye by Gabriella Ambrosio, Walker Books £5.99 (CT Bookshop £5.39).

5 Life, an Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet, Candlewick Press £5.91 (CT Bookshop £5.30).

6 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.19) - film released in 2012.

7 Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.19) - film out in November 2013.

8 The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Walker Books £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.19) - film rights bought by Lions­gate.

9 The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness, Walker Books £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.19) - film rights bought by Lionsgate.

10 Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic £7.99 (CT  Book­­­­shop £7.19) - two-part film adaptation out in 2014 and 2015.

Forthcoming Events

21 October 2021
Transgressing Theology
From SCM Press: authors Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Thia Cooper in conversation.

2 November 2021
Green Church Showcase LIVE
Join us online or in Glasgow for the premiere screening of the Green Church Showcase film.

More events

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)