Accentuate the positive (eliminate the negative)
I've spent the past two weeks working exclusively with teenagers in schools around the UK and found myself talking about how negatively they are portrayed in the national media. I've also been wondering whether fiction for young adults can act as a counterpoint to such stereotypes. The answer, in my opinion, is yes. In fact I think that teenage fiction already plays a vital role in countering the prevailing attitude about teenagers in Britain today, often without knowing it.
To begin with, I'll explain what I mean. I spend a lot of time following news and current affairs stories across the media. In the past ten years I've lost count of the number of negative stories about British teens. From the riots of 2011 to stabbings in London, behaviour at school and beyond, it could seem to many that our youngsters are running wild. The news is full of stories about teenagers with anti-social behaviour issues or dark observations about how they lack respect for society, take copious amounts of drugs, become parents before they reach sixteen and all of the other nonsense that gets churned out.
When a teenager does commit a serious criminal act like murder, the story is generally front-page news. But does this mean that all of our young people are similarly inclined? I don't believe that it does. In fact from my own experience, and that of the many teachers, youth workers, librarians and authors I've spoken to, the opposite is true. That is - there is a small percentage of the British teen population who commit these crimes. The rest of them seem to get vilified for nothing. I wrote a short story called 'The Other 90' for a great collection called How To Be A Boy last year in which my main character is part of the minority that causes trouble and would like to join the 'other ninety per cent' that don't act up. I'd like to see that other ninety per cent become the stereotype. I'd like to see the hundreds of positive things that teens do every day make the front page or the lead news item on the telly.
This issue is partly why I began to write about young adults. From my own experiences growing up in Leicester, I understood that there were a few young people who caused trouble. But I also knew that the vast majority were simply regular teens trying to get on with life and doing positive things without any fanfare or fuss. And the young people who were committing crimes weren't simply cardboard cut-out, 2D stereotypes. There was always a reason why they did what they did - poverty, lack of education, troubled home lives etc… Terms like 'problem teenager' began to wind me up (in the same way that 'ASBO teen' or 'chav' do today) because they seemed too simplistic, too judgemental. There is no such thing as a 'problem teenager' according my character Billy from The Crew. There are only teenagers with problems. The difference might seem slight but I think it is massively important to make that distinction. The former is a catch-all and a negative stereotype. The latter includes an understanding that teenage trouble-making almost always has a reason behind it. And we can't eradicate the trouble without addressing the causes of that trouble.
Thankfully today's young adult and teen fiction combats the negative stereotypes by exploring characters in a non-judgemental way. It's not enough to stop the sensationalist, reader and viewer-chasing antics of the media but it is a start. Read the wonderful Being Billy by Phil Earle or Malachy Doyle's shamefully underrated Georgie and you get a true sense of what life is like for children in care, and for the adults who help them too. Characters like Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker help to make it normal for us to read about, watch and empathise with young people that many in society simply wash their hands of. Go further and you find complex issues such as racial stereotyping and even murder being explored and challenged. Benjamin Zephaniah's Gangsta Rap and Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry both combat lazy perceived 'wisdoms' about young black males in Britain. Anne Cassidy's Looking For JJ deals with children and murder.
I could go on and fill this blog with talented writers who've countered the prevailing myths about British teenagers - there are too many to mention - but I won't. The novels and stories are there, and that alone makes me happy. Not only are these fantastic reads, first and foremost, but they also help to challenge and dispel the rubbish being spouted about our youth. Fiction about teens and young adults is essential for many reasons. For me, when it rebalances the debate, away from sensationalist headline grabbing, and back towards careful, non-judgemental understanding, it becomes even more vital. Britain's wonderful young people deserve such respect.