It’s been one of those days when I haven’t managed to get done any of the things I needed to do. We had a half-hearted thunderstorm over the middle part of the day; the skies were black and a premature twilight fell, but the rumbles of thunder and the steady, drilling rain seemed insufficient somehow, as if the storm couldn’t quite work itself up to top gear. I love thunderstorms, but the lowering pressure always affects me disproportionately, and I felt sluggish and headachy and dull-witted. We’ve got a busy weekend ahead (hence the post now) and I ought to have been getting on with lots of other things, but I found myself curled up in the armchair, reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. I very rarely read young adult books, although I have nothing against them in principle. It’s just that there’s so much to read. But on the few occasions that I have – Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now being a particular case in point – I’ve found them to be far better than that teen-friendly label suggests. I’d read Diana Wynne Jones before with my son when he was younger and absolutely loved The Ogre Downstairs and Archer’s Goon, so when Fire and Hemlock seemed to keep cropping up across the blogworld as a favourite novel, I was most intrigued to try it.

Wynne Jones always has highly complex plots involving magic and shifting time zones, but to try to keep things simple, the story concerns 19-year-old Polly, looking back at her 10-year-old self when she made an unusual friend, in the form of Thomas Lynne, a grown-up who is able to join her in making up extraordinary tales of adventure. Polly needs a break from reality as her parents are involved in a messy divorce, and Thomas provides her not only with excitement and friendship, but the kind of gentle, altruistic attention that children so crave. I haven’t got further than the first 100 pages or so, but already this is a beautifully written and gripping read that I am sure Wynne Jones is about to layer with complexity.

But I do ask myself, where was this sort of book when I was a Young Adult? I can remember a tremendously sticky patch between the ages of about 10 and 13 when it was hard to find anything good to read. Back then we used to go as a family to the library every Monday night. The library had recently moved from a large red brick building that looked like a rather nice, posh house to a much bigger, much uglier concrete building that screamed allegiance to words like ‘municipal’ and ‘civic’. I recall the big escalator we rode up, the moment we had passed through the double glass doors. It struck me as so odd that the library was situated on the first floor – what happened on the ground floor? And when you left to get your books stamped, you had to walk down several flights of municipally carpeted stairs. Why have an escalator up and not an escalator down? Well, these were the sorts of questions that preoccupied me and for which there seemed to be no answers. The other big question was why there were so few books that looked any good. At the end of the children’s section was a wire rack that held a printed note covered in clear sticky backed plastic: Young Adult. What a terrible selection that was. There were no less than three copies of Catcher in the Rye, which I never did read on the grounds that the cover was enough to bore a person to tears, there were some school-type books like Carrie’s War and Charlotte’s Web. Then there was a great deal of Alan Garner, who I completely failed to appreciate and refused to countenance as an option. On a good day one of the Judy Blumes had been recycled, and I might check that out. But really, dreary was not the word.

And so I would spend my time wandering in confusion around the adult books. My main impression of the adult hardback world was that no one wanted you to have the first idea what the books were about. I found it baffling that the publishers printed the author’s name in the largest font, with a much smaller, more discreet title. What good was the name to me when I knew who none of these people were? There were endless shelves of books displaying their spines to the reader, each one more meaningless than the last. Covers didn’t give me much more of a clue, probably because I couldn’t read the messages that were implicit in their images, and if you wanted a synopsis of the story, well, you had to get that book off the shelf, open it up and read the inside flap of the jacket. I used to go to the paperback stands of crime, where the covers were at least on display and there was a useful blurb on the back. I kept myself going with Agatha Christie, and the occasional foray outwards, to P. G. Wodehouse, to Patricia Wentworth, to Ruth Rendell (whom I didn’t like then), to Georgette Heyer’s crime novels. It was all most frustrating. It’s funny to think that a mere ten years later, I would be running the fiction section of a large bookstore, five three-sided bays, five tables, and I knew every single book on those shelves and the names of pretty much every author currently in print in the UK. It’s amazing what you can learn when you put your back into it.

Teenagers today are fortunate in having such an amazing selection of books to choose from. What was missing when I was a child was the fun stuff. There were good authors, I’m sure, but I was strongly resistant to worthy literature like Rosemary Sutcliffe or disquieting authors like Roald Dahl or Jill Paton Walsh. I wanted something comic and entertaining, or edge-of-the-seat novels. I wanted romance and intrigue and excitement. I would have loved Wynne Jones, or Stephenie Meyer or Eva Ibbotson, I’m sure. I needed the experience of literature as a safe zone, a meaningful, comforting, thrilling world, to be able to branch out into the serious and demanding literature of later life and trust that I could bear what it had to tell me. Still, I guess I can catch up now, even if it is a bit late, and there really are a lot of other books I ought to be reading – and writing – about.


20 thoughts on “Witterings

  1. What an interesting and thoughtful post about reading in that age between childhood and adolescence. I read a lot of biographies when I was 10, and then when I was 11, I felt a dearth, too, in books that I wanted.

