“At the moment I’m getting ready for the book tour for my latest book, The Castle. When I visit schools, one of the questions they often ask me is whether, one day, I’d like to go back to the unpublished novels I wrote for adults when I started, and the answer is ‘maybe’. Because I love what I’m doing now, and I think it’s important. I write for young teenagers because when I was about thirteen or fourteen, that was when I read the books that changed my life.
Oh, I raced through dozens of Mills & Boons and Nancy Drews for escapist fun, but when I wasn’t reading those, I was forming my views on racism through To Kill a Mockingbird, or totalitarianism through Nineteen Eighty-Four. And of course, I wasn’t alone.
Analysis of the recent Facebook “List 10 books that have stayed with you” meme shows that at least half the books in the top 20 were written for children or young adults, and many of the rest, from Jane Austen to Jane Eyre, are books commonly read by teens. You can see the top 100 here. The average age of people participating, apparently, was 37, but I wonder how many of those books they discovered after they were 17.
The books teens are reading today are the ones they’ll remember, and are shaping the people that they’ll become. What’s special, for me, about teenagers is the heightened emotion with which they approach life, and I think the same is true of the people who write for them. We’re writing for our teenage selves, about the things we deeply care about, and doing it with the same passion and conviction that we had then. We want to change the world, and we don’t think it’s too late.
I couldn’t help it with my first book, Threads. I was writing a story about a London-based girl with a secret talent for fashion design. However, when I saw a poster in the London Underground about the Night Walkers of Uganda – the children who were trying to avoid being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and turned into child soldiers – suddenly I had to write about them too. So my fashion designer girl became a refugee from Uganda, and the plight of child soldiers was a key part of her identity.
I thought I was crazy to write this way, but I simply had to share something so important. My publisher, Barry Cunningham, told me that’s what made the book stand out. Now, five years after it was published I still get emails from young readers telling me how grateful they are to be made aware of the issues, and given the opportunity to do something about them as the girls in the Threads series do.
In books, as we know, teens can safely fulfil their urge to explore dangerous places. What would you do if you had to survive in a totalitarian state? Or if there was a civil war? What if you were the victim of racism? If you felt suicidal? Or if you had to contemplate your own early death, or that of someone you loved?
These are big issues, and they’re sensitively and often lyrically explored in books from ‘The Hunger Games’ to ‘How I Live Now’, ‘Noughts and Crosses’ to ‘Undone’, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ to ‘A Monster Calls’. Certainly, those of us who devote ourselves to writing for teens often do so from the point of view of a young mind, not fully formed, which can make the books seem less intricate and polished than a typical adult novel, but they’re not. They describe an experience intensely lived, and intensely felt by its readers. One which matters, and lasts, and changes things.
I know how stressful those teen years are, and that’s why I primarily set out to write accessible, engaging stories that my readers can get lost in for a while – a refuge from their real lives. But I also know how keen they are to learn, how brave they are in what they want to discover. Threads looked at child soldiers and my last book, You Don’t Know Me, dealt with cyberbullying. I wrote The Castle as a page-turning adventure story about a girl trying to rescue her action-hero dad, but even this story deals with domestic slavery and the evils of dictatorship, which are the issues that stir my soul now. As I say, I can’t help it: I care, and I know my readers do too.
I’ll soon be attending a Think-In at the South Bank, run by Empathy Lab. They’re a group of social activists who want to use ‘writing, reading and storymaking to help young people develop the empathy skills they need to thrive and become a force for good in the world’. I’m so glad it’s happening, and that I can be a part of it, because this is what reading is all about. Not just spelling and vocabulary, not just acing Eng Lit at 16: it’s about developing our understanding and becoming a force for good in the world. How could any of us not want to write for teens, if this is what we can do?”
Sophia Bennett was born in Yorkshire and grew up travelling around the world as an army child.
In 2009, she won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition with her debut novel, Threads, set in the world of London fashion. This was followed by the two sequels. The Look, a sensitive and wittily observed take on the modelling industry was published in 2012. Sophia’s fifth book for Chicken House, You Don’t Know Me, was published in May 2013, while her latest novel, The Castle, was released in August 2014.
This guest post was provided by Sophia Bennett. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.