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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.