  2. As I read your recollections, I realized that I too went through a rather dry reading spell during those early teen years, when I was too old for the literature I had loved during elementary school, but too young for adult novels. I was never much interested in serial novels or science fiction which was just coming on strong back in the early 1970’s when I was a “young adult.” I remember reading lots of Agatha Christie and some of Madeleine L’Engle’s adult novels. Also Rumer Godden and Jessamyn West. But it was an awkward reading time for me back then, and it’s good that there are so many wonderfully written books now for children in the early teen years.

  3. I’m glad you’re liking Fire and Hemlock! It’s my favorite of her books, and one of my all-time favorites in life. A lot of people find it confusing on the first go-round, but it’s still wonderful. 🙂

  4. Oh dear, Litlove, are you regressing to a young adult? Am just teasing you since we all regress (and me more than most I think). Glad that you are enjoying Dianne Wynne Jones (whom I don’t know). I got such a vivid picture of the young you getting frustrated with the lack of good books to read, and wondering about the strange ways of municipal libraries.

  5. I remember looking through the adult fiction section as a child and feeling bewildered, wanting some guidance. It’s really difficult to find just the right thing when you’re at an in-between age or when you’re ready for something new and different but not sure how to find it. I remember finding some historical fiction and romancy kinds of novels that I just didn’t like, and I was all frustrated that adult fiction seemed so boring. Yes, things do change!

  6. I am so far from Young Adulthood, I’m trying to remember what I read. Let’s see…well, I guess Nancy Drew was in the pre-teen 10, 11, or 12 year old time. I loved Daphne du Maurier (lots about her on recent postings, I’m happy to see), and Agatha Christie. There was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Bronte girls, Poe, Mark Twain, and Washington Irving. Not that any of these authors were considered, Young Adult, but I’m not sure there was such a thing back then. I’m sure there must have been. And, I agree with you completely about both thunderstorms (as long as the electricity stays on) and low pressure. Happy weekend, whatever you do.

  7. I really enjoy young adult fiction now that I am an adult. When I was a young adult, I read a lot of mysteries, particularly Doyle. And, interestingly enough, one of my favorite authors during that awkward ‘tween stage was Daphne du Maurier. I was a funny kind of kid. 🙂

  8. I remember “wandering in confusion around the adult books” too. There was a very small section of young adult books in our public library. I can’t remember what books they had, but they can’t have been interesting if they had me wandering around the adult section selecting books to read like The agony and the ectasy by Irving Stone. 🙂

  9. “Young Adult” as a genre did not exist when I was of the age it is meant for. There were Classics, there were the Books on My Parents’ Shelf that I was Not Supposed to Read (and of course did), and there were Mysteries. All hail mysteries! Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen,Perry Mason, Conan Doyle…and I still love them.

  10. I have the same observations on Fire and Hemlock that the “other” Jenny has. I know you’ll enjoy it. And I had a wonderful library as a kid, which meant that I didn’t discover adult literature until quite late in life. For years I did nothing but re-read childhood and adolescent favorites. I have felt ever since as if I’m catching up. At least you got an early start!

  11. We were tried and true Agatha Christie fans in my household and to this day my mother still reads and rereads them, noting the date on the inside leaf upon each successive read. Other than that, I remember needing magic and mystery as an adolescent and there were a few American authors that seemed to satisfy this for me. I faithfully collected everything Christopher Pike wrote at the time – which were a combination of thriller and teen romance – but they were action-packed and asked some questions about science and religion. But I wholeheartedly agree with you that preteens today have an extraordinary wealth of books to choose from.

  12. That is a difficult age for books, isn’t it? There was Judy Bloom when I could get it, and some other adolescent angst novels a good friend who was also a reader and I passed between us. But for lack of anything else and a desire for adventure, I turned to the adult fantasy and science fiction section. I also liked adult books that had animals in them. I’m sure I missed most of what Watership Down was about, but it made me think of rabbits in a whole new way!

  13. Lilian – I never thought of reading biographies! Who did you read? That sounds like a very good idea.

    Becca – it’s lovely to read about your own experience. I discovered Rumer Godden later on, but she would be a good choice for teens. Madeleine L’Engle I only read a year or so ago! But I was very impressed by her. There are great authors out there, but you do have to think hard about it, don’t you?

    Emily – indeed! I guess it happens despite everything, when we really need to nurture our inner, imaginative selves.

    Jenny – I remember being very confused by the ending of Archer’s Goon, so I have some idea what to expect! But I’m also enjoying it very much.

    Pete – I rather feel I’m still waiting for full adulthood! 🙂 Once I’d got hold of Agatha Christie, things improved. I was always so very grateful to her for writing 88 novels….

    Dorothy – now isn’t that typical, that you should have ended up with romance and historical fiction – although I guess the latter is actually closer in some ways to your adult preferences. My experience has been that children are warmly encouraged in school to read up until 11, but then after that, the guidance drops off, too. Which is a shame, and maybe something that will get rectified eventually.

    Anon – how could I have forgotten Nancy Drew?! She was definitely one of my staples. I couldn’t quite click with Sherlock Holmes, although I cherished my huge Penguin compilation volume. Daphne du Maurier I found a little later, and Mary Stewart too. I think the young adult genre was very underpopulated, although it’s true that we all found our way through it!

