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.