Feature Articles


(PI News, September/October 2002)

We are now fortunately in a position to know what Irish young people say about their own reading choices with the recent publication by Children’s Books Ireland of the study, What’s the Story? The Reading Choices of Young People in Ireland. It examines the leisure reading of young people from age seven to sixteen. They also discuss their feelings about books and other reading matter. What young people say should be a basic guideline when we ask what books should be on offer to them. Here, I’m tentatively basing my suggestions on what students at post-primary level tell us about their favourite kinds of books.

The category of books which they say they like best is funny books, and Roald Dahl is listed as their favourite writer. It is difficult to list other humorous writers who could take Dahl’s place. I can think of no one who has quite his mixture of iconoclastic humour, vulgarity, fantasy, and the extraordinary ability to speak to and about the lonely and vulnerable boy or girl. However Terry Pratchett in his Disc World fantasies has something of Dahl’s comic appeal. His recent Carnegie award-winning The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents should be of interest. Most of his other books are aimed at adults more than young people, but would certainly have a place on the young adult shelves. Eoin Colfer, whether in Benny and Babe, a comic exploration of early adolescent adventure, or Artemis Fowl, a comic fantasy, should figure too. Rosie Rushton is a comic writer whose work would appeal to girls rather than boys. In particular Poppy (the heroine is called Poppy Field), a comic retelling of Emma, would certainly appeal, and Siobhán Parkinson's Sisters…No Way!, a reworking of Cinderella, has a very subtle ironic sense of fun.

The next category of books that young people favoured was that of series horror stories, such as Goose Bumps and Point Horror. This is a genre where it is quite difficult to find good books to extend young people’s reading. For the R.L. Stine readers, Darren Shan's troubling first horror story, Cirque du Freak, would be suitably chilling. Michael Scott has a number of titles that might offer interest that is at once more Irish and less sensational. His House of the Dead and Wolf Moon are particularly gripping. Kate Thompson in the second of her Switchers series, Midnight’s Choice, explores many layers of adolescent experience through a teenage Phibsborough vampire. For the Stephen King fan, it might be useful to mention Anne Rice's more sophisticated psychological horror novels, for example Interview with the Vampire. Readers might then be ready for the real meat of Bram Stoker's Dracula or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

It is clear that fantasy of one kind or another is extremely popular. J.K. Rowling figured as second favourite to Dahl. Tolkien was also popular. This is a genre where there is no shortage of good writing that can be recommended. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, beginning with Northern Lights, would be an obvious place to start and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea sequence, beginning with The Wizard of Earthsea, still has the power to entrance. Susan Cooper, particularly in her The Dark is Rising sequence should figure too whilst William Nicholson's The Wind Singer and Slaves of the Mastery combine fantasy and social satire. Gerard Whelan's Out of Nowhere creates a frightening Irish world, at once strange and familiar, and Kate Thompson's gripping The Beguilers takes its heroine on the classic road to enlightenment and freedom in a timeless imaginary world.

Under The Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon McKenna was the most frequently named Irish book in the list of favourites. Young people who enjoyed this historical novel might be ready to look at Soinbhe Lally's The Hungry Wind, a more adult treatment of the Great Famine, or Maeve Friel's Distant Voices, a book about Viking Ireland and modern Ireland, part ghost story, part horror story, part adventure story, part adolescent love story, or Sam McBratney's The Chieftain’s Daughter, a tragic story of forbidden love and violence set in ancient Ireland.

The students mentioned books about racial or religious difference as interesting. Some Irish books they might enjoy in this context are Mark O’Sullivan's White Lies, Aubrey Flegg's The Cinnamon Tree, and Siobhán Parkinson's most recent novel, The Love Bead. The Love Bead tells of the plight of an African refugee in Ireland in the context of a teenage romance. It is a witty and, for the most part, deliciously light-hearted treatment of a serious subject.

I am not convinced that young adults enjoy reading books about problems similar to their own. Their avid reading of magazines like Just Seventeen, Sugar and Bliss suggests that this is where girls in particular look for discussion of sexual, developmental, social and personal problems. There seems to be a desire for escape from the real or ordinary world in their choice of books. Young people described their pleasure in reading as ‘fun, relaxing, you could get lost in a book, it brings you to another place’. Helping young people to find enjoyable books is not easy. Reading, like dreaming, is an intensely private and personal activity. Francis Spufford's recent book The Child that Books Built is a reminder of the power that even the most popular forms of reading, such as serial fiction and horror stories, can have on the imagination. The best the adult can do is build on what the young person enjoys. That may necessitate exploring territory that adult educators are wary of…the world of the popular, the vulgar, the commercial and even the morally suspect.

Readers may find The Big Guide to Irish Children’s Books and The Big Guide 2: Irish Children’s Books, both edited by Valerie Coghlan and Celia Keenan, helpful in choosing books for teenagers. In particular they might look at the articles by Robert Dunbar and John Fahy in the former, and by Ro Aitken, Liz Morris, and Carole Redford in the latter. What’s the Story? The Reading Choices of Young People is available from CBI, 17 Lower Camden Street, Dublin 2.

Celia Keenan is Director of the M.A. in Children’s Literature, English Dept., St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin 9.

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