    David – Having read a lot of du Maurier, I’m not surprised in many ways. She always felt she wrote from her ‘inner boy position’, her hidden secret self, and quite a few of her novels take first person viewpoints that are male. I can see why you would love Conan Doyle – Holmes had a level of detailed perception that you would have identified with, I’m sure!

    apiece – oh I remember The Agony and the Ecstasy! I thought about reading it but never did. It’s a funny old age that, isn’t it, and it’s really intriguing reading everyone’s comments and seeing how they got around it.

    ds – what would we all have done without classic crime? I remember my dad having Dennis Wheatley novels on his shelf, and they had these disturbing images on the cover and spine of devil-type creatures. To this day I’ve never read one, and have no idea if they are as scary as they looked back then!

    Jenny – I loved reading to my son – I got to catch up on so much! I’m very much enjoying Fire and Hemlock and I’m relieved to know it wasn’t my imagination and that two Jennys did indeed recommend it!!

    Verbivore – I love the thought of your mother carefully noting down the date of each reread. What a sweet idea! It’s nice to find another Christie-ruled household. My son does like her, but he prefers the dramatisations to the full book readings, which I suffer in the interests of him moving on with his novel reading at all. Christopher Pike I don’t know – I’ll have to find out who he is, now!

    Stefanie – yes, my good friend did exactly the same as you and turned to science fiction, but I always preferred books that spoke to my own reality. I recognised it was a shame in many ways! I do remember reading Watership Down and sobbing at the end!

  14. I so wish I had a list of books that I read from 5th grade on. I know I devoured plenty of Agatha Christie, I read quite a few Irving Stone and then somehow jumped to Kurt Vonnegut and (gasp) Danielle Steele! I do remember my Dad read Watership Down and didn’t like it so I never bothered – but the title/story still intrigues me as a “long-ago-book-I-never-read”, so maybe I’m now ready. Updike and John Irving books are also on a time capsule list of titles I never read but somehow remember.

  15. I can’t believe how much I enjoy YA books now. I always thought oh no, I can’t go there. I have way too many other books to read but I think it was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak that converted me. That book was just wonderful. But yes, I do remember as a child being a bit lost. I loved Judy Blume books but there was an age where I wanted something a bit different and I guess that’s when I crossed over the stacks and into the adult section!

  16. I’m visiting here on the recommendation of Dorothy, and I loved reading your post. In my previous career, I was a young adult librarian, and know exactly what you are talking about regarding the wonderful choices in YA literature today.

    If I recall correctly, YA literature is considered to have begun (at least in the U.S.) with the publication of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, I believe in 1967. Slowly but surely more well-written books started to make their way to the shelves, though until the last couple of years, they were still housed in the children’s libraries and sections of bookstores. There are now awards designated for the best in young adult literature, such as the Printz Award, and it is finally beginning to receive the recognition it deserves. Books such as the Outsiders, and books by Walter Dean Myers, are being taught in the classroom along with the more traditional choices like Catcher in the Rye.

    Some of my favorite authors are Joan Bauer (Backwater; Hope Was Here, Best Foot Forward) and Rob Thomas (Rats Saw God) and Sarah Dessen (That Summer, Keeping the Moon), the latter who just came to my local bookstore to do a reading from her new book, Along the Ride. I’ll confess I’m not a fan of fantasy or vampire books, so I’m not able recommend any of those to you. But I’m so glad to discover there are other adult readers who enjoy YA literature as much as I do.

  17. Care – my grandmother loved Danielle Steele, and I borrowed one and recall it well! I do love reading bloggers’ lists of favourite transition novels. But you know, I’ve never read Kurt Vonnegut and really should. Watership Down I cried my eyes out over, so take some tissues with you! 🙂

    Iliana – yup, that’s just how I felt. I haven’t read The Book Thief but have heard a lot about it and am certainly intrigued. Interesting also how many of us read Judy Blume at a formative age – what did we all get from that, I wonder?

    Debby – welcome and thank you for coming over! What an informative and interesting comment. Thank you in particular for that list of favourite authors, none of whom I have heard of (watch how fast I get to amazon to look them up…!). I did read Stefenie Meyer, not because I have a thing for vampires but because my teenage niece loves them. Fantasy I’ve never read much of, although one day I will try Ursula le Guin, just because she is such a big name. I will certainly be looking into your recommendations.

  18. I’m so amazed these days when I do pick up a YA book (which I don’t do very often) that the stories are so good–not just entertaining, but complex and well written. Even by 1970s standards, the books I had to choose from (public library) as a kid were pretty old and dated! And I had no guidance whatsoever, which means my reading background is pretty spotty. The choices now are great and I always have a good time choosing books for my niece to read (if only she liked reading more than she seems to…). And to this day I don’t understand why an author’s name is larger than the title.

  19. Danielle – I feel just the same! I hardly ever pick up YA (because there’s so much to read) and yet it’s surprisingly good when I do. I guessed my way around my early reading, and it is a great pleasure to be able to buy books for my niece. Wish my son read more – or indeed at all – but I hope he’ll return to it one day. And that’s so nice that you wonder about the title size too! 🙂

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