It’s no spoiler to tell you that my latest novel, ‘The Nearest Faraway Place’ begins with a terrible accident. It’s the literary equivalent of delivering a knockout punch before the audience has even got comfortable in their seats. Game over. Story finished. The end. Except of course, the game is not over and the story must go on. In fiction - just as in life - endings and beginnings blur together in a never-ending cycle and we humans reveal ourselves to be a remarkably resilient bunch. And nowhere is this resilience more strikingly apparent than in the teenager. Where there is grief and loss, there is almost always love and hope. Below is my top ten list of books which show teenagers and tweens at their most vulnerable - while celebrating, too, youth’s infinite capacity for recovery and optimism.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Surely everyone knows something of this story whether they’ve read it or not. It’s one of those nineteenth century emotional rollercoasters which lifts the reader up on one page only to bring them crashing down on the next. Orphaned Jane Eyre lives in the house of her rich cruel aunt with her rich cruel cousins and keenly feels the absence of love in her life. But then Jane is sent to Lowood School and is finally free of her hideous relations. Hooray! Except that Lowood turns out to be a joyless hellhole just screaming to be shut down by OFSTED. Boo! It’s OK though because Jane is befriended by the wise, kind and saintly Helen Burns. But then Helen dies of consumption. And so it continues. Jane is feisty, self-reliant, irrepressible and wonderful. I first read this book when I was twelve - or rather, I repeatedly read the first half of it. My twelve-year-old self had zero interest in Jane’s adult shenanigans and all that soppy Mr Rochester stuff.
2. Life: An Exploded Diagram – Mal Peet
Oh how I love, love, love this book! Is it a novel or is it an autobiography? In a note at the back, Mal Peet tells us it’s actually a bit of both. Clem - or is it Mal? - looks back on his life and narrates the story of his origins in rural Norfolk. He tells us about his stern and domineering grandmother – the marvellously named Win Little – and his own premature birth during World War Two when a German bomber crash-lands into the garden of the house where Win and his heavily-pregnant mother live. The novel grows into a touching and funny teenage love story which culminates in a disastrous ending. Love, lust, regret, loss – it is all here. Oh, and there is not one but two jaw-dropping endings. Ultimately, it is hope that prevails, of course.
3. A Time to Love, A Time to Mourn – Paige Dixon
Way, way back before the words Youtube, Smartphone or Ice-Bucket Challenge meant anything to anyone, I read a book that made me aware of a serious degenerative illness called ALS. Or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis to give it its full term. All eleven syllables have been burned on my brain since the age of thirteen when I powered my way through Paige Dixon’s heart-breaking teen novel about an eighteen-year-old boy called Jordan who, one day, experiences a weird loss of sensation in his arm while playing tennis. From there onwards, Jordan’s health plummets. BUT, in this unforgettable story, the bleaker things get, the more Jordan’s mental strength soars. I remember that I cried snot and tears at the ending. I also remember that I loved Jordan Phillips absolutely. And secretly vowed that Morten Harket and I would name our future son Jordan Phillip in Jordan’s memory.
4. Tape – Steven Camden
At the heart of this novel is a premise built pretty much upon cassette tapes. Having spent my entire childhood and teenage years winding chewed-up tape back into its rightful place with the end of a pencil, I was OBVIOUSLY GOING TO LIKE THIS BOOK. In fact, I loved it. It’s a love story. It’s also a very sad story. And it’s about family too and wanting to know more about those who came before you in order to get a clearer understanding of who you are. It’s touching and real and very, very clever. I wish I’d written it.
5. Broken Soup – Jenny Valentine
This is another book about family. Jenny Valentine is particularly great at capturing in words the more difficult aspects of family life, and this book is a quiet little masterpiece in the study of grief and breakup and how that can impact upon the life of a teenager. But we needn’t fret too much about 15 year old Rowan. While everyone around her is losing their heads, she keeps hers firmly on her shoulders. What a woman!
6. The Outsiders – S.E Hinton
If, like me, your introduction to this book was via the 1980s brat-pack film, things can only get better. The film was great. The book is better. Ponyboy Curtis is a sensitive soul in a brutal world. No wonder he feels like he is an outsider. There’s nothing more I need to say really. Other than that S.E Hinton was 16 years old when she wrote this. SIXTEEN. And that this book about gangster-boys was WRITTEN BY A GIRL.
7. Refugee Boy – Benjamin Zephaniah
I first read this book with a class of thirteen year olds when I was an English teacher almost twenty years ago. But, sadly, the issues in this book seem more relevant than ever. 14-year-old Alem lives in Ethiopia. His father is Ethiopian and his mother is Eritrean. The two countries are at war. One day, Alem’s father treats him unexpectedly to a holiday in London. And then... he just disappears leaving Alem completely alone in a foreign country. This is another story about love and loss. It’s also a story about human beings who find themselves in situations so dire that they’ll do anything to get themselves or their loved ones to a safer place. And about how the people in those ‘safer places’ receive them.
8. Waterland – Graham Swift
This is another one of those novels I’ve never been able to forget. I read it in my first year as an undergraduate and it has stayed with me and haunted me ever since. There’s an awful lot going on in this novel. Love, grief, breakdown, family secrets, abuse... and it’s all set against a very atmospheric Fenland setting. Tom, Dick and Mary are the teenagers. There is love, there is certainly loss and.... well, actually, the teen resilience either burns out or peters out for all three of them. Oh dear. But quite simply, this novel is magnificent. Depressing? Hell yes! But still magnificent.
9. We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
Clever. Clever. Clever. Cadence Sinclair is seventeen and has survived a horrific trauma which has affected her memory. We aren’t quite sure what it is. In fact, as the title suggests, we can never be too sure about anything that Cadence is telling us. But slowly, Cadence starts to work things out and so do we. And I’m sure the experience of reading this unique story is different for every reader. I read this just as I was in the early stages of mulling over an idea that became ‘The Nearest Faraway Place.’ I’m sure it added something to the flavour of what I would go on to write. The very next book I read definitely added something too. It was...
1 The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
Wow. Just wow. In the opening pages of the novel, 13-year-old Theo Decker finds himself in the middle of a devastating terrorist attack which will impact upon his entire life. It’s shocking. It’s entirely convincing. And it is, of course, a beautiful and captivating read. And Theo’s story goes from New York City to Las Vegas and back again and then to Amsterdam. It’s heart-breaking and nail-biting and frequently very funny. And at the end, I felt there was a section where Donna Tartt stepped away from her role as story-teller and just started talking to me – ME – directly – about THE MEANING OF MY LIFE. At the end, I remember closing this brick of a book and thinking Wow. Just wow.