The Invisible teenager
I think I have probably never lost touch with the small child within. This can be a slight hindrance in that I will never fully carry off the whole sophisticated adult bit, but I have found to my great relief that it is a great help when writing. But for a while I completely lost touch with my inner teenager. And she is only coming back now that I have four teenagers of my own.
I certainly was a teenager, so where did she go? Or rather, since I have discovered she was there all the time, why couldn’t I find her? Why was she invisible?
I think that when I looked at children’s books for younger children I could recognise my younger self in them, and imagine writing for that child in my own books, but when, as an aspiring to be published writer, I went to conferences and heard descriptions of teenagers and teenage fiction I concluded that I mustn’t have been a proper teenager. The writers and publishers told us that teenagers liked gritty, dark stories, that there were no taboo subjects, and that teens were sophisticated and worldly and cynical. They sounded terrifying.
I wasn’t like that. The only conclusion was that I must have made an awful mess of being a teenager. It was all terribly embarrassing and best to walk away from the whole area.
I had no reason to doubt the experts. They had been right about books for younger children – why should they get older children wrong? LOADS of books are sold to and for teenagers every year. I knew nothing. I enjoyed the innocent time I had with my very sweet and funny pre-teens and dreaded the years ahead.
And then first one, then two, then three and four became teenagers. And now I have four teenagers ALL IN THE SAME HOUSE!
And it is all so much funnier and lovelier and more interesting than I had been prepared for.
It is not that there aren’t ups and downs, but unreasonableness is not confined to the teenagers in this house. Hormones may be raging, but some of them (pardon the confessional tone) are mine. Some times I miss the simple adulation of toddlers and the type of mother I was with them. They used to think I could really do Irish dancing. Brilliantly. Now they roll their eyes and ask me to stop.
I frequently, dramatically and self pityingly, bewail the general domestic awfulness of everyone but me, whilst secretly hoping nobody has noticed that I have contributed a large amount of mess to the home and it is my stuff which is preventing the table being laid.
They HAVE noticed. They are teenagers. And they tell me so. As teenagers will. And they are often (not always!) right, even if it kills me to admit it. But on my behalf, I do have a lot on my plate and could do with more help. So I tell them so. As mothers do. And we all get very cross, and mutual accusations of selfishness are traded until someone (and it could be me but I’m not admitting anything) says (or shouts) something that even they realise is TOO FAR and then we apologise, and hug each other and life goes on.
And we laugh ALOT. When we FINALLY have the table cleared and laid and we sit down for dinner, and we have had the usual arguments about someone using up all the juice or not passing the water quickly enough, when their dad and I have looked at each other and sighed and wondered WHY we insist on sitting down as a family, then (unless we have one of those horrible meal times when everyone is grumpy and we all wish we had chosen a TV dinner after all) we get the stories. Unreasonable but very funny take offs of teachers, or competing tales of excruciating embarrassment, or jokes, or discussions about who will win The Great British Bake Off. And as they talk about funny incidents in school, or friends and their arguments, I tell them about my friends and teachers and try to beat them with embarrassing stories of teenage years and remember suddenly that I WAS a teenager after all. Only one that seems to be invisible to most of those people who decide what teenagers are like.
A rather anxious, innocent teenager, who was very religious and very shy and fell deeply in love with alarming regularity, who was called ‘a walking disaster’ by a teacher, who read lots of Georgette Heyer and romances, who always seemed to have ink on her face, dropped things, tripped over things, walked into lamp posts because she was looking at the sky, prayed, longed for a dog, worried about various family problems, wrote impassioned articles on helping drug addicts whilst not knowing any, thought she might want to be a nun but also wanted 7 children, and fell into the luggage rack on the bus and had to be pulled out.
And I look at my teenagers and their friends, and I think how much more they are than much of the media makes them out to be.
Teenagers get a bad press. Groups of them are seen as threats. Some scientists even claim they are incapable of empathy. Well, I admit that they may be slow to empathise with others needing the bathroom and are distressingly slow to replace toilet rolls, but their love for their friends and their concern for the planet is also a fact, so I think those scientists have got their calculations wrong. Maybe their empathy can be a bit slow to kick in when hormones and homework are competing for attention, but I see that kick starting that is my job as a parent, and even, dare I say it, part of our jobs as writers for people of ALL ages. Teenagers, I want to tell those scientists I have heard quoted, are not incapable of empathy, or at least no more or less than I, a middle aged mum, am on those days of the month when hormones, work for the family and writing compete. We can all be selfish. But judging from the ones I know, teenagers are also GORGEOUS. Witty, musical, honest, passionate, kind, talented. Interested in music and sport and wildlife and art and books and TV comedy and costume dramas and making things and with developing spiritual and political lives, worrying about the environment and not just (or as well as) their romantic status or sex lives. Teenagers – real teenagers – can like chocolate and tea and lying around looking at funny pictures of animals on YouTube. They can enjoy dark fiction but they can also fret about small things and laugh and love and care tenderly for animals and each other, decide (shock horror – and this is REALLY a taboo) to go to church or mosques or temples, worry about homework and exams and wish they were younger.
So let’s keep having amazing, challenging, dystopian thrillers and gritty issue led novels by all means. My 17 year old has just read and enjoyed ‘The Clockwork Orange’ for her AS level English. I was SO glad I had to study Jane Austen when I was 17 – Thomas Hardy was bad enough for me as a teenager. I know that many people read horror as an escape precisely because they know it isn’t real. That never worked for me. I didn’t like scary fairy tales when I was little, and I couldn’t cope with gruesome things when I was older. Lassie was traumatic enough for me. Let’s remember that teenagers, like all other people, have varying interests and needs and come in all shapes and sizes. Not all of them will be able to cope with darkness – or find horror an escape – teenagers still need comfort and although sex and sexuality is always an issue for every age and in every age, sometimes homework and exams can be worrying enough, and tea and chocolate the wildest forces that can be coped with. There are so many funny, witty books for younger children. Let’s have some more for YA and value those authors more who are already writing them. Let’s have prizes for funny YA books – our much maligned teenagers deserve them, and let’s see more of- and write more for -those teenagers who have been invisible up to now!